PRINT November 2000


Daniel Birnbaum

THEY DON’T MAKE ’EM LIKE KASPER KÖNIG anymore, and maybe for Daniel Birnbaum that’s a good thing. Asked about the choice of Birnbaum to succeed him as director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, König blithely remarks that he’d preferred some guy from Glasgow who went elsewhere, but that Birnbaum was perfectly fine. So much for the obligatory PR pribble (“the decision was absolutely unanimous, from the chairman of the board right down to the custodian’s assistant”). On the other hand, when it comes to effacingness (self- or otherwise), Birnbaum, thirty-seven, is no slouch either. “Frankfurt has a long cultural history, but really no defined art identity,” he says of the city where he’ll assume the reins of the Städelschule—and its renowned Portikus gallery—in January.

With 160 students, the academy is the smallest in Germany, but it’s probably the most purposefully eccentric. The venerable Austrian Aktioner Hermann Nitsch still teaches there, and although Peter Kubelka doesn’t anymore, his famous, quasi-mystical food-as-art class will be continued, Birnbaum says, in some form. Perhaps most important, Birnbaum intends on keeping Portikus, the school’s simple “art container” gallery, alive and well.

Founded in 1987 by König when he took the Städelschule job, it’s a box for showing art wedged in between the surviving facade of the Frankfurt municipal library (which was destroyed during World War II) and the institution’s rear walls. And it's been a venue for exhibitions by such luminaries as Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Gabriel Orozco, and Matthew Barney—more than one hundred shows in all, each with an accompanying publication. The catch is that Portikus’s make-it-up-as-you-go experimental nature means that, in the words of König (who is off to helm the Museum Ludwig in Cologne), “there’s no formal commitment” from the school or the state. “It’s up to Birnbaum.”

Birnbaum is indeed most likely up to it. Director for the past few years of IASPIS, an international Stockholm-based artist-in-residence program sponsored by the Swedish government, the Artforum contributing editor has also taught art in the Scandinavian capital and, along the way, earned a doctorate in philosophy. (He modestly describes his treatise on phenomenology as “OK, for a dry little philosophy dissertation.”) Birnbaum is also brimming with enthusiasm for the ad hoc nature of Portikus: The institution is “not about solidifying art careers. I also want to show people who became famous in the ’50s and ’60s as well as my own generation and younger people.” He adds, “Kasper König has managed to remain at the cutting edge, and I will do my best to keep that tradition alive.” That solves the PR problem. Now what about that cooking class?

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.