“Art Cologne is back,” a beaming Aurel Scheibler told A.i.A on the opening day of the 45th edition of the world’s oldest art fair [April 13-17]. In only the third year with former Los Angeles dealer Daniel Hug at the helm as director, participants and colleagues sang his praises. Czech gallerist and former director of the Kunstverein Düsseldorf, Jiri Svetska, and Berlin-based gallerist Isabella Czarnowska both said that the fair and the collectors have much improved. Even Fons Hof, director of competitor-fair Art Rotterdam, went on the record enthusiastically. “He is re-animating the fair,” said Hof. “It was dead and now it’s breathing again.”
Three years ago Hug took over for Gérard Goodrow, who in his six-year tenure as director switched the fair from fall to spring, reduced its size and included a freestyle exhibition called “Open Space.” Hug has baited and maintained the presence of big-gun galleries by offering them increased visibility. The entrance of this year’s fair featured two 18-foot-tall Paul McCarthy sculptures, Apple Tree Girl and Apple Tree Boy (both 2010), made of aluminum, courtesy of Hauser + Wirth. Panamarenko, an artist who shows with top Belgian gallery Deweer, got a mini-retrospective in the entrance hall. Michael Werner received the Art-Cologne-Preis 2011 for high-quality booth. Meanwhile, the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst Museum Ludwig showed a recent acquisition—work by Iranian sculptor Nairy Baghramian, an artist represented by Daniel Buchholz. Evidently, Hug is playing a delicate tit for tat with some of the art world’s big player galleries.
Apart from the well-respected Galerie Konrad Fischer and maverick dealer Rafael Jablonka, every important Cologne gallery was represented on the 200-gallery-strong fair. With 36 entrants, Berlin was city with the most number of galleries and, with merely 13 entries, Switzerland had the largest international faction at the fair.
Indeed, with the grand exception of two American collector couples, Don and Mera Rubell and Susan and Michael Hort, Art Cologne is an almost exclusively German affair. According to one visitor,Amsterdam gallerist and collector-connoisseur Ron Mandos, the most important Dutch and Belgian collectors were nowhere to be seen on opening day. Nonetheless, the well-known German collectors picked through their favorite booths. Collector Harald Falckenberg chatted up Germany’s most famous international soccer star and newcomer to the art scene, Michael Ballack, who showed keen interest in the work of Cyprien Gaillard at Sprüth Magers. Another soccer great, the retired Günter Netzer, hit the booth of Rüdiger Schöttle.
Art Cologne is divided into two floors, with the first level dedicated to modern art and the second to contemporary. Hug’s focus has been on improving the contemporary section. His Berlin selection includes first-rate galleries Somer & Kohl, Isabella Bortolozzi and Contemporary Fine Arts’ project space Vittorino Malanese; from Cologne he secured Eva Winkler and Figge von Rosen and, from Amsterdam, Martin van Zomeren, and Fons Welters. Meessen de Clercq came from Brussels and Hollybush Gardens from London.
While the selection of galleries is first rate, the direction has no influence on what works get shown. Sven Beckstette, editor-in-chief of Germany’s Texte zur Kunst shared our impression that the fair’s contemporary section was rather conservative, showing mainly painting and photography. “The walls of the booths were littered with works disconnected from each other,” he added. Independent art advisor Andre Schlechtriem noted an improvement over last year, but observed that the “selection downstairs had some big names, but was in large parts provincial.” Catrin Lorch, a critic, praised the modern section. At the booth of Galerie Edith Wahlandt, Stuttgart, Lorch noted “a beautiful old work of Norbert Kricke that is surrounded by exquisite paintings by Günter Fruhtrunk.”
Half joking, and half begrudging his successor’s achievement in the contemporary section, the former fair director Gérard Goodrow, now director of contemporary art at Galerie Beck+Eggeling, Düsseldorf, called the upstairs “the Kindergarten of Art Cologne.” He added, “It is down here that the contemporary art is shown; and that is what will become part of the canon and art history. Sometimes when I’m upstairs, I ask myself, is this really art?”
Michael Ballack with Monika Spruth. Photo by David Ulrichs.