ZADIK special exhibition Passage 11/3

THE KÖLN SHOW – Networks of Avant-garde Galleries in the Nineties

1989. The Wall had fallen and with it Cologne’s status as an art metropolis, Berlin was to become Germany’s capital again, the art market plunged from a gold rush into a financial crisis and art itself into an identity crisis: the nineties had begun. Nevertheless – and precisely because of this situation – Cologne in the nineties “was the best place to be,” according to the artist Josef Strau in his essay ‘The Non-Productive Attitude’ (2006). In the weekend supplement of the New York Times on 6 September 1992, Deborah Solomon even went so far as proclaiming ‘The Cologne Challenge’, asking: ‘Is New York’s Art Monopoly Kaput?’.

For this year’s opulently illustrated journey through time, the Zentralarchiv für deutsche und internationale Kunstmarktforschung (Central Archive of the International Art Trade), or ZADIK, has set the coordinates for the myth of the Cologne art scene of the 1990s, one that circulates today, especially in America. It visits the people and events that built trans-European and transatlantic bridges and set the course for present-day art programmes, bringing back to life the era of artistic self-reflection, contextual art and institutional criticism, some of which was achieved through tough bar work.

The exhibition makes its first stop at the Sonderprogramm junge Galerien (special programme for young galleries) project, arranged by gallerist Monika Sprüth and her colleagues Max Hetzler and Jörg Johnen at ART COLOGNE, which made it possible for gallery owners such as Colin de Land to bring their artists to Cologne.

The fanfare that heralded the new decade came in the form of The Köln Show (27 April to 26 May 1990), an exhibition featuring works by 66 artists from Europe, the USA and Japan, curated by Cologne gallerists Monika Sprüth, Esther Schipper, Isabella Kacprzak, Tanja Grunert, Gisela Capitain, Sophia Ungers, Rafael Jablonka, Max Hetzler and Daniel Buchholz, coordinated by Monica Beer and with an accompanying book, Nachschub (supply), edited and published by Isabelle Graw.

In the same year, 1990, Isabelle Graw and art historian Stefan Germer founded the art commentary magazine Texte zur Kunst in Cologne, a partner institution that was just as important for the artists exhibiting in the city as the galleries were. Christian Nagel opened his gallery (with the first solo exhibition by Cosima von Bonin) in 1990 as well, and the artists Stephan Dillemuth, Josef Strau, Nils Norman, Merlin Carpenter and Kiron Khosla presented the Friesenwall 120 art space, which they ran until 1994.

Christian Nagel, who regarded his refused admission to ART COLOGNE more as an accolade, provoked ART COLOGNE and its organisers in 1992, together with Tanja Grunert, Michael Janssen and Heike Kempken, with the alternative fair Unfair – The Real Art Fair, featuring 28 international avant-garde galleries, including New York-based Pat Hearn, and held in the Balloni Halls venue in Cologne’s Ehrenfeld district. The “real art fair” – and this too was a statement – opened with a press conference on 11 November at 11.11 a.m. and lasted until 15 November. The next year, 1993, the Unfair, now featuring 42 international galleries – among them newcomer David Zwirner – took place in the empty former headquarters of the Stadtsparkasse Köln bank on Rudolfplatz (10–15 November). It was so sensational and successful that ART COLOGNE incorporated it in the following year, 1994. Thirty-five of the former Unfair’s galleries took over the exhibition space occupied by the traditional “special exhibition” and, from the perspective of the press, significantly improved the quality of the avant-garde works on show.

The degree to which the Unfair and the first contemporary art fair to be held in a hotel (Hilton Amsterdam), the Art Hotel, founded in 1994 by Cologne gallery owner Gabriele Rivet, were models for the New York Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair (1994–1995) and the Armory Show, which grew out of it in 1999, is discussed by Christian Nagel in the publication sediment, appearing alongside the exhibition.

The 28/29 double issue of sediment features further interviews with Daniel Buchholz, Gisela Capitain, Isabelle Graw, Esther Schipper, Monika Sprüth and Markus Schneider, who had moved from Berlin to Cologne(!) with Nikolaus Schafhausen to open the gallery Lukas & Hoffmann. This too became part of the scene which, as commented recently by Dominikus Müller in frieze magazine, was marked out by one thing above all else: “Networks, associations of people who made art together – or who didn’t make art but at least discussed it at the bar of an evening. These were closed, local networks that were compact and intense in contrast to the open, scattered networks of today’s Facebook culture.”