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William Burke obituary | Art and design


My friend William Burke, who has died of a heart attack aged 71, was a distinguished gallerist and collector whose passionate love of the arts led to close associations with many notable cultural figures. As an American in Paris, he was also an anglophile, who nurtured friendships and professional relations between New York, London and Paris.

Born in the small Bible belt town of Marianna, Arkansas, William was the adopted son of Robert Burke, a post office clerk, and his wife, Sarah (nee Stevenson). He grew up in a modest home, built by his father, in what was a poor community during the American civil rights era.

Excelling at high school, William went on to study literature and history at Hendrix College, in nearby Conway, and then spent his third year studying in Paris.

After graduating back in Arkansas in 1971 he returned to live in Paris, where he worked for the arts patron Bénédicte Pesle, helping her to present American avant-garde artists, including Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, to French audiences.

In 1972 he joined the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend as an assistant, working with Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George and Robert Rauschenberg. Cy Twombly, with whom he had a shared understanding due to their American southern roots, also became a close friend.

From the early 1970s until the late 80s William lived in the apartment of Warhol’s business manager, Fred Hughes, on Rue du Cherche-Midi, where Warhol always stayed when he visited Paris. Described by Warhol as “our man in Paris”, William was responsible for making the arrangements whenever Warhol came to town.

In 1977, with Samia Saouma, he opened the gallery La Remise du Parc, specialising in photography – from rare 19th-century photographs to Robert Mapplethorpe’s first European solo exhibition in 1978. William and Samia ran the gallery together until he left in 1983. Thereafter he made a living by dealing in art privately, dividing his time between Paris and New York.

William’s intelligence, wit and charisma endeared him to everyone he met. However, at different times throughout his life he had bipolar disorder and this led him from periods of intense energy to bouts of deep depression. At heart he was a bibliophile and an aesthete: his was a life well lived in the face of these challenges.

He was predeceased by his sisters, Frances and Eberle.

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