TAIPEI - Taiwan-based businessman Pierre Chen is one of Asia’s leading collectors of Western contemporary art. Now, as Alexandra A. Seno reports, Chen is bringing the collection he lives and works with to a wider audience, and in the process, connecting the East with the West.

Museo del Prado 4, the subtly dramatic Thomas Struth photograph, dominates one wall of a conference room at the Yageo Corporation global headquarters, just outside Taipei. The German photographer’s large-scale work, part of his iconic Museum Photographs series, focuses on a group of students on a trip to the great Spanish art institution. The boys and girls linger indifferently in front of Las Meninas, the 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez that has inspired generations of artists, from Pablo Picasso to Francis Bacon.

My business changes very quickly. I am fighting everyday because there is always some new technology coming to the market. For me to have balance in my life, I need art and music.

Pierre Chen

Walking into the empty conference room – which otherwise fits about 30 – Yageo founder Pierre T.M. Chen gives the photograph a quick glance before he settles down at the table. The Taiwan-trained computer engineer started Yageo in 1977 and built the company into one of the world’s biggest electronics components manufacturers, with average yearly sales of US$800 million. He has nine factories and offices in seventeen countries, and is actively engaged in Yageo’s day-to-day management.

chidorigafuchi_013_resize183-620In a Tokyo residence, Peter Doig’s Canoe Lake has pride of place in the dining room. Jean-Baptiste Huynh’s Inde-Portrait XXIX and José-María Cano’s RM-Kate Moss flank the doorway. Photographs courtesy of the Yageo Foundation.

Chen says: “My business changes very quickly. I am fighting everyday because there is always some new technology coming to the market. For me to have balance in my life, I need art and music.” Hundreds of pieces adorn his offices and homes, and even more are in storage. But starting this summer, four prestigious Japanese museums will exhibit 76 works from Chen’s collection.

It will be the first time that the institutions will show a single, private collection of modern and contemporary art, and it is also the first occasion in Asia that works from the Yageo Foundation can be viewed together in public. The tour begins in June at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo (MOMAT), and then proceeds to the Nagoya City Art Museum in September, the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in December and finally the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto in March 2015.

MOMAT curator and organiser of the exhibits Kenjiro Hosaka wanted to collaborate with Chen not only because Japanese museums do not usually have access to such works, but also because he was drawn to the collection’s “energy to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western art, which museums in Japan have struggled with for many years.”

“I decided to accept the invitation from Japan because the museum is professional, and because Japanese audiences have a mature appreciation for art. They admire traditional things and also what is new. I also consider Japan as my retirement destination of choice,” says Chen, who keeps a Tokyo apartment, conveniently just five minutes away from MOMAT.

Born in Tainan, Chen grew up in Kaoshiung to a middle- class family that could trace their roots in Taiwan back for 200 years. He enjoyed going to galleries, and as a student in 1976, he made his first art purchase: a wooden, coconut-sized sculpture by Hong Kong artist Cheung Yee. It cost 25,000 Taiwanese dollars, a sum that took him a year and a half to save as a part-time computer programmer. He proudly keeps it in his office today.

IMG_0184-620The living room of one of Chen’s Hong Kong homes, with Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild and Mark Tansey’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. Photographs courtesy of the Yageo Foundation.

When his company began to do very well, Chen started collecting Chinese artists because he was inspired by their work. As his business expanded to other countries, he would travel, and says he “liked going to museums and galleries because they are a good place to learn.” He read voraciously about art and went to exhibitions, habits he continues today. “I am still discovering,” he says, his eyes lighting up behind his serious, black-framed glasses.

In recent years, Chen has been most excited by Western contemporary art. He took the leap in the mid-1980s and bought an untitled Cy Twombly work because it made him feel “calm,” and later a yellow Warhol fright wig self-portrait because he thought it was “so fresh.”  

Since then he has acquired hundreds more paintings and sculptures by artists ranging from Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Henry Moore to Les Lalanne, Antony Gormley, Cai Guo-Qiang and Jeff Koons. In his Taiwan headquarters, Chen displays a large number of works by Taiwanese contemporary artists and a mix of international names. Outside his own office hangs a large wax painting by the Spanish artist José María Cano, a favourite of Chen’s whose works he also has in his homes. Chen is also considered one of the world’s top collectors of Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon. In 2003 at Sotheby’s New York, Chen made headlines when he paid US$3.8 million for a small triptych of portraits of Lucian Freud by Bacon, setting an auction record for the artist’s work at the time.

The conversation with MOMAT began some six years ago, when the Tokyo institution asked to borrow one of his Bacons. Chen regularly lends art to museums internationally, serves on the International Council of the Tate in London, has supported the Taipei Biennial and funds an Asia Cultural Council residency in New York. At home, the Yageo Foundation organises regular art education programmes for the company’s employees. “Art is natural for them now,” says Chen.

Under his direction, art is moved around every year or so. Perhaps the exception is the large, lively Daniel Richter painting, which hangs in the living room of his newest Taipei home, a modernist structure on a hillside with breathtaking views of water and mountains. “It took me years to get it into the house. It is too difficult to move it,” says Chen. The full-length glass windows had to be removed to bring the artwork into the house.

Many of his other prized works will be in Japan for the next year. Among these are Andreas Gursky’s panoramic May Day, which normally hangs in the house that his grown son and daughters live in, and a large-scale 1970s Georg Baselitz painting of an upside-down dog that usually graces another residence. Hosaka of MOMAT says the piece that he most looks forward to having in Japan is Marc Quinn’s sculpture Myth (Sphinx). “Although a medium-sized Quinn seated figure has been shown in Japan before, such a large sculpture by the artist has never been shown in the country. This exhibition is the first chance to show many important contemporary sculptures by Quinn, Koons and Ron Mueck at the same instance.”

Carol Huang, a former auction house representative who now serves as the head of the Yageo Foundation, says a lot of what they do is research and keeping track of the whereabouts of the art. In the past few months, however, her team has been working on arrangements for the Japan tour. Chen remains very much involved, making all the major decisions regarding acquisitions, loans and projects.

Though he will certainly miss the works while they tour Japan, Chen is not one to remain idle. He hopes to complete a new house by the French architectural designer Christian Liagre in the next two years. And he is working on a sculpture garden – a bronze Lalanne apple already welcomes visitors to the compound, and a recently-purchased Louise Bourgeois spider is just making its way to Taipei from Europe. It will find itself in very good company indeed.

Alexandra A. Seno writes on art and culture in Asia.

Lead image: Pierre Chen, collector and businessman at home in Taipei, where a painting by Georg Baselitz hangs behind him. Photograph by Andrew Loiterton.