Paris’s Peckham

The Austrian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac’s gallery has been a presence in central Paris since 1990 but – like the London arch-gallerist Jay Jopling before him, with his ever-evolving White Cube empire – expansion to larger and premises started to seem increasingly desirable a couple of years ago. (Antony Gormley’s four-tonne sculptures are not wholly conducive to the narrow, medieval streets of the Marais.) Ropac scoured more conventional spots before alighting upon a derelict radiator factory in the altogether un-chic neighbourhood of Pantin, which is – quelle horreur! – in one of Paris’s banlieues.

“I walked into it two years ago,” says the genial Ropac, “and knew this was the one.”

As far as the building goes, it’s not hard to see why: light streams into the vast factory from rows of painstakingly restored 1900s-era skylights. “We had 300 people in here for the opening dinner,” says Ropac. The inaugural shows, which are on display when I visit, are of Anselm Kiefer paintings and Joseph Beuys, two heavyweights from Ropac’s stable, that includes numerous American and European art legends.

Talking of stables, there’s a live white horse in the Beuys exhibition, displayed in the performance space in one of the outhouses – I know this because it turns its head suddenly; I had initially thought it was stuffed. It’s part of a recreation of Beuys’s last action event, the seminal Titus Andronicus/ Iphigenie, in Frankfurt in 1969. Ropac’s own links with Beuys are deeply personal: having discovered the artist in Vienna in the early 1980s he fell under his spell, wrote to him and asked to become his intern. A year later, in 1983, he opened his first gallery in Salzburg. For the disciple now to be showing the work of his shaman must be the fulfilment of a life’s work.

Whether he can persuade snobby Parisians to make the pilgrimage north of the Périphérique is another matter. Though Ropac insists the area is on the up, a buzz seems so far distinctly lacking. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: another art big-hitter, Larry Gagosian, has just opened a Paris outpost too (also with a show of Kiefer) and his is so far into the banlieues as to be in an airport – handy for oligarchs. At least Pantin has a bit more soul than that. Paris’s Peckham? Not sure yet but watch this quartier. Thomas Calvocoressi

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.