Once upon a time, Dusseldorf was one of the centres of the art world. In the 1970s, the picturesque village by the Rhine was home to Joseph Beuys, Jörg Immendorff and Gerhard Richter, while artists like Thomas Ruff, Katharina Fritsch, Reinhard Mucha, Thomas Schütte and Andreas Gursky became residents in the 1980s. German polemicist – or ‘macho’, as it is sometimes called – Postmodernism was founded in this town, while the legacy of the above artists ensures the art of critical deconstruction will forever be associated with it.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. Galleries and artists, critics and even a number of collectors moved to Berlin, drawn by cheap rents and uncharted possibilities. By that time, the privileged position of the western, white, male artist had become unsustainable. Women artists came to occupy an important part of the canon, as did non-Western perspectives. Since the Dusseldorf scene had not nurtured an art history with either group, this lacuna, too, contributed to the exodus. For years, the town seemed doomed to wither away at the margins of art discourse. Despite its renowned art academy, expansive institutions, wealth of collectors and wonderful infrastructure, the city was eventually neglected by the international cultural elite.
Sometime in the late 2000s, however, something began to shift. Institutions appointed new curators (Gregor Jansen at the Kunsthalle, Marion Ackermann at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen), the art academy changed its traditionalist course structured around painting to include photography and video art, private collectors like Julia Stoschek opened their doors, old galleries returned while new project spaces like Volker Bradtke and Single Club popped up. There have even been reviews in a few international art magazines. The town is beginning to create, as they say, a buzz – carefully, gradually – but a buzz nonetheless.
Yet it’s difficult to say what exactly is happening, even after a tour through some of the museums and galleries. Everyone involved seems to feel something is going on, but it appears difficult trying to put the sensation into words. If the Berlin contemporary art scene has a predilection for post-irony while Amsterdam-based artists like Yael Bartana and Pilvi Takala are known for their distinct political engagement, Dusseldorf does not appear to exude any one sensibility in particular. On the contrary, collector Julia Stoschek asserts: ‘What makes the Dusseldorf scene so interesting at the moment is precisely its variety.’ Arne Reimann, the director of Galerie Rupert Pfab, agrees. ‘There are all sorts of strands of art making happening right now. Some are part of the tradition Mucha initiated, others relate to Fritsch, while yet others do something else altogether.’ Thomas Rieger, associate director at Konrad Fischer Galerie, describes it as a culinary process. ‘Something is cooking, is boiling, but what precisely will be on the menu is hard to tell. But that is what makes it so exciting: it could be anything.’
Pivotal in creating this dynamic variety, most agree, has been the appointment of Tony Cragg as director of the art academy in 2009. ‘With [the former director] Markus Lüpertz’, Stoschek says, ‘it was all about painting. Since Cragg has been in charge, the other disciplines, too, receive the attention and appreciation they deserve.’ Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle, would go as far as stating that Cragg has liberated the academy. ‘Under Lüpertz, classes were very restrictive. Now that Cragg is director, the professors have the freedom to teach whatever medium or practice they want, however they want to.’ This is confirmed by Angelika J. Trojnarski, a young artist who studies with Gursky, even though she is more interested in painting than photography. ‘What helps me a great deal is precisely the intermedial exchange, the encouragement to work between registers rather than within them’. What Cragg and his professors, among them not just Gursky, but also Christopher Williams, Rosemarie Trockel and Rita McBride have also achieved, Rupert Pfab remarks, is that they have made the artists aware of art’s wider context. ‘Dusseldorf has always had a strong tradition of off-spaces. But the past few years, students have actively sought out the discussion with the institutions and galleries.’ Indeed, his own gallery is frequented by the academy’s classes, while students are also regulars at Konrad Fischer.
It is interesting to note just how much this sense of sticking together is valued. ‘It is very much about the community here’, Jansen tells me. ‘Museum directors, gallerists, professors and artists frequently meet up to discuss the state of things.’ Sometimes they arrange a moment to talk shop, but most of the times they simply meet each other at openings or talks or at the illustrious Salon des Amateurs, the project space–cum–music venue at the Kunsthalle. Occasionally, they even just bump into each other on the street. ‘Because Dusseldorf is in many respects literally what its name suggests: a Dorf or village,’ Jansen says, ‘we all know each other and look out for one another’. Elodie Evers, a young curator who recently returned from Berlin to work at the Kunsthalle, feels the same. ‘This is really what sets Dusseldorf apart from a place like Berlin, where the scene is less communicative and more individual. Everyone engages with each other, both within the city and the Rhineland region as a whole.’ (As an aside: some people were quick to point out that this solidarity should by no means be mistaken for the Kölner Klüngel, the secrecy and nepotism with which its neighbouring city used to be associated, a marvellously anachronistic localism in times of globalisation).
It is a well-known sociological cliché that close-knit communities, especially in smaller towns, can be both a blessing and a curse. What is great about them is their support network. People help each other out, care for each other. What is less advantageous is the normativity and exclusiveness these demographies often project. Max Mayer, a young gallerist born in Dusseldorf who moved back from Karlsruhe two years ago to set up a gallery here, is aware of the double-bind. ‘On the one hand, the solidarity and support of the town government, the institutions and the other galleries is wonderful. It allows young gallerists like myself to ask for advice, to look around, to settle in smoothly. Yet there is also a risk. Most people in power are from the same generation. They share certain ideas about what art is and should be.’ Although Mayer stresses he has not experienced any problems so far himself, he can imagine it may be difficult for a new generation of gallerists and artists to impose their ideas onto the scene. ‘There is a gap between the ’80s and the present. It is not absolute, it is not fixed, but there is a gap’.
There, it’s been said: the generation gap. Haunting all talk of the Dusseldorf art scene is the spirit of the past. Indeed, as Mayer notes, most gallerists, curators and a good chunk of the academy’s professors came of fame in the eighties. Almost without exception, the names that popped up as representative for the town’s art scene were those of artists associated with the decade before the Wall fell: Gursky, Fritsch, Mucha, Schütte (the interesting exception being Hans-Peter Feldmann, who belongs to an earlier generation but gained a reputation only in later years). It proves much harder to come up with artists under thirty. This seems to be the challenge that faces Dusseldorf in the years ahead: to negotiate between the celebrated but intimidating past with the present. This does not mean necessarily that the spirit of the eighties should be exorcised but rather that it needs to be given a place in the town’s current life. Think of it as a closure of sorts. Perhaps this is why it is so important that people like Gursky and Fritsch, people who contributed so much to the town’s success in the past, have returned to guide the artists of the future. Not to tell them what to shoot or paint; but to help them think in opportunities. Monika Lahrkamp, a young art historian working at Julia Stoschek’s collection, in any case is optimistic. ‘All we need, really, is patience. We need to wait for the classes now enrolled in the academy to graduate’. Pfab, too, feels it is only a matter of time. ‘The artistic potential is there. There are plenty of talented young artists – just look at the work of Christoph Knecht and Diango Hernández. They are currently developing an artistic language, a canon.’ Yes, things are simmering in Dusseldorf. But whatever it is that is on the menu, it is about time it was served.
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.
First published in Issue 8