Bernard Zürcher (1953–2017)

Joan Mitchell, Bernard Zürcher, Gwénolée Zürcher, 1991. Photo: Christopher Campbell.

SHOCK OVERCAME ME JANUARY 16, 2017, when I heard that gallerist and art historian Bernard Zürcher had died from a heart attack that morning in Paris. He was only sixty-three. What a loss for the international art world, for me and the other artists represented by Zürcher Gallery, for his wife and business partner, Gwénolée, and his son, Theo. Within a genuinely humble and sweet demeanor, Bernard was amazingly bright, educated, and accomplished. Although he had a practical side, Bernard was sincere, even idealistic, about supporting the art he loved.

I first met Bernard on January 20, 2013. In the fast-paced four years since, he and Gwénolée made a radical impact on my career. Considering my work for Zürcher Gallery, they contacted me after viewing my show “Regina Bogat: Stars,” in Williamsburg. Curiously, before the meeting I read Bernard’s book Georges Braque, Life and Work (1988). Its scholarship was impressive and fueled my excitement about their interest.

When Bernard and Gwénolée visited my studio, they had no prejudice about age, ethnicity, or gender, labels that for years made it so hard to get a foot in the art-world door. Although I was a painter for over sixty years, exhibitions of my work were infrequent as gallerists and museums focused on my husband, Alfred Jensen (1903–1981). This was new! Bernard and Gwénolée weren’t interested in my husband; they focused on my work. In an interview on Zürcher Gallery’s website, Bernard states his philosophy:

“You can do something on behalf of artists you admire, based on what I’d call an ‘intimate conviction’ rather than a market strategy.”

They put rocket fuel under my previously sleepy career: I’ve had multiple one-person shows at Zürcher Gallery both in New York and Paris and have been in many group shows and art fairs internationally; I won a Pommery Stand Prize at the Frieze Art Fair; and my work is now in collections spanning the globe, including the Blanton Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art! I am forever grateful to Bernard, who, with Gwenolée, was an extremely effective force for a previously ignored woman artist.

The more I knew Bernard the more I was amazed. Born 1953 in Algiers to a family of art historians and collectors, Bernard was Swiss, Belgian, and French. He was educated in Paris and graduated from the École du Louvre and Sorbonne, where he received highest honors. Then he taught Cubism at the École du Louvre. At twenty-seven, he wrote his first book, on Amedeo Modigliani, which brought him to meet his wife-to-be, Gwénolée de Beauregard. By chance, she read Bernard’s monograph on Modigliani, which she found so interesting that she asked the person who lent her the book to introduce her to Bernard. The meeting was arranged, and they married a year later, in 1981. For Bernard, who, incidentally, loved fishing as a pasttime, Gwénolée was quite a catch!

Although she never mentions it, Gwénolée is a baroness who grew up in in a medieval castle in Brittany. Her French aristocratic family tree includes illustrious generals and a famous admiral. She is also a Daughter of the American Revolution; the great-grandfather of her grandfather fought for American independence with Lafayette. Her art education began with childhood visits to her grandmother, whose Parisian home was adorned with old-master paintings and with whom she frequented the museums of Europe. It was through Bernard that she developed her passion for contemporary art. She remembers him reflecting on her background and saying to her:

“You are prepared to look at contemporary art.”

Gwénolée studied languages to become a professional translator, which she applied to art literature. Her ability as a linguist, her discipline and strength have been an advantage in the international art business and worked synergistically with Bernard’s talents to make a powerful team.

Early in their marriage, Gwénolée discovered a correspondence of Vincent van Gogh not yet published in France. She translated it from English into French, and Bernard wrote the foreword. It was published. Office du Livre de Fribourg, Rizzoli’s partner, read the book and invited Bernard to write a monograph on van Gogh, which was published in 1985 and translated into German, Italian, and Japanese. Office du Livre de Fribourg and Rizzoli were so thrilled with the book’s success that they asked Bernard to write a second monograph. Bernard spent two years researching and writing Georges Braque, Life and Work, which won the first Élie Faure Award. He then wrote Les Fauves (1995). Thus, by thirty-five, Bernard had already published three seminal books.

Also from 1978 to 1988, Bernard was working curatorially first at the Musée de l’Orangerie and then at the Palais de Tokyo. This experience fostered his great eye for installing exhibitions. Inspired by avant-garde gallery owners of the past, especially Pierre Loeb, Bernard wanted to open a gallery to champion unknown contemporary artists. In 1988, he and Gwénolée began showing works in a small space in Paris. Taking his responsibilities as a gallerist seriously, Bernard took evening classes in basic accounting. In 1992, they moved into a bigger space in Paris, and Galerie Zürcher was officially born. They expanded in 2009 by opening an additional Zürcher Gallery in New York. Bernard exhibited work that has achieved international attention. Emmanuelle Antille, Matt Bollinger, Marc Desgrandchamps, Wang Keping, Cordy Ryman, and Elisa Sighicelli are some of Zürcher Gallery’s successes.

Bernard’s practical, dutiful side becomes clear in his generous contributions to concerns beyond his gallery. From 1996 to 2006, he was the vice president of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art. In 2000, he helped form the Espace d’Art Contemporain on the École des Hautes Études Commerciales campus, where he contributed to the Médias Art & Création course. He was the vice president of the French Art Galleries Trade Union and a founding member and vice president of the Contemporary Art Professionals’ Association. A specialist in questions of patronage, Bernard also co-authored L’Art avec pertes ou profit? (2007), a book about the art business, with Karine Lisbonne, an HEC graduate.

At the time of his death, Bernard had just organized Galerie Zürcher’s twenty-fifth-anniversary show and corresponding catalogue, for which he wrote a charming yet uncanny essay. Bernard’s journey as a gallerist comes full circle in this essay, which seems to be a metaphor. It ends:

“We decided to take a side step and what might look like a strange initiative: paying a posthumous tribute (Dufour passed away on the night of July 21st, 2016) to a painter we could have exhibited during his lifetime but never did. His paintings simply came to us and we wanted to display them. The first sentence of André Berne Joffroy in the above-mentioned catalogue by the Musée d’art moderne L’Aventure de Pierre Loeb . . . seems particularly appropriate here: ‘this exhibition is like a bouquet, we made it with the flowers we found.’”

It was so easy to discuss art with Bernard. I miss him and wish we could talk again.

Regina Bogat is an artist based in New York.