Walter Vanhaerents with James Lee Byars’ The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994, ahead of the opening in Venice. Photo by Karel Duerinckx

‘I have pursued art to find a balance in my life’

Walter Vanhaerents speaks to Jonathan Bastable about his journey as a collector, ahead of the opening of The Death of James Lee Byars at the Venice Biennale

Many art collectors (like many artists) have some kind of false start early on in their careers. They know that they want to collect before they find their true passion — especially if they embark on collecting at a young age. Walter Vanhaerents was barely out of his teens when he began buying art — mostly tame Belgian paintings that he found in Brussels galleries.

‘When I was 19 I went into my father’s construction business,’ he says. ‘There was a bookkeeper in the firm who was an art lover, and he got me interested in local art, what I would now call “Sunday painters”. But I was keen on architecture, and would often travel to see new museums, mainly in Germany. I remember seeing eight Richters on the walls of the museum in Mönchengladbach: suddenly I discovered whole new worlds. Soon after I took my collection to a dealer and exchanged the whole lot — 35 or 40 paintings — for one work by Jack Lipschitz.’

That grandiose swap marks the starting point of the Vanhaerents Art Collection, now housed in a 1920s warehouse in Brussels’ Dansaert district, and acknowledged as one of the finest collections of contemporary art in the world. But the guiding spirit of the collection comes not from Lipschitz or any of his contemporaries, but from a later artist: Andy Warhol.

‘I tried to represent Byars’ spirit and do something of which he could say, “You do this in honour of me,”’ the collector says of The Death of James Lee Byars, his exhibition at the Venice Biennale

‘I tried to represent Byars’ spirit and do something of which he could say, “You do this in honour of me,”’ the collector says of The Death of James Lee Byars, his exhibition at the Venice Biennale

‘I was impressed by Pop Art,’ says Vanhaerents, ‘and I was a great film buff in my youth — I’d often go to the cinema three times on a Sunday. I came to Warhol through his movies. He was such an amazing artist and, I still think, the most important artist we have ever had, if you think of his influence.’

Artists who might be considered Warhol’s children are strongly represented in the collection (though Vanhaerents insists he collects the artworks, not the artists). Among the key ‘post-Warholians’, as Vanhaerents terms them, are Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami — two obsessive borrowers from the tropes of popular culture.

The home of the Vanhaerents Art Collection in Brussels

The home of the Vanhaerents Art Collection in Brussels

Then there is Bill Viola, whose long, slo-mo video installations, while very different in character from Warhol’s, echo the ponderous and hypnotic mood of pieces such as Empire, Warhol’s silent eight-hour contemplation of the Empire State Building.

The influence of Warhol is evident not only in the artists that Vanhaerents is drawn to, but also in the way he sees and assesses art. ‘You are required to look — that is the main thing I learned from cinema, to have patience. When you watch a movie such as Warhol’s Sleep, you are sitting there for hours on end. For me that is not a problem: I trained my eye and my feeling for art, so I know that it is only by long viewing that you can discover the good pieces.’

‘There’s a slowness. I like time to think things over. That’s how to spot the strongest work’ — Walter Vanhaerents

Vanhaerents feels that this carefully honed quality of attention is a rare thing on today’s art scene, a habit that gives him a competitive advantage as a collector playing the long game. ‘An artist creates perhaps 10 masterpieces in a lifetime, maybe fewer,’ he says. ‘But the people who look at art cannot concentrate on it, and so don’t see the difference between the good and the less good. The visual approach has become very nervous.’

He mentions the temptation of inexperienced collectors to ‘buy with their ears’ — that is, to rely too much on the recommendations of others or on reports of other people’s acquisitions. He talks about ‘the trick with the red dot’ — the urge, when at a show, to buy a work too hastily because they seem to be going fast. And he speaks with wry amusement about collectors who rush round art fairs like bargain hunters at the January sales. ‘When I am looking I put the work in a frame and forget the rest,’ he says. ‘There’s a slowness. I like time to think things over. That’s how to spot the strongest work.’

At the home of the collection in Brussels, Vanhaerents is experimenting with a form of presentation that mimics, in a way, his own approach. Many of the works are available to be seen in the ‘viewing depot’ — meaning essentially that visitors are invited to look at works in the warehouse stacks, or even in their packing crates.

‘It is an idea that has been in my head for a long time, to let people behind the scenes of the collection,’ says Vanhaerents — and it has the effect of abolishing the curator, of eliminating any pre-cooked narrative, and so encouraging viewers to arrive at their own unmediated judgments on individual pieces and the collection as a whole.

James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994. Gold leaf, plexiglas and Swarovski crystals. 602 x 560 x 485 cm. Vanhaerents Art Collection, acquired in 1996 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars; Marie-Puck Broodthaers

James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994. Gold leaf, plexiglas and Swarovski crystals. 602 x 560 x 485 cm. Vanhaerents Art Collection, acquired in 1996 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars; Marie-Puck Broodthaers

And the collection does not just sit in Brussels. Vanhaerents has long wanted to stage a show at the Venice Biennale and — characteristically — has taken his time to get it just right. The piece now on show in Venice is The Death of James Lee Byars, first staged at the Brussels Galerie des Beaux-Arts in 1994.

Back then the artist himself, wearing a trademark gold suit, lay like a corpse on the floor in a gold-lined box-like room. He was almost invisible, a motionless gilded chameleon. Now that the figure of the artist has been replaced by a golden sarcophagus (Byars died in 1997) the performance has become an installation, while the original memento mori  has been transformed into a kind of requiem.

On display at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione in Venice James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars;  Zad Moultaka, Vocal Shadows, 2019. 16 loudspeakers on pedestals, stereo audio in loop (audio cycles of 8 to 12 minutes) overall dimensions variable. In collaboration with IRCAM — Centre Pompidou. Commissioned by the

On display at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione in Venice: James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars; Zad Moultaka, Vocal Shadows, 2019. 16 loudspeakers on pedestals, stereo audio in loop (audio cycles of 8 to 12 minutes) overall dimensions variable. In collaboration with IRCAM — Centre Pompidou. Commissioned by the Vanhaerents Art Collection

This elegiac piece sits entirely naturally in the baroque Venetian Church of the Visitation. Vanhaerents himself, with his experience in building, was deeply involved in the construction of the golden room.  ‘I tried to represent Byars’ spirit and do something of which he could say, “You do this in honour of me,”’ he explains.

‘For me Venice is the city of my dreams, but I want a long time for preparation. I don’t want to hurry,’ admits Vanhaerents. ‘I know James Lee Byars’ work so well, it has been part of the collection for over 20 years. He was in Venice for a long time, of course, and he admired the city. There was a big connection.’

James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars

(Detail) James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars. Courtesy Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels

(Detail) James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994 © Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars. Courtesy Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels

As a work of art The Death of James Lee Byars  is still and thoughtful, like the collector himself. ‘I have pursued art to find a balance in my life, a balance between reason and sentiment,’ he says. ‘I believe the function of the art is to develop my feminine side, because there is nothing masculine in art for me. In sophrological terms, the masculine is a breath from the head, while art is a breath from the gut. I want art to bring the body and the mind into harmony.’

The Vanhaerents Art Collection is at Rue Anneessens 29, 1000 Brussels. The Death of James Lee Byars, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione, Venice, Tues-Sun until 24 November, 2019