My Big Art Adventure With Stephane Janssen

My Big Art Adventure With Stephane Janssen:

by Kim Nicolini

Spencer Tunick, ‘Dusseldorf 5 (Museum Kunst Palast)’, 2006
Stephane is the bearded guy in the middle.
He is also the mountain in the painting in the background.

“Last January, I saw the best exhibit I’ve ever seen at the Center for Creative Photography — Oh l’amour: Contemporary Photography from the Stephane Janssen Collection. The collection of work on exhibit was so amazing that I was compelled to write a review of it which appeared in Miami Art Exchange. A few months later, I was contacted by the art collector Stephane Janssen because he had read my review and wanted to speak to me. I wrote about our conversation here. Since that conversation so many months ago, Stephane and I have been in regular communication via email. I like to think of him as a friend even though up to a couple of weeks ago, we never met in person.

It turns out that Stephane has a house in Northern Scottsdale, Arizona where he spends a few months each year, and where he keeps many pieces from his vast art collection. In fact, Stephane had the house custom built specifically to be the perfect place for his art collection to reside. The house has been on the market for quite some time. Stephane sent me a video of the home that is for sale through Christie’s Great Estates. It is truly spectacular, and I have to admit that I was pretty tickled to see the video. I’m not going to kid you. It’s not like I’ve ever known anyone selling a home through Christie’s Great Estates before, so, yes, I was impressed! We agreed that if the house didn’t sell by the time Stephane came to Arizona in November that I would visit him there and get to see his Fabulous Art Chateau.

Guess what? November came, and the house still hadn’t sold, and Stephane was coming to Arizona. It was late November when I got the phone call. I had my daughter in the car, and we were driving up to Phoenix when my cell phone rang. It was Stephane. I was so happy to hear his voice on the phone. I thought he was calling to make arrangements for me to come visit him. But it turns out that he was calling with something else in mind. The previous day, I had an unfortunate thing happen where I left a gift I bought for my daughter in a parking lot and lost it. I decided to have an ‘Emergency Art Sale’ to recoup the money so I could replace the gift. It turns out that Stephane was calling to help me with my cause. He wanted to buy some of my collages! I understand that Stephane was doing it out of the goodness of his heart (and for the record, Stephane has an incredibly good heart), but I can’t say that I wasn’t excited that a couple of my collages would reside in the Stephane Janssen Collection.

We decided which collages he wanted, and I made arrangements for a day to visit him at his house and bring my collages with me. I was so excited about so many things. I was finally going to meet my friend Stephane in person. I was going to visit his house and see many pieces from his art collection in their ‘home.’ And I was going to deliver two of my collages.

As the time to visit Stephane drew closer, I found myself growing more and more anxious. I wasn’t anxious about meeting Stephane, visiting his home, and seeing his art collection. I was anxious about my collages and what he would think of them. I mean, here is a man who travels the globe collecting art, whose collection includes canonized artists whose pieces have sold for millions of dollars. He goes to the Venice Biennale and all the major European art shows, and here I was delivering a couple of lowly collages!

Finally, the day came. Friday, November 20. Stephane and I originally were going to meet the previous Friday, but when we realized that the previous Friday was Friday the 13th, we both said, ‘No way.’ It turns out that both Stephane and I are terribly superstitious. In fact, when we talked about how he couldn’t have visitors and I couldn’t possibly travel on Friday the 13th (it’s a 2 hour drive from my house to Stephane’s), I explained to Stephane some of my ridiculous obsessive superstitions, namely with my horror at seeing a hat on the bed. DON’T LEAVE A HAT ON THE BED! Stephane never heard of that one before, so I recommended that he watch Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy to confirm the kind of bad luck that leaving a hat on the bed can bring down on a person. I was so happy when that movie came out, so I could tell all the naysayers out there, ‘Look, I told you so!’ I was also very happy to learn about Stephane’s superstitious nature, so I know I have a comrade in my irrational beliefs.

I digress. The day came, and it was finally time for me to get out the collages to bring them to Stephane. I was so anxious that I refused to get out the collages and look at them before I went to see him because I was afraid that seeing them would make me even more anxious. I pulled the collages out of their file and looked at them closely. I felt a little relief and started breathing a little easier. I decided that the collages really are beauties, and I was pleased to recognize what in them would appeal to Stephane. Needless to say, Stephane has a meticulous eye and very specific taste, and I could really see how my collages would fit in his collection. This was a good thing, but still I was anxious.

How did I transport the collages? I shoved them in the back of the car between two of Bean’s felt boards. No special packing. No bubble wrap. No wooden crate. Just two collages sandwiched between a couple of my daughter’s toys. Silly me.

It was time to head to Phoenix. Stephane had faxed me a map which I put in my bag, but I hadn’t bothered to study the map in advance, thinking it shouldn’t be too hard to find the place. But then I looked at the map and I had a bit of a panic thinking I wasn’t sure where I was going. So I asked a friend to translate the directions for me. My friend got out his Blackberry (they are good for something!) and plugged in the address. He then announced that there was no such address. He then pulled up some kind of aerial view of where the house was located, and he told me that there is no house there. In other words, he got all kinds of alarmist on me and was totally freaking me out. He finally found the house in the aerial view even though the address supposedly did not exist, and then he told me how ‘tricky the roads are up there’ and how there was a very likely chance that I would get lost, and how I needed to be careful. Great. This guy had me thinking I was traveling into the Twilight Zone. Not to mention that by the time I got up there, it was night and my car was low on gas and there wasn’t a gas station in sight. Nothing like driving on dark desert roads in the Twilight Zone at night with an empty gas tank!

As it turns out, there was nothing to be alarmed about. The exit for the road was clearly marked, and all I had to do was drive about fourteen miles on one straight well-paved road until it ended, and then find the gate to the road that would take me to Stephane’s place.

Stephane with the Viola Frey Welcome Committee

I found the gate, but there was only problem. It was closed and locked, and there was no one in sight. I stepped out of the car to get a closer look. The dark desert lurked about me. I looked at the gizmo that asked me to punch in the code, and I had no idea what to do. I noticed a car idling on the side of the road. (Great! The Serial Killer of the Twilight Zone!) But then I heard a voice behind me. ‘Kim?’ I turned around, and there was Stephane in his car. He came down to meet me at the gate! At first I felt rotten, like he’d been waiting for hours in the dark desert for my Lame And Late Tucson Buttocks to arrive. I was delayed by about 45 minutes due to numerous Mommy Demands such as finding my kid’s lost sweater at school. But as it turns out, Stephane was only waiting five minutes. Phew.

Stephane opened the gate, and I followed him to his place. We wound our way up a dark desert road. We turned a bend, and I spotted an enormous towering sculpture glowing on a hilltop like a beacon in the night. The sculpture radiated like some kind of otherworldly presence, like Stonehenge From Mars! It looked utterly fantastic, like the night sky was its museum and it was thrusting its beauty to the stars. Behind the sculpture, I could see the glowing lights of a sprawling estate glimmering like an oasis. All else on the horizon and in the hills was dark. I had no doubt that was Stephane’s house and his sculpture. I felt a thrill of awe and excitement as I wound my way up the hill and closer to the lights, but mostly I just soaked in the beauty. It turns out that the sculpture is Alquin’s ‘Goliath,’ and it is 23 feet tall!

Alquin, ‘Goliath’, 1989
Carved Iroko wood washed with lime
275 1/2’ x 86 3/4’ x 67’

The only time I could get up to Stephane’s was after work. I knew it would be dark when I got there. I was worried that, by going at night, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the art or the home in the clear light of day. I had nothing to be disappointed about. As we wound up the drive to Stephane’s house, I could see that he made sure his art collection and his home looked as spectacular by day as by night. As I pulled into the drive, an enormous sculpture of an owl greeted me. With its majestic 23 foot wingspan lit up, the owl looked like it would take flight at any moment, its mammoth wings pounding the night sky. As I parked my car, Stephane’s Welcome Committee greeted me — two gloriously tall and colorful Viola Frey statues. Beautiful.

Ilan Averbuch, ‘Lilith’, 1994
Stone, railroad ties, lead, bolts
10’ high x 23’ wide x 16

I parked the car and opened the back to get out the collages. Stephane stood next to me as a rooted around through my daughter’s lunch box, her school backpack, a variety of baseballs, toys, newspapers, books, blankets and general junk. I pulled out the collages from between the felt boards and sheepishly held them to my side face down. As I followed Stephane into the house, I told him, ‘I absolutely love the owl sculpture!’ Stephane told me how much he loves owls, and I said, ‘I love owls too, even though one killed my cat.’ Owls are incredibly majestic and magical creatures.

We entered through the garage and into a laundry room, which somehow put me at ease, I mean the fact that the house had a laundry room, a very basic thing. Stephane took me into a little bathroom off the laundry room, and the very first piece of art he showed me was the artist’s sketch for the owl sculpture. The sketch is so beautiful in its own right. Stephane explained that he saw a sculpture of a bull that the artist made, and that he wanted the artist to create an owl for him. Averbuch was reluctant, but he did make this amazing creature. I told Stephane that I’m glad he had an owl made because I much prefer an owl to a bull. He said that he does too.

Ilan Averbuch,‘Lilith’, 1993
Mixed media on paper

Stephane then walked me into the kitchen. I plopped my collages down on the kitchen counter, and I left them there, relieved when Stephane didn’t pick them up or look at them. He made me a superior cup of coffee with his nifty little espresso maker, and then he proceeded to lead me a private tour of his massive 12,000 square foot home with its mind-boggling collection of art.

Every single room of this house is packed with Stephane’s art collection, and every piece of the collection has a story to go with it. What became clear in listening to Stephane talk about his art collection is that this man loves art. Art is the heart and love of his life. He doesn’t collect art for financial investments (though certainly he has had pieces that have paid off). He collects art because he loves it. He knows what he thinks is beautiful, and he appreciates its beauty. This is one of the things that makes Stephane so remarkable. Numerous times during my visit, Stephane mourned the Basquiats that used to hang in his home and that he had to sell out of financial need. It was clear that his love for Basquiat’s art is much greater than their economic value, and that he misses them like he’d miss a part of himself that is gone. Economics are not the motivation behind Stephane’s art collection. They just make collecting more of what he loves possible.

Stephane in front of an R.E. Gillet in his dining room

When I asked Stephane what his favorite piece in his home is, he showed me an oil painting, ‘Le règne végètal’ by R.E. Gillet. When I asked Stephane why this painting is his favorite, he responded: ‘I can’t explain why…..I fell in love with it in 1955……still love it today……I can’t analyze love….don’t forget I am not intellectual, I am emotional.’ And this is exactly what makes Stephane so beautiful, that he possesses such a deep love for art, and that his love comes first. As it turns out, Stephane likes Gillet’s work so much that he owns 127 oils and 82 works on paper. Stephane told me that Gillet’s artwork is not valued by the art market, but it is valued by Stephane so he collects it. What I love about Stephane is how much he loves art for the sake of loving art. It’s not about the investment. It’s about aesthetic appreciation and love. Stephane collects what he loves not necessarily what the market loves, though the market certainly played a role in some of his sales.

R.E. Gillet, ‘Le règne végétal’,1953
Oil on panel

The Gillets really are beautiful to see in person. Gillet is friends with Zoran Mušič (who I wrote about briefly here). Seeing the two artists’ work in person, it is interesting how they both evoke a similar feeling while using very different painting styles. While Gillet lays the paint on thick, emphasizing the medium with texture and depth, Mušič applies paint with a ghostlike thin transparency. The fact that Stephane likes both of these artists so much certainly is a testament to his emotional response to art, a response for which I have the greatest respect.

Zoran Mušič from ‘We are not the Last ’
(one of Stephane’s recent acquisitions)

Stephane spent nearly two hours leading me through his house, sharing his art and sharing his stories. The walls are covered with paintings, photographs and mixed media. Sculptures reside on shelves, tables, the floor, and pedestals. One room had a display of sterling silver belts and buckles. Another wall contains a display of Kachina dolls. In one room, an entire wall is filled with shelves and shelves of gorgeous ceramics, including pieces by the love of Stephane’s life Michael Johns who died of AIDS in 1993. In the ceramic room, an enormous Robert Arneson sculpture of Jackson Pollock stands sentinel. I was excited to see an Arneson piece that isn’t a self-portrait. Pollock’s mouth is stuffed with his demons as if he is eating a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Hence, the title ‘J and Jung’. Very cool.

Robert Arneson, ‘J & Jung’, 1988
Glazed ceramic, carved wood base

Every piece of art in Stephane’s collection has a story to go with it. Stephane remembers exactly when and where he got each piece. Many of the pieces in the house are very personal because he got them with Michael, so seeing the work is infused with the intimate poignancy and emotion of Michael and Stephane’s love for each other and compounds with the existing emotion of the art to make it really something incredibly moving. Numerous times throughout my ‘tour,’ I was nearly moved to tears by how much these pieces of art mean to Stephane, the personal weight that is contained in them. For example, seeing the Stefan de Jaeger portrait of Michael hanging in Stephane’s house really touched my heart, especially knowing that Stephane chooses to hang the picture sideways because he prefers the way it looks (‘since Michael was lying down’). Seeing all the details in person, the little pieces of Michael and the multitudes of reflections is like seeing a living breathing thing, a ghost that’s alive, or like breaking the space time continuum and being in two places at once — 1986 when Michael was alive and here in 2009 looking at this piece of art capturing Michael. Quite beautiful.

Stefan De Jaeger, Portrait of Michael in Paris, 1986

Stephane is quite an entertaining storyteller. One of my favorite stories involves a print hanging in one of his bathrooms. Since Stephane’s house is packed to the rafters with original art in every single room, I was surprised to see what was obviously a print hanging in one of the bathrooms. I didn’t say anything even though I noted how out of place the print seems. The print is of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Young Harlequin and Acrobat’ (1905). I didn’t have to stay curious for very long because Stephane pointed to the print and said, ‘I have a story to go with this.’ He then told me the story of how his mother and father traveled to Bern, Switzerland in 1937 at the time when the Nazis were purging all the ‘Degenerate Art.’ They found this painting that one of the museums was purging and bought it for $18,000 (which was a substantial sum back in 1937). Stephane’s parents brought the painting back to Belgium, and his grandfather asked, ‘Why would you pay $18,000 for a painting of poor people?’ Well as it turns out, many years later, Stephane and his stepmother decided to sell the Picasso painting. It sold for 40 MILLION DOLLARS. Not bad for a painting of poor people. Given my fascination with and appreciation for Degenerate Art, this was my favorite story.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Young Harlequin and Acrobat’ (1905)

In the same room with the ceramics, Stephane has a large wooden table full of bronzes from the 18th, 19th and 20th century. Stephane pointed to two sculptures of young children and told me a Texas Story to go with them. Apparently he was at a social gathering in Texas, and the woman who was organizing it was quite the unpleasant matriarch, to put it nicely. In her garden, Stephane noticed that she had replicas of the two original sculptures that Stephane has in his house. He asked the woman if she knew that her sculptures were fakes, and she promptly kicked him out of her house. Too funny. I noted that the table where the sculptures reside looks like it has a story too, so I asked. Indeed the table is from the 17 th century, and it was used by monks from the abbey of Montmajour near Arles in France. Unfortunately, the table with its deep recessed porous wooden bowls carved into it was also largely responsible for spreading the plague and killing off the monks! Perhaps Ms. Texas would like to have a tea party on it.

I just loved seeing every piece of art and hearing all of Stephane’s stories. On one wall, he has a photo of the 1911 Solvay Council of Physics. Stephane pointed out his great great grandfather in the photo and explained how, against the wishes of other council members, Stephane’s great great grandfather insisted on including a young Jewish scientist in the meeting. That scientist was Albert Einstein. All around his house, Stephane has photos of his family and of royalty and stories to go with them, pictures and stories that are so far removed from anything I have ever known, yet I feel a kindred spirit with Stephane since I come from my own kind of ‘extreme’ life.

But there was plenty of gritty fun to be had too — an inflatable sculpture that gives a blowjob next to the bathtub (Untitled by Max Streicher) or a table full of toy stuffed Orangutans positioned like The Last Supper’ (‘No Evolution’ by Pascal Lievre). Stephane found the orangutans at a show called ‘Show Off’ in Paris at the same time as FIAC. No one else wanted it, so he brought it home. It is quite a sight! In fact, Stephane has quite a few renditions of the Last Supper in his house including a fabulously frightening piece by Anthony Goicolea. There is also no shortage of representations of Stephane in the art in his collection. A ceramic plate that Michael made for him depicts Stephane as a Madonna figure wearing his coat of arms as a necklace. And in a Spencer Tunick photograph (see the top of this essay), Tunick used the painting depicted because the mountain reminded him of Stephane. I told Stephane, ‘Well, if Michael can make you into a Madonna, then Spencer Tunick can make you into a mountain.’ Honestly, I can see both the Madonna and the Mountain in Stephane.

Anthony Goicolea, ‘Last Supper’, 1999
C-print laminated on sintra

We eventually took a break from the art tour and sat on one of Stephane’s big comfy sofas, and we talked and talked. It was in this conversation that Stephane’s great big emotional heart came to surface. We talked of sex, of love, of death. He told me the story of Michael’s death. I told him the story of my brother Kevin’s death. We realized that we are both extremely psychically sensitive, and that underneath the surface of everything, more than anything, we both just ‘feel’ life intensely. When we were finished talking, I had to create a list of my favorite pieces inside my head so I would remember.

By far my favorite piece in the house is ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Duane Michals. This small series of photographs sequestered in one of Stephane’s bathrooms just slammed me with emotional impact. At the time, I attributed my love of the work to my love of film, since the piece is clearly cinematic. But in studying it closer, I realize that I am so moved by it because it depicts a deeply moving and beautiful redemption narrative, and that the redemption goes two ways – both for the older and the younger man in the photos. A big part of me identified with that naked young man, so exposed and vulnerable, and so much of me desired that tender gesture of the older man offering his clothes. It gave me a moment to see the older man as a caring and loving individual. Where I expected some kind of sexual trauma or predator, instead I discover love and caring. I am moved by this.

Duane Michals, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1982
Sequence of 5 (5×7) gelatin silver photographs

In fact, as Stephane told me the stories of him and Michael and as he showed me one of the last pictures of him and Michael before Michael died, I was as moved by the tenderness and love in those stories and pictures as I was by the Duane Michals photos. I studied the photo of Stephane and Michael, and I said with wonder, ‘He is looking at you with such complete love and trust.’ Stephane told me, ‘That’s because we were in love.’ Perhaps that’s why the Michals piece was my favorite because it is showing me something so unexpected for me but which is so clearly possible based on Stephane and Michael’s love for each other. Perhaps I love it so much because it resonates so much with the emotional sense I get from Stephane and also how much it relates to my own life and the redemption that I have achieved on some level and still so desperately yearn for on so many other levels.

But not all my favorite pieces were as serious as the Duane Michals. I also was delighted to see a Pierre & Gilles hanging in one of Stephane’s bathrooms. Unfortunately the photo doesn’t show the fabulous blue glitter frame because the hand-crafted frames are definitely a big part of the appeal of P&G for me. No such thing as too much glitter! I’m sure Pierre et Gilles would agree. I was equally pleased to see Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘Man In Polyester Suit’ hanging in a bathroom. How sweet it must be to use the commode next to that piece! I guess also that I should wonder why I like so many pieces in the bathrooms, but my appreciation did move beyond the rooms with toilets and sinks.

Pierre & Gilles, ‘Le ciel, les étoiles et la mer’, 1998
Unique painted photograph

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Man In Polyester Suit’, 1980
Silver gelatin print

Stephane is also a big fan of the CoBrA avant-garde art movement, and he has a whole community of metal sculptures by two artists – Reinhoud and Roel D’Haese — sitting around his place. Interestingly, the two artists were brothers but did not get along at all, so much so that Reinhoud kept his first name but dropped his last to sever association with his brother. I just love these metal sculptures. I love the textures, the forms, the liveliness, the pieciness, the alien beauty, the rigorous abstraction combined with human form. I love how they appear all over Stephane’s house like little sentinels with their underlying expressionist and populist quality. Subsequently, I had to give myself the Condensed Cobra Correspondence Course to learn more about this movement that Stephane loves so much. First and foremost, the CoBrA movement was ‘ a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form’, so no wonder I’m naturally attracted to it since I’m all about freedom of color and form. You can learn a little more about the CoBrA movement here.

Reinhoud,‘Se lever, et après’?, 1970
Mixed metal

Finally, to throw in a couple of my other favorite pieces, I was very happy to see pieces by the AES+F group and Anthony Goicolea hanging on the walls. I learned of both these through the Center For Creative Photography show, and I am a big enthusiast of both. AES+F is a group that creates amazingly effective cinematic commentaries on youth, consumer culture, and the culture of war. I wrote about AES+F Group here. I also find Goicolea’s work absolutely stunning. I love how he taps into an incongruous unconscious dreamscape while also being so cinematic, containing an entire film in a single shot. My favorite piece by Goicolea was actually a mixed media piece ‘Tar Boy.’ (Of course, me being a collage artist, I would like the mixed media piece best.) This is not to say that my favorites are limited to the pieces I talk about here. I really could say that all the artworks in Stephane’s collection are my favorites because I love every single one of them.

Anthony Goicolea, ‘Tar Boy’, 2004
Graphite,ink acrylic & mixed media collage on vellum and plexi
AES+F Group, ‘Le Roi des Aulnes #1’, 2002
Inkjet print on canvas

Finally, it was time for me to go. It was getting late, and I had to pick up my daughter and do the long drive back to Tucson. As I was leaving, we walked through the kitchen and Stephane found my collages on the counter. I immediately cringed. I had just spent two hours looking at his amazing art collection, and here were my collages plopped down on the counter top like so much junk mail. But then Stephane’s face lit up, and he said, ‘Oh Kim, these really are wonderful. I can see why you like Wardell Milan.’ At that moment, I knew that Stephane truly really did like my collages, that it didn’t matter that they came from me. He liked them, and that was what was important, not where they came from or what they are worth. And the fact that he compared them to Wardell Milan, a collage artist who I absolutely adore, added another layer of smiles to my face. He said that he was going to get them framed right away. So sweet.

Here are my two collages that now reside with Stephane:

March 1969

January 1966

I explained the collages to Stephane, how they’re all from vintage National Geographic magazines that were given to me by the Encinitas public library, and how each one is date stamped and there is only one per issue. Stephane asked, ‘Do they still make National Geographics?’ I said, ‘They do, but they don’t look like that anymore!’ Stephane laughed and said, ‘When I was young, National Geographic was like porn for me.’ I said, ‘Me too! Naked people!’ And then we both shared a chuckle. It just goes to show that deep down inside, we really are just naked people who like looking at naked people, whether it’s Stephane Janssen with his amazing art collection or me, the working mom survivor cutting out pictures and making collages.

I’m very happy to have experienced my Big Art Adventure. Thank you Stephane for sharing your art, your house, and your stories with me.”

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Counterpunch, and Bad Subjects. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at:

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