BIOGRAPHY PROF. KOMMERZIALRAT KARLHEINZ ESSL >>
BIOGRAPHY AGNES ESSL >>
Collecting is often defined as a passion. To me, this is just one of the many
aspects, and the surprising thing is that the emotions, motivations and feelings
involved cannot be clearly described. Basically it may be said that these strong
feelings are suffused with curiosity and interest, the discovery of new developments
in art and the deciphering of enigmatic symbols and hidden pictorial content.
This is why it was important for me and my wife to seek direct contact with
artists to gain entry through personal contact into the private sanctum of their
fantasies so as not only to appreciate the superficial aesthetics of a work of
art but also to sound out its depth.
For my wife it was particularly the work of Hermann Nitsch that was hard to
take, and it took her some time until she could accept it. The acceptance was
preceded by an intense study of his work and most of all the personal conversations
at his castle in Prinzendorf, the walk through the vineyards and the profound
exchanges that took place on these occasions. Beyond that it is simply the artwork
itself that instils enthusiasm, the aesthetic enjoyment, but also the “tough
nuts” that one must crack to reach the sweetness inside.
Agnes Essl with Maria Lassnig, 2004
Karlheinz Essl with Erwin Wurm, 2004
Since our first encounter with it in 1959 in New York, modern art has directed
and changed our lives. Business, leisure time and holidays have been strongly
affected by art ever since. It was always a matter of importance to us, for instance,
to bring the people working with us into contact with art and to give them the
opportunity to gather their own experiences.
Our travels in many countries of the world have always been determined by art.
We go to see artists in their studios, talk to curators, visit museums and galleries.
An important part of our private reading is devoted to monographs and other art-related
literature and the study of catalogues. We have personally chosen all the artwork
in the collection, some of it jointly, some of it just one of us. Although we
sometimes see things from different perspectives, the decades of shared art viewing
and discussions about art have resulted in a certain basic consensus. While we
have always made do without advisers we have of course gained ever new insights
that have affected our decisions from our meetings with important representatives
of the art world and from visits to museums of galleries. But the final decision
about whether an artist is to find a place in the collection or about which works
should be acquired is always taken by us.
In this sense the collection can be considered subjective, but it is never
random and always informed by the trained eye of the collectors. The collection
has both continuity and breaks and even some sharp edges, but that gives it shape
The collection developed from small beginnings. Initially we started out with
works on paper by Austrian artists, and only after some time, when our financial
situation had looked up considerably, could we think of acquiring larger pieces.
Later the collection was expanded to include important international representatives.
I vividly remember the moments when we visited museums and saw works by Morris
Louis, Sam Francis, Frank Stella, Alex Katz or the wonderful work by Antoni Tàpies
or Eduardo Chillida. Among the German artists we were fascinated by Gerhard Richter,
Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz and many others. Initially it seemed like an impossible
dream to own such paintings, to have them around us and to share this pleasure
with others. Only later have some of these dreams become reality.
Karlheinz Essl with Georg Baselitz, 2004
Agnes and Karlheinz Essl with Günther Förg, 2008
Dreams turning into visions
One of our visions was to have our own museum. Realisation seemed to be a long
way ahead not least owing to the sizeable financial investment such a project
requires. That we wanted “our” museum to be private and without any
interference from the state became entirely obvious to us by the time we started
to discuss a possible integration of our collection in the Museumsquartier in
A first step towards realising this vision came when we planned the new bauMax
head office building, the so-called Schömer-Haus. We started in 1987 to present
temporary exhibitions to the public in the central hall of the building which
is encircled by galleries and flooded with daylight. But this was only the beginning.
At that time a full museum with its infrastructure, scientific responsibilities
and requirements still seemed utterly utopian to us.
The positive development of our group of businesses and the social responsibility
that we were ready to assume did bring it about, however. Late in 1999 we opened
the Museum of The Essl Collection. Since that time, many exciting and groundbreaking
exhibitions have been shown there. In addition, our exhibitions are presented
in many museums the world over – from major European cities to the USA,
Mexico and India. In support of exhibitions all over the globe up to 1000 art
loans go out to museums every year.
This does not mean that my visions for the future have been exhausted. I am
dreaming of new possiblities of presenting our work and of instilling larger sections
of the public with an entusiasm for the arts. These are the tasks we shall give
increased attention to in the future.
About "Collecting as a Passion" by Prof. Karlheinz Essl, shortened
version from the preface of the catalogue Passion for Art, 2007, on the occassion
of the 35th celebration of the Essl Collection.