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Issue 184

Report from the Rhine

Two exhibitions in Cologne and Düsseldorf showcase the unique history of art in the region

BY Pablo Larios in Critic's Guides | 05 JAN 17

Contemporary art from Germany has long garnered international attention – a recent case in point being the retrospective of Kai Althoff’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Lost in transmission, though, are the regional structures underpinning this apparent cosmopolitanism: the work done in small municipal museums, kunstvereins and kunsthalles, where contemporary art commands a level of civic interest and investment that would be unusual in most other countries.

Nowhere better exemplifies the influence of regional artistic networks than the Rhineland, where the density of institutions includes the Haus Esters and Haus Lange museums in Krefeld, the Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen, the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, the Ludwig Forum in Aachen and the Kunstverein and Kunsthalle in Cologne. It was in Düsseldorf that Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Hanne Darboven and the artists’ group Zero all attracted interest, and where Konrad Lueg (later Fischer), Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter held their 1963 demonstration for ‘capitalist realism’ in a furniture store. Ambitious exhibitions such as Laszlo Glozer and Kasper König’s ‘Westkunst: Contemporary Art since 1939’, which took place in 1981 in Cologne’s trade fair hall, pioneered the large-scale exhibition formats we know today.

For around two decades, Berlin has been hailed as Germany’s artistic centre, with countless studios and some 350 commercial galleries. Yet, in September 2016, the Galleries Association of Berlin issued a ‘position paper’ voicing concern about the city’s future, declaring that ‘the international competitiveness of Berlin galleries is under threat’. Rising rents, gentrification, an increase from seven to 19 percent in the VAT rate on art sales as well as a new Kulturschutzgesetz (a law to retain works of national cultural importance within Germany) has led to a fall both in the number of galleries in Berlin and participation in the city’s only art fair, art berlin contemporary (abc). The gallery and commercial sectors are particularly vulnerable in a capital city with little current institutional presence and little non-art industry – or money. Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie is closed for renovations until at least 2019. Will the city’s museum of modern art, which is set to open in 2021, be chronically beset with issues, like Berlin’s disastrous, long-overdue airport? The capital’s commercial galleries are still the drivers of artistic activity. But, without institutional support or long-term private investment, the art of Berlin is like a small flame all-too-easily snuffed out by an indifferent wind.

By contrast, cities such as Cologne and Düsseldorf have something Berlin doesn’t: continued civic and artistic dedication to their institutions, paired with a history of collaboration between the commercial and the non-profit artistic sectors. Cologne was the venue for the world’s first art fair, in 1967, as well as for the first ‘alternative’ art fair, Unfair, in 1992. The success of Cologne and Düsseldorf as international art centres has often been attributed to their commercial galleries. However, this underplays the significance not only of their institutions but also of their political and business interests.

Installation view of ‘Cloud and Crystal: The Collection of Dorothee and Konrad Fischer’ at K20, Düsseldorf, 2016. Courtesy: Kunstsammlung NRW; photograph: Achim Kukulies.

‘Someday, the Medici of the polluted Rhine will be subject for an interesting case study,’ wrote the curator Kasper König to Claes Oldenburg in 1978. König was referring to Peter Ludwig, an Aachen-based chocolate tycoon and professor of art history at the university of Cologne, was preparing to buy Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965–77). The unlikely story of how a Cologne museum came to bear Ludwig’s name is currently recounted in the institution’s 40th anniversary exhibition, ‘Wir nennen es Ludwig’ (We Call It Ludwig). The tycoon was among the first Germans to collect American pop art alongside art from the GDR, the Soviet Union and Latin America. In 1968, Ludwig consigned his collection of American art to the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (which still exists today as an independent entity); following a further major donation in 1976, it was renamed the Museum Ludwig. Re-opened by König in 2001, the institution now boasts one of the largest collections of pop art in the world. In an age when museum curators must raise funds for their exhibitions, it may seem uncontroversial but, at the time, Ludwig’s move was contentious for its marrying of private investment with a city institution that had fallen on hard times. It was also unusual then for works by living artists to be shown in museums. In the 1960s, dealers such as Heiner Friedrich, Rolf Ricke and Rudolf Zwirner were exploring nascent trends such as pop and, for the first time, donations and loans by businesspeople like Walter Hahn, Ludwig and Karl Ströher could be shown to the public almost immediately after their acquisition. In the words of art historians Julia Bernard and Stefan Germer, through this ‘new type of art collector’, the once-elitist establishments of Germany became museums that ‘paid homage to the art of their own time’ almost overnight.

In a 1979–80 essay from the recently published Working Conditions: The Writings of Hans Haacke (2016), the artist laments how ‘the ordinary taxpayer winds up subsidizing Ludwig’s power ambitions’, such as buying Soviet art to ‘open the Soviet market for his chocolate company’. Shown as part of ‘We Call it Ludwig’, Haacke’s Der Pralinenmeister (The Chocolate Master, 1981) outlines the tax benefits Ludwig received for his donation and critiques the city’s subservience to a businessperson. Also featured in the exhibition is a new video by the Guerilla Girls, Girlsplaining (2016), which continues in this vein, naming Ludwig as the inventor of the ‘private museum’ while castigating the male focus of the art in the collection. Less derisive is Ahmet Ögüt’s Bakunin’s Barricade (2015/16), for which paintings in the museum’s collection – including works by Oskar Kokoschka and Suzanne Valadon, as well as Andy Warhol’s Three Portraits of Peter Ludwig (1980) – are repurposed to form a barricade of paintings like the one proposed by revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin during the 1849 socialist insurgency in Dresden. The retrospective reveals how many of the questions currently surrounding the future of institutions were already being asked in the 1970s: how should taxpayer and government money be aligned with private investment? Must vanguard artistic activities alienate themselves from a ‘general public’? Haacke and Ludwig were at the centre of these debates. Art can and should still ask such questions; the longevity of the Ludwig Museum suggests that, in the best cases, a productive friction might ensue between interests that once appeared conflicted.

In Düsseldorf, the state collection of North Rhine Westphalia sheds light on the alignment between informal artistic activities and cultural exchanges from the 1960s onward. Currently on view at the Kunstsammlung NRW is ‘Wolke und Kristall. Die Sammlung Dorothee und Konrad Fischer’ (Cloud and Crystal: The Collection of Dorothee and Konrad Fischer), the result of a major donation in 2015 of 200 works from the Fischers’ collection of minimal and conceptual art, arte povera and land art, as well as the Fischer archive. Fischer’s decision to move into art dealing from being a practicing artist was instrumental in the development of conceptual art in the 1960s – a history documented here through works by artists including Hanne Darboven, Gilbert & George, Richard Long and Mario Merz. During a time of reinforced national borders, the exhibition makes a strong case for how art-historical progress is enacted through persistent recontextualization and exchange, such as Fischer’s far-seeing bid to move beyond the mere shipping of extant works to the commissioning of contextual-based installations, such as the first European shows of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.

The artist Christopher Williams, who lives in Cologne and is a professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, has said that he always gives his students a copy of Okey Dokey Konrad Fischer (2007), Brigitte Kölle’s account of the artist-dealer and his milieu. ‘Make your own context,’ Williams urges. Today, the young scene around the Kunstakademie continues in this spirit: the Studio for Propositional Cinema responds directly to the history of conceptual art in the region. Artists like Henning Fehr & Philipp Rühr and Alex Wissel have looked – at times critically – to the art history of the Rhineland. The stories of how Düsseldorf and Cologne became centres for contemporary art are partly attributable to their struggles to define themselves in the postwar era and their willingness to shape their own artistic self-conceptions with a view to the future. It goes to show how the moments in which art needs to ask basic questions about itself have always been the most fertile.

Main image: Andy Warhol, Three Portraits of Peter Ludwig (detail), 1980. Courtesy: Ludwig Museum, Cologne, and Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.