Donatien Grau: In what context did you open your first gallery in 1964?
Yvon Lambert: I was around 20 when I opened a little space in Vence, the village of Southern France where I am from, doing a show of drawings entitled “From Modigliani to Picasso.”
DG: You started to work with living artists when you moved to Paris?
YL: Indeed. I moved there in 1965, and I opened a gallery on the rue de Seine. I was passionate about geometric art. I once did a show of works by Jean Arp, Jean Hélion and an Armenian-born artist, Léon Arthur Tutundjian.
DG: But when did you start to show artists who were actually of your generation?
YL: In 1968 I opened a new space on rue de l’Echaudé. Then I started to get to know the artists who were of interest to me. Between 1968 and 1972 — as with the show I did in 1972, “Actualité d’un bilan,” attests — I showed a whole new generation of artists: Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly…
DG: How did you get to meet the American artists you presented?
YL: I just had to travel to New York and look at what was shown there. Paris had a certain prestige and gallerists were willing to help the artists to show their work.
DG: Why did you establish your gallery in Paris as the gallery for conceptual artists? Not because of their commercial value, I presume…
YL: Obviously not — some artworks sold much better, and were much easier to get. But I also showed Robert Combas and Julian Schnabel.
DG: You showed Basquiat as well. But it seems that Jean-Michel Basquiat or Schnabel do not exactly match the image people have of your tastes in art.
YL: I wasn’t going to do a show of Robert Barry or Lawrence Weiner every two years! I just wanted to do something different. Working with Combas or Schnabel was an explosion of imaginative freshness. As far as I know, I actually organized the only show in Paris for which he himself picked the works. It took years before we finally made it. Finally, we decided that we were going to start in 1988 together. Even if he worked in a complicated way, he had chosen every painting, every drawing specifically for this gallery.
DG: It’s interesting to think that you showed Basquiat: one would imagine that he would have been an Ileana Sonnabend-kind of artist.
YL: Maybe she just wasn’t interested. We had very good relations: she showed Pop art, I showed Conceptual art. Even if she did a show of Allan D’Arcangelo and Donald Judd, that was more or less it. I never ever ‘stole’ an artist from another gallerist. When Christian Boltanski started to work with me, it was because he didn’t want to work with other gallerists. When Brice Marden introduced me to Twombly, he was unhappy because Ileana Sonnabend had told him she would do a show and kept postponing it. And he told me he wanted to do it with me. That’s what we did, in 1971.
DG: In the ’80s and ’90s you also started to work with other artists, such as Anselm Kiefer and Miquel Barceló.
YL: I did a show of Barceló in 1983. I wanted to show a painter. I told a friend of mine about it, and she mentioned this then-unknown artist named Miquel Barceló. I discovered he was doing a show in Montpellier. I called the gallery and he picked up himself! I said I wanted to come at the end of the week, he agreed. He showed me the exhibition and then took me to Barcelona by bus, so that I could see his studio… His works weren’t at all what they are today.
DG: Something very special is your love for books. You have this ability to make connections between artists and writers…
YL: I did several of them. One of the most spectacular is the essay Roland Barthes wrote on Cy Twombly. I knew he could be sensitive to that work. So I asked him to come over to my gallery. I had put pictures of Twombly’s work all over my desk, and he looked at them. He asked for some time to think about it. I practically begged him, and he did it. There is also this bibliophilia series, with collaborations such as On Kawara and the poet Jacques Roubaud.
DG: You also show a younger generation of artists, such as Douglas Gordon, Koo Jeong-A, Loris Gréaud and Jonathan Monk.
YL: I am lucky enough to have curious young people around me. They see a lot and tell me when I have to see something or meet an artist. These young artists I represent are the children, or even the grandchildren, of the first Conceptual artists I showed.
DG: Would you have any advice for a younger gallerist?
YL: It is an incredibly difficult thing to advise. I refuse to provide any advice, as I am neither a critic nor an expert. When I opened my gallery, things were much simpler. But at the same time, people were telling me then that things were much simpler when they were young. I have a feeling that things haven’t changed that much. To open a gallery you just need a space and the best artists. I was lucky enough to travel to the US when I opened mine, and when I went to New York, when I saw all these artists, it was fresh blood that was arriving. The thing that interests me has always been the true artists, the ones who bring something genuinely new.