“YOU SEE WHY Cologne is so pleasant?” the critic Boris Pofalla asked me, pointing to the dancers bouncing on the floor at the Köln-Ehrenfeld studio of the Meiré Brothers. “No bearded hipsters looking for free booze. In Berlin, every opening is a party. In Cologne it’s different: A party is a party and an opening is an opening.”
It was Wednesday night, and we were in the midst of an unofficial, well-attended afterparty for Art Cologne. I agreed: For an art event—in all its cheerful, self-aware, posthipster decency—this was a pretty good one. Everything seemed just right: the minimalist setting (silver foil flying over the heads of the dancers serving as a disco ball surrogate), bass-saturated tunes selected by Gigiotto del Veccio (of Supportico Lopez gallery) followed by a heartwarming performance of techno singer-songwriter Justus Köhncke. Hello Cologne!
In newspaper columns, post-’89 Berlin is often referred to as the “laboratory of the German unification”—insecure, like a teenager during adolescence. With the Rhineland it’s a very different affair: The overall feeling is less restless, and the area’s institutions developed not over years but decades. (Art Cologne, for instance, is the world’s oldest art fair, founded in 1967.) Maybe this is exactly the reason why we love going to Cologne; it’s a living museum. “Cologne is a city where you can study the old West Germany,” said the Berlin-based writer Katja Kullmann. “On its most modern corners, it looks like 1994.” (She meant that as a compliment.) And when it comes to the fair, Art Cologne, now in its forty-eighth edition, is by far the best German one around. Yes, it’s true: There is no better way to start the spring season than a visit to the Rhineland.
The quality of the fair has steadily improved since Daniel Hug took over as director of the historically charged but declining Art Cologne in 2008. Important dealers keep coming back—among them this year were Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA), Esther Schipper, Susanne Vielmetter, Daniel Buchholz, Gisela Capitain, Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner. “Hug is like a marathon man who will not give up bringing certain dealers back to the fair,” said one Cologne-based dealer. And everyone seems to praise the density of collectors. “Those that frequent the Cologne fair are absolutely reliable,” said Alexander Schroeder of Galerie Neu. Of course, this also means that acquisitions are steady in pace. A heated buying frenzy might be the norm in Basel, Miami, and London, but it’s just not the way of the wealthy German Mittelstand.
The rivalry between Cologne and Berlin that defined their relationship for almost a decade is finally over. After the closure of the competing Art Forum Berlin fair in 2011, a kind of silent agreement has set: Berlin got the bulk of the galleries, the artists, and the creativity, whereas Cologne is all about the fair, the institutions, collectors, and the money. “I would be happy if Cologne, my hometown, would seize the fourth place in Europe, after Basel, London, and Paris,” David Zwirner told the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. “There are still fairs who are fierce competitors. But the position in the center of Europe is perfect. Concerning Cologne in general: After the wall came down, artists and dealers left for Berlin. But meanwhile one can say that Berlin has not kept its promise.” But maybe the situation proves a little more complex than this. It is precisely the rise of Berlin that helped to shake up the old Cologne establishment and its invisible hierarchies, catapulting the German art scene to a new level. And it’s obvious that Art Cologne, with its strong presence of Berlin-based galleries, is profiting from this evolution.
Left: Dealer Peter Currie and artist Lutz Bacher. Right: Collector Michael Ballack, dealer Monika Sprüth, and entrepreneur Nicola Miracapillo.
Whatever the speed, any fair tends to be a superficial experience: too much art to see, too many people to meet. I need more direction than that. In Cologne I spent time investigating a sculptural subgenre that has appeared for some years now, inextricably linked with fair culture: functional art. One of the most prominent examples was a comfy mustard-yellow sofa-sculpture by Bjarne Melgaard at Guido Baudach’s booth. At CFA’s double-size booth, two kinds of these works were featured: Sarah Lucas’s hard-edged concrete-and-MDF furniture, as well as two sofa-objects (titled Opium and Low Confession) by Tal R. (The latter objects’ upholstery resembles an IKEA dorm-room rug, and is even removable for eventual cleaning, a gallery assistant informed me.) KM, a smart gallery run by Nina Köller and Jens Mentrup, featured a whole mobile office structure in striking colors, produced by the Hamburg-based artist Tillmann Terbuyken.
The only sofa that didn’t seem for sale was the one in the back room of Gisela Capitain’s gallery on St.-Apern-Straße. Brown, bulky, with a cover made of thick pig leather, it sat quite prominently in the installed but yet-to-be-open Wade Guyton show. Was it art? Hard to tell. Someone informed me that the sofa had been purchased by the artist in Hamburg and was waiting in the gallery until the end of the show to be shipped to his studio in New York. And indeed, I can attest that it’s a fine piece of furniture, having sat on it the Thursday of fair week to contemplate the magic of improv legend Joe McPhee, during an event jointly organized by Capitain, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and David Nolan Gallery. With his saxophone, McPhee created an acoustic space within the white cube that was all about sound, the human body, musical breathing, and the pleasure of listening.
Before the McPhee performance I’d gone to the Museum Ludwig for the opening of Pierre Huyghe’s traveling midcareer survey exhibition, which originated last winter at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition space was overcrowded, but it was clear that this is an extremely exceptional show that will bring visitors from all over Germany. Of course, the Ludwig is drawing attention not only for art these days. Cologne’s gossip factory is working overtime after the unexpected resignation last December of Philipp Kaiser after only one year as director. (Currently Katia Baudin, curator of the Huyghe retrospective, is acting as interim director.) According to Susanne Laugwitz-Aulbach, Cologne’s councilor in charge of cultural affairs, a new director will be appointed before the summer break. Several names are circulating, but according to some, a “local solution” is most likely. At the dinner after the ceremony of the Wolfgang Hahn Prize (awarded this year to the painter Kerry James Marshall), former Ludwig director Kasper König took the microphone for an informal address to the members of the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst, influential Ludwig supporters. It sounded like König, who retired from his job in October 2012 and who is currently curating the next Manifesta in Saint Petersburg, might still have some say in the fate of the Ludwig.
It was Sunday morning as my train left Cologne’s main station, heading back to Berlin. Before entering the Hohenzollernbridge, an impressive arched steel structure over the Rhine, the train stopped for a minute right next to the Museum Ludwig. It was just long enough to whisper farewell to this city and its people and, of course, Human, the white dog with the pink feet that strolls endlessly through the Huyghe show just a few feet away.
Left: Phillips auction house director Martin Klosterfelde. Right: Artist Christopher Williams, collector Julia Stoschek, and curator Ann Goldstein.
Left: John Kennedy, Rebeccah Blum, and dealer David Nolan. Right: Designated director of Kunsthalle Basel Elena Filipovic and Haus der Kunst Munich curator Patrizia Dander.
Left: Museum Ludwig interim director Katja Baudin. Right: Contemporary Fine Arts’s Nicole Hackert and Philipp Haverkampf.
Left: Dealers Barbara Weiss, Tanya Leighton, Patrick Armstrong. Right: Music producer Justus Köhncke.
Left: Dealers Robert Meijer, Markus Lüttgen, and Kate Werble. Right: Museum für Moderne Kunst director Susanne Gaensheimer and Lenbachhaus Munich curator Matthias Mühling.
Left: Artist Andreas Mühe (artist) and collector Astrid Bscher. Right: Die Welt deputy editor in chief Cornelius Tittel and curator Doris Mampe.
Left: FORT’s Jenny Kropp and Alberta Niemann. Right: Artistic director Günther Graf von der Schulenburg and dealer Alexander Sies.
Left: Collector Wilhelm Schürmann and dealer Alexander Koch. Right: Artists Laura Catania and Christoph Westermeier.
Left: Collector Ivo Wessel and artist Joep van Liefland. Right: Dealer Tobias Naehring and critic Pablo Larios.
Left: Artist Michaela Melián, curator Veit Loers, and dealer Jan Wentrup. Right: Collector Axel Haubrock.
Left: Bielefelder Kunstverein director Thomas Thiel and architect Elisabeth von Reden. Right: Dealer Natalia Hug and writer Cynthia Scholten.
Left: Kölnischer Kunstverein director Moritz Wesseler. Right: Entrepreneur Marc Meiré, consultant Michael Neff, Gallery Weekend Berlin’s Maike Cruse, creative director Mike Meiré, and Audemars Piguet Germany’s Nicolas de Quatrebarbes.
Left: Folkwang Museum Essen director Tobia Bezzola and Setareh Gallery Düsseldorf director Emma Nilsson. Right: Dealer Johann König and collector Ingvild Goetz.
Left: Artist and Akademie der Künste president Klaus Staeck. Right: Attorney Tilmann Steinert and dealer Max Mayer.