“ARE YOU HERE to buy a car?” asked a dapper Frenchman waiting in line last Wednesday for the fiftieth anniversary of Art Cologne.
He was referring to Stuart Ringholt’s compact automobiles bearing cynical license plates like CURATOR or ART CRITIC parked at the entrance to the shiny Koelnmesse. There was a time when such “critical” gestures weren’t just de rigueur but actually meant something. Like in 1970, when Wolf Vostell, Helmut Rywelski, and Joseph Beuys staged a protest demanding rights for artists and publishers to be allowed into the fair, literally banging on the windows with keys and pushing their way in past a flabbergasted Rudolf Zwirner, setting the stage for new models of bringing artists into conversation with the business of art.
Consider that Art Cologne was the first ever contemporary and modern art fair in the world, one that has survived and succeeded through five decades of peaks and nadirs. After German reunification in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the art market crashed. “Imagine, you’re at the top of the scene and when you fall, you fall the hardest. The art market was dead for six years,” said fair director Daniel Hug who took the reins between 2007–2008, during another market dip, and reestablished Art Cologne as an international touchstone.
Amid the recent disclosures around the Panama Papers and the “Nazi-looted” Modigliani seized at the Geneva Freeport, I was prepared for conversations about money-laundering and tax evasion. But the closest reference was the inclusion of Panamarenko’s Panama: Aeromodeller I (Model for aircraft), 1984, part of the fair’s featured exhibition “Eins, zwei Wechselschritt,” curated by Ellen de Bruijne and Stella Lohaus, surveying fifty years of avant-garde art across Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. “That was a happy coincidence,” de Bruijne said. The curators articulated the path from a male-oriented art world that once spotlighted Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, and Stanley Brouwn to a woman-oriented present with Sine Van Menxel, Melanie Bonajo, and Nora Schultz. De Bruijne and Lohaus slipped in their own agenda, arguing that, as the popular Otherwild T-shirt has it, the future is female.
“I’ve been coming here with my parents since the ’70s,” said dealer Alex Duve, asserting his family ties with Art Cologne. He went so far as to bring an old fair catalogue from 1986, proudly displayed at his booth. But there were also relative newcomers, like New York’s Kate Werble, who first exhibited here two years ago, bringing small works in a suitcase to save on transportation, and who recently joined the selection committee for the fair’s “New Contemporaries” section. Part of what’s maintained Art Cologne’s success is Hug’s emphasis on new faces and youthful energy. Since 2012, the “Collaborations” section, run with NADA, has itself become a signature. Blood doping may be taboo in sports, but in the art world it’s a necessity.
At Deborah Schamoni, I caught a glimpse of AA Bronson and Keith Boadwee’s red-and-brown tartan paintings and Judith Hopf’s concrete snake sculptures. Are those from their collaboration at the Salzburger Kunstverein, where they shat paint onto canvases? “Yes, they’ve been very popular,” Schamoni said. “I would have sold two more, but then I show people the book and they are disgusted.”
Further along, I ran into Julia Scher who ran into the legendary Kaspar König who was promoting his new book Best Art: The Life of Kaspar König in Fifteen Exhibitions. He guided her to his table so he could personally sign and gift her a copy. “Where are you off to Julia?” König asked. Assuming her most convincing Dinglish accent, Scher replied, “Vee have to go to Ludwig Museum so vee can see ein film, und dann parties later.”
But even before that we were off to catch Anne Imhof’s choreographed Overture, at Galerie Buchholz’s Elisenstraße location. Zombie crowds followed entranced performers conducting banal gestures, slo-mo, to a moody Game of Thrones–style soundtrack. Terrified falcons were tied to poles, Pepsi cans were opened in sequence, gum was chewed, skin was shaved, and collector Mera Rubell shot a video of her husband Don watching it all.
Around the corner, Richard Hawkins’s exhibition opened at Buchholz’s other location behind the Antiquariat. Ogling the fine wares in the bookstore, a young woman whispered, “You have to be quiet here, this place is sacred.” Ancient Antonin Artaud publications and works on paper dotted the countertops in alignment with Hawkins’s exhibition “Being and its Fetuses,” featuring densely textured ceramic wall works influenced by an eponymous Artaud drawing. We finished up with Jacqueline Humphries’s show of luscious abstract paintings at Gisela Capitain.
After, we retired to the Wolkenburg for an elegant dinner hosted by Capitain, Buchholz, and David Zwirner. The medieval monastery-cum-hospital-cum–music school–cum–restaurant now boasts “modern lighting and air conditioning,” according to its website. Who could pass up such a treat? We gathered under a tent in the courtyard until a hefty gong rang and Capitain gracefully waved the guests inside.
Juicy conversation accompanied the succulent steaks. I spoke with model agent Eva Gödel, who staffed Rick Owens’s runway with young men willing to don genital-exposing tunics during Paris fashion week. “You should have seen the email thread titled Rick’s Dicks!” Talk quickly turned to more serious topics, with Brussels-based artist Lucy McKenzie speaking about the safety issues facing visitors heading to Art Brussels and Independent this week. “I just came to see Hawkins’s show. Traveling to Brussels is still a mess.”
Suddenly a video message popped up on my phone of Kasper König dancing at the Gürzenich banquet hall, site of the official Art Cologne party. “Who’s DJing?” asked ex-Forsythe Company dancer Josh Johnson. I had no idea, but decided the chandeliers were worth the trip. Anyhow, the Gürzenich was the site of the first Kunstmarkt in 1967—it seemed appropriate to pay homage. By the time we arrived, the crowd had mostly retired, leaving a few stragglers still hashing out sales.
When the emptiness got to be too much, we gathered a posse and repaired to MD Bar, passing ruins of former Roman city walls and under the thirteenth-century Hahnentor castle gate. There we found retired curator Veit Loers lurking in the darkened cocktail bar at 3 AM, just arrived from Venice with the Fridericianum’s Susanne Pfeffer. “In my generation, I worked with Kippenberger, Koons, and Förg,” he said. “Nobody cares about these people anymore,” though he finished on an optimistic note, describing his admiration for Neïl Beloufa.
I decided to brave the basement of COCO Schmitz down the road, where I found a hot-tub-sized dance floor full of sweaty artists and writers grinding to 1990s soft rock and disco. “I’ve got a drunk artist sleeping in my bed,” said a desperate dealer perched at the bar. “Do you have an extra hotel room?” Another girl leaned over, “Sorry buddy. Better try your luck with the coat-check trick and take whatever’s left at the end of the night.”
Finally, at 5 AM, we rolled up to Schampanja, a dive bar where some of the Buchholz crew headed after dinner. The door opened to expose a topless dance party inside as a young reveler fell onto the street.
“Where are you going?” we asked, offering our cab.
“Now? Well, we’re going inside.”
“Ok, never mind, I’m coming with you.”
We’ll remain mum about further transgressions, but will mention that even at this late hour we indulged in some lively banter about the growing American love affair with Broodthaers since his retrospective opened at MoMA. “It’s all in the language. He’s closer to a stand-up comic than anything else!” shouted one Belgian curator as a sportive bartender deep-throated a bottle of Kölsch. I raised my own glass: “Prost”—to fifty more years.
First published on Artforum.com, April 20th, 2016.