PRINT February 2000


Konrad Fischer/Lueg

ASK ANYBODY ABOUT THE LEGACY of Konrad Fischer’s Düsseldorf gallery and you’ll get a laudatory earful. “He was a genius,” Carl Andre tells me over the phone. “Like one of those great Hollywood producers, Konrad knew how to gather the right people and get them what they needed to do their work. He was a tremendous facilitator.” “If Leo Castelli was running the most important art gallery in New York at the time, Konrad Fischer clearly started up the most important gallery in Europe,” says Marian Goodman. Fischer’s legendary status as a dealer is beyond question. But what of his work as an artist? The exhibition “When I paint my name is Konrad Lueg”—recently on display at New York’s P.S. 1 and the Kunsthalle Bielefeld and traveling soon to the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Ghent—offers a 151-work survey of the work of Fischer/Lueg, who died in 1996, and gives the viewer a glimpse of the emergence of Pop in Europe. The encounter in 1963 with an image of Roy Lichtenstein changed his life; he claimed that both he and Gerhard Richter “grew up” under the influence of the Pop artist. For five years Fischer pursued a hectic career as the painter Konrad Lueg—his mother’s maiden name—and as an organizer of various art events. He even once attempted to patent (in France and Germany) his signature style, a hybrid of Op and Pop. But in 1967 he opened his own gallery and from that moment ceased being an artist. “He didn’t like solitude,” says Dorothee Fischer, his wife and business partner who today runs the gallery alone. “The work of an artist is a lonesome one.”

If Fischer abandoned painting for the job of gallerist, one thing seems clear: He was no ordinary dealer. “Konrad would never talk you into buying anything,” says Barbara Gladstone, who had numerous dealings with Fischer and remembers well the first time she tried to purchase a piece from him. “Rather, he would talk you out of it.” The gallerist’s unorthodox unwillingness to sell, and at times even to communicate, no doubt confused and alienated some. If potential clients wanted to buy for the wrong reasons, Fischer would pretend that there was nothing for sale or even feign an inability to hear what they were saying. Asked in 1994 what it means for him to sell art, he eccentrically replied, “Unfortunately I’m not so good at that.”

Fischer opened his Düsseldorf gallery in October 1967 in a most humble space—an alley enclosed on both ends by glass doors. “I can still remember the sketches he sent me of the tiny place in the Neubrückstrasse. I was living in New York at the time, studying anthropology at the New School,” says Kaspar König, who advised Fischer on the selection of American artists for the gallery during the first years. “My first choice was Sol LeWitt, but he couldn’t do it right away. So Carl [Andre] was first to go. The amazing thing was that almost no American artists after Noland and Stella were known in Germany, so there were enormous opportunities.” It’s no exaggeration to say that Fischer’s activities in the late ’60s and ’70s changed the course of art in Europe as well as, indirectly, in the United States. A whole generation of Americans had their first European shows in the tiny space on Neubrückstrasse and saw their work go from Fischer’s gallery into German, Dutch, Belgian, and Swiss collections. (Andre: “He saved my life. No one in this country has helped me the way Konrad did.”) A glance at Ausstellungen bei Konrad Fischer, a catalogue documenting twenty-five years of exhibitions at the Fischer gallery (1967–92), is like perusing all the Documenta catalogues from the period condensed into a single volume—with the less interesting bits edited out. Among the list of American artists shown in, say, 1970, one finds Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, and Lawrence Weiner. Some of the Europeans that year were Richter, Polke, Darboven, Gilbert & George, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Everyone I talked to seems to agree on the significance of this initially modest venue. There is also general agreement on the matter of the Fischers’ finances: They were nonexistent. At the start Konrad and Dorothee, supporting themselves by working as high-school teachers, had no money. When artists came to town to hang their shows, the couple would supply the cheapest-possible airline tickets and put their guests up in an attic above their apartment in the Poststrasse. So how did they manage to succeed? Direct contact with the artists was crucial. “If I don’t know the artist and find him agreeable, I simply wouldn’t show the work,” Fischer explained in one of the rare interviews, a 1994 talk with Heinz-Norbert Jocks. König adds that the atmosphere in the gallery was very pleasant. “He would never give you the impression that he was working. There were no papers on his table, only an occasional issue of The New Yorker. And he told great jokes.” In an autobiographical statement from 1989, the dealer contended: “I had a fight only once, that was with Hanne Darboven. It was her fault, she was very difficult.” In a slight understatement, he added, “With Richter I fight at least once a year, but that’s different. Otherwise everything has been okay.” As any number of artists are eager to testify, Fischer showed tremendous respect for the art itself. After all, he knew what making art was all about. In a posthumous letter published in the catalogue to the recent show, museum director Jan Hoet addresses the artist/dealer:

Dear Konrad,
In fact, you always remained an artist, even when you gave up painting to open an art gallery. Or maybe that sounds too easy, too artistic, as if you went about doing your own thing, using the works of artists to fit your own purpose. It was not like that at all. For you, it was all about the artist and his or her work. You tried to create the best conditions for the artist to flourish.

Reading about Fischer’s activities and seeing his works from the mid-’60s—typical of their times but with a very personal edge—makes one wonder why he made the jump from artist to dealer. After all, why show Polke and Richter—close friends and colleagues as well as fellow products of the Düsseldorf art academy (class of ’62)—when you could show with Polke and Richter? The question is more pointed given the fact that the three produced shows, sent letters to critics, and arranged happenings together. As the Museum of Modern Art’s Robert Storr points out, Fischer’s involvement with the German version of Pop, cheekily christened Capitalist Realism, was real. He was no unsuccessful artist who eventually gave up. On the contrary, he was a member of the group of German artists who changed the very perception of art in their country. “He had a great instinct for changes in aesthetic attitude, and that probably helped him just as much as a dealer as in his own art,” says Storr.

As the work in “When I paint my name is Konrad Lueg” demonstrates, there’s not a thing wrong with Lueg’s collages of pinup girls, bright paintings of soccer players, and sparkling pattern canvases. In fact, much of the production bears an interesting resemblance to Polke, but the anonymity of the Pop surface seems even more extreme. Lueg’s experiments with shadows and luminous paint appear quite original. But the paintings may not have been his most interesting work as an artist. One is struck by his performances, notably the 1963 collaboration with Richter called “Leben mit Pop—eine Demonstration für den Kapitalistischen Realismus,” held at the downtown Düsseldorf furniture store Berges. Friends and colleagues received individually numbered invitation cards containing strict instructions for how to behave in the store:

I) Start 8 p.m. Report to 3d floor.
A. Waiting room, 3d floor (Decor: Lueg and Richter)
II) When your number is called, visit Room No. 1, 3d floor.
Disciplined behavior is requested.

B. Exhibition Room No. 1: sculptures by Lueg and Richter
(plus one work on loan from Prof. Beuys)
(Couch with cushions and an artist
Floor lamp with Foot Switch
Trolley Table
Chair with an Artist
Gas stove
Table, Adjustable, With Table Setting and Flowers
Tea Trolley, Laid
Large Cupboard with Contents and Television
Wardrobe with loan from Prof. Beuys)
III) When your number is called (approx. 8:45 p.m.) visit other exhibition rooms on 2d and 1st floors and ground floor. During this tour (Polonaise), please refrain from smoking.
C. Exhibition rooms on several floors (selected by Lueg and Richter)
(52 bedrooms, 78 living rooms, kitchens and nurseries, paintings by both painters; guests of honor, Messrs. Schmela and Kennedy)
IV) On completion of tour, see A. etc.

Dressed in a blue suit, pink shirt, and tie, Richter read a book on a sofa while Lueg, in black suit, white shirt, and tie, sat in a wine-red armchair. Between them was a television broadcasting a news program; on the table in front of them were bottles of beer and spirits. Two guests of honor—JFK and the important dealer Alfred Schmela—were present in the form of papier-mâché dolls. Joseph Beuys, the major figure for Fischer and Richter at Düsseldorf, contributed a piece consisting of his hat, his suit, nine small scraps of paper displaying brown crosses, and a box of margarine and fat. Besides a local intervention in a Düsseldorf debate over the proper attire for artists, “Life with Pop” was, of course, a comment on consumerism, on the Wirschaftswunder of the Adenauer years, and on German petit-bourgeois society, a particular interest of Lueg’s. After the event, the irate owner of the store, who had no idea what he was in for, considered taking legal action against the artists, whose activities had not exactly increased sales.

In the catalogue accompanying “When I paint my name is Konrad Lueg,” Thomas Kellein, director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld and the organizer of the show, hints at a development that takes us from the artist Lueg’s largely painterly experimentation to the three-dimensional works that would dominate the dealer Fischer’s floor and walls—a development that would prepare the way for Fischer’s occupational change. When asked in 1994 about the shift from artist to dealer, Fischer said: “I had zero confidence in what I was doing as an artist and was happy to find something else.” However one interprets this radical step, one senses that Fischer must have felt he’d reached a certain limit in his own art and that he instead wanted to help others go further.

According to those close to him, Fischer’s attitude that the gallery was less a source of income than a “cultural instrument” never changed. Running a gallery of one’s own can be one of the most independent ways of acting in the art world and, perhaps, one of the most enviable. Hearing Dorothee Fischer talk about all the fun of showing art one liked reminded me of another commercial gallery that also opened in 1967, Dave Hickey’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place, in Austin, Texas. One can easily imagine that the freedom and autonomy Hickey describes when he writes in his Air Guitar about his activities as a dealer apply to Konrad Fischer as well: “I had this idea of an art made for the living, you see—of an art that may flourish in that crazy zone between the priests of institutional virtue and the bottom-feeders of commercial predation.” Hickey’s “shop,” as he prefers to call it, probably had little in common with the Fischer venture, but the “nervous, anxious, vertiginous, heartrending fun” of showing art that one loves is what the people running these rare kinds of places shared. While “picture merchants” exhibit what they think the public wants and curators tend to show what they think the public needs, the art dealer in Hickey’s sense acts on the hopeful principle that occasionally we might want what we need. Without the institutional and bureaucratic requirements facing curators, this type of dealer has the liberty to develop his or her own idiosyncratic wants and needs.

Still, one wonders whether Fischer could have been as successful in the role of curator. He did in fact organize a few institutional exhibitions and was officially involved with Harald Szeemann’s Documenta V in 1972. But unlike Hickey, Fischer never wrote about art; he actually didn’t like talking about it either. It’s not that he couldn’t write, König pointed out to me, but his ambitions were just too lofty to live up to. “He didn’t like talking so much,” says Kellein, remembering a planned interview some twenty years ago that was postponed numerous times before finally being canceled. Even on the phone he would keep things brief. When he had said what he wanted to say, he was likely to break off the conversation, recalls Gladstone: “He would say ‘yup, yup, yup,’ and then suddenly, ‘okeydokey, bye-bye’ and hang up.” Rather than operate as a curator of institutional spaces, Fischer found his ideal way of working.

Fischer’s gallery moved and expanded, and from 1977 to 1981 he was involved in the Sperone Westwater Fischer co-venture in New York, but his increasing fame and power in the art world seemed to have no effect on his approach to new people and new art. He remained uninterested in status and as opposed to bourgeois values as ever. (Angela Westwater notes in particular his “antihierarchy” attitude.) He refused to work with those he didn’t respect. When asked in 1994 about art he didn’t like, he named the Neo-Expressionist “Jungen Wilden” artists, whose attitude he found dishonest: “I could never tell my grandchildren that this art was painted in 1990. I would be too ashamed. It’s just too reactionary.” He was very aware that this decision would cost him millions.

“He was a democratic person with a playboy flair,” says Lawrence Weiner. “I first met him in a café in Amsterdam. He came up to my table and asked, Do you want to show at my gallery? He had a complete non-bourgeois attitude and genuinely believed in risks. Also, he did the best translations of my works.” All those who showed at the Fischer gallery during the first years seem to remember long nights at the local bar and similarly lengthy discussions without a common language in which to communicate. In his brief preface to the book about the gallery’s history, Andre remembers his first trip to the Fischers’: “The three of us had long, deep discussions over altbier about art and life and destiny. I felt I was among old and treasured friends who shared my highest ideals and aspirations. It wasn’t until twenty years later that Dorothee and Konrad confessed that they hadn’t understood a word of what I was saying.” This was in the years predating the transatlantic conduit, a time when Fischer spoke little English and Andre not a word of German. The web of connections between the countries has since developed, of course, initially thanks to the activities of a few key figures like Fischer. Without such individuals, there would certainly be artists producing art and “merchants” trying to sell it. There would be collectors and there would be bureaucrats in the museums. But there wouldn’t really be an art world.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.