Gallerist Denise René, Known as the "Pope of Abstraction" for Championing Op and Kinetic Art, is Dead at 99

Gallerist Denise René, Known as the "Pope of Abstraction" for Championing Op and Kinetic Art, is Dead at 99
Denise René
(Courtesy Odense Bys Museer)

Denise René, whose galleries in Paris, New York, and Düsseldorf are credited with bringing canonical movements of postwar art to the public, has died at the age of 99. Over the weekend, news sources throughout France including Le Parisien have referred to her as the "Pope of Abstraction" for her close relationships with Jean ArpAlexander Calder, and Piet Mondrian, crediting her exhibitions with the success of kinetic art and Op art, and echoing praise of her eye for pre-war sensibilities and Eastern European artists, in particular Victor Vasarely.

René was first persuaded to enter the art business after meeting Vasarely at the Café de Flore in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood in 1939. The gallery's inaugural show, "Drawings and Compositions by Vasarely" was an enormous success, and allowed her to take increasingly risky and assertive decisions as an exhibitor in years to come. This included an exhibition of work by Max Ernst in 1945, long before the German artist was broadly established, as well as the 1955 exhibition "Le Mouvement," which made a lasting contribution to the public's appreciation of kinetic art. Two years later, Le Monde notes that René orchestrated the first exhibition of work by Piet Mondrian in France — at a time when the Dutch modernist was still being avoided by museums and mainstream critics.


In 2001, the Pompidou Center in Paris exhibited "The Intrepid Denise René, A Gallery in the Adventure of Abstract Art, 1944 -1978" in recognition of René's accomplishments. Describing her as a collector and gallerist "without equal," the show highlighted her advocacy of Carlos Cruz-Diez and Heinz Mack, whose manipulable and interactive sculptures foresaw the rise of participatory art and relational aesthetics. René's contributions to "The Responsive Eye," which showed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1965, are also described as an "apogee" of Op art in the United States. "A gallery is more than just an aesthetic conception," Jean-Paul Ameline, conservator at the Pompidou Center recently told Le Monde. "It's a way of functioning. She knew how to make collectors come, to be present there, where they needed to be."