Alphabet City

Left: Artist Dan Attoe, dealer Javier Peres, and artist Alex Israel. (Photo: Luigi Vitali) Right: Dealer Gerd Harry Lybke at art berlin contemporary. (Photo: EricTschernow)

BERLIN IS MOSTLY RELAXING IN SEPTEMBER. As you walk through the graffiti-splattered streets, everything somehow looks beautiful when it begins to die—the leaves on the trees, the summer that never seemed to arrive this year—and then, suddenly, the Kunst Herbst arrives like a caffeinated jolt from an unexpectedly strong coffee. Of course, there’s no Art Forum fair this year to welcome the art-lusting masses back to town, but to be honest, it is not sorely missed. “Berlin is not an art fair town” was the refrain I heard repeatedly throughout the week from dealers and artists alike. And so Art Berlin Contemporary, an art fair that is not supposed to be an art fair—and yet somehow is—seems to be the best compromise anyone’s thought of to date.

I showed up last Wednesday at the exact right time—a down period between the morning press conference and the afternoon VIP opening—which gave me a chance to absorb the work before social hour and fatigue set in. For those not in the know, ABC is a curated art fair designed to resemble a group show, with typically one artist presented from each of the selected galleries. This year’s theme was “About Painting,” which was cheekily (yet aptly) summarized by Exile’s Christian Siekmeier: “We don’t want to show painting, we just want to discuss it from a conceptual distance. Though, in the end, we will actually show just paintings.” It was only a mild exaggeration, as there were a lot of non/anti-paintings and lots of chatter about “painting’s despecification,” in the lingo of Isabelle Graw, referring to the preponderance of painterly work using nontraditional media (of which Sergej Jensen is perhaps the unofficial king). I was surprised not to hear Rauschenberg mentioned once the entire week at ABC or any of the satellite fairs, dinners, openings, or parties. To me, it’s his ghost that haunted so much of the work, which heavily favored the scruffy, the trashy, and the handmade. But perhaps that was just curator Rita Kersting’s penchant for enforcing the cliché of Berlin being a town with a permanent attitude problem, i.e., “I dare you to hang that in the living room of your billion-dollar home.”

The (non)fair, located at Station-Berlin in the no-man’s-land of Gleisdreieck, comprised a weird maze of artificial walls that I suppose were meant to serve as some sort of “architectural intervention” but had the annoying side effect of making you constantly run back into people and artworks you had just bid adieu to seconds before. The “nonfair” part of the fair also meant benches instead of booths and no clear delineation, with artists from rival galleries often sharing wall space. On the surface, it all looked pretty democratic, with selections from galleries established (Arndt, Daniel Buchholz, Sprüth Magers) and new (Cinzia Friedlaender, Exile, PSM), large and small, each asked to pay the same price; on closer inspection, though, it became apparent that the bigger brands were allotted the most real estate (ach, those awful Elizabeth Peyton paintings at neugerriemschneider). Perhaps the greatest irony about ABC is that in spite of the willed “uncommercialness” of the fair, those it benefited least were the emerging players.

Left: Outside Preview Berlin. Right: At the Aurel Scheibler exhibition. (Photos: Luigi Vitali)

“There aren’t even badges to identify who you are,” complained one exasperated dealer. “So unless you’re Isabella Bortolozzi, you’re lost in the crowd. To us, it looks a little bit like their private party.”

Of course, for those who wanted a more traditional art fair, there was Preview, which opened on Thursday to much fanfare at the former Tempelhof Airport, providing a relief from ABC’s curatorial browbeating and proving that second tier doesn’t necessarily equal second rate. The week around ABC was filled out with openings and dinners galore, with my itinerary featuring a delicious, gut-stuffing five-courser at Sale e Tabacchi celebrating twenty years of Aurel Scheibler’s gallery on Thursday; a dinner for the Sergej Jensen and Marc Camille Chaimowicz exhibitions hosted by Thilo Wermke, Alexander Schröder, and Alex Zachary at a private apartment on Friday; and a casual open-bar schmoozefest on Saturday at Soho House for Peres Projects’ Dan Attoe and Alex Israel exhibitions. When I brought up some of the complaints I’d been hearing throughout the week with a participating dealer, he brushed them off. “Everyone knows what the deal is with ABC. I actually like it this year. It looks great and a lot of our clients have come out for it. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that if you’re asked to do ABC, then you kind of have to do it.”

Hmm . . . curatorial coercion? Maybe that’s just my bad attitude speaking out once again. “For us, it’s a fair,” Denis Pieper of PSM Gallery put it bluntly. “At the same time, I don’t expect very much from it. It is Berlin, after all.”

Left: Artist Tom Chamberlain, Aurel Scheibler director Rebeccah Blum, and designer Dirk Lauke. Right: Artist Widow Sharon Avery-Fahlström and dealer Aurel Scheibler.