Art Insider: Pascal de Sarthe
In conversation, Pascal de Sarthe often refers to himself as a dealer rather than a gallerist—but he’s not using the word in the strictest sense. “When I talk about dealers, I’m not just talking about the business of art, but about having a gallery and trying to help artists express themselves and push art forward,” he says.
And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Pascal has been doing for the past 40 years. Pascal and his wife, Sylvie, first founded de Sarthe Gallery in Paris in 1977, then moved the gallery to San Francisco in 1981, then uprooted it again—this time to Hong Kong—in 2011. Since then, the couple have been firm fixtures on Hong Kong’s art scene, showcasing the works of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary artists ranging from French sculptor Auguste Rodin to Mainland Chinese photographer Lin Zhipeng.
Here, Pascal recalls the moment he fell in love with the art world, weighs in on galleries becoming "luxury shops" and reveals which artist de Sarthe Gallery is showing next.
What was the first work of art that moved you?
When I was 11 years old, I started to paint and to draw. But the real moment happened for me when I was about 17 years old and in Paris and I saw a poster outside a movie theatre for the documentary Painters Painting. The poster was very abstract. I grew up in the countryside in France and even in Paris we didn’t see anything like that. The film was by Emile de Antonio and it showed interviews and studio visits with Jasper Johns, De Kooning, Rauschenberg and Barnett Newman, who had a huge influence on me at the time—I could not believe art could be like that.
At that time, films just played on loops in cinemas. I stayed after the first time it finished and watched it all over again. I watched it three times. I was fascinated. In French museums, I’d seen the classics—Impressionists and Modern masters—but nothing that radical. That was my first connection with the art I still like today.
What was the first exhibition you hosted in Hong Kong?
Zao Wou-ki in May 2011, when I opened the gallery in Central. It was amazing. There were 13 paintings in that show, and it was one masterpiece after another. I’ve been dealing Zao Wou-ki for 35 years now and I was one of the first Western dealers to bring him to Asia.
We had the opening and it was normal, it was nice, but then a few weeks later it was auction season, when all the collectors come to Hong Kong from around Asia. And I will always remember, that first day of auction season I arrived at the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and there were people waiting outside the gallery to get in. From then until 7pm, I constantly had collectors in the viewing room trying to buy works from the show. I’ve never experienced anything else like that. It was amazing—what a welcome to Asia.
What’s the most challenging exhibition you’ve ever hosted?
It was Yang Xin’s exhibition The Must-See Art Show Where You Can Find 10,000 Artists. It was one installation made up of 10,000 pink plastic balls, each about four centimetres wide. Each ball opened in two and inside was the name and email address of an unknown artiist. So people would come to the gallery, pick up a ball and then connect with that artist. It was a successful show, and the installation was purchased by an important collector, but all the staff here—me included—had sleepless nights trying to finish everything in time.
Is there an artist you don’t currently work with who you’d love to represent?
A dead artist, yes. I’m a big fan of Joan Mitchell and always have been. She’s actually very close to the Asian artists who were working in the same period. The same motions, the colours, the relation with nature. She was very interested in music, as are many of the Chinese artists of the post-war era. They have a lot of things in common.
Also, she moved to France and as a young art dealer in France I visited many of her shows at Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris. I wish I had known her, I wish that when I was a young dealer I’d have shown her at the gallery in Paris. If I could go back in time, that’s the one artist I’d really like to work with.
See also: 6 Hong Kong Artists On The Rise
What’s the best thing about the art scene in Hong Kong?
The growth of Wong Chuk Hang as an arts community. Here you have artist studios, you have artists, you have galleries, you have designers. It creates a sense of belonging. There's nowhere else like it in the city.
The other great thing that’s happening in Hong Kong is the growth of institutions. Tai Kwun is already very important, M+ opening is wonderful and the renovation of the Hong Kong Art Museum is exciting. And K11 Art Foundation is doing a great job in hosting shows and supporting young artists.
What’s the worst?
Too many art galleries are becoming luxury shops. It’s a phenomenon that has dictated everything—even the artists that galleries are showing nowadays. I really don’t like when people treat art as a commercial product, as a fashion product, as a way to belong to a club, as a social status symbol. It’s becoming fashion.
Who’s the most recent artist to join your gallery?
Andrew Luk. Because everyone goes away for the summer in Hong Kong, summers are very quiet in Hong Kong galleries. So a couple of years ago, we were looking for a summer show, I said, “why don’t we invite an artist to come to the gallery and use our space as a studio and create the work here. Then, after a month of creation, we’ll give him two weeks to show his work?”
All my team loved the idea. We started with one artist by the name of Mak Ying Tung, then the next year our director, Willem Molesworth, invited Andrew to come and do the show. After their shows, both of these artists became part of our stable.
Which exhibition are you hosting next?
We’re hosting an exhibition by Bernar Venet. He’s one of the most important artists of that generation. He lived in New York in the ‘70s—his friends were Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, all the Minimalist artists. He’s a very important part of that movement and that time.
I saw him last June and said "Bernar, we need to do something together" and he said "whatever you want." So we decided to do something during Art Basel. He's going to do a performance in the gallery where he paints directly on to the walls. And he said, "I'll do one on canvas, so you can sell it." Then we decided we'd auction it for charity. So Bernar is going to make this work on canvas during a performance at the Sotheby's cocktail reception on March 29, then the work will be sold in the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale on April 1, with all profits going to amfAR.
This is not the first time Bernar has collaborated with amfAR—he gave them a sculpture last year in France, which generated US$500,000.
Which exhibitions will you be visiting around the world in the coming year?
I’m looking forward to the Chu Teh-Chun exhibition at the National Museum of Beijing next year to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Then I will also go to the San Francisco Museum to see the Joan Mitchell exhibition. Both of those museum shows include some works that I’ve sold. And one of the paintings at the San Francisco Moma show was in my home for many years.
Who in the art world most inspires you and why?
The two young kids I work with: my son, Vincent, and Willem. My son opened our gallery in Beijing and he has a wonderful eye and is quite passionate about contemporary art and has been since he was a kid. And Willem Molesworth, who’s director of our gallery, shares that passion.
It’s really wonderful to work with those two together. These two kids, this younger generation, they want to work with young artists who are pushing the boundaries. They really want to move forward—and that’s what it’s all about.
See also: Art Insider: Mimi Chun