How Partial Blindness Showed Johann König How to Be a Gallerist

In a film-worthy new memoir, the Berlin art dealer tells of success despite the odds – yet overlooks much

Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ is a mantra for many artists, but for those selling art, non-participation is no easy option. In his new memoir, Blinder Galerist (Blind Gallerist, with Daniel Schreiber, 2019), Johann König writes of the tension between refusal and the need to deliver. For the Berlin gallerist, this tension can even be artistically generative.

Since opening his gallery in 2002, König has represented Natascha Sadr Haghighian, though her art is hard for him to market. The artist (currently representing Germany in Venice) opened an elaborate sound installation at König Galerie in 2003 with the wonderful title ‘The Illnesses of the Eagle Owl and their Significance for its Repatriation in the Federal Republic of Germany’. In his book, König calls this one of his ‘favourite exhibitions from the early years of my gallery’. He still hasn’t been able to find a buyer for the installation.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, I Can't Work Like This, 2007, nails and two hammers. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London

Some years later, König asked Sadr Haghighian to produce ‘a more easily saleable work’ for the Armory Show 2007 in New York. The artist wrote the words ‘I Can’t Work Like This’ with nails on the wall of the booth, scattering nails and two hammers on the floor. As König explains: ‘Paradoxically, this ironic boycott of the art market and its demands was a great art market success. Today, the work has been acquired by four major collections, including the Guggenheim Museum. It so epitomized a specific feeling among artists that it has been the subject of many articles, essays and academic papers, and people still ask me about it. Of course, Natascha never did anything like it again.’

König was born in 1981 in Cologne as the son of the curator Kasper König and the actress and book illustrator Edda Köchl-König. At the age of eleven, his eyes were badly damaged in an accident involving a starting pistol. He underwent numerous operations and completed his secondary education at a school for the blind and partially sighted in Marburg, Germany. The book’s focal point is less the running of a gallery, however, and more the question of how someone with a severe visual handicap can assert themselves in life and in a society whose orientation is strongly visual. It is a kind of personal statement of faith, and it makes for touching and sometimes funny reading. What it does not offer is a revealing look behind the scenes.

Johann König, Blinder Galerist (Blind Gallerist), 2019. Courtesy: Ullstein Buchverlage; photograph: Lukas Gansterer

Perhaps this is what makes Blinder Galerist such a fascinating text. König’s story is told not at the end of his career but in the middle, during what may be its high point. Some things are passed over. König writes, for example, about opening his gallery with a show by the artist Michaela Meise. But the fact that she has since stopped working with the gallery is not mentioned. We learn little about the role played by Kirsa Geiser, König’s former partner and long-standing gallery director, who left in the spring of 2011. Today, Geiser still works in Berlin as the publisher and editor of Index, an exhibition listings calendar.

St. Agnes outside view. Courtesy: KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London; photograph: Roman März

‘The essence of capitalism is that it does not tolerate stasis,’ writes König in a passage about the ongoing expansion of the major galleries. ‘And nowhere is this more apparent than in the art market.’ With this book, he expands into the realm of publishing and perhaps even beyond: Blinder Galerist has the potential to be filmed. In any case, it consolidates the exceptional position of this Berlin gallerist whose command of the attention economy, of the media and marketing game, is rarely surpassed.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Johann König with Daniel Schreiber, ‘Blinder Galerist’ was published by Propyläen Verlag/Ullstein, Berlin, on 14 June.

Main image: Annette Kelm, Johann (detail), 2018, photograph. Courtesy the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as a freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.

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