On a frigid March afternoon in New York, German curators Kasper König and Britta Peters charged into the café at the Hotel Americano and sprawled out around a table. König, who is 73 and more than six feet tall, pulled a fuzzy winter cap off his head, set down a black tote bag from Manifesta, the roving art biennial he organized in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2014, and began talking with great enthusiasm about artist Ei Arakawa. He then hopped off to procure two coffees while Peters—50, with short blond hair and more restraint—plugged her dead cell phone into a nearby outlet.
In less than three months, on June 10, the two would be opening the fifth edition of the Halley’s Comet of art exhibitions, Skulptur Projekte Münster, which fills that German town with public art every ten years. They were on their final barnstorming tour abroad, checking in with artists they had selected over the past few years. Arakawa, whose studio is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was at work on seven lo-fi animations of paintings by artists like Amy Sillman and Gustave Courbet that, come late May, he would be installing in the field outside a design and craft school. The next day, König and Peters were flying back to Germany, where their Münster co-curator, Marianne Wagner, was working.
Hans Ulrich Obrist has dubbed Münster one of “the most influential public art projects ever.” And Kasper König is synonymous with Münster. He has co-curated every edition of the festival; for the 2017 show, he was appointed artistic director, with Peters and Wagner as curators. Münster projects tend to be diverse. “The artists come and make a proposal. It’s not that there is a theme and form—‘We’re inviting you for this-and-this purpose,’ ” Peters said. “It’s really that the exhibition itself grows with the proposals of the artists.” This embodies König’s style. He is discerning, and he can be critical, but he is not a man of narrow interests or grand theories. Gary Garrels, a senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, calls him “a curator as catalyst.”
“I don’t like art with a capital A,” König told me, “when it becomes kind of pompous.” He mentioned that an old friend and collaborator, the late French-American Fluxus figure Robert Filliou, once said that art is too important to be treated importantly. König thrives on collaboration, a fact that an old friend, the artist Dan Graham, attributed to his being a “Scorpio-Sagittarius cusp.” He spends time with artists and strives to facilitate their whims—as they tend to do his. “One of the mysteries of Kasper, for which I have the greatest respect, is that he is totally, totally committed to an artist, once he thinks that the artist is crucial,” said art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. (He described himself and König as “somewhat enemy-rivals, enemy-brothers, whatever you want to call it.”)
When New York–based artist Justin Matherly couldn’t find the right kind of space in Münster to create his concrete, plaster, and gypsum replica of the rock that Friedrich Nietzsche saw near Lake Silvaplana, König’s team found a temporary studio in an inn with an animal farm in Havixbeck, Germany, a 30-minute drive away. “Aside from the animals”—goats, ponies, and a camel—“it can get a bit lonely out here,” Matherly told me by phone, while emphasizing that he was enjoying the experience. “It’s very peaceful and quiet.”
When Nicole Eisenman visited Münster last year to plan her contribution to the exhibition—she described it as “a big, elegant, flat, grassy lawn and a very kind of sharp, midcentury modern–style infinity pool carved into the middle of it, and then a bunch of sloppy-ass plaster sculptures in and around it, dripping and leaking”—she and König toured the city on bikes, which is the preferred method for viewing the show. “I was amazed that he was willing and able to spend the entire day biking around with me,” she said. “We must have gone 30 miles. We were on our bikes from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. At 7, I was done, and he was like, ‘There’s a great restaurant outside the city!’ We ride out into the suburbs and after dinner we had to ride home drunk.”
This year, Skulptur Projekte is expected to bring more than 600,000 people to Münster, twice the city’s population. It wasn’t always thus. Peters recalled the first edition, back in 1977, when students tried to push into Lake Aasee the huge concrete billiard balls by Claes Oldenburg that König had installed along the shoreline. She was 10 years old at the time, and remembers liking the exhibition. “It was always in the newspaper,” she said.
“Yes,” König chimed in. “Full of hate!”
As a mode of communication, König favors the postcard, much like the late artist On Kawara, with whom he often worked. König estimates that he does two-thirds of his correspondence in postcards. “He walks in and he has a trail of postcards falling behind him and all these stickers,” Eisenman said of a recent visit from König to her New York studio. He sends postcards in advance of travels, to answer invitations and often just to say hello. “This is what he does,” Eisenman said. “This is his art.” Peters has had to get used to it. “I would write an email and then I would get a postcard,” she said, laughing.
“That is a cultural technique that is completely out,” König said. “There aren’t even postboxes anymore! I happen to have this with me.” He pulled from his Manifesta bag a book that resembled a thick photocopied course packet and began flipping through it. Each page was filled with images of people and their addresses—a who’s who of the art world. “It’s a very interesting tool,” he said. “It’s a face book, but à la mode. A very old-fashioned face book.”
The story of how he filled that book begins in Germany, but its most significant chapter takes place in New York. König grew up in Mettingen, a town of 12,000 about 35 miles from Münster, as the last of six children. His father ran a paint company, his mother took care of the family. (His birth name was Rudolf; in the early 1960s, he adopted Kasper. Graham attributed the name to Casper the Friendly Ghost, which König denied, instead saying he liked the “K” sound and mentioning Kasperletheater, a traditional German puppet show.) In his late teens he became curious about contemporary art and went to work as an intern for the Cologne dealer Rudolf Zwirner.
After taking classes in art history at the Courtauld Institute in London, he came to New York in the mid-1960s aboard a ship, having worked “for a short time” as a merchant marine. His intention was to get Richard Bellamy, founder of the Green Gallery on 57th Street, to give him a part-time job. Bellamy was showing innovative artists like James Rosenquist, Mark di Suvero, and Donald Judd. But by the time König arrived, in the mid-’60s, Bellamy had closed up shop.
With a Green Gallery gig out of the question, König switched gears. “I always lived by my wits,” he told me. He lived for a while in a loft at 65 East Broadway and took classes at the New School; he quickly became enmeshed in the downtown art scene. He assisted Claes Oldenburg and (“in order to get a green card,” he said) became the New York representative for Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, for which he organized a 1966 exhibition for Oldenburg and, later, one for Andy Warhol. He also brokered the occasional art deal. (Sons from his first and second marriages, Johann and Leo, have picked up that mantle and are dealers in Berlin and New York, respectively. His third wife, Berlin dealer Barbara Weiss, died last year.)
In New York, he developed a reputation as a colorful personality. “Kasper was a kind of 1960s-style con man,” said Graham. The two became fast friends. One of many contributors to a König tribute book published on the occasion of his 60th birthday, was photographer Barbara Brown, who dated König in the ’60s. “I thought he was like an old-time Hollywood icon,” she writes, adding that “Kasper became known as the James Bond of the art world.”
Late one night, Brown recalls, König phoned her from a subway station and suggested they sneak into the new Whitney Museum, Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building on Madison Avenue, which was still under construction. They made it past security and visited the boardroom. König has retained vestiges of this sense of mischief. The night before our meeting at Hotel Americano, I attended a slide-show talk that König and Peters gave at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in Midtown, hosted by Independent Curators International. König got things rolling by announcing, “We’re very happy that we’re here, not at Columbia. You have a certain kind of proletarian tradition at your university—it’s very open.” König was sporting salmon-colored pants and suspenders, Peters, a dark sweater and pants, and the two came off as a comedy duo: the absent-minded professor and the straight woman. (“It’s always like a Muppet Show,” König told me.)
From his earliest years, König was forging connections among his avant-garde discoveries, one of those key connectors who make art history happen. He was “a man on the scene who had this voracious enthusiasm for almost everything,” remembered artist Billy Copley, who saw König frequently at the time, as did his father, the artist and collector William N. Copley. In 1967 König wrote to his brother Walther in Cologne, proposing they start a book company. One early production was a computer poem by the Fluxus pioneer Alison Knowles, who was also living downtown. Knowles needed a mainframe to iterate the interchangeable lines she had written, printing them across hundreds of pages. The brothers convinced Siemens in Munich, the only company in Germany with the right machine, to do it for free. “For me, he was outstanding and courageous,” Knowles told me. “It’s not like you’re going to sell a thing like that!” (Buchhandlung Walther König, which Walther runs, is now one of the most respected art publishers the world.)
Restlessness defines the first half of König’s career. After a few years in New York he decamped for Antwerp, where he headed up an art space called A 37 90 89, founded in 1969. “A stands for A, ABC, anti-art, and-so-on,” he wrote at the time in an announcement letter. “37 90 89 is the telephone number. The number will be answered 24 hours.”
The announcement mentioned programming by Ben Vautier, Kawara, and others, backed by a budget of $6,000 for the first six months. A 37 90 89 was short-lived. “A great deal of money was spent in a very short time,” said filmmaker Jef Cornelis in a 2006 interview, adding, “at a certain point, Kasper König vanished into the sunset.”
“When I was on holiday for two weeks, [the artist] Panamarenko landed a coup and took over the building as his studio,” König told me. “That was a good ending.”
He resurfaced in Nova Scotia, in the early 1970s. On the recommendation of Graham, he was hired to start a press at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a hotbed of vanguard art. “We were young and foolish,” Garry Neill Kennedy, then NSCAD’s president, said, laughing. “You take chances when you’re young.” König did books with Steve Reich, Yvonne Rainer, and Hans Haacke. He “was like a magnet, drawing many artists to the college,” Kennedy has said. König stayed for a few years, and then was on the move again.
The 1970s saw the dawn of the hulking international art festival. In 1972 Swiss curator Harald Szeemann packed the fifth edition of Documenta, the quinquennial in Kassel, Germany, with 222 artists, and König was among Szeemann’s advisers, helping stage Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum there, which he would later help sell to the Cologne chocolate baron Peter Ludwig.
A controversy in 1975 brought König back to his home region. The city of Münster had acquired a large kinetic sculpture by George Rickey and installed it in a local park. People hated it.
Münster has a reputation as a conservative city, so much so that, as König explained to his audience at City University of New York, many people think that political disposition accounts for the city being rebuilt after War World II to look as it did before the war. In fact, he said, it was a matter of convenience. “There were bombs that were so hot that the houses crumbled, but the sewer system remained, so the [new] city was constructed on the old layout.” When it comes to Münster history, he continued, “there are a lot of ideology, lies, and interpretations—that is the same with our exhibition.”
The Rickey brouhaha prompted Klaus Bussmann, a curator at the local Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte (now the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur), to try to educate the citizens on the latest developments in art. He promptly began planning a show of modern sculpture in Münster, and tapped König to commission contemporary works throughout the city.
Drawing in part on his time in New York, König picked nine artists, who were all then on the forefront. Most were American: Carl Andre, Michael Asher, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Oldenburg, and Richard Serra. (Richard Long, a Brit, and two Germans, Ulrike Rückreim and Joseph Beuys, completed the list.) Judd’s low concrete circle along Lake Aasee near the center of town and Oldenburg’s huge concrete billiard balls nearby—“it was supposed to be more balls, but Münster only had the money for three, which worked out okay,” Oldenburg said in a 2014 interview—remain in situ, along with more than 30 others from the four editions of Skulptur Projekte Münster.
The first edition may not have been a hit locally—see all that hateful coverage in the local paper—but it was a major notch in König’s curatorial belt, and he went on to bigger things. With “Von hier aus” (“From Here On”) in 1984 in Düsseldorf, he gave substantial space to more than 60 artists, most of them German, ranging from giants like Georg Baselitz to a young Thomas Schütte, in the city’s convention center. König lived with his mother while organizing the show.
That exhibition “was this enormous sprawling extravaganza,” recalled Garrels, the SFMOMA senior curator. While a few of the artists had garnered attention beyond German borders, he said, “it was a big wake-up call that there was this incredibly vibrant, rich, diverse art world that had been happening in Germany that we had been blissfully ignorant of.”
König never earned a college degree, but “Von hier aus” and “Westkunst,” a presentation of more than 800 works from 1949 to the exhibition’s present by some 200 American and European artists that he organized at a trade hall in Cologne in 1981, served as his bona fides. He took a job at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the mid-1980s, and in 1987 the Städelschule in Frankfurt named him a professor. He founded Portikus, a white box housed in shipping containers that gave now-legendary shows to old friends like Oldenburg, Kawara, and Gerhard Richter, as well as still-emerging artists like Wolfgang Tillmans (in 1995), Sarah Lucas (1996), and Matthew Barney (1997).
In 2000 König’s career came, in a sense, full circle when the Museum Ludwig, the private Cologne museum bearing the name of Peter Ludwig, hired him as director. He stayed there for 12 years.
One constant in König’s life since the 1970s has been Skulptur Projekte Münster. Like other international festivals, it went big in the late ’80s, ballooning to 60-plus artists for its second edition in 1987, and then to 74 for 1997. This year brings a different kind of change. The curators will show some sculptures outside the city, in the town of Marl, about 35 miles away. Home to a utopian planned city center in the 1960s, Marl is no longer thriving. “There are many, many dying cities, which were very strong, which were the backbone of the economic recovery of West Germany, and they are going down the drain,” König said. “Marl, which is so close [to Münster], had this vision which wasn’t fulfilled.” (König and his fellow curators explored collaborating with cities in South America and Africa, but nothing felt quite right.)
Over the years, as Skulptur Projetke has developed into a tourist draw, Münster has come to embrace it. When Arakawa approached the school for assistance with his project, he told me, “because of the history of Skulptur Projekte, I think they are very open to it.” The city and province provide little under half the €7.5 million budget.
“Now, we are welcomed,” König told his recent lecture audience in New York. “So many tourists come, and it’s good for the image of the city.” These days, he said, the politicians would actually embrace a scandal. (In 1987, to name one, the hands of Katharina Fritsch’s yellow plaster sculpture of the Lourdes Madonna were smashed.) The local satraps have pushed to have the show become more frequent, appearing every five years. König has fought those efforts and, he said, has even threatened to sue. “I’m now the dinosaur in our exhibition,” he told me. “But when it is crucial, I can say no.”
While there is no telling if any of this year’s artworks may upset, at least one has a puckish sense of humor. Michael Smith, who is based in New York and Austin, is working with a tattoo parlor to offer more than 100 artist-designed tattoos, with visitors aged 65 and above receiving a 50-percent discount. He has christened his project Not Quite Under_Ground. “It’s this double entendre,” the 66-year-old artist told me by Skype, with a grin. The elderly are “not quite underground, and tattoos are not quite underground.”
Smith is perhaps best known for performing in a diaper and bonnet, as a character named Baby Ikki. “We are not interested in artists who just present their recognizable product,” König told me. Rather, he wants artists “who are in a point of their career [when] it’s a challenge to be in Münster—and it’s a challenge for us.”
At one point during our meeting, König got to talking about how things have changed over his career. “The art world became more and more commercial, more and more concession-oriented, more and more expensive, but then the overall institutions all became more institutional,” he said. “So there is a general understanding about how interesting art is, but it has less and less meaning.” Meanwhile, Skulptur Projekte Münster has moved at its own pace, capturing of-the-moment configurations of ideas, politics, and artists. “Sometimes it’s good to have constellations,” König said after a sip of coffee, “and then they disappear.”
As for how to characterize his history as a curator, “basically I’m a complete amateur,” he said. “I had a very, very interesting context because I got to know, at a certain time under certain circumstances, really interesting people.”
Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “Postcards from the Edge.”