Pauline Karpidas: Patron Extraordinaire

Pauline Karpidas: Patron Extraordinaire

T here are many collectors buying art these days, but true collector-patrons are a rarer species. Yet even among patrons, Pauline Karpidas is utterly unique. I can’t think of anyone since Dominique de Menil who has mixed the historic and the contemporary with such zest and originality, and who has supported artists with such generosity. PK also cuts a considerable dash in person, too.

Whiplash thin, energetic and animated, with long dark hair pulled back from a fine-boned face and invariably bedecked in patinated bronze Claude Lalanne jewellery, she exudes an informal elegance. But, as anyone who has spent time with her can also confirm, the warmth, directness and frequent bursts of bawdiness emanating from this Manchester native also make her the most un-grande of grande dames.

DON BROWN, SARAH LUCAS AND PAULINE KARPIDAS, 1997. Johnnie Shand Kydd © Adagp, Paris, 2023.

We first met nearly twenty years ago over drinks in her London apartment with a mutual gallerist friend from whom Pauline had just bought a Cy Twombly sculpture. Lining the walls was a jaw-dropping array of major historical works by Dali, Delvaux, Ernst, Picabia and Picasso to name but a few, most of which Pauline had acquired during her long association with the flamboyant Greek-American dealer Alexander Iolas. But alongside the Arps and the Archipenkos, there were also bulbous bronzes by Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Warren, and tucked between the De Chiricos, the Tanguys and the Dorothea Tannings I spotted paintings by John Currin and George Condo. Evidently here was a collector who liked to mix things up.


On that same evening, with a compelling charm that made me immediately understand why Iolas had been persuaded to come out of retirement in the mid-1970’s to help her build her collection, Pauline quizzed me about what were the unmissable shows of new art currently in town. “Tell me, darling, what are you excited by at the moment? Who should I be seeing right NOW?” she asked, whilst pouring a drink and fixing me with her megawatt smile.

Pauline would often talk of how Iolas, her artistic mentor and fellow maverick (who had been a Balanchine ballet dancer before becoming a gallerist, and who gave Warhol his first show when Andy was still a commercial artist) had told her again and again that it was essential never to stop educating yourself in the art of the past in order to appreciate what was of quality today.


She held fast to this advice and continues to voraciously research the art of the past and the present. It is this exceptional combination of an eye trained in the classics of art history with a nose insatiably determined to sniff out what is currently interesting, along with an especially voracious appetite for enjoyment that sums up the uniqueness of Pauline’s taste; and this taste was given full expression in the extraordinary milieu she created on the Greek island of Hydra.

A twentysomething Pauline first visited Hydra in the early 1960’s and immediately fell in love with this small craggy island rising out of the Aegean in Greece’s Saronic gulf. “I was in Athens for a wedding and thought I’d visit the nearby islands,” she told me. “ I was on the ferry and when we turned a corner there was this unbelievable island and I thought, Oh my God, isn’t it wonderful? And after that, I kept coming back to swim off the rocks.” She was not the only one to be bewitched by Hydra.

Georg Baselitz, Ohne Title (Weiblicher Akt), 1977. Estimate $170,000-250,000. Mattia BONETTI, Desk, 2009. Estimate $10,000-15,000. BARNEY HINDLE PHOTOGRAPHY.

In 1960 Leonard Cohen bought a whitewashed house above the harbour which his family still own; Sophia Loren made her first English-speaking movie there and the artist Brice Marden was another staunch Hydra devotee since he first arrived in the 1970’s, and retained a house on the island. Of all the Greek islands there’s something special about Hydra: its austere beauty, its ban on motorised vehicles and now, thanks in great part to the vision of Pauline Karpidas, has become a place hugely loved and repeatedly revisited by many of the leading names in contemporary art.

Once she had settled in Greece with her late husband, the engineer and businessman Constantine Karpidas, Pauline continued to visit Hydra and eventually she acquired the two properties that would enable her to make her unique mark on the island. One was the historic Boudouris Mansion which is set apart from the island’s main town within a walled compound that includes a Greek Orthodox chapel. Perched on a precipitous rocky crag it has stunning views out to sea; and the story goes that it was originally built by pirates in the 17th century who would shine lights to confuse and wreck the ships attempting to enter Hydra harbour. In Pauline’s hands this lofty stone house was yet again infused with a less destructive rule-breaking spirit, but this time thanks to the exuberantly eclectic choice of artworks that she installed in bespoke interiors playfully fitted out by her favourite designers Bonetti & Garouste and André Dubreuil.

Elizabeth Garouste & Mattia Bonetti. Trône, 1995-1996. Estimate $60,000-80,000; Thomas Schütte, A pair of Urns, ceramic, 1998. Estimate $25,000-35,000. BARNEY HINDLE PHOTOGRAPHY.

I remember this art-filled eyrie being filled with show-stopping pieces such as Francesco Clemente’s striking portrait of Pauline as a scarily glamourous Cleopatra-cum- Persephone, armed with both a trio of pomegranates and an asp; which gave an update on Warhol’s striking quartet of silk screens portraying our hostess in sparkling socialite mode three decades earlier in 1979.

A charming presence was also offered by the abundance of bespoke sculptures from PK’s favourite jewellery designer Claude Lalanne, who, along with her husband François-Xavier, Pauline had supported since the late 70’s. One of Claude’s crazy giant bronze chicken-legged Choupatte cabbage sculptures stood like a sentry by the main front door, while François-Xavier’s near- lifesized bronze L’âne de Pauline was tethered in the courtyard. Apparently Hydriot locals turned out in large numbers to observe the surreal sight of L’âne de Pauline being transported up the precipitous path to its new home strapped to the back of one of the real donkeys that form Hydra’s only mode of transport.

But at the same time as she was settling into Boudouris, Pauline was also the very active proprietor of a smaller premises down on the harbour waterfront. The Hydra Workshop had previously been a repair shop for the island’s wooden fishing boats before Pauline decided to convert it into a gallery. Here, in this modest but generously proportioned space, with its raftered roof, bulbous whitewashed stone walls and worn flagstones, between 1996 and 2017 she mounted a dynamic programme of annual exhibitions by artists both established and emerging. Apart from the first show of ceramics by Matteo Bonetti and Grayson Perry in 1996, all these Hydra Workshop exhibitions were organised in collaboration with the gallerist Sadie Coles, who recently described putting on these specially commissioned shows as “one of the best adventures in my art dealing career.”

PAULINE KARPIDAS CIRCA 2005. Johnnie Shand Kydd © Adagp, Paris, 2023.

The artists invited to come to Hydra could be big names or they could be virtual unknowns on the threshold of their careers. Sometimes they were already represented in Pauline’s collection, sometimes not. They spanned from Christopher Wool, who exhibited in 1998 and Richard Prince, who showed some of his Publicity series in 2003, to the American painter Ryan Sullivan who had his second-ever solo show in Hydra in 2013. Although by no means a neutral white cube, over the years the Hydra Workshop showed itself to be a surprisingly flexible space that could accommodate a wide variety of work. In 1997, the first year of Pauline’s collaboration with Sadie, it hosted a punchy, fifteen strong multimedia showcase of the then-new generation of Young British Artists entitled ‘Package Holiday.’ This included work by Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Chris Ofili and Damien Hirst, many of whom descended riotously onto the island for the opening. By contrast, just over a decade later in 2008, American artist Carroll Dunham transformed its bumpy stony chamber into a limpid woodland glade with his new series of specially painted stylised trees.

Claude Lalanne, Très grand Choupatte, 2008Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. BARNEY HINDLE PHOTOGRAPHY.

Newly married artists John Currin and Rachel Feinstein called their first-ever joint exhibition of his paintings and her sculpture ‘The Honeymooners’ and in 2005 Swiss artist Urs Fischer made parts of his Hydra show in situ using tables and chairs from nearby Tassos café. Another artist making work in direct response to the context of Hydra was Nate Lowman, who produced a gregarious crowd of painted portraits based on the evocative black and white photographs taken every year by British photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd, who right from the beginning entered into an informal agreement with Pauline to record the cavorting of the massed ranks of the art world as they converged on the island for the openings of every Hydra Workshop show.


François-Xavier Lalanne, Oiseaux d'argent. Estimate $20,000-30,000 each. BARNEY HINDLE PHOTOGRAPHY.

These Hydra Workshop opening weekends quickly became a regular and much-anticipated art world event in their own right and a crucial part of the Hydra experience for both artists and art-worlders alike. For not only was Pauline extraordinarily generous to the artists she invited to show in the Hydra Workshop – with no instructions, no stipulations and a dedicated publication to accompany each exhibition – but she also extended an open invitation to the friends, family, and art world associates of each of her participating artists to come and attend the opening. This meant that every year a throng of curators, artists, writers, and people from every conceivable corner of the international art world would be flown out to the island and hosted in Hydra’s hotels for the first weekend of every show. Some individuals – including this writer - were lucky enough to be asked back for regular repeat visits.

PAULINE KARPIDAS AND ISABELLA BLOW, 2006. Johnnie Shand Kydd © Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Art world gatherings are often fun and social, but they usually come with some kind of agenda. However, apart from an invitation to attend the exhibition opening on the Saturday night, there really was no remit to the Hydra Workshop weekends. Except, that is, to have fun. As the welcoming letter sent out each year to every guest stated, “there is little required from you other an engagement with art and guests, to sunbathe, gossip and swim.” For the massed ranks of the art world to be able to let its collective hair down and hit the beach was a rare treat, and the sense of relaxed joy and spirit of freedom that exudes from Johnnie Shand-Kydd’s photographs is palpable. But they only tell part of the story. Not committed to film are the numerous trysts, deals, propositions, indiscretions - and even in one case babies - that were made during that annual three day window in July. And all against a backdrop of glorious natural beauty as well as an astonishing array of great art to be enjoyed in both of Pauline’s properties.

Pauline Karpidas may no longer be in situ on Hydra but her legacy lives on in myriad ways and in our art and our lives the reverberations of those weekends are still being felt. As she once told me when the programme was still in full swing, “to bring people together and to give people enjoyment for three days of the year is one of the most satisfying things. It's been amazing to think of some of the great artists who have been here. But it’s about coming together and being part of life and giving something back.” If Apollo is the God of the island of Delos and Aphrodite the Goddess of Kythira then surely Pauline Karpidas has to be the presiding deity of the island of Hydra.

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