Paris, 6 December 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Guillaume Lévy-Lambert is one half of Singapore-based collectors MaGMA, together with his partner Mark Goh. Their collection, a selection of which they are bringing to exhibit at Sotheby’s in Paris from 6 to 18 January 2014, evolved from a chance encounter with a Roy Lichtenstein painting entitled Desk Calendar. AMA met with Lévy-Lambert to discuss his extraordinary story and the details of MaGMA’s collection.
Can you explain exactly what it was about Roy Lichtenstein’s Desk Calendar that brought the two of you together?
We met in July 1999 in Singapore, and immediately decided to go on a vacation together, and chose Los Angeles. A couple of days into the trip we decided to go and visit a museum. We were both into contemporary art: as a kid, my grandmother would drag me to the Louvre, and Mark is an architect and has taken art history classes. So we went to the MOCA, and there we stumbled across this Roy Lichtenstein painting. One of the extraordinary things is that Lichtenstein was my favourite artist when I was a teenager – I guess I really connected with his images. So we had been with each other one month, we were halfway around the world, it was the first museum we ever visited together, and we were in front of a painting by my favourite artist. It was the sort of thing you see instantly, the date on the top of the calendar, which is 21 May 1962, the day I was born. On the left hand side of the painting is a calendar of the whole year, with only one date circled and an arrow pointing to it, and this date is 26 October, Mark’s birthday. And that was the opening act of an extraordinary series of events.
What were you doing before, and what about this encounter made you want to be collectors?
I had always collected art, and bought my first painting when I was 20. We decided as a couple to start collecting seriously, as a way of expressing our gratitude for this romantic episode, and to leave a legacy of our story. It’s the kind of story you would want your grandchildren to tell their grandchildren.
What was the criteria for the artworks in your collection?
First, we decided to focus on contemporary Chinese art, and then it evolved into collecting Southeast Asian art as well. There is a direct link between Pop Art and the current generation of Chinese artists, and I had the acute feeling that there was an explosion of creativity in China, and for me this generation of Chinese artists is a bit like the Impressionists in Paris at the end of the 19th century. In terms of works we buy, we have three criteria. The first is aesthetics: would we hang it in our living room or above our bed? The second is it has to resonate: does it evoke something deep inside of us? For me, the test is if I see a painting in a gallery this afternoon, will I wake up tomorrow morning thinking about it? The third criterion is legacy: would we be happy to leave it behind as a testimony of our story?
You said how you feel Chinese contemporary art is very cutting-edge in the same way that the Impressionists were in the 19th century. Why do you think that is, what do you think is special about the Chinese art scene in particular?
I’m sure it’s a lot to do with pent-up creativity from the cultural revolution. A lot of the big-name artists, Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, Zhou Chunya, they were kids during the cultural revolution, so this whole generation experienced something traumatic – their parents experienced something traumatic. I would imagine that this has had some impact, because there was very little artistic creation during the cultural revolution, so it was something that was repressed and couldn’t be expressed. This is just my theory.
How would you say that the Singapore art market is different to that of Europe or the United States?
I don’t really know the art markets in other countries, but Singapore is obviously a more recent art market. In the past few years there has been a mushrooming of new museums, galleries and art fairs; it has been really exciting to be collectors here. It’s not a huge place, so it’s easy to become friends with gallery owners and other collectors. But it is a less mature market with less loyalty of the artists to the galleries – I’m always surprised to see that a lot of the artists tend to change galleries from one exhibition to the next.
Moving on to the Paris exhibition, how will it differ from “Fairy Tales” that you presented in 2010? Is it still going to be as personal?
Yes, it will be as personal. We have added a few more episodes, but the core is the same. It will be bilingual, but the French is not an exact translation of the English. You’ll get the gist of the story if you only read one language, but if you are bilingual you should find that there are different details in each. I also think that we are more assertive now: we used pseudonyms in “Fairy Tales”, whereas in “Calendar Story”, the press release bears our real names. We have also simplified the layout a little bit so it will be a more direct experience.
What are you hoping to achieve from the “Calendar Story” exhibition?
We showed “Fairy Tales” in Singapore, which is Mark’s hometown, and now we are bringing “Calendar Story” to my hometown of Paris. It was actually Mark’s suggestion to go to Paris in the first place, with the idea that we can tell the world about the story. We had a certain amount of media attention in Singapore, but in Paris we know we’re going to get more press visibility – the serious art critics are there. We’re doing something very original, we’re not just showing a superb collection and telling an amazing story, I think we’ve really invented something. I said somewhere that I’m a collector that came out as an artist. We appropriate artworks to a much greater degree than any other collectors that we know of, and there is a physical reality with the diptychs.
Can you explain this physical reality and the unusual setup of the exhibition?
Each piece is a giant made-to-measure suitcase made of aluminium composite, with the painting on one side and the writing on the other, so the painting has become a sculpture in a way. Instead of having the public look up on a wall, in the intimidating way of a traditional museum, the diptychs, conceived for us by the architect Jean-François Milou, are on the floor, with a 15 cm plinth. And then it’s like you’re Alice in Wonderland walking into this giant illustrated book, in which you have to find your own path, because we don’t necessarily tell you the chronology – you have to reconstruct it, which is my way of being a little bit playful with the public. The bulk of the story that we are sharing happened in about eight years, during which I was playing detective and going on this mystical journey. So I’m trying to recreate this experience for the public to digest in about 45 minutes.
Would you say that the exhibition is just about your personal encounter of the artworks, or would you say it is possible for visitors to make their own personal story from it?
Definitely. Our objective is for you to think about your own story as you’re going through the exhibition. Some people are more visual, entering the story via the paintings; others are more into the stories; and some who are into a different type of poetry might evoke something from the four-digit code of each story. The numbers might be their birthday, or their mother’s birthday, or whatever, and then all of a sudden you think about your own story, and you remember things in your life that happened and can’t purely be explained in a Cartesian way. When I say “I feel a sacred duty to share this story”, I want to trigger in the public some introspection, to perhaps experience the divine power of providence like we have.
The name “Fairy Tales” seems to suggest something greater at work, something almost supernatural. Do you believe that there was some kind of divine providence involved, or just the intention of the artist to create something that would eventually resonate with someone to the extent that it resonated with you?
I think there is something bigger at work; I would like the public to be shaken by this idea. One of the compliments that we received from the previous exhibition that touched me most was that the exhibition is like a movie you see that you can’t stop thinking about for two or three days. As you know, we are not selling anything – we just want to contribute to people realising the transformative power of art. It took time for me to get it.
I know you’ve done extensive research into why those dates were on Desk Calendar, and what the significance of them is. If there isn’t anything that you’ve found, do you think on some level that Lichtenstein was playing a game of knowing that at some point, this would mean something to someone, even if it didn’t mean anything to him? What do you think he would say?
I have found many possible competing explanations for the dates. 26 October is Dorothy Lichtenstein’s birthday, Roy’s second wife, but they only met in 1964, two years after the painting was made. I even imagined that maybe they lied about when they met, because Lichtenstein was married with kids, and he incorporated subtle symbolism into his work instead of making an “I love Dorothy” painting. But I have met Dorothy, and she confirmed that they met in 1964. About three weeks ago I spoke to a woman who was Lichtenstein’s mistress at the time, and she confirmed to me that it is extremely unlikely that he could have met Dorothy in 1962.
Mitchell Lichtenstein, whom we interviewed, offered an explanation that Roy made a mistake and meant to circle 27 October, his own birthday – he said it would be typically like his father to make this mistake. I have another explanation about the phone number on the painting, which was the gallerist Leo Castelli’s number. Desk Calendar was first presented in an exhibition in Philadelphia, which opened on 25 October. Perhaps Castelli called him up in May 1962 and told him he needed to produce a painting for this show, and maybe the idea for the painting came from Roy circling the date in his own appointment book. I don’t think any of these explanations conflict with the other, more cosmic one. I think that when a great artist really connects with something up there, he can become a channel for something much bigger. I imagine that Roy may have been divinely inspired, consciously or not, when he chose that date, and then when he moved on to another level of consciousness after his death in 1997.
In any case, those dates now for me are extraordinary, but the date was not extraordinary back in 1962, it was just “today”. What was extraordinary then was to take an everyday object and to enlarge and transform it. Lichtenstein was featured in Life magazine in 1964 under the title, “Is Roy Lichtenstein the worst artist in the U.S.?”, although obviously he is on the cover of a big news magazine which says something. This was the beginning of Pop Art, and there were a lot of people saying that it was not art. I think if you’d met Lichtenstein, you wouldn’t necessarily have asked him “Why those dates?”, you would have asked him “Why those simple objects, why not landscapes or still life?”.
Would you want to ask him why, or on some level would you not want to know?
I feel like he painted it for me, and the proof is the impact it has had upon me. It clearly became a gel in my relationship with Mark, we felt like there was something bigger than us. I don’t think our relationship would have become what it has without it; it’s always been a big part of it, since almost Day 1. It has made us build this collection, which is a very important part of our lives, it took me on a spiritual journey, and on this artistic awakening journey. I always loved art, but now I am a little bit of an artist.
Cynics would say that the two dates appearing together is just a coincidence, that of all the thousands of people that have seen the artwork at some point, two people were going to be there that those dates meant something to. What would you say to these cynics?
You know, I myself was like this for several months after seeing the painting. I was trying to go through the statistics in my head, trying to count how many people were born on that day, making assumptions about how many had been to LA, how many had been to the museum, how many had seen the Lichtenstein painting hanging there, and then to not include in those probabilities that we had just met, that Lichtenstein was my favourite artist, that it was the first museum we had visited together. I was trying to reassure myself that it was just a coincidence. I was very Cartesian, I did not believe much in spirituality. So it would be unfair for me to expect the public to totally get it on one go, and that’s why it’s very important that the public start thinking about their own story. What I now know is that all these coincidences are God’s way of playing tricks on us.