Last week, Berlin’s difficult-to-classify abc exhibition, now showing 130 artists in a booth-less curated fourth edition titled “About Painting,” almost got off to a late start. Workmen crammed till the last minute painting the show’s provisional walls, leaving some of the dealers, especially in the second hall, without much time to organize themselves before the VIP preview. Vienna heavyweight Georg Kargl hunted down a table and chair to conduct business, finally hijacking a beer-bench from the café. Brussels dealer Jan Mot looked visibly irritated about the ceiling of his space—a black box showing Rineke Dijkstra’s 2009 video, Ruth Drawing Picasso (video stills)—which consisted of just two sheets of black muslin held together with black sticky-tape. One sympathetic VIP-preview visitor was overheard commenting, “Of course there will be some organizational problems—this is not an art fair!”
Provisional walls snaked through two long former railway-station halls andguided the visitors through the show. The entrance was marked by a 19th-century anonymous painting appropriated and respectfully defaced with blacked-out eyes by the artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, and sold to a private German collector by Mehdi Chouakri and Konrad Fischer. This set the tone for a show that would neither deny painting its place on the pedestal nor reject it as passé.
The organization works by invitation only. In three of the four editions a curator—this year Rita Kersting (Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen), assisted by Marc Glöde (who curated it in 2010)—was nominated by a group of Berlin gallerists, who requested works pertinent to a broad theme or goal. While critics have spilled plenty of ink categorizing the hybrid of art fair and curated exhibition that is abc, the easiest analogy is Art Basel’ Art Unlimited. Although the circumstances surrounding the cancellation this year of Berlin’s premier fair, Art Forum, dominated small talk, few tears were shed. Non-participating Berlin gallerist Olaf Stüber told A.i.A., “Finally, collectors can see something they will buy.” Even Markus Lüttgen, once a member of Art Forum’s selection committee, called abc a “firework of colorful melodies.” Gabriele Knapstein, curator at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, wasn’t so sure. “It could have been a little bit less,” she said, referring in general to the overabundance of the work.
International participation was high, with Catherine Bastide, dépendance,Jan Mot, Paul Andriesse, Galeria Raster, Monitor, Mary Mary and Herald Street among the 125 invited galleries. All are galleries that in the past have only sporadically come to Berlin looking for business. With few exceptions, the important Berlin galleries were present, whose abstention the Art Forum had grappled with for years. Giti Nourbaksch, Mehdi Chouakri and Eigen+Art, ousted by Art Basel this year, were here, alongside members from the fair’s selection committee, such as Tim Neuger (neugerriemschneider) and Jochen Meyer (Meyer Rieger).
A handful of Berlin’s most important active collectors attended, including Christian Boros, Axel Haubrok and Ivo Wessel, but there were very few other national and international buyers, much to the disappointment of the gallerists, who behind the scenes were unhappy with sales. Still, they gladly paid the low participation fee of roughly $4,700 per artist to showcase their wares in the German capital.
Installation view, abc 2011, “about painting.” Photo: Stefan Korte