Berlin – Who's setting the art agenda?

From the January & February 2013 issue

By Astrid Mania

Installation view, Painting in the 80s, curated by Albert Oehlen, at Sprüth Magers Berlin, Photo: Jens Ziehe

Painting in the 80s, curated by Albert Oehlen; Michael Buthe; Heinz Mack; Joachim Bandau... these are venerable names, elder statesmen of German art. Does this read like a museum’s exhibition schedule? Sure does. Yet this is just a small selection of current and recent shows in Berlin’s commercial galleries. And it provides a spotlight on the interplay between the public and private sectors in Berlin.

When, not so very long ago, the first young galleries opened up in Mitte and the gaps within Berlin’s institutional landscape were just as wide as those in the cityscape itself, many dealerships looked more like independent zones of experimentation. It was hard to decide whether you were visiting one of the many artist-run spaces (where did they go, by the way?), a temporary venture in artistic self-promotion or a commercial enterprise. A now- established generation of Berlin artists lived it up in these galleries.

nowadays it is hard to decide whether you are visiting a public institution or a commercial gallery

Much has changed since. Today, the city and its mayor celebrate the young, hip, ‘based in Berlin’ artist, and we’re expecting a successor to that eponymous, multi-institution 2011 show this year. And nowadays it is hard – and this is not only true for Berlin – to decide whether you are visiting a public institution or a commercial gallery. Many museums look like the sidekick or showroom of their powerful-dealer mate. Dramatic budget cuts, museum directors hired not for their art-historical track record but for their excellent fundraising, shoulder-rubbing and event- organising skills: all these change the face of the public institution. Everything has to be so now, so wow.

And the dealers? Some discover history. Most recent history, that is. Matthias Arndt, for instance, currently houses a Heinz Mack retrospective. Surely there is no social or educational agenda here. The art market is rediscovering a taste for Zero, the artist group cofounded by Mack. At the same time, Sprüth Magers has offered a platform for Albert Oehlen’s perspective on painting during the 1980s that, through his eyes, wasn’t so German, oily or 80s after all. (Admittedly, Oehlen’s notion of both the medium and the decade is rather flexible: the dates, and media, are all over the place.)

Elsewhere, dealer Thomas Flor – recently relocated from Düsseldorf – has proved to be a passionate supporter of Michael Buthe’s material paintings and wonderful methodical madness. And Thomas Fischer, who last spring landed a coup with Brian O’Doherty’s early works, lately featured Joachim Bandau, a Rhineland hero, and his uncanny machinelike creatures from the 1970s. It shouldn’t be long before the public institutions fall for their brand of retro-chic. If the art market responds well to the art of the ‘Best Agers’ (as the fifty-plus generation is called in German PR speech), museum curators will surely follow. Courtesy of the galleries.

This article was first published in the January-February 2013 issue of ArtReview