Bert Kreuk

Read our interview with the US-Based Dutch collector, whose show, Just Now, opens at Sotheby's S|2 this week

By Mark Rappolt

Bert Kreuk in front of Kaari Upson, Recollection Hysteria, 2012 Photo: Gerrit Scheurs

Over the past few decades, a US-based Dutch businessman, Bert Kreuk, has assembled one of the most impressive collections of contemporary art anywhere in the world. It includes works by big-name artists such as Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, Luc Tuymans and Damien Hirst, as well as more recent stars such as Matthew Day Jackson, Theaster Gates, Danh Vō, Klara Lidén and Kaari Upson. This month a selection of works from the collection goes on display in The Hague, so Artreview caught up with the collector to find out what motivates him and what he thinks a public showing of all this art can achieve.

Mark Rappolt

What made you want to show works from your collection in public?

Bert Kreuk

At a certain moment you have so many works that you say, ‘OK, what’s the fun of storing it all?’ – you can have only so much space in your own homes, even if you change it regularly. You can never see it all in one spot. Even here with this exhibition, it’s just a very small part of the collection. Many years ago I had this idea that I needed to show my art in order to make sense of it in a framework where everything flows, and that’s the ability that I have now, and that’s the reason I’m thinking, maybe slowly, but in the years to come that I will have my own space, to tell the whole story of the collection. Now it’s just bits and pieces.

How did you select which artists to include in this exhibition?

BK That’s the tough part. It is basically those artists who are really most intriguing, and I think can tell in their own unique way – an authentic way – what they’re trying to reveal in their art. There are a couple of young artists working now who can do that excellently, like Latifa Echakhch. All her art is about women’s rights, free speech and awareness in the Muslim world, but it also leaves room for interpretation. She guides you, but then it’s up to you to find what’s in your mind, what you like to see, and it’s this kind of artist that basically intrigues me. I have work by a lot of established artists – like Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel and Sherrie Levine – so I do want to show them as part of this show. I’m most interested in really conceptual art, because I started out collecting those artists.

How did you first start collecting contemporary art?

BK That’s a long time ago. At a certain moment I was involved with impressionist art. When you have collected that, and been involved in that collection, and you have the best, you start to be intrigued about what else is out there. And then I got in touch early on with work by Christopher Wool. He is basically an extension of the abstract and minimalistic ways of painting. He always says in his art, ‘It’s not about what I paint, but how I paint,’ and that’s important. That’s where I started to make the switch. If you look at Andy Warhol, he uses the screenprinting process, but it’s all about the image, what he wants to present – Christopher Wool was the other way round: he used the screenprinting process, but for him it’s not about what he’s presenting, the image, it’s about the process, and there is where it started to become interesting.

Is that connected to you being in America?

BK Yes, I think so. I was often in galleries in New York, where you are confronted with those artists. I come back regularly to Holland, but those artists who are really well known and shown in New York, like Stingel and Wool, were almost not recognised in Holland. That’s part of the reason behind this exhibition: I haven’t seen something like it before. It has to do with the fact that in New York the whole environment breeds talent. I always say a flower blooms better in full sunlight than in darkness, and all the right circumstances are there in New York, where those people can enhance each other. I don’t think you have that in Holland. They have initial talent in Holland and they bloom, but there’s not a group where you have lots of people talking to each other, enhancing each other and making good art, like you have with say the Brooklyn group that includes Matthew Day Jackson in New York. That’s why a great number of artists in my collection are American.

In your collection generally, are there Dutch artists? In terms of the contemporary part of it?

BK I almost bought a Marlene Dumas; she is a great artist, but I’m waiting for the right work. There’s so much offered to me which I don’t think holds up to the quality of the collection. Before I buy something I really have to research it, I really have to understand the art. I’m thorough. I’m not somebody who’s following the herd. I have to determine a purchase based on my own experience and knowledge of art. I have to understand what I’m buying, and it has to make sense. No, not many Dutch artists, but then again, I’m not really Dutch any more, because I’m living most of the time in America.

So what is it that makes you want to acquire a work of art?

BK I’ve owned a business for the last 30 years, and in business it’s all about money, and it’s all about working, and at a certain moment you come to a realisation that there’s more to life. It’s not about only chasing goals of business and money, so for me it’s like an educational process, trying to enhance your life with nice things around you, and to open yourself to the idea that people can make great works of art, and try to reveal ideas. Most of the time I’m very attracted to tough conceptual art with some political or social message. It’s about life. It’s about expanding your mind, to keep your brain working in a different way than just about commercial ways of thinking or doing things. I always said that the art was a counterbalance to what I was doing in business.

Are there kinds of works you wouldn’t buy? Do you have limits in terms of sex or violence?

BK No, when art is done for the right reasons, and it is uniquely done, and the artist is very truthful to what he is thinking, and he wants to communicate that in an artwork, then I don’t have a lot of limits. But it needs to be done for the right reasons. If he or she has done it only to shock, or to do something out of the ordinary because they think they can become more popular or get the conversation going, that doesn’t work. That’s why I’m doing a lot of research, because I’m trying to understand if they do it for the right reasons. If they don’t, I don’t buy it.

Are you similarly open about the work you have in your own house?

BK Yes. Very much so. There are skeletons in my home by Matthew Day Jackson. It’s eerie, but it tells the story of life and death, and as I said, when that is done for the right reasons, I don’t have a problem, because if I see it, it intrigues me, and it tells me the story about the artist, not about the skeleton. It’s not about anatomy but about the concept, and the intent of the artist.

I guess to some extent when people come to visit your exhibition, they will be forming a portrait of you through it.

BK Yes. If they look at the art, it is a very tough, social, political philosophy, and I always try to ask questions about what the world presents to me. Take Luc Tuymans. I was so intrigued about his painting called Studio, which I own, because it is all about manipulation of media. And we are living in a world where that kind of thing happens. It doesn’t really mean I agree or subscribe to their ideas fully, but you know, at least they are presenting an idea that keeps your mind working. If you look at my exhibition, it is about those artists who have a unique way of communicating. Most of the subjects interest me, but do I subscribe to the conclusion? That’s a different question.

What would you like people to take away from it?

BK You know, what I’d like them to take away is that art is not only about a nice two-dimensional picture. Art is also very much about learning, and about an educational process. People should look at an artwork, not because they think it’s ugly, or it’s beautiful, because ugly is a very subjective word. Something beautiful might be very superficial – somebody came up with an idea, made it commercial so that people buy it. That’s easy. It’s always easy to buy an artist who is clever enough to present something which is attractive, but staying truthful to the concept of their own ability and their own ideas, that’s something else. Ugly is maybe even nicer. It’s about the educational process, and helping people on their way to think differently about art. That’s what I’d like people to take away from it, that they have to think for themselves.

Do you ever find that you’ve bought a work that made complete sense at the time you bought it, and maybe five years later saying, ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’

BK Yes, there are works like that. I make mistakes. It’s all part of the learning process.

What was the first piece of art that you bought, and do you still have it?

BK I still have it, yes. It was an oceanic picture, but it’s somewhere in the guest room. I have an emotional connection with it. I don’t sell a lot of art. I try to keep those works, because it tells me about where I’m coming from; it tells me about the emotional value when I bought it, under what circumstances I bought it, so in that sense it doesn’t fit in the collection but it does fit in my story.

Do you commission much work?

BK No. I have a very big problem with the commissioning of work, because I don’t think you can push a button from an artist and expect a great work. It’s inspired by what, by you as a collector? OK, you can inspire them, but before you know it there is always this influence from the collector. There is always some kind of instruction. Inspiration’s good, but instruction... That’s why I don’t do it, I just buy it because I like it, but I hate when people say, ‘I have a nice space above my couch and I need something there’ – it doesn’t make sense. That’s nothing to do with art, that doesn’t have to do with art collecting in general. That’s not how I collect. I don’t think you get the best collection by doing that, honestly speaking.

What’s the attraction of political art?

BK Maybe it’s not to do so much with the politics, but I am a little bit rebellious, in the sense that I like artists to question the status quo. Usually people’s lives are configured in a certain way – that you have to have a job, you have to do this, you have to do that. It’s always within a structure, and that structure is basically laid upon us from society. But there are these artists who are questioning, why this, why that? I don’t subscribe to the conclusions from different artists, who are far left or far right or whatever, but I think it’s about the uniqueness, and the questioning that attracts me.

Do you think about what will happen to your collection in the future? About whether the works in it will endure?

BK I always wonder myself, about my collection, will this art really matter many years from now? How transformative is this art, really? And if it’s in a historical context, what does it do? These are some important questions, because so many people buy art without even asking themselves the simple question of whether they want to have it in their homes. Then it becomes speculative, it has nothing to do with art collecting, so if you collect for the wrong reasons, you’ll never end up with those artists that matter in the long run. I always consider that when I buy something.

How can you tell that an artwork is going to meet these expectations?

BK If I can associate a piece of artwork or a concept directly with another artist, another contemporary artist of today, I will not buy it. It needs to be unique. Of course, it can have references to other artists and artistry, but art is a revolution, it must not be a one-on-one copy, and so much of what you see today is.

Do you work with art advisers?

BK I listen to people whose opinions I respect, but I’m not going to be led by advisers, because you never know if there’s a second agenda or what is behind it. On the other hand, if you have 20 years of experience in art collecting, then at the end of the day, nobody can really advise you any more. It’s in your complex process of thinking as to what you like or what you don’t like. Nobody can say to me, ‘You need to collect this, or you need to collect that.’ I mean, I collect what I collect based on certain rules for myself, but at the end of the day, it’s your collection, it’s not the collection of your advisers.

Transforming the Known: works from the Bert Kreuk Collection was at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, from 8 June to 29 September 2013.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue

Just Now, curated by Bert Kreuk, is at Sotheby's S|2, 30 January – 4 March 2014