Leopold Weinberg is a young, Zurich-based architect and entrepreneur who originally trained with such prestigious firms as John Pawson, Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron. But because he was born, as he says, “into a family with a long tradition of collecting”, the place of art, in both his life and work, has always been a priority.
His company, We Are Content, which he co-founded in 2012, transforms hotels, restaurants and other public spaces – these have included the Münsterhof in Zurich and the vast Volkshaus in Basel – through high-class gastronomy, impressive design and a variety of art-related initiatives. His personal love, however, is abstract art – especially art that plays with geometry and combines different elements in two and three dimensions. “My goal was always to understand art not as a thing set apart in a museum or white cube space, but as part of everyday life in a normal environment,” says Weinberg.
So when he met Stefan von Bartha, owner of the von Bartha gallery in Basel, a few years ago, it felt like kismet. “We were at a mutual friend’s wedding and Leopold started to tell me about his project at the Volkshaus,” says von Bartha. “He wanted to know what art could do to that environment.” Weinberg had won the contract to develop the historic 1925 building and was eager for professional collaboration, but though the men’s relationship soon encompassed Weinberg’s public-facing art initiatives, it was through his private collecting that the bond between them became firmly established.
Von Bartha’s gallery, founded by his parents, dealers Margareta and Miklos von Bartha, is known for its focus on 20th-century abstract art movements: zero, arte concreta and arte madí. Since he took over in 2008, von Bartha has widened the roster to include a handful of contemporary international conceptual artists. “The nice thing about Leopold is that he is a real collector,” says von Bartha. “When he comes to the gallery, he does not think simply about filling his walls.”
The first piece Weinberg bought from von Bartha was Out of Shape (SFr10,000, about £7,700), a 2012 painting by British abstract artist Terry Haggerty, who characteristically explores optical illusions using monochrome paint or stripes on large curved pieces of wood. “At first it seems straightforward,” says Weinberg. “But looking at it a bit longer, you suddenly understand its spatial qualities – something is indeed ‘out of shape’.”
Von Bartha recalls that the painting had been installed at the gallery just before his first meeting with Weinberg: “Leopold couldn’t stop looking at it; he kind of fell in love with it straight away.” Weinberg was similarly intrigued by German artist Imi Knoebel, who was inspired by both the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich and the German avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys, and has carved his own path in bold, monochrome concrete painting. Weinberg recently acquired Knoebel’s Terra 2017 (similar from about £150,000 from von Bartha) – a piece in acrylic on aluminium that he describes as “overwhelming” in its warm colour and geometric shape. “It’s all about the details,” he says. “Knoebel’s cutting of the aluminium panels, reassembling them precisely and then painting over them is typical of his work. But then you discover some material missing in the middle or you notice that the cut lines aren’t straight.”
This sense of constant surprise is also prevalent in the work of Andrew Bick, a British artist who uses various techniques and media: acrylic, charcoal, pencil, oil paint, watercolour and wax on linen or wood. Weinberg says of his 2010-2012 Variant t-s-(linen)-doubled (about £40,000): “You can lose yourself in it, and every time you look at it, you discover new forms and shapes.”
Von Bartha more recently introduced Weinberg to the Swiss sculptor Daniel Robert Hunziker, whose site-specific monumental structures – geodesic forms, brick constructions or 3D metal grids (from about £30,000) – are inspired by architectural ideas. Of Hunziker’s engaging wall-based work Nebel (2014), Weinberg says: “It’s a geometric, spatial and abstract relief work, overpowering because of its size and the way it is cut, yet the individual pieces manage to create an elaborate and well-balanced grid.”
It’s the ambiguous feelings and reactions that abstract art generates that compel Weinberg. Take, for instance, the delicate and enigmatic wall pieces and sculptures (from about £15,400) by Mike Meiré – for many years a well-known art director – which often juxtapose neat, abstract modernist geometries with chaotic, sexually charged objects created from clay, wood or other mundane materials. Neue Welt (2011), bought by Weinberg from von Bartha in 2013, draws on Meiré’s experience of redesigning the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “He did the redesign by dividing a page into harmonic rectangles,” says Weinberg. “That experience, in turn, informed this abstract artwork,” which consists of four pages executed in rich colours.
While the private collection has been the consistent thread in Weinberg and von Bartha’s relationship, the pair have also collaborated on the hotels and other public spaces Weinberg has developed with carefully curated art. “For me, it is very important to build a personal connection with the artist, and for us to do something together,” says Weinberg. “I believe ideas grow through friendship.” Von Bartha says their collective cause is aided by this open-mindedness, which resonates with many contemporary artists: “There are collectors who want to walk in and buy a classical painting off the wall,” he says, “but for artists it is much more interesting to do site-specific projects.” One such example is the work done at the Basel Volkshaus for Art Basel 2014 by British artist Bob and Roberta Smith (the pseudonym of Patrick Brill), who was introduced to Weinberg by von Bartha and who painted two bars and created three panel pieces for the space.
Later this month, Weinberg and von Bartha are launching their most ambitious collaboration to date, at Zurich’s Hotel‑Restaurant Helvetia, a crowded, eclectic wunderkammer of contemporary art by around 15 of von Bartha’s artists and another 10 from outside his gallery programme. Weinberg says it is his private passion for collecting that has fed his enthusiasm for putting art in public places: “For me, art is a social proposition; it is a reflection by artists on life. I find that playing my role in this social network is a very fascinating process.”