I traveled to Cologne for the opening of “The Eighth Square,” the big show—over eighty artists—now spreading its skirts at the Museum Ludwig. The exhibition, curated by Berlin-based freelancer Frank Wagner along with the Ludwig’s own Julia Friedrich and director Kasper König, looks at “gender, life and desire” in art since the '60s, and takes its title from the chess move that turns a pawn into a queen. Wagner has curated numerous exhibitions in this territory before, stretching back to late-'80s examinations of art and AIDS, so I was keen to see whether this exhibition would update the discussion.
I couldn’t help feeling that starting the show in the '60s was slightly odd, given that the explosion of art about alternate sexualities did not occur until the subsequent decade. Even though the exhibition is not arranged chronologically, this entry point has the effect of making the earlier works seem like a token (and closeted) prelude. An example of this, hanging on the wall above my head as I entered the Friday-afternoon press preview, was a pairing of a Jasper Johns flag painting with Jonathan Horowitz’s Three Rainbow Flags for Jasper in the Style of the Artist’s Boyfriend, 2005. The latter flags were in glitter, and the boyfriend in question, of course, belongs to Horowitz rather than Johns.
Nevertheless, beginning in the Pop era does allow the Ludwig to show off its spectacular holdings of American art from this time, and the inclusion of a number of choice Warhols, still radiating sexual ambivalence, perhaps justifies the strategy—as well as the Warhol Foundation’s generous underwriting of the show. Foundation president Joel Wachs gave a tub-thumping speech at the reception later that evening, declaring that the exhibition was “long overdue in this country—and ours, too.” Perhaps the foundation has taken the unusual step of supporting this show in Europe for the very reason, sadly, that a queer-oriented show of this size and profile could not happen in the States.
The exhibition is laden with American artists, however, and features super works by the likes of Jack Smith, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Nicole Eisenman, and Catherine Opie. It also has a good spread of German artists, many less internationally established, and I was especially interested to encounter powerful work from the earlier period by Ferdinand Kriwet and Jürgen Klauke. However, the show is patchy in its coverage outside these two countries, contains too much weak work from the culture-wars era, and is especially disappointing in the contemporary department. Recent works by artists such as Cerith Wyn Evans, Francesco Vezzoli, or Eli Sudbrack might have helped pep it up.
Nor did the after-party really redeem the day. Perhaps due to the show’s mid-August scheduling, the event, held in the Ludwig’s cavernous bar/restaurant, was attended by only a handful of the participating artists. I did, however, have the chance to renew my acquaintance with the charming Piotr Nathan, whose work from 1993—in which urinal doors are made into a Japanese screen, supporting photographs by David Armstrong—is one of the show’s highlights. Nathan hails from Berlin and was having an impromptu reunion with a number of friends from the city with whom, in the '80s, he had founded a group with the wonderful name the Silent Heroes. Among the reminiscing heroes was Ute Meta Bauer, former curator of the Berlin Biennial and now director of the Visual Arts Program in the architecture department at MIT.
Other partygoers included North American exhibitors Kaucyila Brooke and Deborah Kass, as well as A. A. Bronson (the latter recently found expounding on his mastery of anal massage in Butt, the self-declared “Fantastic Magazine for Homosexuals”). Bronson could be seen talking to Beatrix Ruf of Kunsthalle Zürich, as well as to leading Cologne gallerist Daniel Buchholz. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Ludwig’s curators had studied their neighbor’s program more closely, then they could have arrived at a more sophisticated reading of “gender, life and desire” in art right now, given that a contemporary take on queerness is part of the Buchholz signature.
Nevertheless, if “The Eighth Square” disappointed in some of its choices (and if the party suffered from late-summer doldrums), the contemporary relevance of the issues it touched could not be ignored. For the exhibition’s poster, the organizers had chosen a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans, an image of a cock and balls viewed from below, the camera looking up through a man’s makeshift skirts. This playful and celebratory image has been refused a place on the city’s billboards—the row having gone all the way up to the mayor of Cologne, who has refused to back the museum. Queens may be crowned every day, but the game isn’t over yet.