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The youngest of five children (his parents were both doctors), Taschen went into business at the age of 12, when he started a mail-order business selling used comic books. At 15 he was financially independent, and at 18 he opened a store, Taschen Comics, in Cologne. (He skipped college.) Soon he started publishing comics himself. The cover of Sally Forth, the first Taschen Comics publication, shows a voluptuous nude blond in high heels being ogled by a variety of gnomelike creatures with bulging eyeballs — sex and voyeurism, a major Taschen theme, were already to the fore. A photograph taken in 1980 shows the young entrepreneur standing in his tiny shop, surrounded by comics and customers. He has the dark circles of a young workaholic and looks for all the world like a Continental analog of the obsessive, record-collecting hero of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity.
But unlike Hornby's hero, Taschen made money. In 1982, he opened a new, three-story store and was photographed for the venerable German magazine Der Spiegel standing in front of a homoerotic Taschen poster of a male nude. Two years later, he gambled on the book business by buying up 40,000 remaindered copies of an English-language monograph on René Magritte and sold them at double the price. The gamble paid off, and within a short time Taschen was publishing a book of Annie Leibovitz photographs under his own imprint. Books on Picasso, Dali, M.C. Escher and others quickly followed.
The hallmarks of the Taschen business method were in place almost immediately: quality products at low prices, high print runs, an instinctive feel for the popular pulse, and savvy, provocative marketing. The book on Dali was sent to bookstores together with a poster of the surrealist looking indignant under the slogan "A GENIUS LIKE ME FOR ONLY $6.99?" To this he would later add an impressive sales-and-distribution system that has made him a truly global publisher. Two years ago, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas reported finding a book he'd published with Taschen on sale at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria.
By 1990, Taschen had opened an office in a beautiful three-story 19th-century mansion on a busy, tree-lined street in Cologne. From the outside, it looks like the kind of building that might once have housed a respectable industrialist, but Taschen quickly set about changing that perception on the inside. He suspended a sculpture of a gondola by the artist Martin Kippenberger from the ceiling over the main staircase, installed a Donald Duck handle on the front door and hung a gigantic, photographically precise Jeff Koons painting of the artist being straddled by his Italian porn-star wife, La Cicciolina, in the boardroom. (Japanese visitors, in particular, are said to be shocked by it.)
While pushing ahead with his business, Taschen also found time to start a family with his first wife (they had three children together), although Angelika had already started working for him as an editor. (They married in 1996.) In 1993, he cemented his notoriety when he ran a provocative centerfold ad in Publishers Weekly to announce a change of distributor. In an article about the resulting furor, Crain's New York Business described the ad as "a photograph of a nude blond woman luridly leaning on a fully clothed man over the headline 'Luxury for Less.'" Taschen was the man, Angelika the blond, and the reaction was immediate and angry. "Shocking, tacky and in very poor judgment," fumed an editor at HarperCollins in a letter of protest. "It sends a disturbing message that women are just a commodity to be sold as a 'luxury.'" Hundreds more letters (and canceled subscriptions to Publishers Weekly) followed.
Taschen professes to be amazed by American attitudes toward sex. In particular by the problems he had with SUMO, which featured one of Newton's patented "big nudes" on the cover, breasts exposed. American booksellers wanted to airbrush the nipples on the poster advertising the book, and the cover could not be shown on television.
"What is really bizarre is that there's so much violence everywhere, on movies and TV, and then they are afraid of nipples," Taschen says, shaking his head. "They are really a big threat, like an alien terror attack — the nipple attack! It comes right after al Qaeda, the threat of the nipples. But besides that, I really love this country. With the nipples they have a little problem, but there are other problems in other countries, and so I can easily deal with this."
Taschen may have brought a trash aesthetic to the buttoned-up world of art publishing, but he delivered plenty of traditional museum-class goods, too. His editions of van Gogh and Picasso are considered definitive, and he has also published valuable works on more-neglected artists, such as Chaim Soutine, that are clearly labors of love. In 1994, Paris Interiors(edited by Angelika) kicked off what has become a long line of glossy explorations of travel-themed books. He also brought out several volumes of the extraordinary animal photographs of Frans Lanting, as well as risqué collections by grizzled artist-pornographers such as Elmer Batters (From the Tip of the Toes to the Top of the Hose), Eric Stanton (For the Man Who Knows His Place) and Theo Ehret (Exquisite Mayhem). Some of the artists had never been published in book form before. "You see, it's nice for these older guys to finally have their work taken seriously," Taschen told a reporter from Vanity Fair. "Then they die. But they die happy."