Beuys Is Here: Artist Rooms

Posted: Mon Aug 17 2009

A public consortium has paid former gallerist Anthony D'Offay over £26 million to bring a vast chunk of his collection to galleries across the UK.

If you've been to Tates Britain and Modern over the past few weeks, you'll have seen how the displays have been transformed by 'Artist Rooms', the name given to single-artist presentations from the collection of former gallerist Anthony d'Offay and his wife Anne. Earlier this year some 725 works from the d'Offay collection of art were purchased for the bargainous price of £26.5 million in an iniatiative involving the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, and (amazingly) the Scottish and British governments. D'Offay's idea is that the work should be freely accessible to museums around Great Britain and always free to view.

During what he describes as a 'middling unhappy' childhood growing up in Leicester, d'Offay remembers his trips to the local museum offering a world away from the relentless prayers and football of school. 'Going to the museum changed my life,' he explains 'because it taught me something about certainty and truth and about looking at things. Every time I go to the Warhol room or the Kiefer room at Tate Modern there are kids sitting on the floor sketching. That's our reward, seeing that happen. It's the whole process of starting to ask questions, which is the process of making a child creative, and that's what we need.'

I catch up with d'Offay at Bexhill-on-Sea's De La Warr Pavilion for the launch of 'Beuys is Here', a survey of the self-proclaimed shaman and still divisive demigod of contemporary art, Joseph Beuys. The show includes one of Beuys's last sculptures - 'Scala Napoletana' (1985), a rickety ladder held precariously upright by wires attached to two lead spheres - as well as multiples, drawings, posters and ephemera that illuminate the artist's multifarious output. Beuys is especially dear to d'Offay and he brings him to life in anecdotes that puncture the sometimes off-putting mythology that surrounds the late artist: tales of him enjoying staying at the Ritz because the management didn't ask him to remove his trademark trilby; or the way that, if he liked you, Beuys would greet you with a forceful kiss on the mouth.

The £26.5 million paid for d'Offay's collection isn't peanuts, but d'Offay wanted no more than the price he originally paid for it, and the man whose gallery dominated London's contemporary art scene between 1980 and 2002, representing such stellar names as Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, alongside Beuys, was able to cherry pick exactly the right work at the right time. Even if it hadn't been snapped up for a fraction its current worth, d'Offay's collection, which is now owned jointly by the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland, would form a mighty 'who's who' of twentieth-century art.

Artist Room highlights at Tate Britain include a room of photoworks by Gilbert & George from their 1980s heydayplus new exhibits including a gallery of work by Jeff Koons - featuring one of the display cases of vacuum cleaners that made his name. Tate Modern, meanwhile, has never looked better. Anselm Kiefer's 'Palm Sunday', a toppled palm tree surrounded by suitably doomy works on paper, has grabbed the headlines but there are quieter displays, such as the room dedicated to Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis, that reveal the breadth and depth of these new acquisitions.

'Beuys is Here' exudes energy by focusing on the material power of Beuys's art. There's surprising humour too, as in the whimsical 1959 drawing 'Witches Spitting Fire', or a perhaps unintentionally funny poster from 1981, showing Beuys holding hands with his great friend (and diametric opposite) Andy Warhol. It adds up to a revelatory experience that d'Offay hopes is replicated in 'Artist Rooms' up and down the country. 'Each room has the intensity of that artist, so there's a different feeling from the ordinary museum,' he says. 'It's an intense, intimate encounter.'