Remembering Stéphane Janssen. Portrait of a Collector.
In September 2020, the artworld lost a great collector of contemporary art, Stéphane Janssen. For the past 20 years, I have been fascinated by what drives collectors and why they build the collections that they do, so it was a privilege to get to know this extraordinary man. In this non-selling online-only presentation of his collection of Michael Hafftka works, we reflect on his significant contributions to the contemporary artworld.
Stéphane’s collection was defined not so much by its considerable size, comprising over 3,000 works and high-profile artists, but by his unaffected approach to collecting. He gave scant regard to how famous the artist was, nor how prestigious the gallery, nor how “investment-worthy” the piece. He was driven solely by how much he loved it. If he didn’t fall in love with it completely, he wouldn’t buy it.
Dirk and I were fortunate to share some meals with Stéphane in Brussels before Covid prevented further meetings. His knowledge of art, generosity and humility touched us both deeply. Along with Michael Hafftka, we would like to pay tribute to him – both as an exceptional collector and as a wonderful human. The Michael Hafftka paintings presented here are from the Stéphane Janssen Collection (unless otherwise noted). The artworks are not for sale.
Stéphane Janssen was born in 1936 in Paris to a life of privilege. He belonged to the Belgian Solvay dynasty, which had made its fortune firstly in soda ash, and then in chemicals. Despite this vast wealth (Stéphane recounted to me that his father never carried cash as “one didn’t do that back then”), his home life was not particularly happy. The fraught relations with his father were not helped when Stéphane, as a young man, announced that he would not remain in the family business and that he wanted to open an art gallery instead.
At the age of 16 Stéphane discovered a passion for collecting and supporting artists when he bought a small work from Oscar Dominguez’s studio. It was a passion that was to last for the rest of his life. In 1969 Stéphane opened his own gallery, although by his own admission he hated the selling side of the business. He was also a co-founder of Art Brussels, which opened in 1968. But when he realised – in his own words – that he was better at collecting art than selling it, he closed his gallery permanently in 1976, and shortly afterwards moved to America where he began to live as a gay man.
It was in the USA that Stéphane met the young ceramics artist, R. Michael Johns, who he described as “the love of my life”. Together they built a large collection, including a significant ceramics collection, until Johns’s death from HIV/AIDS in 1993 at the age of 34. It was during this period with Johns that Stéphane met and befriended the New York figurative painter, Michael Hafftka. After Johns’s death, Stéphane gifted the ceramics collection to the Arizona State University Ceramics Research Center in both their names.
Johns’s death proved to be a turning point in Janssen’s collecting. The emotional intensity with which he had collected with Johns needed to find new avenues away from the overwhelming grief he felt and so his collecting turned increasingly towards photography. Until then, much of his collection comprised painting and ceramics.
When I asked Stéphane what drove him in collecting, he said it is love. He never bought on the artist’s name alone; if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t buy it. In our various discussions about art, this profound emotional connection to a work was a recurring refrain. I never had the impression that his collecting was a hunt or competition, nor that he was driven by ego or the need to demonstrate that he was able to spend large amounts of money. For Stéphane, there had to be something about the work that caused him to fall madly in love with it, and only after that to engage his intellect.
A tour of his Brussels apartment revealed a connection with edgy works that could tend towards dark and violent material, which was surprising because he was so gentle, open and light in his manner. He called his display his “dicks and skulls” collection as most of it was, indeed, about homosexuality and death in some form. The majority of work was photography, including a selection of Spencer Tunick works that Stéphane had participated in (Tunick was another of his good artist friends), sculpture and a contemporary tapestry. Apart from the thematic similarities, one thing that united the works was that Stéphane new each of the artists well and had collected them in depth. He shared stories of the artists like he was talking about old friends.
Stéphane was one of the very few collectors I’ve met who possess a heightened sense of the person behind the work. He saw them not just as “the artist” with a creative talent, but as a unique individual embodying a multitude of strengths and vulnerabilities, and he loved them all the more for it. His deep appreciation for artists and the desire to support them lead to many enduring friendships that span the decades and continents. He was a major promoter of the CoBrA artists and knew them well. Hervé (the creator of Tintin) was a very close friend of 40 years. Other artists who Stéphane considered as good friends were Roger-Edgar Gillet, Mapplethorpe, Basquiat, Pierre Alechinsky, Stefan De Jaeger, and Mark Bradford.
Stéphane Janssen and Michael Hafftka
Stéphane’s friendship with Michael Hafftka began in 1984. Stéphane read a review of Hafftka’s exhibition at the Rosa Esman Gallery, New York. The review compared Hafftka to Ivan Albright, Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Stéphane rang Hafftka in New York from Brussels, asking to buy the painting, “Travel”, that was printed in the review. Stéphane’s decision was made solely on his gut reaction to an image printed in a newspaper. The deal done, Stéphane said that he and his partner, Michael Johns, would visit Hafftka’s studio to buy more paintings on his next trip to New York. This was to be the beginning of the couple’s deep involvement in Hafftka’s work up until Michael Johns’ death. Sometimes they would acquire work together; other times Johns bought works without Stéphane’s direct involvement. Both men had deep emotional connections to Hafftka’s work and Stéphane explained to me that it never bothered him that he was not directly involved in a few of the Hafftka acquisitions because he trusted Johns’s judgement, and he loved Hafftka’s work.
When I asked Hafftka how he would describe Stéphane as a collector, he replied “he’s invested”. By way of explanation, he recounted the following story. Shortly after Stéphane’s first studio visit, a major US collector who was building his own museum wanted to buy a large number of Hafftka’s works, however many of the paintings he selected had already been bought by Stéphane. Hafftka asked Stéphane whether he would consider letting the other collector have the works and he would replace them with other major works. Stéphane replied that he would have to meet the collector first, which he duly did. Once satisfied with the other’s intentions, Stéphane agreed to sell the paintings and buy other works by Hafftka instead. Hafftka felt that this was a generous act by Stéphane geared towards supporting his career.
Buying art was never about the financial transaction for Stéphane, but about the passion for the piece and concern for the artist. It gave him a deep sense of satisfaction to know that he was able to support Hafftka and the other artists whose work he loved. Stéphane introduced Hafftka to some of his long-time artist friends. He brought Roger-Edgar Gillet to visit Hafftka’s Brooklyn studio and he asked Belgian photographer Stefan de Jaeger to do a portrait of Hafftka. He encouraged his friends and artworld network to support Hafftka as well. In 1986, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark honoured Stéphane with an exhibition of works from his collection; Hafftka had several pieces represented and this helped bring his work to an audience outside of America.
Hafftka describes his relationship with Stéphane as very close:
We talked about everything; we shared many things. He was an ardent supporter of my work. For an artist to survive is very hard. To find that kind of support is very hard. Stéphane made it much easier. Being bought by a collector like Stéphane was very important. He went out of his way to publicly support me. I’ll be forever grateful for that. He was a very sweet man. (Video conversation between Karen Zadra and Michael Hafftka, October 2021)
Stéphane spoke to me with equal respect and fondness about Hafftka and his wife, Yonat. What became clear to me during my conversations with Stéphane was that he never doubted the quality and power of Hafftka’s work. It was a testament to Stéphane’s belief in Hafftka that he never sold off any of his work, whereas he was known to sell works by other artists once they no longer captured his heart. Stéphane had previously said to Hafftka that he would like to see his Hafftka collection go into a museum.
Over the course of their friendship Hafftka painted two portraits of Stéphane; the first work from 1987 is in the Janssen collection. This intense, textured work shows Stéphane in a bright orange shirt against a black background, his face serious and pensive. By contrast, the 2018 painting is lighter in style, with only the face and hands being fully worked up; the clothing comprises loose, gestural brushwork and the background is left as raw linen. When I asked Stéphane about the two portraits, he said that although the 1987 work wasn’t an immediate physical likeness, he appreciated the emotional intensity of it. The stark difference between the two portraits raises interesting questions about portraiture and whether a close physical resemblance is essential, or is it enough to capture an aspect of the subject’s mood or personality? Given Hafftka’s own heightened sensitivity to emotional worlds, I suspect that Stéphane’s unspoken internal state found its expression in Hafftka’s reading of the sitting.
One of Stéphane’s most charming qualities was the complete absence of any pretension. He was a man who called the late Prince Henrik of Denmark a very close, old friend. He had grown up in the upper echelons of Belgian society and had at his disposal considerable wealth but treated each person with the same respect and dignity regardless of their background. He was a staunch defender of gay rights, he abhorred discrimination in any form, and he railed against the abuse and senseless slaughter of animals. His upbringing lent him a refined and reserved manner but underneath burned a heart devoted to love and a soul ruled by passion. If Stéphane had a maxim, I expect it would be “do no harm”. The amount of good he did in the artworld could be quantified by the total of all works he acquired throughout his long life, but that would be to miss the immeasurable value of what his friendship, interest, and knowledge has meant to the numerous artists, gallerists, curators, fellow collectors and art lovers that he supported and inspired over the decades.
Our time with Stéphane was regrettably all too brief but it was long enough to realise that he touched people deeply because he was true to himself and to his heart. He gave of himself completely and openly. Every collector should aim to collect with the same earnest passion, regardless of the depth of their pockets. I imagine that even had he been poor, Stéphane’s passion for art and artists would have been as ardent and enduring. Stéphane Janssen will be dearly missed but he leaves a beautiful guiding light for those collectors large and small who wish to follow him.
- Karen Zadra, October 2021