Ernst Beyeler died peacefully at his home in Riehen, Switzerland, on 25 February at the age of 88. His death marks the end of an era. As an art dealer, collector, mediator and museum founder, he was an inspiration to the international art world for over 60 years, in the course of which he transformed his home city of Basel into an important art centre.
In 1945 he took over an antiquarian bookshop in Basel. Under the new name of Galerie Beyeler, it became one of the world’s leading addresses for modern art. Some 300 exhibitions, all of them accompanied by carefully prepared catalogues, have been mounted there to date. Most of the major artists of the 20th century were exhibited there, and many of them were his friends. He selected works directly from Picasso’s studio, served as Dubuffet’s exclusive representative for a time, had an agreement with Kandinsky’s widow about the artist’s estate, and included Newman, Bacon, Lichtenstein and Basquiat in his exhibitions early on. With a view to establishing an Alberto Giacometti Foundation, he acquired 100 of the artist’s works from the collection of G. David Thompson in Pittsburgh and as many works by Klee, which were to form the core of the state art collection of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf. He helped to develop noted private collections and mediated numerous museum acquisitions, among them Van Gogh’s painting Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889, and Picasso’s sculpture Guitar, 1914, for MoMA. He became perhaps the most important art dealer of our time, with an unparalleled number of masterpieces going through his hands. In 1970, Beyeler co-founded Art Basel with other Basel gallerists and made it the world’s leading art fair. He organised major international outdoor sculpture exhibitions in Basel in 1980 and 1984.
Together with his wife Hildy, who died in 2008, he put together a dazzling collection of post-impressionist, classical modern and contemporary art, which was shown at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (1989), at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1993) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney (1996/1997). The Beyelers had already created a foundation for their private collection in 1982, to make the works accessible to the public and to awaken young people’s interest in art. To house it, they funded a museum designed by Renzo Piano. Since its opening in 1997, the Fondation Beyeler, located in Riehen near Basel, has attracted over 3m visitors.
The Wrapped Trees project by Christo and Jeanne Claude, 1997-98, and numerous world-class exhibitions were staged under his supervision, among them “Cézanne and Modernism”, “The Surrealist Picasso”, “Henri Matisse”, “Mark Rothko”, “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art”, “Andy Warhol”, “Ellsworth Kelly” and “Anselm Kiefer”. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Basel in 1987, named a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985 and the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1998.
Ernst Beyeler was an elegant, charismatic, dynamic man with an intense passion for art. His eye for outstanding quality is legendary. He was a citizen of the world who despite his enormous international success retained his modesty, amiability and close ties to his home city. With his passing, the art world has lost one of its most influential figures.
Ernst was one of the last of the great art dealers of the 20th century. He was instrumental in several important acquisitions at MoMA including Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889, by Van Gogh and Picasso’s Guitar, 1914. He had a sharp eye and an even sharper mind. Glenn Lowry, director of Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ernst Beyeler was a brilliant dealer whose success was founded on his sharp eye, his legendary charm and his pioneering commitment to making serious catalogues for his shows. The Fondation Beyeler set new standards, winning an international reputation for the quality of its collection and the excellence of its shows. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, London
He was unquestionably in the European tradition of the dealer-collector, much like Heinz Berggruen. With his extraordinary eye, Ernst knew when trends were changing long before others. I remember going to his gallery and there were 50 Albers on the floor. He immersed himself in art. And he was a very good businessman yet with a great abiding love for what he did. Donald Marron, collector, and MoMA president emeritus
Just over 45 years ago, I was just starting my business. I went to Basel to visit Ernst Beyeler. He had just acquired the G. David Thompson collection, and said, without hesitation, “Go over to my warehouse and pick what you want.” He would send me things that were valued at hundreds of thousands, and I didn’t have to pay him until I sold them. I’m still daunted by it. I had an incredible relationship with him. James Goodman, Manhattan dealer, former ADAA president
Ernst’s great legacy is his museum with its Picassos, Kandinskys, Mirós. Really from Manet onwards, he had the best. Today, it’s one of the most beautiful museums in the world. But his contributions surpass that museum alone. He made Basel into the great centre of culture it is today. Sir Norman Rosenthal, independent curator
We were partners in a number of works until the day he died. He was a hero to me—a giant of the 20th and 21st centuries. I so admired his connoisseurship. When the Art Institute was considering a new building, they looked at the Beyeler. Renzo is all about light and that building outside Basel reflected it. Richard Gray, Chicago and New York dealer
Interviews by Brook Mason
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ernst Beyeler'