“I learn from art”

Una Meistere

An interview with German art collector Axel Haubrok


The taxi driver who takes me to the Lichtenberg district in eastern Berlin, the current home of German art collector Axel Haubrok’s art space, says that this is only the second time he’s come to this part of the city. Along the way he shows me a gigantic market square – that’s the Chinese market, where you can find absolutely anything possible. Based on the people coming out of the market carrying huge plastic bags full of purchases, it seems that he’s telling the truth. Lichtenberg is an industrial territory that people don’t normally visit unless they have a reason to. When the taxi stops at the address I’ve given him, the only thing pointing to the existence of Haubrok’s art space here is a very large white advertisement stand with the word FAHRBEREITSCHAFT. Beyond the gate is a typical industrial landscape, with various repair shops lined up one next to the other. Nothing here points to the presence of art, except maybe the installation – layers of electric light bulbs – that one can see through one of the open doors. So, this is the right address after all.

At the moment, the next exhibition is still only in the process of being set up, and Haubrok’s assistant takes me into a small room that’s empty except for a plywood table and two chairs taped up with brightly coloured duct tape and some Franz West posters on the wall. The table and chairs are West’s as well, although a screw on one of the chairs is loose and the assistant recommends I not sit on that chair. But Haubrok himself sits down on it a moment later...with no negative consequences.

Haubrok acquired the former East German depot and garage complex in 2012. With 18,000 square metres of space, he has rented some of the former garages to artists to use as studios, while others are still being used by their original inhabitants – auto mechanics, painters and so on. He says that it’s precisely this eclectic mix that he likes best about the place. Except for a small cosmetic spruce-up, the exterior of the buildings has remained almost unchanged, stuck in their East German past. Ceramic tiles, concrete floors, slightly buckling linoleum, flaking paint on window frames, pocket-sized rooms. Only the walls have a fresh layer of paint here and there, in order to better exhibit artwork. Everything else serves as a self-sufficient backdrop to an ever new and extraordinary dialogue with its worldly resident – art.

A little over a year ago, when I interviewed another German art collector, Egidio Marzona (who has been called the 20th century’s art archivist), he called Haubrok one of the three true collectors of our era. He believes there are very few such collectors left in this age, when the market has triumphed above all else. Harald Falckenberg in Hamburg and Bernardo Paz in Brazil are the other two true collectors, according to Marzona. Like Marzona’s own collection, Haubrok’s collection also focuses on conceptual art. Although, when Haubrok and his wife, Barbara, began collecting art back in 1988, it was paintings they sought. They only turned to conceptual art around the turn of the millennium, when they acquired several pieces by Günther Förg. Today, the Haubrok Collection contains over one thousand pieces of art, including works by Jonathan Monk, Christopher Williams, Heimo Zobernig, Martin Boyce and Martin Creed. In 2008 they established the Haubrok Foundation and gave the core of their collection (about fourteen works of art) to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin on permanent loan. Among these works are Martin Creed’s The Lights Off (2001), Olafur Eliasson’s Highlighter (1999), Tino Sehgal’s This is Propaganda (2003) and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Queer Bar (1996). Works from the Haubrok collection can also be regularly seen at various group exhibitions, and they were also featured at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in 2012-2013 as a part of the No Desaster project created in collaboration with Falckenberg.

However, the most intriguing have always been the so-called “haubrokshows” – exhibitions that Haubrok originally staged in his own apartment (2005-2007), then in a showroom on Strausberger Platz in East Berlin (2007-2012). This is also where the legendary Paris Bar project took place, the catalogue of which I notice lying on the aforementioned West table.

Paris Bar is an institution in Berlin. It is significant for two reasons: its extravagant clientele (Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Robert de Niro...) and the collection of art on its walls. Michel Würthle, the owner of the café, is a eccentric Austrian multimedia personality, at once a painter, a photographer, an author and an actor. His Paris Bar art collection is said to have begun after a meeting with the well-known German artists’ artist Martin Kippenberger, who gave several of his works to the café on permanent loan, thereby gaining unique status as the locale’s patron and also paying off his bar debt at the same time. His painting Paris Bar was on the café’s wall for a long time, until Würthle was forced to part with it after getting into deep trouble regarding tax and other debts, which almost threatened to close down the Paris Bar. Thus, Kippenberger’s painting became something of a saviour for Würthle, fetching 2.5 million euros at a Christie’s auction. Daniel Richter’s dedication to the legendary piece of artwork has now taken its place on the café’s wall.

Haubrok is also a regular customer at the Paris Bar, and in 2012 he and Würthle undertook a unique project – they took down more than a hundred drawings, paintings and photographs from the café’s walls and sent them to Haubrok’s showroom in East Berlin as a part of the Charade Rochade exhibition. In their absence, the laconic and ascetic photographs of Christopher Williams from Haubrok’s own collection were exhibited on the Paris Bar’s worn wooden walls.

FAHRBEREITSCHAFT currently hosts an average of two exhibitions per year, which can be viewed by prior arrangement. Haubrok says he tries to lead many of the tours himself. “At the beginning, very often people don't understand anything, but after one hour they start to discuss, because there is this personal approach. This is why I do this – I'm trying to convince young collectors, and people in general, to get into art, to think about things, to think about art.”

Christopher Williams. Installation view. Charade Rochade, Paris Bar, 2012. Photo: L. Paffrath. © Haubrok Foundation

Was the Charade Rochade exhibition – in which all of the permanent artwork in the legendary Paris Bar in West Berlin was cleared away for six weeks and moved to your art space on the East side, while Christopher William’s works from the Haubrok Collection were temporarily exhibited at the Paris Bar – your idea?

Yes, it was my idea, because I know the Paris Bar and I know Michel Würthle, the owner. I’ve always been interested in organising exhibitions in places that are unusual for art. I believe that’s a way of reaching a completely different group of people. And I think that it's very interesting also for the artist to see the work in a totally different context. Würthle and I are good friends, and we had long talked about doing something together. Of course, from the beginning the idea was much smaller, but I think the result turned out great. On the one hand, people thought that some negative changes had taken place at the Paris Bar, because the artwork that they’d become used to always seeing on the walls wasn’t there anymore. On the other hand, many of the Paris Bar’s most loyal customers had never yet been to the East side of the city. And, because the other half of the exhibition took place over there, for many it was their first time to go there. That was strange and interesting at the same time.

But they were residents of Berlin, weren’t they? That certainly does sound strange, considering that more than 25 years have passed since the Wall fell.

Yes, but I think there's a big difference between people who’ve come to Berlin within the last years. They are not interested whether it's East or West, but in the heads of the people who have been living here from before the war, it's totally different.

Does that mean that some West Berliners went on their first journey to the East side precisely because of this exhibition?

They came, of course, because it was the Paris Bar. It was not just a show of Christopher Williams at the Paris Bar; it was also a show of the typical Western Paris Bar in the Eastern part of Berlin. The bread, the wine of the Paris Bar, the art of the Paris Bar was there. So, it was a real swap. And both things were important in the same way. If you look at the text in the catalogue, it’s the same text twice – one is written by me and the other by Würthle. It's all about the swap, and it was really an exchange of both. And that’s the most interesting thing, I believe.

In an interview, you once described Michel Würthle as a real dandy, adding that he’s completely different from you. How do you describe yourself?

Yes, he is a dandy. I'm not (laughs). But as I get older, I’ve became more interested in old men. Like Egidio Marzona, Michel Würthle.... They have things to tell, and it's interesting to talk to them. Instead of this young and upcoming generation.

Like Egidio Marzona, do you also think that there’s a big difference between art collectors of today and those of former times?

Yes. I'm not interested in young art anymore. That's maybe not completely true, but mainly it's true. I'm not interested in the competition to get the best new work of such or such an artist. Like Marzona, I'm digging deeper and finding interesting works by maybe unknown artists from the 1970s. There’s no competition there, and in that place I can really find some interesting things. Which are, in my opinion, important for the development of all art. Of course, I also support young artists, but mainly I'm looking for things that happened some years ago. Because all this hype and so on – I really don't like it. It's too much. Of course, there are lots of young people coming onto the collecting scene right now, too, and there’s this excitement – how beautiful, I like this. But that’s not the way I look at art. For me, I’m not interested that the picture is nice or not, that it's beautiful or not. For me it doesn't matter.

What do you look for in art? Egidio Marzona said that for him, art is still a question mark....

(thinks) Yes, it is a question mark. But I'm not looking for the question mark, I'm trying to understand the art. Christian Boros once said, “I like art that I don't understand.” Which is the opposite of me – I like to learn from the artist. It helps me a lot in my life. I really learn from art.

Is it important for you to meet the artists personally? To discuss art with them?

I'm friends with most of the artists I have in my collection. I think the choice of the artist is a question of whether I understand them, whether we have something in common. It's always a discussion. And this is why I can learn, not only from the artwork itself but also from the attitude of the artist. I would say that the attitude is even more important. I like to learn from the attitude, not from the knowledge. 

Installation view. Haubrok foundation - BRD, 2016. Photo: L. Paffrath. © Haubrok Foundation

Why do you have this need to own artwork?

Good question. I don't know. I'm a collector, it's in my genes. My father collected photo equipment, my son collects glasses, I collect art. I'm a collector, I need to have things, to be proud of them, because they are my own. 

When you get a work of art, do you have the feeling that it’s yours and it belongs to you, or not?

I do a lot of exhibitions. The art's not mine. I wanted to have it, and then together with an artist I'm making new projects. No, I don't lock it up and put it in storage. The opposite.

You have some completely non-material works of art, like German artist Markus Sixay’s Can’t Beat the Feeling, which is a wall painting made with Coca-Cola Light. How is it to collect works that are ephemeral, that exist for only a short moment?

I can repeat it. Like Tino Sehgal’s works or Martin Creed's Lights Off. Which is just the lights being turned off.

How, in such cases, does the relationship between the artist and the collector develop? You’ve probably read Donald Judd’s famous letter to the Italian art collector Giuseppe Panza, in which Judd accused Panza of unauthorised reproduction and exposition of his artwork.

No. I’ll have to look for that.... I always have direct contact with all the artists I work with. All the artists I want to show, they know about the show and their ideas are part of it.

You began by collecting paintings.

Because in the beginning you always want to buy something nice for your home.

Like a decoration?

Like a decoration. But very soon I stopped buying decorations. I’ve always thought it important that the works of art in my collection are also important to me. Not generally important, but important for me.

At what point did you decide to turn your attention to conceptual art, and why?

The day my home was full.

So it was just a practical reason (laughs)?

No, but this was a reason to think about the whole thing. And for a year or so I didn't collect anything. I just thought about how I should continue. A collector can collect anything. If you’re collecting stamps, for example, you need to fill the gaps and something like that. I decided that this is not the way I want to do it. I didn’t want to continue collecting, for example, one or the other artist’s paintings from this or that period. At that moment that didn’t seem interesting anymore. I became very open to discussion – with my wife, with others. For example, if I’m unable to display these works of art in my home – and not just because of their size – then why do it at all? Size doesn't matter. Why not buy only a concept, why not buy the videos, because back then I didn’t show videos. Why restrict yourself? What kind of restriction is it to buy just what fits beneath your sofa? If you think like this, in the end you realise that it's OK to collect everything: ideas, cars, everything... You don't believe me? It is like this.

Your collection currently consists of about 1000 units. Interestingly, as I’ve interviewed various collectors, almost all of them can talk long about the first work of art they acquired, which in a way has become the foundation of their collection (in your case it was a painting by Raoul de Keyser). But when I ask about the most recent, say, two or three purchases, their answers are usually much shorter. Some collectors don’t even really remember the purchases. Does it become routine by then, whereas the story of their first work of art is a sentiment of sorts?

No. This is just a legend, I think. But I could answer your question in a totally different way. Of course, in the majority of cases there have always been other works of art, too, but it's because of people like you always asking which was the first thing, you have to tell the story. Everyone who talks with a collector always asks what was the first piece you bought or what was the last one. This is always the same, and you need an answer. And it's good to have the same answer every time.

I assume that of these 1000 works of art in your collection there are only a few that are truly important to you.

Of course.

But does it change over time?

Yes. Not every day, but every month. Really, I think so.


Yes. Emotionally.

Do you have a need to look at those works of art physically, or is it enough that you have them in your mind?

They are in my mind. I don't need to look at them. But it's important for me to be surrounded by art. That's why I make these shows.

You are famous for your unusual exhibition venues and the concepts for your so-called “haubrokshows”. In the beginning, you hosted the exhibitions in your apartment, and last year during the Tanz im Berlin festival you did a show at the HAU1 theatre that lasted just for one day....

It was not even one day, just five, six hours. We are friends with Annemie Vanackere, the director of the HAU, and they asked me if I could make a show there. Of course, in the beginning we were thinking about putting some nice things on the staircase or somewhere else. I said, yes, I like the idea, but let's do it differently. Like a piece of theatre. You have to pay five euros for the ticket, and then you enter the space and it takes you an hour to see everything. We explained works, discussed them with people, and then you go. It had the form of a piece of theatre.

The exhibition at HAU1 was announced with a flower bouquet by Willem de Rooij. Which is, in a way, a work of ephemeral art, too. Was that a conceptual choice?

Yes. It's a very important work, and it was there just to celebrate the theatre. The exhibition’s concept was structured so that you arrived on stage via the backstage area; the whole theatre was turned around. You couldn't go to the place you normally go to with all the chairs – you were on the other side and you looked at the audience hall from the other side. It's the view that normally only the performers have. And it's so beautiful, it's such a fabulous old theatre. I've learned that this is the oldest theatre in Berlin (built in 1907-1908, HAU1, the former Hebbel Theatre, is one of Berlin’s architectural gems – Ed.). All the others have been destroyed. I chose Willem de Rooij just to celebrate these beautiful surroundings.

You’ve said that Willem de Rooij is a very significant artist for you.

I think his focus is very conceptually clear, and it's always beautiful in a very special way. He has a very special sense of beauty.

Meaning that, despite everything, the aesthetic aspect – beauty – is important for you in art?

No. No, no, no.... You asked me about Willem de Rooij. I, for instance also love the work of Stanley Brown. And that it just nothing. It's just measurements and lines, lines....

I’ve read – of course, if it’s true – that, as a rule, you deliberately buy art only in galleries, not from the artists themselves.

Yes, that’s true.

You’ve said that you believe that in the art world everyone has his function.

Yes. I think so. 

And you also never buy anything spontaneously.

I think galleries are important. Good galleries. Also, when I talk with an artist about this or that piece of artwork, I never buy it directly from the artist; I only buy from the gallery representing him or her. Of course, I sometimes try to press the price, but I think the gallery has an important function. But, of course, everything has changed because of the market. Still, I think it’s very important in the long term to support the artist by doing good shows. To invest in the artist. I think it's also important for galleries to find the right collectors for the artist. To support and to finance the artist. This is the reason why, in my opinion, it's crucial for galleries to stay on the scene.

What do you think is the responsibility of the collector?

Super important, of course. We are buying art, but at the same time we have to be very careful with everything we do. If a collector is rather well known, people are looking at what he is buying, how he is acting and things like that. You asked me, or you said, that I don’t buy spontaneously. Of course, I'm spontaneous in a way, but I've learned to think before I buy – is it important for the collection, is it important for me, is it important for the artist? Normally, I never buy the same day I see a new work of art. And if it's gone the next day, I ask who bought it. Sometimes it's somebody I know quite well. And I’m OK with that, I don’t pay it any more attention.

Not at all? But that would be only human....

No. It's like this – if I can't have it, I can forget it.

Is it like, if it's gone it was not meant to be in your collection?

No, maybe I can borrow it one day.... In my opinion, the most important thing is the artwork itself. And, because I think that collectors are important as well, I believe a collection must be significant, good, and not just an overstuffed warehouse in Basel or wherever. So, the work keeps on living, even if it is sold to another collector.

Hans-Peter Feldmann. Installation view. Haubrok foundation - BRD, 2016. Photo: L. Paffrath. © Haubrok Foundation

Is the collector also a critic in some way?

I’ve never thought about that. I think sometimes I try to convince the artist to work in another direction, but only on a friendly base, which is just discussing.

Do artists listen to your suggestions?

Why not? For me, as a collector, it's very important where the artwork from my collection is shown and in what context. I think it's important for the artist as well. We are kind of on the same level. One is the producer and the other is the displayer, or something like that. And there are, of course, many years of talking and talking and discussing and discussing behind it all....

Some collectors think that the act of collecting has much to do with the fact that we have only a limited time on this earth. So, from that point of view, collecting is a kind of escape from death, because subconsciously we have the feeling that our collection, the artwork that we’ve collected, will continue to live on after us.

I think we all have the same problem of wondering what will happen in the next fifty years. And everybody finds his own solution for that. My solution is that the core of the collection should be kept together. This is the reason why I gave it as a permanent loan to the Nationalgalerie.

How big is the core?

It's not big. It's less than twenty works of art. I suppose there will be more to follow, but not too many. But these are really big works of art. 

How would you characterise the core that you gave to the museum?

The first step was very simple, because at that time I didn't have an exhibition space like that, and I thought that these works have been made for museums. They have to be shown in a museum. I think it's also important for the future. These are really museum works, also because of their physical size. For many years I didn't have room for Gregor Schneider, and I can't show it permanently, but I believe that’s very important in his case. Or Tino Sehgal's This is Propaganda. Of course, I could keep it here and somebody will see it, but it's now in the collection of Udo Kittelmann (director of the Nationalgalerie, Berlin State Museums – Ed.), and he shows this work in all spaces here in Berlin. And it's wonderful. It's much better for the work.

What is the main difference between a museum collection and a private collection?

Private collections are much more personal. And I think that's good. Museums have the pressure to show what the people expect. I don't show what the people expect. I like to meet crazy people. That is why I like old men.

But how can you be sure that the museum will show these works and not just put them in a basement? 

This is why it's not a donation, but a permanent loan. The works have to be shown. Once every ten years, which is not too much, but they have to be shown.

Speaking of showing artwork, why did you decide to open an art space in Lichtenberg, a completely industrial part of East Berlin where no one goes, unless it’s specifically to see an exhibition at FAHRBEREITSCHAFT?

I was looking for a place in Mitte, but then I realised that that's not interesting for me anymore. I think Mitte now looks like a normal, typical German town. Buying a property here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The area was not too expensive because nobody wanted to come here. But on the other hand, it has huge potential. When we acquired this place three and half years ago, the idea was to bring lots of artists here. An interesting mixture has developed here now – artists’ studios and an auto paint shop and a mechanic right next to them. And that’s what I like. There are so many possibilities, all the things that may happen here in the future – dancing and theatre, music events. I do offer the spaces very cheap, but it’s nevertheless OK for me financially, because the area is cheap as well. And it's very good to do things like this.

How soon do you think gentrification will affect the area?

This is a very specific situation here. The whole area is an industrial territory, and there are special regulations for industrial areas in Berlin. You are not allowed to live here, you are not allowed to show works, you are not allowed to put any culture here, and so what we are doing now is illegal.

How is that possible in a country like Germany?

They know what I'm doing (laughs), but it's not allowed, just accepted. If you look at a map with the cultural venues in Berlin, Lichtenberg is not even marked on it. And you get the feeling that we are really at the end of nowhere. But, in fact, you are not. Actually, we’re not that far from the city centre – not too far from Alexanderplatz. Many investors are currently eyeing this area, and there are also discussions about permits to start building residential buildings here. The city is expanding, and Berlin acutely lacks living spaces. So the pressure from the investors is very high.

You hold about two exhibition here per year. Do you collaborate with curators? 

No, I do it myself together with the artists.

Klaus Staeck. Installation view. Haubrok foundation - BRD, 2016. Photo: L. Paffrath. © Haubrok Foundation

Do you feel so strong?

maybe I know the artwork better that any curator. And I know the artist. Some of them I’ve known for twenty years. And we have been in long discussions, and I don't think it's arrogant. No, it's fun for me to curate the things. OK, I've invited Jonathan Monk as an artist to curate the show here, but normally I do it myself.

There is always this ambition in collectors to discover someone who will be the next star. You’ve said that nowadays you are more interested in old things, but in the beginning did you feel this ambition in yourself?

Yes, maybe. But I think it's the same whether we discover a new artist – an artist for the future – or if we discover... artist who is eighty years old, but still very creative.

I can tell you an interesting story. I think I have discovered some artists. Haegue Yang, for instance. After Manifesta 4 (2002) she didn't sell a piece. Nothing. Because nobody loved her work. And she put together all the pieces she had and showed them together as a “Storage Piece” – once in Berlin, then in London and then again in Berlin. The idea was to destroy them all after the last show. I bought the whole lot – almost 150 pieces including more then twenty paintings – and, of course, I'm proud of that.

Considering your experience as a collector, and seeing as art has a price, is art a commodity or not?

Of course, it's a commodity. This is why we have all these problems. In the beginning, nobody is interested in stories like I just told you. Egidio off course, and a few others. Not too many. There is a strong market. But I try to keep myself out of it.

But at the same time you are still in it....

Yes, of course, you can't avoid it. But I've found my special place.

What makes something a work of art? You have a Franz West sofa and a dining table by Donald Judd in your apartment, and you use both as functional objects.

Yes. You’re sitting on a Franz West right now, too.

But what makes this plywood chair – with a loose screw, at that – a work of art?

I don't know, but why do you doubt it? Because you can sit on it? It's done by an artist and it's a work of art.

So, anything an artist creates is a work of art?

Yes, I think yes. Yes, Beuys said everyone is an artist, I know.

But what – from everything made by someone who is an artist – can be considered a masterpiece? Or is masterpiece only a word?

I think it's just a word. A definition to talk about things that are really important.

Is there any artwork in the world that you would like to own but cannot?

Yes, of course. Many.... But if I know I cannot afford it, I accept it. I really love paintings by Christopher Wool, but I can't afford them.

You really can’t afford them, or have you just set a boundary for yourself that you don’t overstep?

I really can't afford them. They’re up to six million.

Are you convinced that six million is the true value of these works? In other words, if the price is six million, then the value is six million as well?

The question is – is it worth that for you? It depends how much money you have. If I had 400 million, maybe I would say it's OK.

Have you ever overpaid for a work of art? Or is it always a question of how much you really need this particular piece and how much money you have?

I think so. I think the collection is a portrait of the collector. What he can afford, what he likes. The time when he’s bought the pieces and his choices are the things that create a collection.

Axel and Barbara Haubrok. Photo: Severin Wohlleben

Is it even possible in some way to measure the true value of a work of art?

I don't think so. It's my value. If I have ten euros, I would spend them to acquire this poster. And if I try to sell it to you later, you might say you’re not interested in it. There is no value, it's all just personal value. And intellectual value.

When referring to your collection, it’s usually said that there are two creators, you and your wife, Barbara. How does the process of adding to the collection take place? Who has the last word?

I do.

I wonder what your wife would say at this moment....

She would say the same.

How is it, creating a collection as a team of two, especially considering – as you’ve already said – that a collection is always a mirror of the personality?

This means that my wife sometimes loves other works than I do. And she can decide whether to buy them or not.

Does that mean that your collection supposedly has two parts to it?

No, it's mainly me. Not because I’m arrogant, but I'm much more in the art world. But it's very interesting to discuss everything with my wife. It's a different viewpoint, and the relations change over time.

Is there a difference in the way a woman and a man buy artwork? I presume there are certain answers that your wife seeks in art, and others that you seek?


How would you characterise your wife's approach to art?

Difficult question. I'm much more conceptual, strict. I'm more hardcore. Let's put it this way: I go further than my wife does. But if she loves, for instance, a beautiful new work by Christopher Williams, she goes for it, even if it is much more expensive than the ones we bought before. When we talk, for example, of Martin Creed's Lights Off, my wife would never have bought it for 20,000 euros. For just switching off the lights.

Why was it so important for you to buy this work of art?

Because it changes the whole feeling with just a light. We saw it many times in many different places. How people behave. It's a super important piece.

Does this work of art continue to surprise you?

Yes, because when you are in the dark room you change your behaviour totally. And the reaction of other people changes as well, because you don't know who is next to you. You start to think twice about what are you saying, because you don't know who is hearing it. This is a work that goes very, very deep. I think it's one of the most important works in my collection.

What do you advise young collectors?

To be open, to find their own way. To not look at the market. There are many cheap works around that are really good and worth buying.