Interview with Carlo Bilotti
As the Museo Carlo Bilotti opens in Rome, the collector explains towhy he prefers to commission rather than buy works of art, and describes the way artists from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst have risen to his challenges.
Thursday, 1st June 2006
On 10 May, the Museo Carlo Bilotti opened in the orangery of the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome. At its core is a gift of 20 paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. That the City of Rome should refurbish a historic building – originally the Casino dei Giochi d’Acqua – in the Borghese Gardens to house part of the collection of an Italian-American businessman is both an unusual honour and a reflection of the desire of its mayor, Walter Veltroni, to bring more modern and contemporary art to the heart of the Eternal City. For not only will the museum show Bilotti’s De Chiricos, draw on the collections of the Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico and house the library of the late art historian Maurizio Fagiolo Dell’Arco, an authority on Balla and De Chirico, but in addition its large ground floor will host loan exhibitions of contemporary art.
Its inaugural show is a fitting tribute to the extraordinary series of monumental works Carlo Bilotti has commissioned over the past four years from Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville and David Salle. The 71-year-old Bilotti is remarkable – possibly even unique – among today’s collectors of contemporary art in preferring to commission rather than simply buy work by the artists he admires. Any rich man can sit in a saleroom and raise his hand; Bilotti has always wanted to be involved, to play a part in the creative process. In over 40 years of collecting, he has occasionally bought – and sold – at auction, and through galleries, but he has also commissioned a score of works by the likes of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers and Eric Fischl, as well as Salle, Hirst and Saville, the last of whose triptych of paintings, Atonement, was completed only weeks before the Rome opening.
For Bilotti, artists fall into two categories. ‘There is the first type, who say, “I do whatever I want to do, and I don’t do commissions.” I think they are the lesser artists. Then there is the second category, who welcomes the challenge and who always look for new stimulus. I enjoy working with these artists.’ When I suggest that he may be an artist manqué, painting vicariously through other artists, he muses. ‘Maybe. Perhaps it is a desire to create something that would not exist without you. I could have been anything in my life, except for an artist.’
What he did do was end up in the perfume business. Born into a prosperous family in Cosenza, Calabria, Bilotti studied law in Naples and Palermo, buying his first work of art, a De Chirico drawing, at the age of 20. In 1961, he went to New York ‘for fun, to see some friends’. He ended up staying – and continuing to buy art. By 1967, his collection of De Chirico and the Italian futurists was sufficiently substantial for him to be invited to exhibit them, which is how he met his future wife, Margaret Embury Schultz (Tina), a student on the exhibition committee. He began to buy modern masters: his collection now includes Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Miro, Chagall and Kandinsky as well as contemporary art. He liked getting to know the artists.
His first commission was for Dalí, whom he asked to make four paintings about Paris for his company, which sold French fragrances. ‘When I saw the paintings, I did not like them at all’, recalls Bilotti. ‘They were banal, taken from picture postcards, and they did not mean a thing.’ That he should go on to repeat the experience, and with Dalí, is revealing of Bilotti’s tenacity. In the early 1970s, he bought Dalí’s sketch for the Crucifixion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the figure of Christ floating in the air against a grey background. ‘Since I knew the artist’, explains Bilotti, ‘I called him and said, “Maître, will you add something?”’ Dalí agreed, so long as Bilotti took the painting to him in Barcelona. There, over dinner at the Ritz, he asked for another $50,000. ‘He could see I was very upset’, says Bilotti, ‘so he made me an offer. “If you let me add what I want, and give me the $50,000, I will make you another painting. What would you like?”’ Bilotti requested a soft watch – and Dalí responded with Wounded Soft Watch.
His relationship with Warhol proved far more rewarding. The two became good friends at the time the artist’s magazine, Interview, was failing. Says Bilotti: ‘Its editor, Bob Colacello, rang me up and asked if I would advertise – none of the luxury goods people would touch it. I gave them ads for Nina Ricci and Pierre Cardin. Andy told me later that I had saved his magazine – once our competitors saw that we were advertising there they all slowly followed suit.’
In 1982, they went to see the De Chirico show at MOMA. At dinner, Warhol revealed that De Chirico was one of his favourite artists. ‘I was astounded, so I asked him why?’, says Bilotti. ‘Because De Chirico repeats himself. He does the same painting over and over again. In the mind of Andy – he had the simplest, most direct mind – De Chirico was the father of Pop, repeating images so that people would retain them, understand them.’ Bilotti asked Warhol to make a series of De Chirico paintings for him. He selected six paintings, and Warhol made two paintings of each, repeating the same image four times (Fig. 3).
Bilotti refused Warhol’s suggestion that he make a portrait of him and asked instead for one of his wife and daughter, Lisa (Fig. 6). ‘In my opinion, Warhol was the greatest portrait painter of the 20th century’, says Bilotti. ‘I think it is one of the best portraits Warhol ever did.’ Needless to say, the artist took his usual license, giving the blond, blue-eyed Tina the same dramatic colouring as her daughter. The image became all the more precious after Lisa’s tragic death from leukaemia at the age of 20.
Warhol was also central to Bilotti’s most ambitious scheme to date. ‘I had always had this idea to build a chapel – not a chapel in the literal sense and nothing to do with my Jesuit education, more a place of meditation, an environment created by an artist’, he says. ‘I had always loved the Rothko Chapel in Houston and the Matisse Chapel in Vence – and the Sistine Chapel is, of course, the masterpiece of humanity’, he adds. ‘So one day I spoke to Andy and we started working on the project – I even hired an architect. I did not want the usual poppies, so we kept looking for a subject. Then one day I was in the Vatican and I bought Andy some books on illuminated manuscripts. He loved one image in particular. We agreed a price, and he was set to make 10 paintings, approximately 11ft square, in the summer of 1986.’ The project was never realised. A French dealer commissioned Warhol to make a Last Supper and, says Bilotti, since he was paying cash, Andy postponed the chapel. He died the following year. The model for the chapel is now in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Bilotti tells the story perched on a sofa in his Palm Beach home underneath one of Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup paintings. On another wall is a Damien Hirst spin painting (Fig. 1). It is worth quoting its title in its entirety. Taken from a fax Bilotti sent to the artist, it says much about the working relationship between the two. Beautiful (As you may recall, I commissioned a spin painting with red colours and asked if you can somehow connect it to some of the paintings of your last exhibition depicting terrorist attacks. I thank you for giving it some thought…Warmest regards, Carlo) Painting. On the back, Hirst has written: ‘Painting for Carlo, Damien. God you are demanding.’
Artist and patron had met in the summer of 2000 in the Hamptons house of dealer Larry Gagosian. ‘I think Damien is one of the most talented artists I have ever met – and he has a big heart’, says Bilotti. ‘He liked the idea of my chapel. I wanted to do it in my backyard in Palm Beach. He came down to the house, but he did not like Palm Beach at all.’ Hirst thought the island, with its manicured lawns and pastel-hued Hispanic villas, too refined. He wanted to buy an old warehouse the other side of the tracks – literally – in West Palm Beach.
They started work on the chapel project without knowing what they were going to do, or where they might build it. The brief was just four images for four walls. It was Hirst who came up with the idea of the four Evangelists. Bilotti visited Hirst’s studio many times – in fact, the evidence to prove it is in the paintings. ‘One day I left my gold pen in the studio. By the time I went back, it had been stuck to one of the paintings’, laughs Bilotti, evidently much amused by the conceit (the Evangelists did, after all, record the life and death of Christ). Hirst’s initial idea had been a series of solid-colour paintings to be displayed with a large vitrine containing four human skulls. In the second version (Fig. 2), the canvases had become even more monumental – soaring over 3.5m high – and each of the Evangelists had taken a spectral, if heavily abstracted form, their surfaces of household gloss now richly worked up with a mixture of earth, butterflies and razor blades.
The margins of each canvas bear words from the Gospels. According to Bilotti, Hirst’s original idea was to build frames for them out of human bones. His wife objected, and the artist designed massive dark polished-wood frames (which Bilotti feels may have had something to do with the artist seeing the recent Caravaggio show at the National Gallery, London) and he put the paintings under glass. It is tempting to suppose that Hirst was consciously placing himself in the Old Master tradition, in a modern take on a traditional subject employing the sonorous palette and imposing, even overwhelming, scale of the baroque.
Bilotti, like Hirst, has developed a penchant for Big Subjects. The Sistine Chapel had always been at the back of his mind, not least because his apartment in Rome is opposite the Vatican. ‘I have always thought that the Sistine was grossly misunderstood’, says Bilotti. ‘A Christian will tell you it is Heaven but it is an outrage to Christianity – it is one big orgy. It is unbelievable.’ One day, talking to David Salle, whose immense canvases exploit the juxtaposition and association of images, high art and low, Bilotti asked him if he would make a series of paintings for him on the theme of the Sistine Chapel. ‘He was perfect for this project. No one else could do it’, says Bilotti. Salle’s reaction was, unsurprisingly: ‘Oh my God.’ After months of phone calls, Bilotti sending books, Salle talking to priests, the artist selected three images.
After Michelangelo: The Creation, The Flood (Fig. 5) and The Last Judgement (2005-2006) took the artist longer than he had anticipated. According to Bilotti, Salle fulminated that the project had taken two years of his life, but had become very important to him. The immense paintings – 4.5m wide – are extraordinary, drawing together a montage of disparate, allusive images alive with energy and contemporary reference. The Flood, for instance, with its great Hokusai wave and subsuming centrifugal vortex of water, its rescue helicopter and film footage, conjures up the Ark and its animals, the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Bilotti’s latest project involves the British painter Jenny Saville, who now lives in Palermo. At one time, a deconsecrated chapel in Rome, the Cappella del Divino Amore, had been proposed by the City as a setting for Hirst’s Evangelists. In the event, it proved too small. Bilotti asked Saville to go and have a look at it in the hope that she might want to make something for it. ‘The chapel was small, that is why I originally thought of making studies on paper,’ explains Saville of her triptych Atonement Studies. ‘In the end, the studies became giant but Carlo said he did not mind if they did not fit the building. I should do what I wanted.’ Says a bemused Saville: ‘I had never worked with anyone before who wanted to know every detail of the creative process – how you mix your colour…’
She knew from the first what the central panel would be. ‘I had read about Giacometti’s notion of a blind stare about ten years ago and had wanted to do one ever since but I had never found a model,’ explains Saville. ‘A friend told me about the blind school in Naples and there I found, and photographed, Rosetta who had been blind from birth and had extraordinary milky blue-white eyes that looked like planetary systems.’ Her one concession to the commission: ‘I would have given the painting a harder, less serene feel if it had been an individual painting,’ she admits. As it is, it is a ravishingly beautiful piece of painting expressing the moment of reconciliation with God. Blind Stare (Fig. 5) ‘is the blind girl looking up at the sky and seeing God’s love,’ Bilotti explained, talking rapturously about this and the other studies as they were taking shape in the studio. ‘Can you see how exciting it is? Each painting becomes a history, something meaningful.’
Bilotti’s evident passion belies a steely ruthlessness. Over the years he has commissioned work from distinguished artists that has disappointed and he has shown no scruples about selling it. ‘I don’t make suggestions; I give an objective’, says Bilotti. When he has been sceptical about an artist’s ability to fulfil that objective, and a work has been produced on approval, it has, on occasion, not been accepted. He describes himself as an eclectic collector, although he has a predilection for the painterly and an aversion to minimalist and conceptual art. He is certainly an instinctive buyer. ‘No intellectual has ever bought a great painting’, is how he puts it.
Bilotti is unusual among today’s collectors of contemporary art. ‘It takes courage and imagination to commission’, says Mark Lowenthal, curator of the exhibition of Hirst’s ‘Bilotti Paintings’ at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach earlier this year: ‘I don’t think many collectors would have the confidence to do it.’ As Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst of the Gagosian Gallery, which represents both Hirst and Saville, says, most collectors would not even be allowed to. ‘You need respect, drive and charm to get these things done. He persuades everyone that they want to do what he asks.’
Not quite everyone. One of the ones who got away was James Turrell. ‘I think he is the greatest lighting installation artist of our time, and there is a very mystical aspect about his work,’ says Bilotti, who did his best to persuade the artist to make installations for the new museum. ‘What a canvas!’ exclaims Bilotti. ‘He could have done something incredible. You might have thought that a contemporary artist would jump at the opportunity of making a work for the Eternal City, but he did not want to do it. He asked for a tremendous amount of money.’
The Museo Carlo Bilotti is at the Aranciera di Villa Borghese, Viale Fiorello La Guardia, Rome. Tel. +39 6 82059127. The display of works by David Salle, Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville will be on view until 1 October
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy