The son of a cultured European family, he was vacationing in St. Tropez with his mother, and started declaiming about art. It was the early '50s, and the art world had just spent a half-century careening from one brilliant "ism" to the next, through Fauvism to cubism to Abstract Expressionism. But the young Janssen took a dim view of the art of his own century.
"Art died with Impressionism," he loftily declared to anyone who cared to listen.
Painter Oscar Domínguez was listening, and he was annoyed. "You are such an asshole," he told the boy.
But the artist was ready to teach the upstart. He took him to his studio to show him his own contemporary work, and Janssen made his first-ever art purchase, with $50 scrounged from his mom. "It was a little painting of a bull," Janssen remembered, painted by Dominguez in a modernist style.
Ever since, Janssen has been collecting up-to-the-minute art of his own time, in nearly every medium and media mix. Now 72, Janssen has 4,000 pieces in his collection, ranging from painting to ceramics to photography. He told the tale of his artistic awakening to a group of UA students--utterly charmed by his Belgian-French accent and his Continental savoir-faire--on a tour of the new exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography, Oh l'amour: Contemporary Photography From the Stéphane Janssen Collection.
Drawn from his cache of 1,000 photos, the 51 pieces in the show are an exhilarating mix of daring subjects and cutting-edge techniques: hot-pigment chromogenic prints, low-brow Polaroids arranged in choppy collages, photos interlaced with paint and wood, elaborate installations staged and photographed. And most are by younger photographers working today.
For instance, Vik Muniz followed an art-historical theme in "Cupid After Caravaggio (Rebus)," 2005, but his medium, as usual, is off the charts. Famous for his photographs of his own drawings in chocolate syrup and the like, the Brazilian-born New Yorker posed a kid from a Rio favela (slum) like Cupid, then "drew" the outlines of the boy's body with a couple thousand cheap plastic toys and shot the whole thing as a brightly colored chromogenic print.
Shirin Neshat, an Iranian woman, also made a chromogenic print, "I Am Its Secret," 1993, a self-portrait with Persian handwriting all over her face. And Radcliffe Bailey retrieved a historic photo of black man, a slave, perhaps, for "After Destiny, 1998," and embedded it inside a wood construction painted in multiple images in acrylic.
"I consider him a painter, and I'm very glad you included him in the show," Janssen told Britt Salvesen, the center's director and chief curator, during the tour.
Salvesen's selections, including this energetic mixed-media piece, represent a welcome 180-degree turn for the CCP. With the center committed to exhibiting primarily works drawn from its own archives, too many of its shows in recent years have been reverent homages to black-and-white works by dead white males.
"This is a change," she told the gathered students. "The pictures are in color; they're large, and they're contemporary. This is an opportunity to show aspects of photography that are not yet in our permanent collection."
After she got the director's job last winter, becoming the first woman to lead the center in its 33-year history, Salvesen signaled she would stage at least some exhibitions of contemporary work by living artists, hot from the studio. Housed within the UA, the center has been moving toward a closer relationship with the university's active-photography program. And Janssen's collection, she told the gathering, has "work meaningful to students today."
That work roams widely. Janssen's got a Joel-Peter Witkin, a photographer of death and disfiguration who stages complex theatrical tableaux. His "Sleep Faster We Need the Pillows" is a typical Witkin skull on a plate, but the black-and-white photo beneath has been given some color--blood-red for the egg yolks, and layerings of collage.
Charlie White, another artist who "creates characters and builds sets," lampoons modern life in "Cocktail Party," 2000, a neon-colored chromogenic print. It pictures a slick gathering in a midcentury modern house, where one of the guests just happens to be an "ugly E.T.," as Janssen put it. But he also goes back to the old masters. Eadweard Muybridge, in one of his classic motion studies from 1887, scrutinizes "Two Men Running" in multiple cinematic takes.
Janssen makes no claims to coherence; he buys only art that he loves. "I'm not an intellectual," he told the students. "I fall in love. I don't think there's any explanation. ... I'm fascinated by death, sex and what is in between."
Fittingly, Salvesen named the show l'amour, French for "love." Love, and an open mind, do go a long way toward making a collection. But along with l'amour, you also need l'argent--a little ready cash. Janssen's transactions are helped considerably by an astute deal his father made years ago. His dad bought a Picasso for $18,000, Janssen related; when his father died, Janssen and his stepmother sold the work and split the proceeds--$40 million.
The collector celebrates love in all its many manifestations. For romantic love, a 1990 Polaroid-photo collage pictures Janssen and his late partner, Michael Johns, the love of his life. Belgian photographer Stefan De Jaeger made multiple Polaroids of each, set against the luminous New Mexico landscape where they lived, and arranged them in a fractured grid. The result is a fragmentary and evocative portrait of a relationship.
Elsewhere, l'amour is more collective. "Saint Sebastian, Serra Palada," 1986, a stunning black-and-white by the Brazilian documentarian extraordinaire Sebastião Salgado, is a compassionate rendering of laborers in an African diamond mine. There's no horizon, no sky, just men as far as the eye can see, digging the ground, literally scraping their living from the earth.
The category of love-of-all-humankind, flaws and all, is represented by the photographic nude-a-thons staged by the American artist Spencer Tunick. Tunick prefers a cast of thousands for his installations and pictures his subjects in all their fleshy glory and goofiness in big, colored chromogenic prints.
"I did 11 installations with Spencer," Janssen recounted. He has stood bravely, and nakedly, in Dublin, "with my ankles in the sea at 39 degrees," and lay down unclothed in a street in Harlem by night, with a dozen "gorgeous black people. I'm the white fat one in the picture. But a critic wrote that the 'older white person makes the photo poignant.'"
In this show's "Netherlands 7 (Dream Amsterdam Foundation)," also 2007, hundreds of bodies stand on the black-and-white curves of a modernist building, their soft flesh a contrast to the hard concrete. "We were standing on chairs," Janssen remembered. "One person fell." Accidents notwithstanding, the work is a sweet tribute to humanity persisting against all odds in a dehumanizing culture.
"When you are with all those other naked people, it doesn't matter," Janssen said. "We're all the same."