Cologne: Inside Out

Discussing the myths and realities of the Cologne art scene – a roundtable with Renate Goldmann, Hannes Loichinger, Marcel Odenbach, Susanne Titz and Gregory H. Williams. With photographs by Wilhelm Schürmann and Andrea Stappert

Eröffnungsabend in der Galerie Max Hetzler in der Kamekestraße, Köln, 1983 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

An opening at Galerie Max Hetzler, Kamekestraße, Cologne, 1983 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Renate Goldmann
holds a doctorate in art history and has been director of the Leopold Hoesch Museum & Paper Museum in Düren since 2010. From 1995 to 2000, she was an advisor to the Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy at the Federation of German Industries, after which she taught at Cologne University. From 2006 to 2009, she was artistic and managing director of Cologne’s Skulpturenpark.

Hannes Loichinger
is a research fellow at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. In 2012, with Valérie Knoll and Magnus Schäfer, he edited Dealing with—Some Texts, Images, and Thoughts Related to American Fine Arts, Co. (Sternberg Press, Berlin) a book on the history and context of the New York gallery American Fine Arts, Co. that closed in 2004. Since 2009, he has been co-editor of PROVENCE magazine with Tobias Kaspar.

Marcel Odenbach
lives and works in Cologne and Biriwa, Ghana. Until 2000 he held a professorship at the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne; since 2010 he has been professor of film and video at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. A comprehensive show of his drawings, collages and paper cut-outs opens at Kunstmuseum Bonn on 19 September 2013.

Susanne Titz
is an art historian. She studied in Cologne, Hamburg and Bonn. From 1997 to 2004, she directed the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein NAK, and since 2004 she has been director of the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach.

Gregory H. Williams
is assistant professor in History of Art & Architecture at Boston University. His book, Permission to Laugh: Humor and Politics in Contemporary German Art, was published in 2012 with the University of Chicago Press.

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frieze d/e  Marcel Odenbach, you’ve spoken in the past about your grandfather cancelling his membership of the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 1970 out of protest.

Marcel Odenbach  That was prompted by Harald Szeemann’s Happening & Fluxus show. Like many other people in Cologne, my grandfather said: I no longer wish to support this disgrace. For us teenagers, that was a cue to go and see what my grandfather thought was such a disgrace – my first visit to the Kunstverein.

frieze d/e  The following twenty years saw Cologne steadily establish itself on the map of the international art scene …

Marcel Odenbach  At the time, though, Düsseldorf was more the art city. It had the academy, and it was home to Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Reiner Ruthenbeck. In the evenings, we would go to the legendary Ratinger Hof bar in Düsseldorf to experience the art scene. In the early 1970s, Cologne did have galleries and the Kölner Kunstmarkt [the precursor of Art Cologne] – but compared with Düsseldorf the scene was more alternative. That only began to change in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Renate Goldmann  The paradigm shift for Cologne came in 1986 with the founding of Museum Ludwig. For me, the 1990 show African Sculpture: The Invention of the Figure was an important turning point, an attempt to consider contemporary art in a non-European context. Texte zur Kunst magazine was founded the same year. In 1992, the Unfair took place as an alternative to Art Cologne. In 1995, Taschen published the first book by Wolfgang Tillmans – and around this time came the next paradigm shift, the reorientation towards Berlin. But things were still happening in Cologne: in 2000, Kasper König became director of Museum Ludwig. And Art Cologne has kept its attraction. Cologne and Düsseldorf used to see themselves purely as rivals, but in recent years there has been more collaboration. And then there is the regional context, Rhineland, Belgium, the Netherlands – the TEFAF fair in Maastricht, for example. And added to all this, the presence of many collectors known for their generous, joyful, even indulgent approach.

Jutta Koether in einer Barbara-Kruger-Installation am Strand der Galerie Monika Sprüth auf der Art Cologne, 1988 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Jutta Koether in the Monika Sprüth gallery booth, featuring a Barbara Kruger installation, at Cologne art fair, 1988 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

frieze d/e  Susanne Titz, how did you see the status of Cologne in the 1980s within the context of the Rhineland?

Susanne Titz  I came to Cologne in 1984 to study, and at the time there really was this rivalry that Renate mentions: no one went to Düsseldorf. The only alternative to Cologne was a ticket to New York. It was the centre of the world. At this time, the local region was of marginal importance to us. In 1987, we went to Düsseldorf to see the brilliant Die Axt hat geblüht (The Axe Has Blossomed) show at the Kunsthalle, about the avant-gardes in 1937. But that was one of the few exceptions.

Marcel Odenbach  That is true in principle – but in the early ’80s, the only institution in Cologne showing contemporary art was the Kunstverein. And we would always go to Essen, to the Folkwang Museum and Zdenek Felix, with exhibitions like 10 Young Artists from Germany in 1982, a famous show of the neo-expressionist ‘Neue Wilde’.

Susanne Titz  Yes, I was referring to the period from the mid-1980s. Before that, things were different. We went to Eindhoven, Brussels or Antwerp. But Cologne remained non-institutional – it was the artists, the collectors, the galleries and the critics who set the tone, not the museum directors and curators.

frieze d/e  Is the reverse true today? The Rhineland offers an unparalleled regional concentration of art societies and museums – perhaps the densest landscape of contemporary art institutions anywhere in the world.

Marcel Odenbach  That’s true – but from the late 1960s on, other institutions played an influential role in Cologne: the state broadcaster WDR was hugely important for those artists connected with Fluxus and happenings. Theatre and literature also had a major influence on the scene. That was attractive for a new generation of artists who were looking for alternative aesthetic approaches.

frieze d/e  Hannes Loichinger, what does ‘the myth of Cologne’ look like from today’s point of view. What makes the city so interesting?

Hannes Loichinger  My view is based on historical accounts, mainly from the 1990s, so ‘myth’ would be the right word as I’m not able to talk about the ‘actual’ Cologne. My frame of reference would include the conversation about Cologne myths conducted in the Texte zur Kunst milieu. Or the ‘Make Your Own Life’ show at the ICA in Philadelphia in 2006. All this includes self-historicization by people who were involved at the time and who are now helping to write their own story, before it has receded too far into the past. Other fixed points for me are spaces like Friesenwall 120, or the ‘Messe 2ok’ congress that took place during Art Cologne in 1995. But that’s about all – which raises the question: what else is locked up in this Cologne myth?

frieze d/e  Young artists from many places seem fascinated with the myth of Cologne – why?

Hannes Loichinger  A very complex question. I can only speculate. Also regarding the specific young artists you might be referring to. Perhaps because at the time, there was a connection between the artist’s life and work, and thus also between the work’s content and the artist’s personal position? From Kippenberger to Josef Strau, it was about positions that draw on a life that was also valid as artistic production: an opting out that somehow worked in economic terms – these artists did survive, after all. Some of them have also managed to commercialize the legacy of this accumulated differentness.

frieze d/e  In Cologne, people were uneasy with the mechanisms of the market, but they were also in the thick of it. The Unfair of 1992 saw itself as a counter-model to the Cologne art fair, but it was also just that – an art fair. Might the ongoing fascination, especially today, be due to the way Bohemian artist dreams and the hard reality of the market are continually rubbing up against each other in Cologne?

Renate Goldmann  It’s worth considering why so many artists moved to Cologne in the first place. Apart from the art market, this was also due to the working conditions – and the mentality present in the city at the time, the quality of life.

Marcel Odenbach  When did this transition from Düsseldorf to Cologne actually begin?

Tony Schafrazi und Paul Maenz bei der Ankunft zur Party für Keith Haring nach seiner Ausstellungseröffnung in der Galerie Paul Maenz, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Tony Schafrazi and Paul Maenz, arriving at a party for Keith Haring, after his opening at Galerie Paul Maenz, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Renate Goldmann  At the beginning of the 1980s, I would say. First Sigmar Polke moved to Cologne, then Gerhard Richter. Artists like Thomas Ruff, Thomas Schütte and Katharina Fritsch stayed in Düsseldorf and are still there today. In the following years, there was a marked separation that was bridged only occasionally – by Galerie Jörg Johnen, for example, which showed a number of Düsseldorf artists of this generation in Cologne. Or Michael Krome’s space at Friesenwall 116a which sometimes showed artists with links to Düsseldorf.

Susanne Titz  Cologne was very international. Galerie Nagel showed artists like Fareed Armaly and Andrea Fraser, who were also present in the city. Some aspects developed specifically against Düsseldorf, because the academy there – especially Gerhard Richter’s class – was dominated by a strong master-student principle. What was good about Cologne was that this was not the case. At Texte zur Kunst, Friesenwall 120 and even the Unfair, the approach to theory was not oriented towards local institutions, more towards the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. This approach may eventually have become commercially viable for some artists and gallerists, but in the beginning they were taking big risks. And then there were collectors like Wilhelm Schürmann who reacted early and helped to create a rich top soil

frieze d/e  New York was the key source of reference. Gregory Williams, how was all this perceived in America? Were people even aware of big differences between Düsseldorf and Cologne?

Gregory Williams  I can only speak from my experience. I spent three years in Germany in the early 1990s. I was in Cologne in 1992 for the Unfair, so of course I visited all the other venues, too. I was young, a total outsider, but I learnt a great deal. It was an very impressive scene. What I found most fascinating about Kippenberger or Trockel was the language: their sayings and figures of speech, which I found highly amusing and smart.

frieze d/e  Were there noticeable differences in terms of humour compared with American art?

Gregory Williams  Yes, differences in terms of gesture. On the one hand the big gestures of neo-expressionist painting, that also existed in the States with artists like Julian Schnabel. And on the other, from the late ’80s or early ’90s, the exact opposite: an art of small gestures. I’m thinking of artists like Michael Krebber or Cosima von Bonin: gestures that speak of delay and despair – as a reaction to the great painters, many of whom lived and exhibited in the Rhineland.

frieze d/e  From the early 2000s, Cologne went through a negative phase – at least in terms of cultural policy. In 2002, in the face of massive protests, the Josef Haubrich Kunsthalle was demolished before the multifunctional building planned to replace it had been properly financed. As a result, construction had to be halted, leaving a permanent gap. Marcel Odenbach, how did the founding of the association ‘Loch e.V.’ come about?

Marcel Odenbach  In retrospect, it was a delayed reaction. The ‘Kölner Loch’ (Hole in Cologne) had long come to symbolize a politics of inaction. Cologne was resting on its laurels: we’ve got the big Ludwig Museum and we’ve got Art Cologne. In spite of the rivalry with Düsseldorf and Berlin, nothing was done to keep young artists in the city – by providing affordable studio space for example. That was one of the reasons why Cologne became so popular in the first place: shaped by the post-war period, it had many niches that offered not only spaces to live and work but also space to think. The founding of Loch e.V. was a last act of defiance on the part of the artists: the Kunsthalle and the adjacent Kunstverein were symbolically charged. We wanted to protest against this being taken away from us. But it didn’t help.

Malperformance von Keith Haring während der Eröffnung seiner Ausstellung in der Galerie Paul Maenz, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

A painting performed by Keith Haring at the opening of his exhibition at Galerie Paul Maenz, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Susanne Titz  The first plans for this major multifunctional complex were published as early as 1996: the Kunstverein was to be in located in the basement. But in Cologne, people spoke only of the ‘media location’ – private television companies, etc. Because art had never had a sufficiently broad institutional basis, it simply vanished from public awareness, becoming a matter of private opinion for gallerists and artists. There was a calamitous delay before this became clear.

Hannes Loichinger  But how, in a city characterized by its emphasis on working outside of institutions, did people suddenly come to be fighting to preserve the institutions? What happened in between?

Marcel Odenbach  That may be one of the reasons why we took so long to react. The Kunstverein, that was joined to the Kunsthalle, had been an important venue over a period of decades – but the Kunsthalle had long ceased to exist as an institution. It had been without a director of its own for a decade and was hired out to other organizations for events.

Gregory Williams  What became of the European Kunsthalle that developed out of Loch e.V.?

Marcel Odenbach  Since the space had been taken from us and there was no longer a Kunsthalle, the idea was to say: ‘OK, then we’ll make ourselves independent of any fixed building and operate across borders.’ The initial phase was run by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Vanessa Joan-Müller. At first, the city provided financial support, but this funding was later cut. Astrid Wege and Vanessa Joan Müller are currently in charge of programming and other activities. Venues and funding have to be found for each specific project. It’s a nomadic approach which, as the name suggests, has long since moved beyond the city of Cologne as its location.

frieze d/e  This trend towards virtual institutions continues with the founding of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne that aims to being together artists from all over the planet and from all disciplines. Is this the right path to take?

Susanne Titz  Initially I was horrified: Cologne is suffering badly from spending cuts across the board and then they create something really expensive, something new. But now I’ve heard about the details, I’m prepared to be positively surprised: maybe this very international academy will counteract the bloodletting and bring in some new influences. I hope so.

Renate Goldmann  Maybe the delayed reaction we’ve been talking about was directly related to the myth of the ’90s. The whole intellectual gesture that emerged when Stefan Germer and Isabelle Graw modelled themselves on precursors like Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh, reading T. J. Clark and Jacques Lacan, interviewing Niklas Luhmann, and so on – all this was partly to blame for the very delayed reaction to the changes, as people were still very much under the impression of the recently created myth. And many people from Cologne were also involved in making the new myth of Berlin: gallerists and galleries like Esther Schipper and neugerriemschneider. And at the WMF club, you had all the same faces, people who had been at the bars in Cologne, back together.

frieze d/e  What role did gallerists play in non-institutional contexts in Cologne in the ’80s and ’90s?

Renate Goldmann  The galleries saw it as part of their task to exert a shaping influence on discourse. In 1985, to name just one example, Monika Sprüth Galerie published the magazine Eau de Cologne with texts by artists including Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman. Tanja Grunert regularly organized lectures at her gallery, these were important social events: big parties, big activities, integrating lots of people, discussions, and so on. Peter Sloterdijk was invited to speak at Café Central. People were very curious about what was going on in the realm of discourse.

Marcel Odenbach  And then of course there are the links to the music scene.

Renate Goldmann  Spex editor Dirk Scheuring would often fly to America and each time came back with a new haircut, a new outfit and a case full of records. It was very direct. The whole experience was far more emotional and highly charged than it comes across in the accounts written after the fact.

Marcel Odenbach  Everything was close together in Cologne. Galleries, concerts, bars: all within easy walking distance.

Martin Kippenberger und Wilhelm Schürmann bei Kippenbergers Eröffnung in der Galerie Max Hetzler, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Martin Kippenberger and Wilhelm Schürmann at Kippenberger’s opening at Galerie Max Hetzler, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

frieze d/e  Maybe the role of bars and commercial galleries as non-institutional venues permitted more radical things, but did it also give the city authorities an excuse to shirk their duties because art had to finance itself primarily via sales? A parallel with Berlin today?

Susanne Titz  In 1984, traineeships at Cologne’s museums were abolished. It became clear that working purely within institutions would only be possible for the few. At the same time, it was nothing new in the Rhineland for museums to be co-financed by citizens and businesses. With a view to Berlin, this raises the question of what will happen to institutions there in the coming years? Some things don’t seem to have been properly planned for.

Gregory Williams  My impression is that in New York, for example, and especially on the Lower East Side, a deliberate attempt is being made to create the kind of lively scene that existed in the 1970s and ’80s. Something similar seems to have happened in the case of new institutions of recent decades: Kunst-Werke in Berlin, for example, judges itself against historical models.

frieze d/e  New York galleries like Reena Spaulings or Green Naftali stand for a current fascination with Cologne – is this a kind of exoticism, a search for models from ‘outside’?

Gregory Williams  On the Lower East Side, people are trying to move away from an art market defined in purely capitalist terms. They want to create a sense of authenticity – although people are well aware that such a gesture can never be authentic. So tensions always exist between the two impulses. And this gives rise to a coded artistic language that may initially be difficult for the general public to understand.

Susanne Titz  Maybe the same was true in Cologne in the early 1990s. There was also much referencing to the 1960s and ’70s at the time too. The early 1990s saw the first major exhibitions by Dan Graham, Gordon Matta-Clark and Valie Export. And if there is a fascination with the myth of Cologne in the class of Christopher Williams or Rita McBride at the Academy in Düsseldorf, then that resembles the rediscovery of the myth of Conceptual art in the early ’90s.

frieze d/e  Did the feeling of urgency and discursive power have to do with the social density and proximity of Cologne? Similar things are being done today, but under conditions of social fragmentation.

Marcel Odenbach  The intensity of discourse in Cologne in the 1980s was also to do with the lack of an academy [Cologne’s Academy of Media Arts did not open until 1990]. There was no institution to network the artists – they had to do it for themselves.

Renate Goldmann  The Walther König bookshop on Ehrenstrasse was a sure-fire meeting place on Saturday mornings – with access to the relevant literature from around the world. Artists, gallerists, collectors – everyone was there.

frieze d/e  From today’s perspective, is it this kind of functioning, networked context that is so attractive? Today, networking is now a far greater factor in value creation …

Hannes Loichinger  Today, a certain image of Cologne is being constructed retrospectively that only looks perfect and functional because the exclusions are no longer visible (or have yet to come back into view). There might be a difference in the way Conceptual art was referenced back then – as mentioned above by Susanne – and how Cologne is being referred to now: rather than being described by outsiders, such as art historians, as in the case of Conceptual art those who were involved in the artistic movement in Cologne are writing about it themselves; so that in problematic cases – to put it polemically – what was excluded at the time is dispensed with entirely in the written account.

Gregory Williams  The question of social practice – networks etc. – has long since become a genre in its own right. At various academies, it is even possible to take a masters degree in ‘Social Practice’. If that’s how young artists want to work, that’s fine, and of course it’s not as if everything that happened in the ’80s and ’90s was always unplanned and free. But within the framework of academic study, some of the spontaneity does get lost.

Hannes Loichinger  I suspect this myth-making – saying that authentic action took place in the past – that has now become institutionalized, is increasing. Because you can even study social networking. Maybe back then it didn’t all work as ‘organically’ as it may seem now …

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Walter Dahn transportiert auf dem Dach von Wilhelm Schürmanns VW Golf ein Bild von Donald Baechler aus seinem Atelier in die Südstadt, Köln, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Walter Dahn transporting a painting by Donald Baechler on the roof of Wilhelm Schürmann’s VW Golf from his studio to Köln Südstadt, 1984 (courtesy: Wilhelm Schürmann)

Issue 8

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