The battle of the square metres

Anselm Kiefer's 'Himmelsschlucht' (2011-12)

The Austrian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac wants, more than anything, to make his artists happy. Standing in his vast new space designed specially for monumental contemporary works, located in Pantin in north-east Paris, Ropac enthusiastically explains how his new gallery “will give artists the opportunity to realise their vision without the usual restrictions of space”.

The former heating systems factory has been transformed into a staggering new cathedral of art. With a total site of 4,700 sq m, its four adjoining exhibition halls, each about 36m long, paradoxically feel both vast and intimate.

Filling the space with sculptures, paintings and collages by the German artist Anselm Kiefer before the launch date of October 14 seems daunting (the works, inspired by a medieval figure of Jewish mythology, will be priced between €400,000 and €1m; the Pantin space is reportedly costing Ropac about €10m).

But Ropac, an engaging and erudite figure, seems to thrive on the arduous task at hand. “You have to create the market for monumental works but that gives me a kick. Today you are defined by your square-footage,” says the dealer, who has a strong enough stable of artists – both blue-chip and emerging – to make the Pantin venue a prominent European centre for modern and contemporary art.

But will it be possible consistently to source enough exceptional art for this new arena? “It will be a constant challenge to fill the space but there are enough good artists out there,” Ropac says. Convertible walls can be added while group shows are in the pipeline. Performance pieces by leading artists such as Terence Koh and Erwin Wurm are planned for a separate venue on the Pantin site dedicated to performance art, a canny move as the genre gains momentum through initiatives such as The Tanks at Tate Modern.

Ropac has pulled off a coup by opening the performance centre with a series of works related to Joseph Beuys’s pivotal performance of 1969, “Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus”. As we chat, news comes through that a horse will be used during the performance, mimicking the original work when Beuys appeared in darkness draped in a fur coat alongside the animal. Vitrines featured in the show, including double object pieces such as “2 Samurai Swords” (1983), are priced between €500,000 and €1m.

Over in Ropac’s central gallery in the Marais district, which launched in 1990, UK curator Norman Rosenthal will organise a show dedicated to Beuys’s hugely significant “Stag Monuments” (1982), comprising the original constituents made of iron, plaster, wood and stone. Both exhibitions are momentous because, as Ropac acknowledges, “all the best Beuys material has gone”, and Beuys was a towering figure in Ropac’s life and career. After seeing Beuys’s “Wet Cloth” piece at a Viennese museum in the early 1980s he wrote to Beuys and ended up in Berlin assisting on the “Stag Monuments” piece as an intern.

This connection with artists underscores his whole working life, he reiterates. In the 1980s he visited the US to see how the gallery system there nurtured art historical titans such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988, gave the budding gallerist a selection of drawings. “I asked Basquiat why he trusted me. He said: ‘Because Andy sent you.’” Ropac eventually returned the works after failing to sell them at $300 each (the pieces by the blue-chip Brooklyn-born graffiti artist would now be worth millions) but Warhol, Basquiat and Keith Haring then formed the backbone of his gallery programme in the 1980s.

These days Ropac, who does not sign contracts with his artists, still takes the lead from them, explaining how a show of gargantuan works by Antony Gormley held at the Marais gallery in 2010 prompted him to seek out alternative venues.

“We installed, with difficulty, sculptures weighing up to four tons: it was a drama. It dawned on me that if I was forced to limit the vision of my artists so dramatically we had to find a space to accommodate them. You should always push your artists so they give you their best.”

Joseph Beuys's 'Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus' (1985)

Ropac is on the tail-end of a trend for bigger and bigger art that has dominated the art world in the past decade. As the euro implodes and global economies shrink, the art world keeps inflating and expanding, from the top-end prices to burgeoning commercial gallery empires.

When heavyweight US dealer Larry Gagosian announced plans to launch a 1,650 sq m gallery in the northern district of Le Bourget, his second space in Paris, on October 18, his decision also to fill it with works by Anselm Kiefer set tongues wagging across the art world, especially as both galleries say they are showing new pieces by the artist. Ropac was reported to be furious when he heard the news but now he just smiles, adding: “[The Gagosian space] is a totally different concept. Anyway, it’s all good for Paris.”

Certainly this should all prove a fillip for Paris’s underwhelming contemporary art scene, which trails behind centres such as London and Berlin both critically and commercially. Other recent developments, such as the reopening of the revamped Palais de Tokyo on the banks of the Seine, have also boosted the city’s profile. Meanwhile, the French company SCI R4, a subsidiary of the Swiss conglomerate Euroasia, plans to turn the Ile Seguin island in the Seine into a “living arts community” with artists’ studios and a 1,200 sq m space for art fairs.

In conclusion, I ask what the older Ropac would say to his younger self, when launching his dealership in Salzburg in 1983. “Always try to do things better; growth and expansion is not the only priority,” came the answer. “And try to find out what makes artists happy.”

‘Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen’ (The Unborn), October 14 to January 27 2013

Upcoming fairs: highlights of the season

Pavilion of Art & Design London

October 11-14, Shoreditch, LondonOctober 10-14, Berkeley Square, London

A fixture in the decorative arts calendar, PAD 2012 draws 60 exhibitors from Europe, Asia and North America into an eclectic boutique display in Berkeley Square.

Moniker Art Fair

October 11-14, Shoreditch, London

A short commute from the Frieze fairs, Moniker showcases London’s urban art niche. This year’s highlights include Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s manipulations of ancient wall surfaces and Mark McClure’s Rauschenberg-inspired street sculpture.

Sunday Fair

October 11-14, Ambika P3, London

Cutting-edge international galleries can make their debuts at this underground fair. This October Milan’s Fluxia presents Luca Francesconi’s delicate copper arrangements and Rolf Nowotny’s suggestive geometric constructions represent Berlin’s Christian Andersen Gallery.

Multiplied Art Fair

October 12-15, Christie’s, London

Multiplied is the only UK fair devoted to contemporary art in editions for a broad spectrum of budgets. Exhibitors include Whitechapel Gallery, which is selling Rachel Whiteread’s “Gold Leaf”.

FIAC Paris

October 18-21, Grand Palais, Paris

France’s leading contemporary fair boasts 180 international contributors, this year presenting its newest additions from Denmark, Poland, Romania and the UAE.

Art Verona

October 18-22, Verona Fiere

In addition to its impressive collection of Italian works for sale, Art Verona promises a large photography show and networking exercises for young arts professionals.

Kunst-Messe München

October 18-28, Postal Palace, Munich

The 57th of its kind and Germany’s oldest art fair, the encyclopedic Kunst-Messe München sells art from classical to postmodern periods in the enormous Postal Palace.

Affordable Art Fair

October 25-28, Battersea Park, London

Hosting more than 100 exhibitors from leading contemporary galleries, The Affordable Art Fair is known for its low-key atmosphere, which suits both first-time and experienced buyers.

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