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Ripening on the Rhine: The Cologne Art World of the '80s


James Lee Byars and Joseph Beuys, Sammlung Speck, Haus Lange, Krefeld, 1983. Photo: Benjamin Katz.

In an Italian restaurant in Frankfurt, some blocks from where I live, a huge, bluish Martin Kippenberger painting hangs on the wall. I am sitting at one of the tables there, with a stack of books and magazines from the '80s: a few catalogues, issues of Spex and Wolkenkratzer, and a twenty-year-old essay on "New German Painting" by the critics Wolfgang Max Faust and Gerd de Vries. This is where I'm starting to write the article you're reading, about the creative scene that sprang up over two decades ago in a town some hundred miles away: Cologne in the '80s.

My own blurred memories are of little help. I recall some tumultuous openings, late nights in hotel lobbies and bars, a mixture of languages (mainly German and American English), and a great sense of excitement. But I was just a visitor from abroad, with little grasp of what was really going on, and the decade was nearly over by the time I arrived. Will I be able to understand the Cologne of the '80s any better today? Fortunately, I have a few sources beyond the books on the table and the painting on the wall behind me.

Around 1980 Germany really had something to offer the international art world, the dealer Michael Werner tells me one morning last year a few hours before the opening of the Cologne art fair. A generation of artists who had already been working for a decade or more—Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and a handful of others—was starting to get attention abroad. This jump-started the market, says Werner. "Cologne is really rather provincial, and always has been. But the situation was new in that we had something to sell." According to Werner, one man had paved the way: Joseph Beuys, the artist, activist, and visionary professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. "Without Beuys," he says, "the German art world of the '80s would have developed very differently. He thought strategically, and his public appearances and performances, such as the trip he made to New York without touching American soil, not only attracted great interest but created connections and opened new territories."


Left to right: Anselm Kiefer, Per Kirkeby, and Georg Baselitz, Düsseldorf, 1984. Max Hetzler, Cologne, ca. 1984. Kasper and Walther König, Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 1982. All photos: Benjamin Katz.

The Cologne of the '70s already boasted internationally established galleries, such as Werner's and Rudolf Zwirner's. There were also well-informed collectors in the area, an active experimental film scene, and an important electronic-music studio, run by Karlheinz Stockhausen, that attracted composers from all over the world, Nam June Paik and John Cage among them. Even so, the preferred place of residence for artists was Düsseldorf, some thirty minutes away, with its academy, its Kunsthalle, and its lively art scene. "Düsseldorf used to be where artists would live and work; Cologne was the party town, and the place for dealers," says the artist Thomas Ruff, who still resides in Düsseldorf today. "Of course we would go to openings in Cologne, but we felt like outsiders because the kind of photographic work my colleagues and I were producing didn't get much gallery support during the first half of the '80s." But then something happened that isn't so easy to explain: Artists began to move to Cologne from all over Germany, and with them came new galleries. This industrial town on the Rhine, with roughly a million inhabitants, emerged as not only the art capital of West Germany but the world's most important city for contemporary art outside New York.

"It was completely clear where to go," says Max Hetzler, who had run a gallery in Stuttgart before relocating to Cologne in 1983. "I was doing shows with [Günther] Förg, [Reinhard] Mucha, [Albert] Oehlen, and Kippenberger that had attracted attention, but to really reach out with my program, Cologne was very obviously the place." And reach out Hetzler did. Along with dealers like Paul Maenz and Monika Sprüth, he became one of the major players in an increasingly international scene centered almost entirely around private galleries. Year by year more and more dealers—Daniel Buchholz, Gisela Capitain, Tanja Grunert, Rafael Jablonka, Jörg Johnen, Esther Schipper, Sophia Ungers—set up shop. Ask any European artist where he or she wanted to show in the '80s, and the answer will be Cologne. Ask their American colleagues—Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, Robert Gober, Julian Schnabel—and they will say the same.

As Cologne became the Continental meeting place of choice for the international art world, the local scene developed its own social codes. Typical of the city's art circles were a certain rough sarcasm and a bullying directness. Kippenberger, for example, might be described as bad-mannered in a highly cultured way. His transgressive drinking habits were in no way unique; in fact they may have been moderate compared to Förg's. "You had to be really tough to make your voice heard," says Isabelle Graw, a critic who moved to Cologne in the late '80s. "I remember the Königwasser bar, where you'd stand next to an aquarium with everyone squeezed together and discuss art matters ferociously. The frankness was at times brutal. Kippenberger, for instance, would always say what he thought, no matter how sexist or insulting. On an evening like that, I could count on at least one comment about my breasts. In the long run that was annoying." The critic and curator Francesco Bonami, then a young painter, remembers visiting Cologne often in the '80s: "For me the Cologne art world was like a sect with many factions, complete with leaders and gurus. Someone like Paul Maenz seemed unreachable to me. . . . The Cologne art crowd was the ruling class. They were so socially sure of themselves that nothing could shake them. Excess and abuse were part of the game."

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