In 1989 Helga de Alvear scored a coup for Juana Mordó, the gallery she then directed in Madrid, putting together a show of works by the pioneer of video art, Nam June Paik. Some were assemblages of television monitors based on the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; others were canvases that combined painting and photography with images of Joseph Beuys. They were met with resounding silence. “You know what it is to have Nam June Paik in the gallery, and no one comes?” she inquires in German-accented Spanish. “I was so ashamed no one bought anything that I bought them all,” she says.
It was a scenario de Alvear reprised often in the ensuing years, building her gallery and her own collection as the country’s art world emerged from decades of isolation—a process that many credit her cutting-edge shows with accelerating. “She has played a very important role in Spain,” says former Reina Sofía Museum director María Corral, now an independent curator. “She brought young artists, risky installations, a lot of photography and video—Thomas Ruff, Angela Bulloch, Christian Marclay, Isaac Julien,” to name but a few.
She also showed the Spanish-born provocateur Santiago Sierra, whose exhibition “Los penetrados”—photographs of people of various genders and races engaged in anal sex—attracted huge crowds to her gallery near the Reina Sofía last January.
“I don’t think any American gallery would have dared to show it,” Sierra said in an e-mail, describing the piece as a commentary on sexual slavery and the power of religious lobbies in Spain, among other things. “Helga doesn’t depend on anyone,” he wrote. “She doesn’t care if the cultural establishment accepts or rejects her projects.”
“She reminds me of Ileana Sonnabend,” comments Mary Boone, who recently sold de Alvear Ai Weiwei’s Descending Light (2007), a spectacuar fallen chandelier sparkling with 60,000 red crystals. De Alvear had only seen the image in reproduction, Boone says, but she was very familiar with the artist’s work. “With her intelligence and passion, she’s almost more of a collector than she is a dealer.”
In the past two decades, de Alvear has amassed some 2,000 works, ranging from the only Robert Motherwell in Spain to Ad Reinhardt, Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin, Gordon Matta-Clark, Marlene Dumas, Tacita Dean, Tracey Moffatt, Paul McCarthy, and Mariko Mori. Strong on photography, the collection also reflects her attraction to bold, colorful abstractions. But the unifying factor is the concept. “I always need an idea,” she explains. “That’s the quality that unites a collection. I buy something that has to tell me something, speak to me. I can’t buy a painting unless the artist can explain to me through his painting what he wants to say.”
Just a few of these works (always including a Morris Louis) are on display at her minimalist, Bauhaus-style home in Madrid’s Puerta de Hierro district. Most of the works are in storage. She has promised them as a donation to the city of Cáceres, which has committed to building a structure to showcase them. The first section of the space, La Casa Grande, is scheduled to open in June. “You can do infinite shows with this collection,” says de Alvear, a kindly, animated woman who originally wanted to be a pianist.
She dates her affinity for abstract art to her childhood in the German town of Kirn an der Nahe, where she used to collect gemstones from local mines. She lived in London for a while and then, when she was 20, moved to Madrid to learn Spanish. She met her husband, an architect, and never left. Through him she met the abstract painters in Spain’s El Paso school, and through them, dealer Juana Mordó. De Alvear started buying paintings from Mordó, and in 1980, when her three children were grown, she became an employee. In 1985, when Mordó died, de Alvear took over the gallery.
At first she continued with Mordó’s line, mostly Spanish paintings, which she brought to some art fairs. One day, she likes to recount, Frankfurt dealer Herbert Meyer-Ellinger pulled her aside. “He said, ‘Have a seat here in the patio. I have to talk to you. If you bring this kind of garbage again, we will throw you out of the fair.’ I couldn’t sleep all night.”
In a painful process, she began to sever relationships with Mordó’s staff and artists and build a circle of her own. Still, she hesitated to put her own name on the gallery. “I was afraid, because Juana Mordó everyone knows, but no one knows me,” she says. In 1995 she finally opened Galería Helga de Alvear in her current space on Calle Doctor Fourquet. Some of her earliest shows featured Hanne Darboven, Mitsuo Miura, and Hannah Collins.
“In the ’90s Helga made the most ambitious program in Spain,” says Dan Cameron, curator of Prospect.2 in New Orleans, who has organized many shows in Spain. “Galleries weren’t taking those kinds of risks in Spain—certainly big galleries weren’t. Helga suddenly created a template for showing work that was on par with what the most sophisticated galleries in Europe and North America were showing. She really paved the way for the newer galleries like Distrito 4 and Salvador Díaz.”
Currently de Alvear oversees an international stable that transcends medium or style: it includes painter Imi Knoebel, sculptor Karin Sander, photographers Axel Hütte and James Casebere, filmmaker Julien, and conceptual pranksters Elmgreen & Dragset. A show of photographic works by Thomas Demand is on view through the 9th of this month. Then come Ettore Spalletti and Marcel Dzama (the 14th of this month through March 13) and Jane and Louise Wilson (who have just joined the gallery) along with Callum Innes.
While she waits for the Cáceres museum to open, de Alvear continues buying contemporary pieces, though her wish list also includes some postwar classics. “A Blinky Palermo or Matta- Clark,” she muses. “Also a Barnett Newman. He’s the greatest.”