Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY | Foto: Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

Por: Diego Cerón

11, October, 2022 en Luxury Trending

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller
Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY By Heide VanDoren Betz .


Over the past four decades, Modernism has presented more than 450 exhibitions featuring an international roster of historical and contemporary artists. The museum-quality program, overseen by gallery founder and owner Martin Muller, includes conceptually challenging and aesthetically rigorous painting, photography, sculpture, video, performance art, and works on paper.

Since 1979, the gallery has been at the forefront of the art world. Modernism presented a retrospective of the Russian Avant-Garde in 1980, before any other West Coast gallery or museum showed the historically important work of Russian Avant-Garde artists. In 1982, the gallery staged the first Bay Area exhibition of Andy Warhol. Both abstraction and figuration have been central to the gallery program ever since. In addition to 17 more Russian Avant-Garde exhibitions, Modernism has shown the work of the Southern California abstractionist James Hayward since 1980, and recreated “Four Abstract Classicists”, a seminal 1959 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, in 1993. Around the same time, the gallery introduced America to the politically charged conceptual works of Austrian-born multimedia artist Gottfried Helnwein.


Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY


Heide Betz: Tell us about your childhood/ your youth.

Martin Muller: Early on, I went to boarding schools, first in Château d’Oex (next to Gstaad) then in Geneva.

HB: When did you become interested in the arts; when did you start collecting?

MM: As a teenager, I started to collect art exhibition posters, then progressively fine art prints, drawings, and finally paintings. I became seriously interested in the visual arts in my late teens.

HB: When did you come to San Francisco?

MM: I arrived in San Francisco in the late seventies, torn between entering Academia or the business world.

HB: Tell us about the beginnings of Modernism Gallery.

MM: In October of 1979, I decided to open an art gallery called Modernism; it was the first commercial gallery south of Market in San Francisco (236 8th Street), an attractive, airy and spacious loft type space.

HB: Now you are on Ellis Street in a new space.

MM: After 30 years at the Monadnock Building, it was time for a new environment. The building on Ellis Street where Modernism is now located needed to be completely redone. We hired the renowned architectural firm of Aidlin Darling Design, well known for having designed a floor for San Francisco’s MOMA. What better recommendation to understand the needs of a gallery space?

HB: Do you find it challenging to be in this area?

MM: It can be a challenge to be in this area but I hope we are contributing to the development of an area that has been neglected.

HB: Has the 21st Century art scene created new opportunities for you?

MM: In the 21st century, Modernism has continued to open new frontiers in the Bay Area art world. The historical program now encompasses Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, Vorticism, and German Expressionism, as well as the Russian Avant-Garde. Historical landmarks have included the first major West Coast retrospective of Le Corbusier in 2003, and the first major American exhibition of paintings, drawings, collages, and photographs by Erwin Blumenfeld in 2006. Over the past decade, Modernism has staged notable retrospectives of key modern artists including Edvard Munch, and historically important contemporary artists and photographers including Mel Ramos, John Register, Jacques Villeglé, and Judy Dater.


HB: Tell us about Modernism West.

MM: Modernism West located at Foreign Cinema in the Mission District opened about 20 years later, in the early 2000s. The idea was to feature large scale, often experimental contemporary artworks.

HB: What was/is your objective with the gallery?

MM: Early on, being passionate about many of the key early twentieth century art movements like: Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, etc., and the fact that there was no way to interact with such artworks in San Francisco at the time, it made sense to develop an exhibition program featuring the different facets of these schools, first in San Francisco, and by extension, to the West Coast.

HB: What was your first major exhibition?

MM: In 1981, I curated a first large Russian Avant-garde (1910-1930) exhibition in San Francisco, including important works by K. Malevich, L. Popova, A. Exter, A. Bogomazov, A. Rodchenko, and others.

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

HB: Was Modernism an immediate success?

MM: It took a long time and much hard work to establish a meaningful international identity and serious credibility.

HB: Tell us about a few “blockbuster” or extremely successful exhibitions (however you wish to define success–not necessarily financial).

MM: Our first 1982 big painting exhibition of Andy Warhol in San Francisco was a pivotal moment in the history of the gallery, followed by several other pioneering shows, including Ken Price, Tom Wesselman, Mel Ramos, R. Crumb, John Register, Mark Stock, and importantly, the great architect and painter, Le Corbusier! Many more followed.

HB: Do you have a favorite exhibition?

MM: John Register is one of my heroes. He is, in my opinion, to the second half of the twentieth century, what Edward Hopper was to the first half in terms of the very best in American Realism.

HB: I understand you have had over 60 portraits of yourself either painted or photographed. Which one are displayed in your home?

MM: I relate to the portraits of John Register and Mark Stock.

HB: Of all your exhibition, do you have one of which you are the proudest?

MM: I am proud to have exhibited particularly challenging artists like Gottfried Helnwein, Herman Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, new realist artists like Jacques Villeglé, Mimmo Rotella, and remarkable abstract painters like Naomie Kremer and Edith Baumann.

HB: How many artists do you represent?

MM: Modernism represents nearly 50 contemporary artists from around the world. We contribute to current artistic dialogues, both representational and abstract, with several dozen shows per year presented at both Modernism and Modernism West, as well as art fairs in North America and Europe. Areas of focus include conceptual and textual work, and art that meaningfully addresses important sociopolitical concerns.

HB: Will you tell us about 3 or 4 of the artists you represent and why?

MM: I can’t think of many artists who address current social and political issues critically with so much clarity, simplicity, depth and beauty as G. Helnwein.
In recent years, the paintings and hybrid works by Israeli artist Naomie Kremer have dramatically explored new ways to view and explore painting by crisscrossing a broad range of conceptual and visual ideas. Very rewarding work!

HB: Will you tell us about your extensive personal collection exhibited in Little Rock Arkansas in 2018? It is published in an impressive, scholarly book: Independent Vision Modern and Contemporary Art from the Martin Muller Collection.

MM: As far as my personal art collection, it reflects my adult journey around the Sun, emotionally and intellectually. A constant source of pleasure, stimulation, and nurturing.

HB: How many exhibitions have you had at Modernism and Modernism West?

MM: So far and after 43 years in San Francisco, Modernism has produced over 450 exhibitions, and published 66 books.

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller  Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon –   MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

HB: You also publish books?

MM: The gallery regularly publishes books, monographs, catalogs, and fine art editions, including notable volumes about gallery artists Mel Ramos, Naomie Kremer, Gottfried Helnwein, Elena Dorfman, Charles Arnoldi; the most recent, a scholarly monograph on French artist Jacques Villeglé, authored by Barnaby Conrad III.

HB: I just have to ask–the human angle: What is your dream vacation?

MM: Every year, I spend some time off in the South of France, at The Belles-Rives in Juan-les-Pins. Always a precious time to reflect and reset

How do you balance your personal life, down time with your demanding schedule?

MM: My personal time and my professional time, up to now, are one.

What is your favorite food, I understand you have a namesake Martini.

MM: Yes, the Martin Muller Martini! Here’s the recipe:

4-5 Ice Cubes in a Martini Shaker
2-3 drops of white sweet Lillet
A full slice of orange (blood Orange when possible)
Kettle One Vodka
All well shaken not stirred
Served straight up in a Martini Glass with an Orange Twist

A few favorite restaurants around the globe, including San Francisco

MM: Bix in San Francisco, Marea in New York, Wiltons in London, Roberto in Geneva, Brasserie Lipp in Paris… just to name a few.

Your favorite hotel for a holiday

MM: My favorite hotels for time out:

Le Belles-Rives, in Juan-les-Pin
The Suvretta House, in St Moritz
Le Sirenuse, in Positano
And of course, Claridge’s in London, where the price of rooms has tripled and more. They are happy if you cancel because dozens of people are waiting in line to stay at their hotel.

HB: If you were not living/working in the Bay area, where would you want to be?

MM: If not living in the Bay Area, I could live in the south of France part of the year…with frequent trips to London, Paris, and Rome.

Barnaby Conrad III, a long-time associate and friend has written several essays about Martin Muller.

I spoke to Barnaby about Martin:

I first met Martin Muller in 1984 when his then 2-year-old white box gallery Modernism Inc. was located way south of Market on 8th Street. We instantly bonded. Over the next four decades, we shared art, literature, wine, skiing, and friendship from San Francisco and Paris to St. Moritz and St. Petersburg. As an incurable reader, Martin delights in sharing great books, both classic and avant-garde, which have expanded my literary vision immensely. Martin is a wonderful godfather to my son Jack, and an engaged critical colleague regarding my ongoing literary work. It is impossible to imagine life without Martin—not just for me but also for the city of San Francisco itself.

And why? Because Martin is passionate about Art, and always ahead of the curve. He was the first San Francisco gallerist to show the works of the Russian Avant-Garde, Andy Warhol, cartoonist R. Crumb, John Register, Mark Stock, and Austrian master Gottfried Helnwein—the list of gallery firsts continues to this day, including his current exhibition of works by 96-year-old French artist Jacques Villeglé, who he first showed in SF in 2003. My new book Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris would never have happened without Martin’s enthusiasm, guidance, and generosity. Merci, cher ami Martin!

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller  Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon –   MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

During the pandemic Modernism launched
#Essential Art Online Exhibitions:

Modernism presented Created in Place an #EssentialArt Online Exhibition, September to October, 2020. Modernism closed, three days after opening Naomie Kremer’s Embodiment exhibition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place orders. Shortly thereafter, more galleries closed due to Covid, which was an unprecedented and challenging period for artists. Modernism launched an #EssentialArt program, a series of video vignettes visiting its artists’ studios. They shared a broad presentation of works “Created in Place” each taking a different approach to the artists’ work. Judy Dater in Berkeley began her Plague Journal on day one of the shelter-in-place, an ongoing photo and text-based diary chronicling her new daily life. Gottfried Helnwein in Ireland, whose work, fittingly for this time, already addresses the human condition and ills of the world, revisited his iconic Mickey Mouse portrait series, with the large-scale painting Crimson Mouse, in which Mickey looms with portent. Jacques Villeglé, isolating in St. Malo, France, also “confined” himself to making drawings on the subject “L’art est?” (Art is?). For photographer Stephen Somerstein, who photo-documented the famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr., there was no question that he would take as his subject the current Black Lives Matter protests in San Francisco.

While Modernism remained closed due to the Covid circumstances it also held a print retrospective of John Register (1939-1996): marking the first in a series of online-exclusive #EssentialArt exhibitions. At a time when much of the American population was practicing self-isolation, with retail stores, cafes, transit centers, and restaurants empty and shuttered, John Register’s work resonates more than ever.

The world has opened up again; Martin Muller and Modernism are proceeding with the excellent and stunning exhibitions for which they are known.

A recent exhibition :
Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris
May-June, 2022

Modernism presented its eighth in-depth survey of décollage works by one of France’s most influential contemporary artists, Jacques Villeglé. This stunning exhibition also marked the release of a major new monograph: Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris by prolific and brilliant author, Barnaby Conrad III, the first comprehensive book on
Jacques Villeglé in English.

In various publications and media releases Modernisms states that for over seventy years, Jacques Villeglé’s work has played an important role in redefining what constitutes a work of art. He is an artist who was instrumental in bringing the streetscape into the space of the exhibition. The artist spent most of his life wandering the streets of Paris, pulling torn advertising posters off the ancient walls and pronouncing them Art. “In seizing a poster, I seize history,” he says. “What I gather is the reflection of an era.”

VILLEGLÉ’s work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe, and is the collections of many important museums worldwide (Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Detroit Institute of Arts; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate Gallery, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Musée d’Israël, Jerusalem).

Sadly, Jacques Villeglé passed away in Paris during this exhibition. He was 96 years old.



Ever continuing his pursuit of excellence, Martin Muller and Modernism in collaboration with James Butterwick Gallery exhibited the works of Ukrainian painter Oleksandr Bohomazov at the prestigious TEFAF Maastricht, Netherlands, end June. TEFAF Maastricht regarded as the world’s premier fair for fine art, antiques, and design, featuring over 275 vetted dealers from 20 countries.

As with many artists who lived in the former Soviet Union, Bohomazov (born in 1880) only came to global attention with the collapse of Communism in the 1990s. Since then, his works have been exhibited in solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Ukrainian Art, Kyiv; Musée d’Art Moderne, Toulouse, France; the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

His work is held in important private and public collections, amongst them are MOMA, New York and the Kröller Müller Museum, Netherlands.

For the TEFAF presentation, Oleksandr Bohomazov: Ukrainian Renaissance, the works included oils and works on paper created between 1908 and 1929, the year before the artist’s death from tuberculosis at the age of fifty. One of the highlights is Self-Portrait, 1914-1915, which reveals the influence of the Italian Futurists.

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller  Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon –   MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY
A few Artist of the Modernism Stable

Of the 50 artists Martin Mueller represents, perhaps none is more prominent and even controversial than Gottfried Helnwein, an Austrian Irish visual artist who works not only as a photorealist painter but is a superb draftsman, photographer, muralist, sculptor, installation and performance artist with a wide range of technique.

Over the past four decades, Gottfried Helnwein has developed an extraordinarily powerful and idiosyncratic visual vocabulary reflected in his masterful use of multiple media: painting, drawing, photography, performance, and stage design. Building on artistic precedents including the work of Francesco Goya, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Joseph Beuys, Helnwein addresses a broad range of social and political issues, resulting in challenging and provocative artworks. The metaphor for his art is dominated by the image of the child, particularly the wounded child, scarred physically and emotionally from within. Although at times disturbing, these works are deeply humane, and seek spiritual beauty often approaching the transcendental.

Most recently, the subject of a major retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Helnwein’s work has been exhibited extensively worldwide, and is featured in the collections of major museums in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Mel Ramos [1935-2018] was an American Pop artist best known for his paintings of female nudes alongside brand logos. His depictions of women with everyday products celebrate aspects of popular culture represented in mass media and advertising. Like his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Ramos was inspired by comic books, and grew up drawing cartoons and characters from their pages. The artist’s works, including paintings, prints, and works on paper, feature in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others.

The paintings of John Register [1939-1996] chronicle a search for overlooked beauty in unpeopled places. As a record of America’s depersonalized landscapes, his paintings of empty coffee shops in Los Angeles, old hotels in Chicago, and bus stations in the Southwestern desert celebrate sunlight, but also a haunting stillness tinged with regret and hope. Though he called himself a realist, Register filtered the observed world through a tightly focused emotional lens. Often starting with snapshots of his subject, the artist absorbed and dramatically distilled early sketches until the finished painting appeared weeks or even years later bearing little resemblance to the original scene.

In his last decade, many of Register’s images came from the streets of Los Angeles, a city to him that epitomized the alienation of American life. “When I drive around L.A.,” he said in 1989, “I look for an offbeat beauty. I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it. There are things so ugly that I can’t paint them. Sometimes I get depressed by that city, and by other cities I visit. But I like the patina of things that have been battered by life.”

A persistent observer, Register claimed these places not just as American scenes but as expressions of a philosophical inner landscape. Register first exhibited with Modernism in 1982, with eight subsequent solo exhibitions before his death.

When Kristine Mays first saw Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s iconic modern ballet, she was moved by the bodies in motion, and Ailey’s transposition to the stage of his experiences growing up as an African American in segregated Texas. Ailey’s masterpiece gave choreographic expression to physical labor on plantations, and the spiritual work of the Baptist church. As a contemporary African American sculptor, Mays was inspired to attempt an even more radical transformation, capturing these kinds of physical and spiritual movement in thousands of interconnected strands of wire.

Mays has developed her unique sculptural method over more than a decade. Each piece takes at least sixty hours of labor during which she gives form to a human body or garment without reliance on a mold or model. Especially remarkable are the gestural qualities that make the works appear both animate and soulful. “I am breathing life into wire,” she says. “With each work, I create a form that reveals the essence of a person and that speaks to humanity as a whole.”

Recently, Modernism presented a dozen of Mays’ large-scale wire sculptures in Threads of Existence, her first one-person exhibition with the gallery. All of the works reference African American heritage or her own; their technical virtuosity is in the same league as the wire sculptures of Ruth Asawa. However, Mays’ work can also be fiercely political, an eloquent artistic expression of feminism akin to Anselm Kiefer’s powerful new Femmes Martyres sculpture series, and an equally powerful sculptural statement of anti-racism. Mays’ art puts humanity front and center by compelling viewers to see the people within the loops of wire.

Raymond Holbert’s studio is a swimming pool. His underwater set is an otherworldly space where models can express themselves with angelic grace. A versatile artist who has worked in media ranging from pen-and-ink to color photography, Holbert approaches his studio not only as a realm where physical movement is unconstrained but also where the imagination has free reign. The creative act is a collaborative performance by the models and artist. Holbert calls it an Aquatic Opera.

Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller  Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon –   MODERNISM GALLERY
Renowned International Art Dealer Martin Muller Founder and Owner of a San Francisco Icon – MODERNISM GALLERY

His seamless digital collages invite the spectator into the performative space where the dancers await in a state of suspended animation. Some of the men and women wear spectacular costumes, a reminder of Holbert’s decades of experience in fashion photography. The audience’s experience is further enhanced by Holbert’s evocative titles, often laced with operatic references such as aria and adagio. The result is a fresh contribution to artistic engagement with swimming seen in the work of masters such as David Hockney. Yet it is equally notable for the numinous quality of a space unconstrained by gravity, a contemporary perspective on the heavenly tableaux of Tiepolo, and a complement to Kehinde Wiley’s overhead stained-glass paintings of break dancers at Penn Station.

Great news from Modernism is that works on view at the gallery by Kristine Mays – Threads of Existence and Raymond Holbert – Aquatic Opera: Adagio for a Duet, 2019 have been acquired by the Crocker art Museum.

Here’s What’s Next at Modernism:

Nudes and Odalisques
September – October 2022

A museum-quality selection of 31 prints produced by
Matisse between 1913 and 1947, focusing on his nude and draped representations of women in the 1920s, a period during which he almost single-handedly made lithography modern, is on view at Modernism through October 2022.

Printed by the artist in small editions usually not exceeding fifty
examples, these works on paper display Matisse’s genius for line and composition in their purest form—dazzling the eyes with nothing more than black ink on white paper. For all his acclaim as a colorist, Matisse considered the line to be fundamental to his art, working toward his great canvases by drawing from life.

Printmaking provided Matisse with a medium in which the directness and intimacy of those drawings could be transformed into finished works as autonomous as the great paintings. His prints proved also to be an ideal space for formal experimentation, and the perfection of the aesthetic qualities he most valued. With no margin for error, plate and stone challenged the artist to live up to the standard he articulated in Notes of a Painter: “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share”.

Works in “Nudes and Odalisques” range from the deceptively simple to the spectacularly complex. The former category includes etchings of almost impossibly few lines, verging on abstraction, such as Jeune fille rêvant près d’un bocal de poissons (1929), showing a young woman gazing past a bowl of fish. The latter category includes lithographs of such subtle shading that the subjects emerge from the page, such as Le renard blanc (1929), depicting a young woman cloaked in a luxurious white fox coat. Matisse’s passion for the exotic is well represented in voluptuous odalisques such as La jeune hindoue (1929).

The eroticism is no less intense in the spare Nu couché sur sol fleuri (1929), a work that also illustrates Matisse’s ability to take a figure such as the arabesque as a graphic element unifying the curves of the female body, the contours of bourgeois French furniture, and the patterns of period textiles, all brought to life by the subtlest variations in the ways his stylus touches the drawing surface. “One must always search for the desire of the line,” Matisse told the great collector Sarah Stein in 1908. The lithographs and etchings in “Nudes and Odalisques” deliver the bounty of his search–and are bound to stir up desire in connoisseurs and collectors today.

As if the above were not accomplishments enough, this gracious gentleman, art dealer, gallerist, scholar, bibliophile, watercolorist, gourmet, exquisite host, man of exemplary taste and genuine, generous friend to many also is also a publisher of books, catalogues and posters which are available at the Gallery.