Were you exposed to art while growing up?
I have had the privilege of being the daughter of artist Vic Gentils (1919-1997) and of having experienced his artist career and life up close. The sixties in particular were vibrant and it was the period that he became internationally known. Collectors and curators found his studio from 1962. The first museum exhibitions soon followed, including the Kröller-Müller Museum, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Kunsthalle Basel, Palais de Beaux Arts Brussels, Tel Aviv Museum, Boymans van Beuningen and the Sao Paulo and Venice Biennales).
The conversations at home with artist friends were fascinating and I listened with great interest. By the time I did my A-levels (around 1968) I gave my fellow students a guided tour of the then controversial "Contrasts" exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where work by my father and his peers was shown. That turned out to be a pivotal moment: I discovered that people could listen fascinated to what I had to say about those works of art – after all, everything I told I knew firsthand.
How did you come into contact with the art world?
What appealed to me from the start was the international aspect of the art movements of that time, and the accompanying enthusiasm of artists, collectors and curators who visited us and the realization of being part of these new art forms and movements. Between 1962-1964 I went to school in Amsterdam, where at the time the Stedelijk Museum staged the breath-taking "Nul", "Zero" and "American Pop Art" exhibitions. At the time I was aged 12 to 14 and these exhibitions not only introduced me to the revolutionary nature of art, but also its beauty. I realized that that was my language and what I wanted to do in my life, not as an artist but as a curator.
What was your first job at a gallery? Or did you immediately start a gallery yourself?
After working as a curator at CC Turnhout for a while, and then at ICC in Antwerp, I realized that I had to stand on my own two feet. Following the example of G58 Hessenhuis (which I had experienced as an eight-year-old "daughter of"), I wanted to create a space myself to show the young artists of my generation. I did this in the years 1981–1984 with my then boyfriend, in a huge harbour warehouse in the old port of Antwerp, called Montevideo. It also dawned on me that the next step - establishing a gallery for contemporary art - was the obvious consequence. Selling artworks was the element that was missing, and I also learned from my father, who managed the business side together with my mother very well. So, I did not become an apprentice at another gallery, but immediately jumped into the deep with an exhibition by Michelangelo Pistoletto and Leo Copers in 1986.
At the time, there weren’t many galleries in Antwerp, except for the gallery of Micheline Szwajcer (two rooms in the Venusstraat) and gallery 121 (Emmy Tob & Monique Perlstein). By that time Wide White Space was defunct. Frank Demaegd (Zeno X) also started then, opposite the Royal Museum in Antwerp.
I started running a gallery in a large mansion that my father had given to me, showing artists I had met during the Montevideo period. In those early years I showed work by Jacques Vieille, Philippe Van Snick, Luc Deleu, Filip Francis and Guy Rombouts. Through my contacts through Jacques Vieille, I also invited the French artists Paul Armand Gette and Cecil Bart.
The first and second floors of my house - 1900s mansions typically feature large rooms with high ceilings, I might call them almost palatial halls - lend themselves well to large installations or large format paintings by Wesley Meuris, Marie Cloquet, Filip Francis, Stephen Willats and the Dutch artists Charlotte Schleiffert and Gerard Polhuis. Commercially this was not immediately profitable, but it was very much ahead of time and also an exciting thing to do; they were actually museum exhibitions. I quit the gallery from 1992 to 1994 to dedicate my time to publishing a comprehensive monograph about my father, which was published by Lannoo in 1994. That also gave me the opportunity to start working with a whole new generation of artists, such as Wesley Meuris, Kris Vleeschouwer, Kati Heck, Cindy Wright, Herman Van Ingelgem, Marc Rossignol, Andrew Webb and David Claerbout. In addition, beautiful exhibitions were created with Guy Rombouts, with whom I still work, and with Guillaume Bijl, around 2002. Around 2014, the exciting collaboration with Marie Cloquet and Rik Moens also started.
I also regularly introduce budding artists, whose very first works testify to a very own vision: I will also present Winnie Claessens at Art Rotterdam 2021. Most of the exhibited artists live in Belgium. Travelling the world and going to major international fairs was not feasible for me, although I have repeatedly participated in ARCO Madrid and Art Cologne. Moreover, Belgium has always been a rich soil for great idiosyncratic talents, which has created a very unique Belgian art history that is highly appreciated internationally: (Rops, Ensor, Magritte, Broodthaers, Vercruyssen and so many more). More than elsewhere, influences from Dadaism, Surrealism and Fluxus run like a thread through the generations of Belgian artists: there has always been a genuine international exchange with, for example, the Italian Futurists and Dadaists in the early 20th century, but also with the Dutch De Stijl.
Language and linguistic research, consciously or unconsciously, play an important role in Belgian visual art: because we have a very specific attitude to language due to the bilingual situation in our country, language has played an important role in the oeuvre of artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Walter Swennen, Anne Mie Van Kerckhoven, Jacqueline Mesmaeker, Guy Rombouts, Philippe Vandenberg, Marc Rossignol (and so on).
Walter Swennen is the first artist to point this out to me by telling about his bilingual youth. Indeed, I think that the combination of the written word with the image is the backbone of the work of many Belgian artists. All these issues must have left traces in the contemporary discourse. As I was dissatisfaction with the Flemish and Walloon official art situation, I organized the "The first chauvinist", in the Montevideo warehouses, in 1984. That was unique at the time.
How would you describe your gallery’s profile?
I present myself as a "promotional gallery", as opposed to a commercial gallery, the so-called art dealers. This is reflected in the choice of artists I work with and the kind of collaborations that are closer and more personal and go beyond the mere sales aspect. True to my ideas and my education, I have shown and still show artists who are looking for a new and idiosyncratic language. This is often spatial work. I think there is a difference between the occupation of painter and conceptual artists. Although I have represented the painter (and sculptor) Marc Vanderleenen for many years, I am looking for artists who work on the cutting edge and who often realize their ideas spatially.
Commercially, my gallery has not always been a great financial success. And if it were, the artists in question moved to a gallery with a more financial charisma, while other artists felt that they no longer needed a gallery. I think that's a story that every gallery – from small to world famous - experiences. However, it encourages me to engage with new people, whose oeuvre I believe will contribute to the richness of the human mind, just as it happens in science.
What part of being a gallery owner do you like most?
What I find most fascinating about my trade is following the evolution of an artist, his journey of thought that culminates in interesting breath-taking works, and then exhibiting them in thoughtful exhibitions.
Knowing that the world of the "big" galleries is tough, this may sound very naïve, but I prefer to keep a fresh and open-minded look, which is close to my childhood experiences. I also manage the estate of the British artist Andrew Webb, deceased in 2019, who was the life partner of Jon Thompson (1936-2016). The meeting and collaboration with Andrew and Jon was very poignant and I still can't believe they are gone.
The collaboration, however, continues beyond death and I find a constant conversation in the artist books Andrew Webb left behind. I hope that the M HKA will soon propose a new date to show a small overview of his oeuvre to the public.
Are there any galleries at home or abroad with which you feel an affinity?
In Belgium I feel related to the choice of the gallery of Nadja Vilenne and Jean-Michel Botquin, in Liège. Just like her, I register in Belgium's very own art history.
In the Netherlands, I have always had a good relationship with Marianne van Tilborg from Lumen Travo. We started the gallery at about the same time and I really appreciate her and her companion Aton. The bond between Amsterdam and Antwerp was also much closer in the early nineties than it is today.
In an ideal world, which artist would you most like to represent?
There are a lot of artists I would like to work with, but what I think about so quickly now is Raymond Pettibon, but I have to discuss that with Zwirner ... I love his rebellious nature and he is still alive, which cannot be said of Philip Guston -whom I also greatly admire- who passed away a long time ago and.
I am not actually looking for new artists, because there has to be a click and a collaboration is more than just a commercial representation. The collaborations actually come my way and the existing ones already consume a lot of my time.
What has changed in the art world since you took your first steps?
These days there are many more galleries: every dog donning a hat (Antwerp saying) is getting started, but many galleries are also disappearing. The fact that there are now more galleries is good in itself, young artists can show their work, but whether that goes beyond the proverbial church tower is still the question.
When I started the gallery, the openings were very busy, and they were also frequented by people from abroad. There were national and international art magazines that wrote good articles about exhibitions and artists. Gallerists from New York attended the exhibitions and our artists were invited there. It was a period of enthusiasm, we just started without asking too many questions whether it was commercially viable.
These days it is very calm in the gallery. It’s my impression that people are no longer looking for revealing artists. However, my experience is that interests in new art forms come and go in waves, perhaps also depending on economic and social world conditions. The great cultural explosion in the 1960s was actually the result of the Second World War, and we may now too have to go through dark periods in which completely new forms of art arise.
When I started the gallery in 1986, Christine Brachot of the Isy Brachot gallery, a major gallery in Brussels at the time, advised me to participate in art fairs. I took this advice to heart and from early on I took part as often as possible in Art Brussels, Arco Madrid and the Kunstrai in Amsterdam.
Now the number of art fairs worldwide has increased to such an extent that collectors and ordinary art enthusiasts now go to art fairs to discover artists and much less visit galleries. That is a shame, because the artist continues to work diligently in the studio on a performance of new work, and the presentation in the gallery is essential to go deeper into the evolution. Fortunately, there is also a new generation of passionate curators who visit us and invite the artists for solo and group exhibitions here and there.
Time will tell, appreciation continues with waves, even when the artist has passed away. Every now and then, I get asked whether the purchase of a particular work of art is a good investment. I always answer, "Yes, because I say so."
What / who do you collect yourself?
Before my children came into my life (twins, born in 1991), I bought a work from the artist I exhibited: Annemie Van Kerckhoven, Leo Copers, Luc Deleu, Philip Van Snick, Filip Francis, Ria Pacquée, Guy Van Bossche, Walter Swennen. Some artists sometimes give me a work out of appreciation: for example, I received a very beautiful work from Klaas Kloosterboer, an artist that I very much appreciate. Purchases are now more sporadic, but I bought work by Herman Van Ingelgem, Walter Swennen, Marc Rossignol, Marc Vanderleenen.
Has the pandemic influenced your thinking about the art world?
Many galleries try to sell work online, as well as conducting zoom sessions about their exhibitions. I'm not very good at that, because I think an exhibition of artworks and a lecture should preferably be a live event. The Corona lockdown - and the limitations resulting from it - has brought about changes in my exhibition strategy for myself. I only want to continue with artists who are essential to me and who create or have created a rich and well thought-out oeuvre.
Artists spend their entire lives developing a new visual language, just as scientists spend their lives developing a new language to describe the behavior of minuscule quantum particles.
Due to the pandemic, my exhibitions run for a longer period of time, so interested people find the time to come and see. Until the first lock down I was really in a kind of rat race: art fairs, exhibitions that followed in quick succession, making a museum presentation of our late artist Andrew Webb... Now, we can delve deeper into the oeuvre of the exhibiting artists, by visiting the artist’s studio more regularly and taking the time to understand the work.
An artist works an average of two years on a new evolution in his work, an exhibition of four weeks is really too short to give anyone the opportunity to come and see the exhibition.
I work more and more with my son Orlando, who also takes care of the website, now certainly an important tool to reach the public. Yet what we do as a gallerist - forming a bridge between the public and the artist - is a very important facet: we miss the crowds at the art fairs, the preparations and the discussions with the fair organizers, the consultation with the artists about which works we are going to present, the festive openings in the gallery to show the latest evolution of an artist to the public, the conversations with the gallery visitors, the showing of young promising artists, in short, the enthusiasm that is shared with the public. Still, there will be less travel, but I was forced not to do that much anyway.
It is time for the period of reflection to change into a period of participation, without having to agree on a time slot. Long live art! Let's get back to it!
Bekijk hier de kunstenaars vertegenwoordigd door Annie Gentils Gallery