“I WAS WARNED not to dress too extravagantly!” cried a Parisienne collector sporting a bejeweled, Persian-green dress and floral-print overcoat. A black Mercedes pulled up to drive us the mere one hundred yards from the parking lot to Brussels’s Tour & Taxis building for last Wednesday’s opening gala dinner for BRAFA. Until recently, those letters had stood for “Brussels Antique & Fine Art Fair,” but this year it’s been updated to the more modish “Brussels Art Fair,” signifying that the organization has “also embraced modern and contemporary art” and “resolutely secured their position in the 21st century,” or so says its website.
“I don’t sell contemporary art; I kill all of my artists before I show them!” dealer Anisabelle Berès-Montanari declared, flagrantly breaking the fair’s unofficial yet widely observed no-flash dress code with a monochromatic pink getup. “The antique dealers must hate it,” London’s Whitford Gallery’s Adrian Mibus later told me, referring to the fair’s repackaging as he stood in front of a deflated silver Warhol balloon. While the market for expensive furnishings, curiosities, and bibelots has contracted in recent years, the number of collectors traveling to contemporary art and design fairs has risen, and BRAFA wants its piece of the pie too. But like a corporate office building that decides its lobby needs an interior makeover, the results are predictably bourgeois––that is to say, great names often stand in for not so great works.
Some galleries made the most of it: Axel Vervoordt’s crowded booth used his seasoned strategy of mixing antiquities with avant-garde works of the 1960s. An enigmatic, metallic-gray canvas made by Lucio Fontana as a gift for Belgian artist Jef Verheyen was particularly unique. Lacerated thrice from the painting’s backside, its immaculate, seamless folds project outward, a riposte to the omnipresent repoussé silverware on view. And who could forget Atelier Van Lieshout’s coital 3-D cutaway-cum-sculpture-cum-lamp Pappamamma at the booth of London’s Carpenters Workshop? “We sell the antiques of tomorrow,” Carpenters cofounder Julien Lombrail explained at the dinner, making me wonder if tomorrow would look anything like the present.
It didn’t. The following day we drove the two hours from Brussels to Cologne, arriving just in time for gallery openings on the eve of the third Brussels Cologne Contemporaries (aka BCC) weekend. What had begun in 2008 as the biennial Cologne Contemporaries quickly turned into a collaboration with its Belgian sister city; for its 2014 iteration, twenty Bruxellois and Kölner galleries, nonprofits, and artist-run spaces each presented a single artist’s work in a curated group exhibition for the event.
“Brussels and Cologne are two cities with a young and vibrant art scene that are close enough to make this event possible,” dealer Marion Scharmann told me. “When we go to Brussels, we don’t know the collectors. We stand around and try to guess who’s who. When the Brussels galleries come here, they do the same.” Since the show alternates locations each year, the geographical exchange has created a sort of gift economy, offering exposure between two linguistically and regionally separated tribes of collectors, artists, and dealers.
“In German, we have a saying: ‘Was der Bauer nicht kennt, frißt er nicht’ or ‘What the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat,’ ” dealer Daniel Schmidt later informed a group of us at his loft— auspiciously located in Cologne’s “Belgian Quarter”—simultaneously serving numerous guests bowls of boeuf bourguignon from a giant metal pot.
“Did you make this yourself?” I asked, finding the cuisine a hospitable gesture for those in the room with francophone palates.
“It’s my signature dish!” he assured me, throwing in a pinch of pride and a dash of feigned shock. Showing downstairs at his gallery was a new series of Conceptual works by artist Marcus Kleinfeld—last year’s recipient of the BCC award, presented to an artist from the visiting city. Juxtaposing the specific with the general, his assemblages of found photographs critique the power of images to condition and distort our own heuristics.
“Cologne used to be the epicenter,” artist Julia Münstermann told me back upstairs. “It was the largest city with a feasible infrastructure for an international art community that was near the capital, Bonn. It’s had a gap after the Wall fell, but it’s coming back.”
Left: Dealer Sébastien Ricou. Right: Carpenters Workshop’s Aurélie Julien, collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt, and Maison Particulière’s Myriam and Amaury de Solages.
“Is it easier to be an artist in Berlin?” I asked.
“It would be easier to move back to Cologne! All the ‘ooh and aah’ about Berlin is deflating. It’s saturated. There’s too much, too many, and not enough money. Here, there’s only competition with a few, it’s easier to speak to people, and there’s much more focus and attention. You have an opening tomorrow in Berlin? Well, so do thirty other artists…”
“You must meet Carla!” Daniel interrupted. In one seamless gesture he scooped me up and seated me next to Cologne Kunstverien’s Carla Donauer, curator of BCC’s group exhibition. “It’s been a very different approach to curating,” she told me, straightening her glasses. Unchanged since the building’s former use as a bank office, the location provided Donauer with a welcome curatorial challenge. “It’s an everyday surrounding––not at all a white cube. At first sight, it may be disturbing if the viewer comes from an institutional background, but that’s interesting in itself. All of these artists have shown work in galleries and museums; we’re all interested in working with a space that is far from that.” My curiosity was piqued.
I entered the unassuming building the next morning. It was in a commercial district of the city, yet the “exhibition space” was not at all the conventional commercial art setup: fluorescent lighting, exposed radiators, stucco ceilings, a lightbulb attached to a discarded fire extinguisher—or was that a piece by Evamaria Schaller? “This isn’t an art fair,” Donauer told us, casually taking on the role of tour guide as artists and dealers chummed and helped each other unpack and install works. “It shouldn’t be an art fair, at least. We made decisions to keep it as much of an exhibition as possible, for example by not allowing the galleries to have a table with a press release or an iPad. Of course the works are for sale, but it’s really about presenting them together and within the space. Then, there’s the interests of the galleries and the market—but you can get that anywhere.”
Left: Dealer Marion Scharmann and artist Daniel Behrendt. Right: Artist Eli Cortiñas.
Upstairs, Finnish artist Sara Bjarland’s photographs of mangled, slat window blinds styled in various balletic poses were proudly presented by Brussels’s Hopstreet Gallery. (Bjarland would later be awarded as the winner of this year’s BCC award by the jury.) Tibault Espiau, Grégoire Motte, and Ištvan Išt Huzjan of Artists Club Coffre-Fort even brought a bit of Brussels with them, rolling out the carpets used to cover the floor of their space during each of last year’s openings.
“You know you’re no longer at an antique fair when you can smell the paint,” collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt noted as we admired Morgan Betz’s large abstract canvas of what seemed an orange landscape of foliate and anatomical formations against an International Klein Blue background. But it wasn’t just the paint that smelled fresh. I flashed back to BRAFA and the list of international art fairs I had been to in the last year, reminded of their universally slick showrooms, standard white booths, and antiseptic environments ready for showing and selling anything from Baccarat to Basquiat. If small, close-knit art communities like Brussels and Cologne, among others, with their own distinct and regional character, are increasingly en vogue, perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from the up-and-coming. Dorothy Parker put it best: “Homogeneity isn’t normal, it’s just common,” or however she said it.
That evening, I arrived back in Brussels just in time for dinner at Gladstone Gallery to celebrate Ricci Albenda’s birthday and the opening of his new exhibition. A bit of the Rhineland, it seemed, was already ahead of us: Walking from the car, I noticed Lempertz, Cologne auction house fixture since 1845, had set up new offices around the corner from the gallery.
Left: Artist Club Coffre-Fort’s Grégoire Motte and Thibault Espiau. Right: Artist Axel Loytved, and Chaplini’s Berthold Pott with artists Jan Schmidt and Klaus Kleine.
“I used to go to Cologne every six weeks in the ’80s,” Barbara Gladstone told me upstairs. “It was the entry point for American artists in Europe. Galleries there were showing artists like Christopher Wool well before anywhere else outside the US.” She wasn’t the only one with fond memories of the city. “I love Cologne,” Albenda immediately announced after I told him where I’d been. “I had a lot of fun there––and a bit of sex too!” Aptly titled “Yakkity Yak,” his show consists of a new series of paintings displaying black text of various non sequitur platitudes—such as “It’s a cold day in hell”—against seemingly white backgrounds; upon further inspection, the undercoat of each canvas begins to shine through, causing each bromide to float in an abyss of suggestive, yet subtle, monochromatic tint.
After dinner, those who weren’t stupefied by the luxurious spread of tarte tatin, mousse au chocolat, and other gateaux made moves to continue the celebration elsewhere, while the post-BCC festivities—as one dealer would later relay—were well underway back in Cologne and would last until five in the morning. “Do Belgians, like, party?” an out-of-towner with a Californian inflection asked her Brussels-based neighbor, moving her hand to an imperceptible beat. I didn’t stick around to hear the answer, but, then again, there’s always next year’s BCC to find out.
Left: Dealer Martin Kudlek. Right: Drei Galerie’s Jakob Pürling, curator James Clarkson, and Drei Galerie’s Dennis Hochköppeler.
Left: Artist Armin Chodzinski and dealer Julia Garnatz. Right: Gladstone’s Maxime de la Brousse and Albert Baronian’s Laurence Dujardyn.
Left: Dealer Marion Scharmann and art consultant and producer Grégory Lang. Right: Dealer and BRAFA vice chairman Didier Claes and Maison Particulière’s Myriam and Amaury de Solages.
Left: Dealer Daniel Schmidt. Right: Artist Julia Bünnagel and dealer Sebastian Brandl.
Left: Fashion designer Édouard Vermeulen, Galerie Marcilhac’s Noëlle Marcilhac, Point de Vue writer Eric Jansen, designer Maryam Mahdavi, and Le Figaro writer Béatrice de Rochebouet. Right: Artists Marcus Hiller and Timo Behn.
Left: Artist Anne Lina Billinger. Right: D+T Project’s Grégory Thiron, artist Hannu Prinz, and D+T Project’s Alexandre Daletchine.
Left: Teapot’s Petra Martinez. Right: Artist Kiron Khosia, curator and art critic Astrid Wege, dealer Sébastien Ricou, and Super Dakota’s Damîen Bertelle-Rogier. (Photo: Daniel Schmidt)
Left: Gladstone’s Belen Piñeiro and collector Jo van der Stichelen. Right: Collector and cultural consultant François Blanc.
Left: Curator Katerina Gregos, Wiels Contemporary Art Center director Dirk Snauwaert, and architect Marc Corbiau. Right: Rectangle’s Jérémie Boyard and Cédric Alby.
Left: Art consultant Aude de Vaucresson and artist Megan Marrin. Right: Artist Ricci Albenda and dealer Tim Van Laere.