An uncompromising commitment to a radical vision is leading gallerist Almine Rech’s favorite quality in an artist. “Radicalism has always been the narrative for me,” she says, speaking on the phone from London. “I love it when artists take big risks and don’t feel the need to justify them, despite any notions of good taste or bad taste. They just go for something radical, and they make zero compromises.” One could say that Rech herself, one of the few female gallerists in Paris, is likewise a woman of zero compromise. There is little room in Rech’s heart for artists who bend to please the fickle whims of the art-buying public. “It’s a special feeling you get when you are in front of someone who is not going to try to please people. Someone who is going to impose their vision. That’s when I feel confidence. They don’t even need to say it. You just feel it.”
The daughter of famed French fashion designer Georges Rech (founder of one of France’s first ready-to-wear companies) and the wife of Picasso heir Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Rech fell in love with art as a child, painting alongside her father on the week- ends. “He would paint landscapes, with no intention of showing his work to anyone except his kids and my mother. It was really for pure pleasure.” For Rech, it was all about people, and she painted many portraits of her mother and two younger sisters. Family friends began commissioning her to make portraits of them too, in her trademark Hockney-esque style. On weekends she would stroll around the museums of Paris, eyes wide. “My parents were always bringing us to the Jardin des Tuileries at the Louvre, and they have the most beautiful Impressionist paint- ings at the Musée de l’Orangerie there. We used to live close to the Musée Marmottan near the Bois de Boulogne, dedicated to Monet. All my childish first discoveries about great paintings happened in Paris.”
Art is in her blood on both sides: Her great-grandfather, Mai Trung-Cat, the Regent of Vietnam, was a renowned calligrapher at the beginning of the 20th century, and you can still see his work in the region of Haiphong in northern Vietnam, where the ancestral home is. Her grandfather’s brother was Mai-Trung Thu, another renowned painter. So it came as no surprise to anyone when she decided to attend art school, at ESAG Penninghen in Paris, but within just a year, she realized that the artist’s life was not for her after all. “I very quickly noticed how lonely it is to create. To be in your studio, alone, all the time. What a life. Truly, I don’t believe good artists decide to become artists. They have no other choice. Because it is not an easy life.” Instead she turned her focus to cinema. After three years studying French and German film, she pursued art history at l’Ecole de Louvre, and then a brief stint working at Drouot auction house. By then, her extensive formal education was complete. Rech was ready to explore her life’s calling—the discovery and distribution of great art.
She opened her first gallery, Galerie Froment-Putman, in rue Charlot in the Marais, with Cyrille Putman, son of design legend Andrée Putman, who would later become her husband. Oddly enough, despite her early love for figurativism, she found herself most strongly drawn to minimalist and conceptualist artists. “I was most attracted to very radical artworks. Perhaps because I had had my fill of painting. When I discovered Donald Judd, John McCracken and James Turrell, it was such an aesthetic shock— this radicalism of perception. I had already been interested in the way that minimalism and Bauhaus had influenced theater and film. And when I discovered its application to art, it was like falling in love. So powerful.”
For the gallery’s inaugural show, in November 1989, she placed the work of visionary California light artist James Turrell in a commercial gallery setting in Europe for the first time. She had seen his work at an exhibition at a museum in Nîmes and spoken with Turrell, telling him her plans to open a gallery in Paris. So full of enthusiasm was she, Turrell agreed to show his work with her, even though at that point there had been no major light-based artworks shown in European galleries (although there had been a few museum exhibits). Rech hoped to create, or tap into, a completely unknown market. She hired an architect to prepare the space based on the few images and notes given over the phone by Turrell. Shortly before the opening, Turrell himself came and looked over the gallery. He said it was perfect, and Rech felt confident ahead of the opening. “It wasn’t until I had an interview with a small radio channel that I started to feel worried. They asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid about going bankrupt after this show?’ and I said, ‘Oh my God. I hope not.’ ” She and Putman went ahead and launched their gallery with one piece by James Turrell and hoped that a buyer would share their brave vision. “In those days, people liked art that you could hang on walls,” she points out. Luckily, there was a buyer—the Centro Televizo Mexico’s museum bought the Turrell piece, its director, Bob Littman, traveling all the way to Paris to buy it. “That was my very first sale,” she reminisces. “And it taught me everything I needed to know about the art world.”
Nearly 25 years later, Turrell is still represented by Rech in Europe. And the gallery has held important solo shows by such luminaries as McCracken, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and Liu Wei. Rech now has three more galleries, including a new space in Paris and one in Brussels, where she also lives—in a three- story brick villa designed in the ’30s by Adrien Blomme, which, naturally, boasts many Picassos, as well as Martin Szekely coffee tables, a James Turrell light piece, an Ed Ruscha word painting from 1974 (in which “actress” is spelled out on moiré silk) and a half-ton Jeff Koons sculpture of inflatable pool toys in trash cans. When we speak she is in London, where she has just opened her latest space upstairs from one of the most esteemed bespoke tailors on Savile Row, Huntsman. “The owner is a major collector too,” says Rech. “It’s perfect.”
She is still possessed by the same passion for radicalism that motivated her in the first place. And she still admires those artists, both young and established, who are brave enough to remain uncompromising. Like London-based Ayan Farah, whose work was presented by the Almine Rech Gallery in Brussels in October 2014. The exhibition, titled Notes on Running Water, included “Eldfell” (2011), a piece made from the polyester–cotton lining of a sleeping bag buried for six months at the foot of the Icelandic volcano that gives the work its title, and “Eylon” (2014), a work stained by mud and clay from the Dead Sea. Before that, Almine Rech Gallery exhibited photos by Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane. Her remit, while extending beyond typically conceptual art, still remains firmly entrenched in the cutting edge.
“Artists have changed, in that they are acutely more aware of the market and are therefore perhaps more cautious than they used to be,” she says. But those artists are not interesting to her. “Art that is purely commercial will not remain in art history,” she explains. “It’s maintaining their conviction that is the most difficult thing. Those are the ones that will remain.”