PRINT March 2003


In an Italian restaurant in Frankfurt, some blocks from where I live, a huge, bluish Martin Kippenberger painting hangs on the wall. I am sitting at one of the tables there, with a stack of books and magazines from the ’80s: a few catalogues, issues of Spex and Wolkenkratzer, and a twenty-year-old essay on “New German Painting” by the critics Wolfgang Max Faust and Gerd de Vries. This is where I’m starting to write the article you’re reading, about the creative scene that sprang up over two decades ago in a town some hundred miles away: Cologne in the ’80s.

My own blurred memories are of little help. I recall some tumultuous openings, late nights in hotel lobbies and bars, a mixture of languages (mainly German and American English), and a great sense of excitement. But I was just a visitor from abroad, with little grasp of what was really going on, and the decade was nearly over by the time I arrived. Will I be able to understand the Cologne of the ’80s any better today? Fortunately, I have a few sources beyond the books on the table and the painting on the wall behind me.

Around 1980 Germany really had something to offer the international art world, the dealer Michael Werner tells me one morning last year a few hours before the opening of the Cologne art fair. A generation of artists who had already been working for a decade or more—Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and a handful of others—was starting to get attention abroad. This jump-started the market, says Werner. “Cologne is really rather provincial, and always has been. But the situation was new in that we had something to sell.” According to Werner, one man had paved the way: Joseph Beuys, the artist, activist, and visionary professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. “Without Beuys,” he says, “the German art world of the ’80s would have developed very differently. He thought strategically, and his public appearances and performances, such as the trip he made to New York without touching American soil, not only attracted great interest but created connections and opened new territories.”

The Cologne of the ’70s already boasted internationally established galleries, such as Werner’s and Rudolf Zwirner’s. There were also well-informed collectors in the area, an active experimental film scene, and an important electronic-music studio, run by Karlheinz Stockhausen, that attracted composers from all over the world, Nam June Paik and John Cage among them. Even so, the preferred place of residence for artists was Düsseldorf, some thirty minutes away, with its academy, its Kunsthalle, and its lively art scene. “Düsseldorf used to be where artists would live and work; Cologne was the party town, and the place for dealers,” says the artist Thomas Ruff, who still resides in Düsseldorf today. “Of course we would go to openings in Cologne, but we felt like outsiders because the kind of photographic work my colleagues and I were producing didn’t get much gallery support during the first half of the ’80s.” But then something happened that isn’t so easy to explain: Artists began to move to Cologne from all over Germany, and with them came new galleries. This industrial town on the Rhine, with roughly a million inhabitants, emerged as not only the art capital of West Germany but the world’s most important city for contemporary art outside New York.

“It was completely clear where to go,” says Max Hetzler, who had run a gallery in Stuttgart before relocating to Cologne in 1983. “I was doing shows with [Günther] Förg, [Reinhard] Mucha, [Albert] Oehlen, and Kippenberger that had attracted attention, but to really reach out with my program, Cologne was very obviously the place.” And reach out Hetzler did. Along with dealers like Paul Maenz and Monika Sprüth, he became one of the major players in an increasingly international scene centered almost entirely around private galleries. Year by year more and more dealers—Daniel Buchholz, Gisela Capitain, Tanja Grunert, Rafael Jablonka, Jörg Johnen, Esther Schipper, Sophia Ungers—set up shop. Ask any European artist where he or she wanted to show in the ’80s, and the answer will be Cologne. Ask their American colleagues—Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, Robert Gober, Julian Schnabel—and they will say the same.

As Cologne became the Continental meeting place of choice for the international art world, the local scene developed its own social codes. Typical of the city’s art circles were a certain rough sarcasm and a bullying directness. Kippenberger, for example, might be described as bad-mannered in a highly cultured way. His transgressive drinking habits were in no way unique; in fact they may have been moderate compared to Förg’s. “You had to be really tough to make your voice heard,” says Isabelle Graw, a critic who moved to Cologne in the late ’80s. “I remember the Königwasser bar, where you’d stand next to an aquarium with everyone squeezed together and discuss art matters ferociously. The frankness was at times brutal. Kippenberger, for instance, would always say what he thought, no matter how sexist or insulting. On an evening like that, I could count on at least one comment about my breasts. In the long run that was annoying.” The critic and curator Francesco Bonami, then a young painter, remembers visiting Cologne often in the ’80s: “For me the Cologne art world was like a sect with many factions, complete with leaders and gurus. Someone like Paul Maenz seemed unreachable to me. . . . The Cologne art crowd was the ruling class. They were so socially sure of themselves that nothing could shake them. Excess and abuse were part of the game.”

The so-called Bermuda Triangle of the Werner gallery, Walther König’s bookstore, and the Broadway Café formed a kind of center, says Capitain, who worked for Hetzler before opening her own highly influential gallery. “It was all quite theatrical,” she remembers. “Many artists saw their every public appearance as a kind of statement, every invitation card, catalogue, or title as an artistic comment, poking fun at or referring to other artists’ shows or works.” Cologne artist Michael Krebber remembers, “Kippenberger would refer to himself as the ‘Chef der zweiten Liga’ [boss of the second league], implying that Jirí Georg Dokoupil was the ‘boss of the first league’—the artists’ group Mülheimer Freiheit, which was associated with Paul Maenz. Kippenberger and his friends were with Hetzler.” You had to show up at the Chelsea Hotel and a few other important restaurants and bars, for instance Hammerstein’s. “Now I think the whole thing was like a never-ending soap opera, with all the actors meeting offstage in this bar,” Krebber remarks. “But the show didn’t stop. People would sit at their tables, Dokoupil at his, Oehlen or Kippenberger somewhere else; you were surrounded by mirrors, and the moment you came in you were onstage. It was very exciting—for me it was too exciting. I thought I’d have a heart attack every time I went.”

The question of what attracts creative people to a particular place at a certain moment has been the subject of lengthy urbanist treatises, notably Cities in Civilization (1998), in which Peter Hall says a lot about “innovative milieux” in general but mentions Cologne only en passant, as one more city financially revived by the “cultural industry.” What are the geographic, economic, and sociological conditions that make artistic, intellectual, and technological innovation possible? Most of Hall’s theories have to do with rich networks of information; the “creative city,” he suggests, can be described as a zone of turbulence, an “open system” that allows for heterogeneous inputs. But this seems too general for the specific case of Cologne in 1980. Perhaps the breakthroughs that emerged in the city over the next decade were not quite on the level of those produced in Athens ca. 300 BC, quattrocento Florence, the Silicon Valley of the ’70s, or any of the other creative milieus that Hall examines. In fact some would surely argue that the Cologne effect had less to do with artistic innovation than with marketing, packaging, and attitude. But Diedrich Diederichsen, a writer and editor for the Cologne music magazine Spex, echoes Hall: “It has to do with urban density,” he says. “In Cologne people meet all the time. Compared to theater, for instance, visual art as we know it in galleries tends to have quite a limited performative aspect, so the performance has to be provided by the crowd around it. Cologne has something stagelike about it, which makes it perfect for the art world.”

Cologne had always been a dealer’s town, but in the early and mid-’80s a new set of ambitious young gallerists hung their shingles. Daniel Buchholz was one of them. “I have to mention that my mother had a gallery, but for me it all really started with Walther König’s bookstore, where I became an apprentice when I was sixteen. I stayed for three years. Next I went to New York, where I worked for Barbara Gladstone for a while, but then I got homesick and went back to Cologne. Rudolf Zwirner had a space that was free, which was good for me because I could program that for a while.” What makes this description of a dealer’s early years typical of Cologne is the reference to the Buchhandlung Walther König. No one describing the Cologne art world fails to mention this quintessential art bookstore. “That’s where I wanted to be,” says Buchholz, “because that’s where the artists were.”

I ask König himself to explain the extraordinary success of his enterprise, which began, on a fairly modest scale, in 1969, with the opening of a bookshop on the Breitestrasse. It wasn’t just the books that drew devoted patrons. “We provide neutral ground,” says König. “In an art world of competing galleries, and of groups of artists who stand for incompatible things, a space like ours is very important because everyone can come here. And in fact everyone always has come here.” He’s not exaggerating: Over the decades the Buchhandlung has been the Cologne art world’s most important meeting place. Artists, writers, dealers, and their friends even used to leave messages there for visitors to the city, as the safest and often the quickest way to reach someone who had just arrived in town. In 1981 the store relocated to a larger space on the Ehrenstrasse, drawing art-book enthusiasts from other cities. König acknowledges the popularity of his establishment without an ounce of arrogance: “What I’m saying has nothing to do with vanity,” he says. “It’s rather to do with specialization.”

König’s shop may have been neutral territory, but this didn’t stop him from inviting individual artists to present idiosyncratic events there. Over the years, artists including Gilbert & George, Joseph Kosuth, Bernhard Blume, and Kippenberger designed the window displays. Kippenberger had a special relationship to the store: He would use it as his study for days at a time. He was also a frequent collaborator in König’s publishing ventures. “I think we published seventeen books with Kippenberger,” says König. The ’70s and ’80s were the golden age of the artist’s book in Germany, and König was a catalyst. “One had to go to the bookstore and look at the new books,” says Krebber. “Everyone would publish a book to go with their show. It was obligatory.” A show wasn’t even a prerequisite: When Kippenberger turned twenty-five, he threw a party, which he called “1/4 Century Kippenberger,” and printed a book for the occasion. König remembers this frenetic publishing activity with mild nostalgia: “It really had nothing to do with promotional or careerist purposes. We’re talking about small, experimental books of perhaps sixteen pages, with a few pages on paper of some other color to pretend there was color involved. Cologne galleries still produce catalogues, but it was more fun when artists treated the books in a more innovative way. Now it’s more about sales and raising the work’s status.”

When I ask König what for him were the most memorable events of the ’80s, he’s a little surprised by the question: People are usually more interested, he says, in the “heroic ’70s.” Indeed, the foundations of the Cologne art boom of the ’80s were laid at least a decade earlier—König mentions the art fair, which started in 1969, and the history of ambitious work in electronic music and experimental film. Beyond this, he says, particular people were vital: “No matter what you think of Wolf Vostell as an artist, he played a key role in bringing people from different disciplines together. Every Thursday night he would invite people like Beuys and [Fluxus artist] Tomas Schmit to his house. He also published Dé-coll/age, a fantastic magazine. In a way, Fritz Heubach picked up from Dé-coll/age with his magazine Interfunktionen; it’s amazing how many important essays and artists [Vostell] introduced.” For König a more essential figure still was Kurt Hackenberg, Cologne’s Kulturdezernent (minister of culture) and a great friend of contemporary art. The Vienna Actionists Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch, for example, appeared as often as they did in Cologne because they knew they could count on Hackenberg’s support: “He would say, ‘I have this empty space, and here are two hundred marks.’ That openness can hardly be overestimated,” says König. Hackenberg also initiated a large exhibition designed to promote Cologne as an art capital. Organized by Kasper König, Walther König’s brother, “Westkunst: Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939” (Western art: Contemporary art since 1939) opened in the Cologne Messe in 1981. Although the show included very little recent art, it provoked fierce criticism, attracted international attention from the likes of New York curator Henry Geldzahler and London critic David Sylvester, and put Cologne on the map.

Westkunst” was followed by Kasper König’s more experimental and controversial “Von Hier Aus” (From here out), in the Messe, Düsseldorf, in 1984. “Von Hier Aus” was intended to address the state of German art at the time. The show wasn’t König’s idea; it was something he slipped into, he says, when the original curator, Harald Szeemann, “got cold feet.” “I had just started teaching at the Düsseldorf academy,” König remembers, “and I thought it was important to define my own territory.” Perhaps this was why he failed to invite any of his fellow professors at the Kunstakademie (with the exception of Richter) to the opening and why, he explains in what must be an understatement, “The mood at the opening wasn’t so great. . . . We even had to cancel the party.” The purview of “Von Hier Aus” was defined as “art produced in Germany,” a theme that was interpreted broadly enough to include artists such as Paik, the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, the Frenchman Robert Filliou, and the Dane Per Kirkeby. “It was a postmodern show in the strict sense,” says König. “The exhibition design, by Hermann Czech, was highly ironic: It lacked center.” Even so, König’s Düsseldorf extravaganza was certainly one of the most important contemporary attempts to define the art of the early ’80s, bringing together artists from many cities and defining a new generation that saw Cologne as its center.

These two shows were among the only crucial ones mounted at public spaces in the ’80s. The galleries led the way. Graw remarks, “The city’s public institutions really played a very limited role. The whole scene was defined by the activities of the private galleries, supported by enthusiastic collectors, a few writers, and of course the artists themselves, who had a presence in the city at openings, parties, and bars. If any institutions did matter, they weren’t in Cologne but a little outside it—in Bonn or Mönchengladbach, for example.”

Even if the galleries, with their tightly knit coteries of artists, were the driving force of the Cologne art scene, a number of critics and other mediators keep popping up in people’s narratives. The writer and publisher Wilfried Dickhoff, for example, seems to have been one of the few who could bridge the gaps among the different factions; and writers for the magazine Spex, notably Jutta Koether, opened connections between the worlds of art and music. “If I try to remember why I used to go to Cologne so often in the late ’80s, and finally moved there myself, it has to do primarily with artists, but also with the Spex crowd,” says Graw, who, before relocating in Cologne, was living in Paris and working for the Frankfurt art journal Wolkenkratzer. “Even though I didn’t know so much about music, I would always read Spex. Art and music met there in a unique way, and I really liked their experimental way of writing.” Spex was primarily a music magazine, but it covered art as well. In fact it was cofounded, in 1980, by an artist, Mülheimer Freiheit member Peter Bömmels. Koether, herself a painter and writer, soon signed on and introduced new ways of addressing art in its pages: In her “Mrs Benway” column, which appeared in every issue from 1985 to 1990, she tried out every genre of art writing, from the straightforward to the delirious. American artists like Raymond Pettibon and Mike Kelley were featured in Spex long before other European media noticed them. The magazine has also published on film, politics, and other subjects. “Since we were to a large extent financed by music advertising, we at least had to look like a music journal on the surface,” says Diederichsen, who came on staff in the mid-’80s. But he also notes, “We did what we found interesting.”

Koether, Diederichsen, and Graw were also part of the link between Cologne and New York, which became increasingly lively and strong as the decade developed; they traveled back and forth, spending long periods on the other side of the Atlantic. With a slowness typical of the mainstream media, the New York Times Magazine pronounced Cologne a threat to New York’s status as the world’s art capital only in 1992, when everyone involved had long since realized that the golden age of the German city’s art world was over. But even when it was at its peak—in around 1986, say—hardly anyone saw the relationship as a competitive one; it was more like a transatlantic love affair, with each gallery having a significant other overseas.

It was in 1972 that Werner first encountered the work of Anselm Kiefer, who was and is a world unto himself. Bonami, asked to name his “gurus” of ’80s Cologne, lists Polke, Förg, Kippenberger, and some of the most visible dealers but deliberately omits Kiefer, who, he says, “didn’t really seem to belong to the Cologne art world, he was too heroic. Kiefer was more Black Forest, and his career could only work over in the US.” Certainly Kiefer can be taken as emblematic of the period’s interest in painting, however, and he is a prime example (or rather the example) of a German artist of the ’80s who rose to international prominence. In the late ’70s Kiefer showed several times with Michael Werner, but in 1979 artist and dealer decided to go their separate ways. Werner remembers their last conversation vividly: “I always had this somewhat childish idea of running my gallery strategically: I would try first to get into the market in Switzerland, then in Holland, then Great Britain, and so on. I remember having this argument with Kiefer about his not being strategic enough. His very last words before leaving my office were, ‘I’ll show you what strategy is!’ ” And he did.

Kiefer’s Cologne dealer in the ’80s was Paul Maenz, who, after a period of working with Conceptual and political artists like Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke in the late ’70s, had turned to a new generation of painters. Besides Kiefer, Maenz showed a group from Cologne—Bömmels, Dokoupil, Walter Dahn, Hans Peter Adamski, and a few others—who shared a studio building on a street called the Mülheimer Freiheit, from which they took their name. The success of that group and of a number of Hamburg painters, particularly Werner Büttner and Oehlen, clearly evidenced a new interest in painting. Baselitz’s and Kiefer’s presence in the West German pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale was another marker of the trend, and in 1982, Faust and de Vries published Hunger nach Bildern (Hunger for paintings), which set the tone for the reevaluation of painting in the coming decade. Germany’s so-called painting boom of the ’80s—paralleled by the Transavanguardia in Italy and by neo-expressionism in the United States—took many guises, and all were seen in Cologne. “What’s new?” Faust and de Vries ask in the first chapter of their book: “What’s new, in relation to the ’60s and ’70s, is that an entire generation of artists is turning to painting. The result is that recent developments are being reinterpreted: Through the young generation’s massive rediscovery of painting, painters who were already around in the previous decade are being seen in a new context.”

It is certainly true that older German painters like Polke and Richter, and the group represented by Werner, including Baselitz, were now being reevaluated. Werner is eager to point out that his artists really had nothing in common with the new expressionists and believes that the painting boom only created misunderstandings about the truly interesting art then being made. Hetzler, too, remarks that an artist like Polke stood in no need of being reinvented by a younger generation. In the case of Büttner and Oehlen, in fact, Polke was partly responsible for their emergence in the first place, since he had been their professor at the Hamburg academy. Nevertheless, the focus on painting as a medium gave even established painters solid ground to stand on. Krebber, who was Baselitz’s assistant for a year, contends, “Baselitz, I had thought, was as far up as you could get. But through this absurd painting thing in the early ’80s, he and the other Werner artists were pushed up even one step farther.”

The Mülheimer Freiheit wasn’t an artists’ group in the modernist sense; it had no manifesto, for example. “We have no concept or program,” Dahn wrote in 1981. “Our collaborations are based only on friendship and on our desire to do things that aren’t normally seen as acceptable in art.” The troika of Büttner, Kippenberger, and Oehlen, all originally from Hamburg but regularly in Cologne through their affiliation with the Hetzler gallery, was not an artists’ group in the strict sense either, but, like the Mülheimer Freiheit, its artists would often exhibit together and seem to have shared a sense of belonging. Oehlen says, “This exciting relationship, in which each person in the circle would try to surprise the others, was the most beautiful thing in my artistic life. Just to get a smile from Martin and Werner was much more valuable than doing something with other people.” In the case of Oehlen and Kippenberger, their mutual admiration even led to a series of collaborative paintings, exhibited in 1981.

Were artists working in other media totally eclipsed by the painting boom? “Well, I often had the feeling of being either too early or too late, it was hard to say which,” says video artist Marcel Odenbach, who started exhibiting in the mid-’70s and worked in Cologne all through the ’80s. “It wasn’t that I didn’t get shows, but in the early ’80s the local audience and the media concentrated totally on the young painters.” In fact Odenbach worked and showed all through the period, but when Zdenek Felix arranged a major show at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, in 1981, it was clear that something was wrong: “I had the downstairs space, and John Baldessari opened upstairs on the same night. Fifteen guests came to my opening, and Baldessari only had six, one of them [his dealer] Ileana Sonnabend. Three months later, Dokoupil, Adamski, and the rest opened a painting exhibition. The museum was packed, and the papers were full of articles.”

To say that the Cologne art world of the ’80s was dominated exclusively by painting is of course nonsense; this was the golden age of American appropriation art, and the Cologne dealers were quick to import the likes of Sherrie Levine, Peter Nagy, and Haim Steinbach. These were also years of triumph for Cindy Sherman, and Hetzler, when asked for his fondest memories, mentions the several-hundred-yards-long line for a Jeff Koons show in 1988. There were also German artists with interests beyond the brush. Rosemarie Trockel managed to break through the thick wall of Cologne machismo with works that broke with the equally thick paint typical of the zeitgeist. Sprüth’s “mild feminism,” as Diederichsen puts it, showed not only in her gallery program but also in Eau de Cologne, an ambitious theoretical journal in the guise of a slick fashion magazine about women artists that appeared three times between 1985 and 1993. Meanwhile, without much fuss, a number of disciplined photographers who had graduated from Bernd Becher’s class at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf began to get a foothold in the Cologne galleries. After a short break—otherwise known as the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s—these artists started to make money on a scale that requires us to reconsider the very idea of the ’80s as the decade of art commerce. But that’s another story.

So when did it end? “Well,” says Hetzler, “for me the opening of the Ludwig Museum in 1987 was such a disappointment that I would say it was the beginning of Cologne’s decline, even if business was at its peak.” Then at the very end of the decade came the recession and also the fall of the Berlin Wall, which turned the world’s attention toward another German city. In 1990 many of the Cologne galleries collaborated successfully to produce an ambitious exhibition, “The Köln Show.” But deep down, it seems, everyone sensed the denouement was at hand. Of course it was also the beginning of something else in Cologne: institutional critique, the magazine Texte zur Kunst, the Christian Nagel gallery—in other words, the ’90s. Not everyone left for Berlin, and in fact many of the artists, collectors, and galleries are still around. But some of the main protagonists of the previous decade had decided it was time to leave. “In the early ’90s,” says Hetzler, “one could either sit in Cologne and become depressed—or one could try something new.”

Daniel Birnbaum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt and heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.