“BERLIN ART WEEK” kicked off last Tuesday as Germany’s election season was entering its final throes. The streets were plastered with billboards promoting more or less convincing slogans and faces. But there were other endgames at stake as well. “We do not talk about the death of painting,” Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann told journalists at that day’s press conference for “Painting Forever!” the joint venture of four powerful art institutions: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Neue Nationalgalerie. It was meant to be the highlight of the fall season, supported by the city with 500,000 Euros. “Painting is alive and will be alive in the future.” Oh, well. But then why does his exhibition, an all-male quartet at Neue Nationalgalerie, look so outdated?
At the Kunst-Werke, curator Ellen Blumenstein squeezed works by around seventy artists onto a single wall, salon style; they face another wall covered with statements by artists and intellectuals. Nobody I spoke with much liked it. But Berlin’s painters seem amazingly indulgent, even if they sulk a little bit, like artist and blogger Despina Stokou, who is even cited on the wall: “This is the third ‘painting show’ I am invited to this fall. After ‘Painting Forever!’ comes ‘Why Painting Now?’ and then ‘Painters Paradise.’ I should have drawn the line at ‘Painters Paradise,’ but I did not.”
That afternoon I met up with Austrian artist Elke Krystufek and critic Thibaut de Ruyter at Joseph-Roth-Diele, a famous artist hangout on Potsdamer Straße. By then, “Painting Forever!” was almost forgotten. Why bother? In Berlin, the galleries are still where it’s at, and there was much around to admire: shows like Betty Woodman’s wonderful and touching ceramics installations at Isabella Bortolozzi, or the David Shrigley exhibition at BQ, whose owners, Jörn Bötnagel and Yvonne Quirmbach, co-organized a whole Glasgow Festival–esque event at nearby Volksbühne, including a concert by art-school-rockers Franz Ferdinand, on Friday night.
It took a while, but we eventually made our way to Auguststraße for a small reception at Pauly Saal, organized by Javier Peres, for Dorothy Iannone, grand dame of the expat scene. From the windows, we had a good view onto the courtyard of the building, a former Jewish girls’ school, where Art Week’s VIP reception had already begun. I snuck over there just in time to catch Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit’s informal speech. “During Art Week, all of Berlin is an art fair too,” Wowereit said to the assembled. What does that mean? The mayor was smiling, which somehow made the phrasing all the more sinister.
Left: Dealer Barbara Weiss with artist Maria Eichhorn. Right: Dealer Johann König with artist Justin Matherly.
On Wednesday afternoon, I dropped by the Schinkel Pavillon, where the artist collective Gelitin was holding a weeklong, open workshop-performance. Schinkel Pavillon curator Nina Pohl had told me that the only thing she had asked of the artists was that they refrain from “pippi und kacka” onstage. When I visited, the space’s circular architecture had been repurposed into a mini-arena: Members of the group were making drip-castle sculptures, accompanied by a minimalist sound track, a somnolent moment in which one could easily doze off. But not for long: Suddenly, someone drove a motorcycle in from the terrace through the open window. Terror grew as members of the group fixed a balloon to the bike’s exhaust pipe, which expanded at a threatening pace.
I don’t know what happened next, since I had to leave for Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, where, among others, Nagel Draxler was opening an exhibition of hand-knit rugs and furniture-sculptures by Michael Beutler. The afterparty was held at the canteen of the Volksbühne (Brecht! Müller! Schlingensief!), and everyone had to fight with the theater people for seats. The Volksbühne folks made good use of their home-field advantage. It was a competitive affair, quite fitting for the pre-election political situation.
The jostle was good practice for Thursday’s outing, when everyone attended the eagerly awaited sixth edition of abc (Art Berlin Contemporary) at Station Berlin. The employment of former Art Basel spokesperson Maike Cruse as artistic director proved a smart move. Cruse changed much, but she also kept some traditions, one of them being the old protocol that, though everyone else is calling abc a “fair,” its organizers continue to refer to it as a “platform.”
Left: Dealer Gisela Capitain. Right: Kunsthalle Düsseldorf curator Elodie Evers, critic Antje Stahl, and dealer Thomas Fischer.
This year’s emphasis on performance was impossible to ignore. The sight of Hermann Nitsch wandering around with his big bushy beard and a dog-headed walking stick gave me a chill. (Nitsch participated in the event-rich program, squeezing fruits with his bare hands.) After a long day of strolling the fair, I joined dealer Barbara Weiss for a small dinner at one of her favorite tarte flambée restaurants in Schöneberg, named after the Neue Sachlichkeit photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. There I was seated next to legendary curator and dealer René Block and his wife Ursula, who runs Gelbe Musik—Berlin’s only true avant-garde record shop, where people like Björk go shopping when they are in town. We all enjoyed a lively conversation about Fondazione Prada’s remake of Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” in Venice, which was seen as, at the very least, a clever marketing move. However he feels about the show, it seems that Herr Block will continue to buy his shoes from Prada.
By Saturday, everyone was thoroughly exhausted, though I was still in the mood for more critical wrangling. I found it at a reception at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, where the artist Dan Keller had organized “Liquid Autist,” a group show featuring the likes of, among others, Simon Denny, Tue Greenfort, Jonathan Horowitz, Don Pettit, and Michael Wang. This might be the most hotly debated show of the season; indeed, the all-male list triggered an enlightening discussion on the gallery’s Facebook wall (“Sorry, but you can’t make a show with only male artists and say the show isn’t about gender,” wrote Lindsay Lawson), which seems to still have traction. After, Philipp Ekardt, the smart and genial new editor of Texte zur Kunst, suggested I follow the crowd to Urbanstrasse, where the artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff had opened New Theater, the latest Berlin it-spot. There I met everyone again and then some, including Ariane Müller, the artist and writer whose new book Handbuch für die Reise durch Afrika (Manual for the Journey through Africa) will be, I’m sure, the talk of Berlin over the coming weeks and months. And indeed, what is Berlin without that most essential element: something to argue about?
Left: Texte zur Kunst editor Philipp Ekardt. Right: Artists Corinne Wasmuht, Franz Ackermann, and Katharina Grosse.
Left: Dealers Henrikke Nielsen and Oliver Croy. Right: Artists Annette Kelm and Jeppe Hein with collector Christiane Kofler.
Left: Dealers Gordon VeneKlasen, Birte Kleemann, and Harry Scrymgeour. Right: Index's Kirsa Geiser and dealer Alexander Schröder.
Left: Artists Gregor Hildebrandt and Alicja Kwade. Right: Artist Robert Lazzarini and dealer André Schlechtriem.
Left: Dealers Nora Sdun and Sebastian Reuss of Galerie Dorothea Schlueter. Right: Curator Raphael Gygax and publisher René Schmitt.
Left: Architects Etienne Descloux and Tobias Engelschall with writer and curator April Lamm. Right: Ariane Beyn, director Visual Arts DAAD, with artist AA Bronson, and architect Mark Krayenhoff.
Left: Artist Anna Blessman with dealers Gigiotto Del Vecchio and Stefania Palumbo and artist Jan Peter Hammer. Right: Artist Antje Majewski with Thomas Köhler, director of Berlinische Galerie.
Left: Artist Mariechen Danz on Stage at Auguststrasse. Right: Artist Nevin Aladag with dealers Tina Wentrup and Nadine Knotzer.
Left: Collectors Stephanie Eckerskorn and Robert Müller-Grünow, Praxes curator Rhea Dall, and publisher Jörg Koch of 032c. Right: Bonner Kunstverein curator Fanny Gonella with artist Christian Falsnaes.
Left: Dealer Lisa Bosse and artist Nasan Tur. Right: Dealer Oliver Körner von Gustorf with Britta Färber of Deutsche Bank.
Left: Dealer Yvonne Quirmbach and artist Thomas Locher. Right: Dealers Adrian Sutton and Lisa Bosse.
Left: VIP relations consultant Michael Neff (middle) with artist Michael Beutler (right). Right: Spector Books' Jan Wenzel.
Left: Writer Stefan Heidenreich and artist Deborah Ligorio. Right: Writer Annika Kuhlmann and artist Britta Thie.