There’s plenty to enjoy a long weekend in the Cologne area, even when a fair proportion of the commercial galleries are on their ‘summer pause’. Here are my highlights from four clustered cities, starting with my top choice - in the least visited city…
The Museum Morsbroic is a stunning castle with a history of ground-breaking shows, but it isn’t easy to reach. It’s certainly worth the effort for the first full retrospective for local boy made internationally good, Thomas Grünfeld, a football fan who grew up 50 metres from the Bayer Leverkusen ground, as shown in the felt work above. He’s a varied artist, and the press release claimed that thirteen distinct groups of work were mixed around its generous fifteen rooms. So what are the groups, and how do they cohere to form an oeuvre? Twelve of them seemed clear enough:
1. Passe-partout paintings, elaborately framed and grounded, in which Grünfeld first showed he was as interested in the means of presentation as in what was presented
2. Shelving units, which grew naturally from (1) - here we're just missing the central image.
3. Skirts, these being sculptures stood against the wall more like furniture than clothing
4. Upholstery objects, mostly mustard yellow, softening the hard edges of minimalism and maybe – maybe not - returning it to its origins in use
5. A wall-based variant which combines a soft furnishing element with a mirror, here reflecting the Cockatoo / Penguin Misfit
|Pelican / Kangaroo / Horse, 2003|
6. His best-known series, the ‘misfits’ which collage animal species together to comic and disturbing effect.
7. The rubbers, for which a random process of following wood patterns becomes the template for biologically amorphous ground-hugging forms.
8. The ‘dyes’, as Grünfeld terms his photos, as the exhibited prints use the dye transfer process: so far there are only a dozen nudes inspired by Carlo Molina, but selected from 3,000 originals!
9. ‘Paintings’ using taxidermy eyes, so connecting with the misfits and also paying homage to Fontana and trading on the idea that as well as us looking at a picture, it might be looking at us. The eyes went further at the Museum Morsbroic, taking over a whole room.
10. Rolls of felt, rather like carpets in their scale
12. Fireplaces: somewhere between architectural feature, sculpture and painting in their effect
These are all collage forms – indeed, you could say that such a wide-ranging practice is itself a form of collage. But is there a wider connection? One would be hard put to identify any of the streams as ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture’ in any conventional sense. Grünfeld seems be eschewing categories by relocating each of his materials in an unusual, and often awkward and uncanny, context. Thus furniture arrives in the art gallery: has the gallery taken on the qualities of a living room, or has the furniture been turned into art? The felts mix playroom and craft traditions with art. The rubbers merge industrial processes and mock furniture. Parallel arguments could be constructed to show that all of Grünfeld’s inter-mixtures are, in essence, misfit, all witty and often aesthetically seductive, often combining cliches to contradict them. But what’s the deeper point? Perhaps a stand against the whole notion of pre-ordained classification, whether in art or in life… if we are all, in some sense, misfits, then you might say that everyone fits in.
Cologne is in an American season: perhaps you can spot the common factor in the most interesting shows currently on view:
· Seth Price’s sculptural and fetishistic take on the envelope at Gisela Capitain
· Cheyney Thompson’s abstract sculptures and paintings, driven by the chance factors of the algorithms of economics; and Sam Lewitt’s ‘International Corrosion Fatigue’ at the two Galerie Buchholz spaces.
· Kathryn Andrews’ gleamingly confident institutional debut at the Ludwig Museum, which she turned into an aquarium of sorts: half Koons, half Cady Noland…
· A mystically visceral and very substantial retrospective of Paul Thek’s work, ‘Art is Liturgy’ insinuated into the Kolumba, a ruined church stunningly converted into a gallery which is known for showing old and new in dialogue.
Jo Baer at the Museum Ludwig
The most substantial exhibition in Cologne brought old and new together within one life. The first show – along with the Kathryn Andrews - under the aegis of the Ludwig’s new director Philipp Kaiser (formerly at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) was a full retrospective for Jo Baer. It sought to make the case, supported by a non-chronological hang and a film of Baer in conversation, for a continuation of approach and quality across the two apparently distinct sections of her career: the development of minimalist abstract practice in New York, 1960-75; and a subsequent stylistic and geographical switch to what she calls ‘radical figuration’ and to Ireland (1975-82), London (1982-84) and now Amsterdam.
The integrity behind that change impresses, but looked at purely numerically, the thesis of a balanced two-part career was hard-pressed: the catalogue had 168 works from those first 15 years, but just 15 from the following 40. Moreover, the somewhat pallid palimpsestic amalgams of cave painting themes and personal and erotic symbolisation which make up the recent large paintings did little to suggest that Baer’s European phase has been unjustly ignored.
The show did, however, do a fine job of showing what a fertile period Baer had in the early sixties, after leaving her second husband in Seattle to marry pop artist Jack Wesley in New York: a series of small studies from 1960-62 contained the seeds of most of what she worked out over the coming decade. That included several effective variants on the painting as object, putting one over Judd and Morris’s rejection of painting as the medium for minimalist concerns:
Graph-paper Painting (Diamond) (1962 – 1963)
The drawing paintings, which convert small drawings on graph paper into large oils on canvas, including their grids, in meditations on transference.
Korean 3, 1963
The ‘Koreans’, which established the theme of an ‘empty centre’ at a time a dealer characterised her as being as unknown as a Korean art in the west.
Vertical Flanking Diptych (Large, Blue), 1966
The diptychs, in which the doubled format implies the painting as an entity, and which she produced in large and small rectangular and square formats with colours judged to match their dynamics, eg grey hues for a vertical rectangle.
Untitled (Wraparound Triptych - Blue, Green, Lavender) 1969-74
The wrap-arounds, in which the emphasis on the edge of things moves from the front to the side of the canvas to achieve a fuller emptying out of the obvious centre of interest.
The radiators, box-like paintings which become even more object-like, and are named for their characteristics in Latin as if classifying plants
Here’s a sample of later Baer: Shrine of the Piggies (The Pigs Hog it All and Defacate and Piss on Where From They Get It and With Whom They Will not Share. That’s It), 2000
Cologne Sculpture Park
Cologne’s Sculpture Park, alongside the Rhine by the zoo, is kept fresh by biannual replacement of much of the work. The 2013-14 version has many pieces which play neatly off the surroundings, natural or otherwise. Here are three:
Karin Sander invite visitors to take a rest by sitting on seven circular mats of synthetic turf. The manufacturer calls this product, selected by Sander from a range of almost one hundred such grasses, ‘Paradise 231’, introducing the suggestion that these are days in which our ideals may well be artificial, from genetic modification to electronic friendship to plastic surgery.
As the visitor approaches Thomas Schütte’s bronze, hidden away in a corner and screened by a curve of brick, streaming is triggered through the eyes and mouth of the Weeping Woman (2011): the most private of acts becomes public. More mundanely, the fountain was also a handy water dispenser on a hot day, until I reached the café.
In one of those neat double-take moments, a helicopter has landed improbably on the roof of the main building – which houses the excellent café. Of course, it is art: Michael Sailstorfer’s ‘High-Ranking Visit – Cologne’ leaves us to wonder if a sculpture fandom or some more sinister purpose might be involved. The engine has apparently been replaced by a silent motor which activates the rotor with a spooky lack of noise on special occasions, but my visit was not one of those…
K21’s big new , Thomas Saraceno in the roof space , was closed due to Health and Safety issues (Vorsprung durch Technik...), though he did have two spectacular cubes in which several species of spider had been encouraged to weave competing webs. That left a huge Wolfgang Tillmans show, organised by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, as the main feature. Such retrospectives are fairly frequent, and operate rather like rock concerts: new stuff alongside the old favourites, some of them in somewhat different versions, and the odd obscurity pulled out of the back catalogue – here some graphics and a 1994 film of half an hour’s action on a New York street. So we had the biggest prints I’ve ever seen of Man Pissing on a Chair (1997), Deer Hirsch (1997), Icestorm (2001) and Headlight (2012) plus plenty of Concorde (1997) and a very full representation of Tillmans' various abstract (though analogue) modes, some of which were very recent, as is the addition of Lady Gaga to his celebrity subjects. The overall display used every size and placement possible, over the walls and on tables – again in Tillmans’ established manner. An unusual feature, though, was that the chunky 200 page catalogue was free to visitors.
There were four main abstract series on view, all of which grow out of the photographic process itself. As Tillmans says 'with these abstract pictures, although the eye recognises them as photographic rather than painted, the eye also tries to connect them to reality. There’s always this association machine working in the brain, and that is why it is important to me that they are actually photographic and not painted'.
A grouped dozen of creased and folded Lighter series, three dimensional monochromes folded / creased / crumpled into a three dimensional states to yield the corporeal presence of specimens in their perspex boxes, and to reflect light differently to different viewpoints.
The Paper-drop photos of photo paper curling at the edges were tossed in at various points. As Tillmans says, 'paper is the material basis of almost all my work. In 2000 I began making it the subject of my work
and, soon after, I started making pictures of glossy photographic paper itself, which I had exposed to
specific coloured light before processing it'.
A Rothko-like room of vast bleeding, erogenously microscopic prints of the Freischwimmer (Free Swimmer – referring to a test of competence taken by German schoolchildren) made lenselessly by dark room chemistry.
The less well-known Silver series dates back to the 1990's. These, says Tillmans, 'begin as paper fed through the machine to clean it, so there are some traces on it relating to this physical process, and then it is enlarged. It is completely analogue, interacting with material and light, controlled and intuitive at the same time' - so that failures in the developing process become the cause and subject of the images
One could reasonably link Tillmans to Grünfeld, as his form of photographic seeing aims to do away with existing cultural classifications, just as Grünfeld seeks to ambush established categorisations.
Living with Pop at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf
|Richter photo-reproductions alongside a view of the Düsseldorf furniture store in which Richter and Lueg put on the originating action 'Living with Pop - A Demonstration for Capitalist Realsim' in 1963|
Bonn, the quiet city which was the capital of West Germany, has a classy ‘Museum Mile’.
The Kunstmuseum could be divided into four impressive quarters:
Alexej Jawlensky, Woman with Downcast Eyes, 1912
Display of the museum's collection of classic expressionist painting, which is particularly strong on August Macke and Jawlensky.
Fries & Frize
The current installations of the Museum’s impressive painting-oriented contemporary collection mostly presented one or two artists in each room, giving them the space to make a powerful impact. Notable successes included Franz Ackermann’s optical thunderbolts of psycho-geographical colour energy; a glowing Thomas Scheibitz room; Christoph Ruttimann’s stacks of coloured glass; and the proof that combining two of my long-term personal favourites - Pia Fries and Bernard Frize – makes for more than a match-up of homonyms.
The excitedly titled ‘Mary, Blinky, Yay!’ which showed Mary Heilman’s paintings alongside those of local star Blinky Palermo, who was her contemporary - born three years later, but dying in 1977 – indeed, they both lived in New York in the seventies, but did not meet. This provided a revealing contrast, as they both dismantled the grand traditions of abstract painting, from different directions but with sometimes-parallel results. Palermo by moving them away from heroism towards the architectural and craft-based; Heilman by adding contingency to the certainties of inspiration and objectivity. She does with a reverence for such forebears as Newman, Mondrian and Kelly (but channelling them in the casual manner of emerging post-modernism), and by feeding personal memories into apparent abstraction.
The Kunstmuseum’s biggest show was installation-based: 21 artists who had made uncanny spaces into which the viewer was frequently invited. Or as the press release put it ‘HEIMsuchung is about the transition from a formerly intimidating exterior to an intimidating interior and the parallelization between destabilized subjects and unstable spaces’. It sounds hard work, but that translates into chances to experience such fun as curved and mirrored multiplicities, furniture which moves, interior ice, a couple who go about everyday life while on fire, a room being crushed, a fall-out shelter made from books on German art, intense greyness, melting interiors and a whole houseful of narrowness – that being the version of Erwin Wurm’s childhood home set up outside the gallery.
Cleopatra, the Eternal Diva at the Bundeskunsthalle
Elsewhere Bonn had contrasting takes on feminism. ‘HERstories’ celebrated the Kunstverein’s 50th anniversary by concentrating on early extensive presentations of female positions, and included such interesting artists as Miriam Cahn, Marlene Dumas, Monika Baer, Spartacus Chetwynd and Katharina Sieverding. Pity I got the closing time wrong and missed it! More populist, but superbly presented, was the Bundeskunsthalle’s exploration of the life and historical reception of Cleopatra. Her life story as the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt was economically retold: queen at 19, lover at 21 of the 52-year old Ceasar until his assassination three years later, embroiled with Marc Anthony and global power politics from then until her suicide at 39 in 30 BC). There were grand orientalist paintings, Warhol’s Liz Taylors, fashion, pop videos, TV adverts, stage and film versions, Cleopatra as role model for female empowerment, a whole room of the asp biting her breast... all was set in scarlet and ultramarine spaces with chaises longues for visitors to relax on. Odd that all that power, love, beauty and sex is not slated to travel…