With aspirations to be a museum curator, Agnès b married young and instead went on to run a successful fashion business with nearly 300 stores around the world. Her passion for discovering young artists has led her to collaborate with them on projects and support their work in her Paris art gallery, Galerie du Jour. In spring she released the book, Agnès b Styliste, and in July an exhibition, On aime l'art opens in Avignon showcasing her contemporary art collection. We talked to her about her passion for youth, her obsession with graffiti and her special bond with Jean-Michel Basquiat, who features in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London on 28 June.
Navaz Batliwalla: You first wanted to be a museum curator but what sparked your interest in art?
Agnès b: I was born and lived in Versailles where I spent all my time in the park; it was like our garden. That was very inspiring; it was so poetic, full of statues and wonderful things. My father was also really interested in art. I’m from an old, very cultured family and we had the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert at home, an incredible treasure. But the first painting I fell in love with was Man with a Glove by Titian when I was eight or nine, a painting of a young man dressed very elegantly, looking away. And now in my collection I have a lot of portrait photography where the subject’s gaze is looking ‘off’. I decided to become a museum curator, but it didn’t happen. I married the book publisher Christian Bourgois at 17, then I had my twins on my 19th birthday and I divorced a year later. I had to earn a living so I took a job at Elle magazine and then became a fashion designer.
NB: You’re known for supporting young contemporary artists including Keith Haring, Ryan McGinley and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What was the appeal of Basquiat?
Ab: In New York, in 1981-82 I saw these drawings on black paper on the subway. I’m always looking at walls, I think they talk. So I’ve always taken pictures of all the expressions on the walls. Basquiat wasn't known at all at that time but in ‘83 I saw a beautiful white painting in the Paris Biennale. I looked at the name and it was Basquiat. I didn't know him but I could tell that he would be great, so I sent someone to his studio. I bought his self-portrait, which is a very beautiful drawing; I still have it here in my house. It’s going to be in my exhibition, On aime l'art in July, where I’ll be showing works from my collection at Collection Lambert in Avignon. I finally met Basquiat in the last year of his life when he had his show at Yvon Lambert. We went on talking for hours and I ended up missing a Jean-Charles de Castelbajac dinner! Later, he called me and Yvon Lambert said, ‘he’s fallen in love with you.’ Sadly, he returned to New York and died that August.
NB: You also run your own Galerie du Jour. Which new artists are on your radar?
Ab: To find young artists is really what I love, I love to see something I haven’t seen before and it can be so diverse. It can be just three letters on a wall in New York, like Jim Joe for instance. I saw his name on the top of a building and I tried to find him and eventually I did. He’s a great artist. And Pat McCarthy. I love artists’ fanzines and all the little books that he makes. I also love Claire Tabouret who is a friend of mine.
NB: You’re a passionate supporter of street art. Is it more accepted and respected now?
Ab: The establishment is starting to be interested. They weren’t supposed to be interested before but now we have street art auctions in Paris. They started to understand that there was a quality there. I’ve been showing graffiti for so long, for as long as I’ve been showing Nan Goldin and Martin Parr. I think when there’s quality you can love anything.
Agnes b’s exhibition On aime l'art opens in Avignon from 3 July–30 September