Hubert Looser: a daring and intuitive collection

On 12 March 2020, by Carine Claude

With rigorous standards and determination, the collector and philanthropist has built up one of Switzerland's most important private art collections in almost six decades: the envy of many of museum.

Courtesy Fondation Hubert Looser

Born in Switzerland in 1938, Hubert Looser spent his early years between Paris, London and New York, and explored Mexico, Japan and South-east Asia. These travels instilled a taste for the arts and different peoples in him. In 1988, at the peak of his career as CEO of the Elco and Walter Rentsch groups, he created a foundation named after him. His impressive collection covers Surrealism, Minimalism, Arte Povera and Abstract Expressionism - he even claims to have one of the largest collections of Willem De Koonings in Europe. All this has not escaped the notice of the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which has signed a cooperation agreement with him.

Can you tell us about your recent "Picasso - Gorky - Warhol" exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus?
It brought together sculptures and drawings from my collection covering my favourite fields, and also some pieces of modern and Pop art. The idea was to highlight the dialogue between drawing and sculpture in modernity.

Which were the most outstanding works of those on show?
There was Picasso's Sylvette (1954), of course, and Willem de Kooning's Head. A large drawing by Arshile Gorky was also included. Gorky was born during the Ottoman Empire and emigrated to the United States in 1920, where he became interested in the Surrealists. Works by the American artist Al Taylor, who literally draws in space, were also part of the selection.

What form will your collaboration with the Zurich Kunsthaus take?
The museum is going to keep some of my foundation's works and make them accessible to the public through a long-term loan agreement. Over 70 works from my collection will be exhibited in the Kunsthaus extension, which should be finished by the end of 2021. Among other things, the museum will exhibit an exceptional group of nine works by Willem de Kooning. I am really delighted to be working with this remarkable institution. The curators will have several hundred square metres at their disposal to confront themes, formats and genres in line with my wishes. The "Picasso - Gorky - Warhol" exhibition is a foretaste of how my collection will interact with the public collection of the Kunsthaus.
 

"Painting by De Kooning (Untitled l 1971-2, painting on paper mounted on canvas), and  sculpture and corresponding drawing by Al Taylor."C

"Painting by De Kooning (Untitled l 1971-2, painting on paper mounted on canvas), and  sculpture and corresponding drawing by Al Taylor."
Courtesy of the Hubert Looser Foundation

How did you put your collection together?
I first built up a collection of Swiss art in the 1970s and 1980s. When I lived in Basel, I regularly visited galleries and museums. I started buying paintings and sculptures for myself and my companies: artists from Gruppe 33 and others like Brignoni, Schaffner, Le Corbusier and Tinguely. At Art Basel, I discovered major Swiss artists like Soutter and Giacometti, and decided to take my collection to the next level. The first step was the acquisition of Giacometti's sculpture Annette. I then explored European art with Baselitz, Penone, Arman and others. I didn't have a plan in mind; I was simply guided by the works that attracted me. In 1996, I bought Sylvette, a major work by Picasso, at auction in New York.

How did you come to American Abstract Expressionism?
De Kooning, Chamberlain and Ellsworth Kelly caught my attention. At the time, they were little represented in European museums. Through various American institutions, I also discovered Cy Twombly, Richard Tuttle and the minimalists Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. But De Kooning remained my priority. The galleries representing him were delighted to see that a European collector was interested in his work.

What is it in the work of this painter that appeals to you?
De Kooning and Chamberlain, in sculpture, were artists who fundamentally transformed post-war art alongside Pollock. At the end of the 1990s, few museums in Europe were interested in the Americans I collected, like David Smith, Tony Smith, Ryman, Agnes Martin and Judd.
 

Érotique Végétal, 1982, Serge Brignoni.Courtesy Fondation Hubert Looser

Érotique Végétal, 1982, Serge Brignoni.
Courtesy Fondation Hubert Looser

How do you establish a dialogue between artists with sometimes very different sensibilities and practices?
A dialogue between the works of the same artist or with those of other artists enhances the value of an isolated work. I discovered Gorky and De Kooning through my Swiss Surrealist and Abstract artists.

What attracts you to the graphic arts? Does contemporary drawing stir you?
Drawing is very often the first idea of the work that is going to be created. David Smith, Al Taylor, De Kooning and many others conceived sculptures and paintings that way. Forty years ago, I mostly collected drawings that didn't cost very much. Yes, contemporary drawing stirs me, especially when I look at Al Taylor's career.

How do you see young contemporary artists?
With a focus on four artistic sectors spread out between 1930 and 1980, I collected "backwards". I leave that sort of prospecting work to others. Nevertheless, I sometimes buy pieces by a few living artists, like Fabienne Verdier and Scully.

Today, do you consider yourself more of a philanthropist or a collector?
I'm both. A philanthropist through my humanitarian foundation. And the collector you know, who is donating his collection to the new Zurich Kunsthaus. But at my age, though I am carrying on with what I've achieved in humanitarian work, I no longer collect.

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