John Sailer: Gallerist of The Austrian Avant-Garde

Like his hero, the mythological Ulysses, the Vienna-born art dealer is a survivor, a wanderer, and an incorrigible optimist

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | April 2013

John Sailer of Galerie-Ulysses: always thinking in alternatives (Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau)

Saturday, 15 March. It was just after 15:00, when I pushed open the door of Café Sperl and felt a blessed gust of warm air. After a few days of a spring tease, the weather had turned on us with a slap, sending everyone back to the closet for hats and scarves.

So it was with relief that I pulled off my gloves, rubbing some warmth into my frozen fingers while I scanned the room.

I spotted gallerist John Sailer settled into the corner booth at the far end of the room, chatting with the photographer and looking as if he owned the place. He saw me and waved.

Here was a man who would feel at home just about anywhere. Which must matter a lot to his artists.

Since opening Galerie Ulysses in 1974 in the garage space of the Federal Theatres building on Goethegasse, Sailer has helped put Austria’s leading post-war artists on the map. With business partner Gabrielle Wimmer who joined the following year, Sailer and the Ulysses Galerie have represented most of the top names of the Austrian avant-garde, including Bruno Gironcoli, Hans Hollein, Walter Pichler, Markus Prachensky, Arnulf Rainer, Andreas Urteil and Fritz Wotruba.

Then in 1977, the gallery opened new premises at Opernring 21 with an exhibition of three masters of abstract expressionism, Paul Klee, Frantisek Kupka, and Wassily Kandinsky (Sailer’s favourite), establishing it as a player in the international art world.

Sailer is a prototypical international man. Born in Vienna in 1937, he was smuggled out of the country at the age of 6 months, and with his parents, emigrated first to Paris and then New York, where he spent his childhood. The family returned to Vienna in 1947, when Sailer was nine.

While living principally in Vienna, he has stayed actively involved in the U.S. art scene, principally in New York and Boston, and spends summers in Maine – with the result that he is one of the most perfectly bi-lingual and bi-cultural people I have ever met.

So what did he mean, "smuggled"? And so the tale unfolded:

"My father was a rather prominent Social Democrat," he began…. In fact, it turns out Karl Hans Sailer was the prominent Social Democrat, head of the party and jailed in 1936 by the Austrofascists who had declared the party illegal – along with later Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the equally-illegal Nazis.

Released a year later, Sailer père resumed his activities underground and on the eve of the Anschluss, was to make a radio address urging Social Democrats to "vote with the Fascists" for Austrian independence.

But time had run out. Having made the last train out of Vienna to Prague, the Sailers were turned back at the border; at Floridsdorf they jumped, and made their way to Switzerland, leaving baby John behind with friends.

Some weeks later, a brave woman they hardly knew, with a child the same age, returned to Vienna with a passport and a swaddled doll, made the swap, and caught the next plane back to Zurich.

"If they had caught her, she would have ended up in a camp," Sailer said. "The Gestapo had their eye on me; I was kind of a trap. But my parents got me out."

As a waitress came by to take the order, talk had turned to a recent lecture at the Secession on "Vienna Interiors" by one Joseph Leo Koerner, an Austro-American professor from Harvard, that ended a series honouring the Klimt Year.

"You should have been there," Sailer said enthusiastically, "I have rarely heard such a radiant, intelligent, and enjoyable talk about turn-of-the-century Vienna." It’s an era that fascinates Sailer, a period so strongly shaped by a Jewish bourgeoisie eager to assimilate.

"They were so full of energy, and ambition. They wanted to be important in the development of a new, a better society." Many were Social Democrats, he said, though not all. But often, they shared the same goals.

"With the collapse of the monarchy, they felt freer." But the times also led to the other forces in society, to Fascism, "the anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Jewish culture, the urge to go back to the Church and the soil… what became the Dolfuss Regime."

In Vienna, things often reconnect across the decades of history. A few years ago, Sailer was asked to mount  an exhibition for the Großen Österreichischen Staatspreis for contemporary art.

"Everyone concerned thought the prize had been established in 1952," he remembered. "But I started looking into the history and found it had actually started with Dolfuss."

Today the Staatspreis is awarded to honour "very progressive people" like Gironcole or Hollein. "But when it was created, it was meant to do exactly the opposite."

 The Thonet chairs

An acclaimed art dealer and recognised expert on museums, Sailer has in fact never studied art. He studied law, but didn’t finish. Art got in the way. It was the late 60s, and Vienna passed a new fire law requiring that anything flammable had to be cleared out from people’s attics. The things were to be moved downstairs or put out on the street for the city to haul away.

"I drove past one of these huge piles and there was an interesting looking chair. I grabbed it because I liked it." A few days later he was in a second-hand bookshop and found an old Thonet Bentwood catalogue, with a picture of his chair.

Born in Paris 1796, Thonet had been the first industrial designer, "the first one where the production of the object would determine the shape." And in Vienna, he had been commissioned to make chairs for many of the government offices.

"You’d see these chairs all over, so I went to the truck drivers and I showed them the catalogue and said, for every chair you find I’ll pay you three shillings, for every rocking chair ten shillings. And within a very short time I had a huge collection."

Through a friend, he met two architects who organised an exhibition of the Thonet chairs at Palais Liechtenstein. After which, invitations began to roll in. The show went from Munich to Hamburg, to Oslo, 16 or 17 museums in all, ending up at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

He also went to New York and paid a call on Mildred Constantine at the MoMA, which also had a Thonet chair. While talking to the curator, another woman entered the room. It was the celebrated art patron Beth Strauss.

Sitting at the right table

"She looked me over, and said, ‘Do you have a dinner jacket?" The next thing he knew he was seated at dinner next to the art critic  Barbara Plum, and two weeks after that, there was a two-page spread on his collection in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

"So the wisdom of my life has been, you have to sit next to the right person at dinner," he said laughing. "That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be brilliant; you just have to sit at the right table."

I thought about the other émigrés that I’d met over the last few years, a number of whom were now returning to Vienna very late in life, to forge new, but often imperfect, bonds with the city where they were born. From Sailer I was hearing something else.

"I’m different," he said. "I came back in 1947, and have never felt any great resentment against what happened. The past was the past. My parents were like that; they never tried to get back their apartment, for instance.

"Among many of the immigrants, there’s this feeling of injustice, they’re entitled to things, to restitution. I call it the Merchant of Venice syndrome: ‘I will have my bond.’ My family never had these kinds of feelings. We all, my parents, myself, we had such interesting lives, that we were constantly living and developing.

"In a way, I suppose I felt privileged. For having grown up in New York. For having seen another world. I felt that I’d been better off than the people who’d stayed in Vienna.

"I mean, I was lucky. I didn’t grow up in a concentration camp. Then I might have felt different. Probably would have. But that wasn’t my life. It sounds terrible, but my life was better for what happened."

It’s not that everything has been perfect, I reminded myself. A "childhood accident" has left Sailer in recent years swinging himself along on crutches. But like the Ulysses for whom his gallery is named, he is a survivor.

"That’s what I admire: Ulysses is always thinking about alternatives; he never gives up; he wants to understand."

Which is how he has come to his next ­exhibition: Anton Zeilinger’s experiments with quantum physics. I look at him, puzzled.

"It’s like Ulysses’ idea of the Trojan horse," he explained. "Was it art or was it a machine? The Trojans thought it was art, the Greeks technology. But like Zeilinger’s constructions, it was both."

A paradigm shift, boundaries are lost; between outside and inside the definition dissolves. And with it, the truth that we can ever be safe. Instead, we can only learn. "We’re always only outsiders," he said.

But perhaps, knowing that, he is better able to see things for what they are.

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