The legendary French gallerist and collector, Yvon Lambert, is famed for his relentlessly forward-looking approach to visual art as well as uncanny acumen for understanding how art works and spaces interact with each other.
These two strands of Lambert’s life in art intertwine eloquently at the Collection Lambert in Avignon which houses more than 500 works from one of the most storied and vibrant collections of contemporary art anywhere in the world. Since 2000, the collection has been housed at the Hotel de Caumont, an expansive eighteenth-century townhouse designed by Jean-Baptiste Franque and his son Francois, that embodies the sophistication and architectural precision of the French neoclassical period. The nearby restored Hotel de Montfaucon also houses part of the collection. In Avignon, there is always a profound sense of histories overlapping as one navigates between modern shops on the high street, castles from the middle ages and the sweeping courtyards of townhouses like the Hotel de Caumont. It is only the incongruous English lettering of a Lawrence Weiner work over the keystone of a window frame that reminds the viewer that we firmly entrenched in the age of smartphones and laptops.
Inside, the bracing aesthetics of modernity take over amid the swirling neon arcs that surround a semi-circular skylight in the atrium that, on a sunny day, throws angular shadows and sunlight through the space. The rooms and corridors of the Hotel have a clean, almost futuristic layout. Though the interior hallways and the galleries of the Hotel are informed by a taste for sheer lines and precise curves, the works on show are anything but clinical. Lambert’s tastes may be exacting, but they are also deeply informed by an evocative, urban romanticism exemplified by the dialogues of such modern romantics as Julian Schnabel, whose work sits in a tense and fruitful dialogue with the works of another icon of 1980s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in one of the collection’s galleries. Lambert’s affinity for modern American masters is visible throughout the gallery, notably in a generous selection of works by the illustrious Cy Twombly, perhaps the greatest American history painter of the twentieth century, and Andreas Serrano’s pained meditations on the iconographies of embodiment and suffering.
The collection is not limited to giants of American art, but contemporary greats from around the world. I was particularly entranced by a lively sculptural work by the Polish artist, Mirosław Bałka, that dominates the inner courtyard of the Hotel. The lightness and delicacy of Bałka’s piece contrasts beautifully with the pale stones of the Hotel’s arcade. And as would be expected, there is a substantial helping of work by contemporary French masters to be found on show as well, including pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Daniel Buren and the brilliant, if somewhat unsung photographer, Gisele Freund. In recent years, as Lambert’s eye has turned to more contemporary voices, and a number of video works have also been added to the collection. It is only fitting, for a space that connects so many epochs of time in a city so rich with history that the future should play a central part in an eternally evolving story of creativity.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novel Ecology of Secrets (2013, Arcadia Missa) and the forthcoming UltraLife (2016, Arcadia Missa). His art journalism has appeared in a number of publications in the UK, US, Germany, Switzerland and Romania.
All images courtesy Collection Lambert, Avignon