PRINT April 2008


WITH THEIR RELENTLESS EMPHASIS on the new and the now, it is perhaps fitting that the origin of today’s rapidly multiplying contemporary art fairs has, at least on this side of the Atlantic, disappeared into the dustbin of history. When and where, even, was the first contemporary art fair of the kind, for better or worse, so familiar to us all? It was held not in Miami, or in New York, or even in Basel, but in Cologne. And from the moment KUNSTMARKT 67 opened its doors on September 13, 1967, it inaugurated a model that remains surprisingly close to its current successors, which so often trumpet both their mercantile and aesthetic innovations. There were not just booths crammed with a motley selection of art—kunterbunt, as one critic put it—but also internecine feuds between the dealers who acted as gatekeepers of the event and those they pointedly kept out. There were spin-off exhibitions, laying the foundation for the many minifairs that now orbit marquee venues in Basel, New York, and London. There were city officials with civic boosterism in mind, not unlike the aldermen of Miami and Madrid, with an eye to raising both their cultural capital and their tax revenues. There were related monographic “exhibitions,” designed to ensure the aesthetic “quality” of the overall experience, just as today’s fairs boast of “curated” projects, single-artist booths, and the inclusion of large-scale work. And there was the ire of artists who flocked, as they do now, like moths to the flame, along with sixteen thousand visitors, from collectors in suits and ties to young couples and parents with children, who paved the way for the strollers that now clog fair aisles on any given Sunday. For five days, eighteen German galleries showed more than two hundred artists and recorded returns of about a million German marks, with visitors more than doubling and sales more than quadrupling over the next three years. These numbers may pale in comparison with current figures, but at the time, they made for a completely unexpected, extraordinary success. As the now-retired Cologne-based dealer Rudolf Zwirner, father of gallerist David and cofounder of the fair with the late Hein Stünke, recalls, “After the doors closed on that last day, all the participating dealers gathered for a beer. Stünke and I were running a little late, finishing up some last business in the booths, and everyone was waiting. As we emerged, coming down the stairs, all our colleagues stood up and applauded. Of course, this type of overt, emotional, and communal expression was completely uncharacteristic of the art dealers’ milieu. For the first time in my life, I was really proud.” The contemporary art fair was born.

Unlike today’s endlessly sprouting fairs, however, KUNSTMARKT 67 was the product neither of a booming local market nor of an easy influx of migratory foreign capital, but of a stagnant national art economy. “The dedication of gallerists bore absolutely no relationship to economic success,” Zwirner remarks. “German galleries were a disaster in economic terms, especially for those of us who had no capital and had not inherited an art collection.” Much of that had resulted, of course, from New York busily stealing the idea of modern art. American artists and dealers had gained in economic and qualitative strength, forcing West German dealers and their clients to make difficult choices or, at the very least, to strike tricky balances between European and American art. As Stünke put it, the US, in market terms, had been “an import country for art [that] became an export country.” What is more, National Socialism had dealt a severe blow to whatever pockets of the Weimar Republic art market had flourished enough to compete with Paris. “We all know the Jewish collectors who bought from Flechtheim and Cassirer,” Zwirner lamented in 1967. “Today they live in the United States.” The decentralized character of West Germany at large and of its art world in particular did not help matters and contrasted markedly with national creative and commercial scenes focused more exclusively on individual cities like Paris, London, and New York. While Germany’s sprawl has to this day fostered risk taking on the part of artists and institutions, neither the most eager curators nor the few collectors who emerged in the early postwar decades could possibly keep abreast of shows strewn from Berlin and Cologne to Kassel, Frankfurt, Munich, Wuppertal, and more.

Just two years before the fair’s launch, the combination of the flagging market and an “unpleasant political situation . . . marked by radical right-wing electoral gains” had compelled Zwirner to move to London the gallery he had founded in Essen in 1959 at the age of twenty-six and had operated in Cologne since 1962. Yet after renting a Cork Street space, he came to realize that the London market also lacked collectors and, unlike the Rhineland, was too conventional and expensive. So he scrapped his plans and returned home to announce to his mentor Stünke (in whose Galerie Der Spiegel the twenty-years-younger Zwirner had apprenticed): “I’ll come back, but you and I, we have to change something.” The two swiftly convened a group of like-minded, reasonably established dealers of contemporary art to form a legal entity that could conduct the necessary negotiations among themselves and with Cologne’s city administration to start a yearly fair for contemporary art. On July 4, 1966, the Verein Progressiver Deutscher Kunsthändler, e.V. (VPDK), the Association of Progressive German Art Dealers, was founded, and just a little more than a year later, the first KUNSTMARKT opened.

The fair’s quick inception might belie the fact that the concept had been brewing in the duo’s minds for more than half a decade. In the summer of 1959, Der Spiegel had sold the prints and editions in which it specialized at Documenta 2, an unusual exception the exhibition’s organizers granted solely in return for Stünke’s voluntary advising of their decidedly noncommercial enterprise. Zwirner, who acted as the exhibition’s general secretary, recalls “a constant coming and going in the Bellevue palace” where Stünke had set up shop. “We were extremely surprised, for suddenly it became visible: Here is a very broad desire not just to see art but to own it, a desire that had not been evident in the galleries at all.” Thus, building a new and broad collecting base became the driving force behind the founding of KUNSTMARKT, effectively co-opting for a capitalist cause the pervasive calls on the part of leftist student groups to make art more accessible to everyone. But the question remained as to how to bring the more than 130,000 visitors to Documenta 2 into galleries that had next to none.

The answer, it turned out, was close at hand. As a dealer producing livres illustrés, limited-edition catalogues with artist-designed covers or print inserts, Stünke had frequented Stuttgart’s annual antiquarian fair. For him, it became the “prototype,” and central elements of its design were adapted for the first KUNSTMARKT. For example, its ground plan was arranged like a strip mall (Ladenstrasse), as one critic had it, with temporary walls for the booths, and cabinets and cradles that allowed visitors to handle the art with exciting immediacy. The antiquarian fair was a prototype, above all, because in Stünke’s mind, it “was a sales fair. Each antiquarian bookstore had a stand, and the antiquarian and his staff were present.” The physical presence of the dealers and their teams, which often included exhibiting artists (like those who come to install projects in booths today), would decisively contribute to the fair’s sense of transparent market transactions. Enhanced by affordable prices that were intended to remain fixed for the duration of the event, this transparency was strategically calculated to overcome the inhibitions of young, first-time buyers. Stünke and Zwirner envisioned, in the former’s words, “a mercantile enterprise with all the signs of just that” and never worried about reducing art to a commodity: “Commodities can be herrings and [commodities] can be artworks. Herrings will be forgotten, artworks will remain.” Zwirner likewise stresses a “conscious relinquishment of the aura in order to really sell for a few days. . . . We very consciously chose the name KUNSTMARKT!”

It was the duo’s unabashed and explicitly commercial aim that distinguished their project from two earlier events bearing some similarities to the contemporary art fair—and that made KUNSTMARKT the model for those staged today. The 1963 “Salon international de galeries pilotes,” held in the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, featured seventeen galleries from nine countries that had been identified by its organizers, including the museum’s director, René Berger, as pioneers that sought out original artists and promoted them to critics and collectors. For three months, these galeries pilotes staged museum-like mini-exhibitions of their artists—Leo Castelli, for example, showed Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. The mission, it seems, was primarily to educate what turned out to be about eleven thousand visitors, and the organizers stipulated that “the commercial aspect is secondary.” Dealers were asked to sell works for the “lowest price possible,” to limit sales to one-third of the works shown, and to give 10 percent of their profits to the museum. Stünke participated in the second “Salon” in 1966 and deemed Berger’s efforts “commendable” but “no model”; Zwirner distinguishes their own commercial ambitions from Lausanne’s “rescue of the aura.”

A second precedent from which the pair departed, if unknowingly, was the “Review of the Season, 1962–63,” held at New York’s Parke-Bernet auction house from June 18 to July 26, 1963, under the auspices of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), which today hosts the Art Show in the Park Avenue Armory. Yet unlike the VPDK, the ADAA was founded, in March 1962, not to create a fair but more generally to “improve the stature and status of the fine arts business and . . . to assist its members and others with tax, customs, and related problems.” Participating local galleries sent up to seven works representative of their previous season’s shows, and, as in Cologne (but not Lausanne), most works were for sale, although many had been borrowed back for the event from their owners. This was a new idea, recalls Gilbert Edelson, a lawyer who was involved in the show’s organization, but it lasted only two years since sales were slow. Surely the last place that needed a fair for buying art was New York City, booming with new galleries and private money, beaming with a pride that compelled few to look beyond the limits of this undisputed art capital. As Castelli would later put it, “In New York, there’s always KUNSTMARKT.” As its strikingly uninspired name suggests, the “Review” was meant as an opportunity to catch up, especially for foreigners and other tourists, who tended to visit during the slow summer months. Remarkably, Zwirner never knew of the “Review,” although this leading European dealer of American art perfectly embodied its target audience when he paid his first visit to the US in 1964 to survey the scene.

The “Review” was far from exclusively committed to contemporary art, and many a nineteenth-century painting showed up on Parke-Bernet’s walls, unlike the “pilot” and “progressive” programs that would define the pioneering events in Lausanne and Cologne. Their focus on contemporary art functioned as both a means of publicity and a matter of economic necessity when appealing to young and adventurous but less affluent audiences. Many founding members of the VPDK (and thus of the first KUNSTMARKT) agreed only begrudgingly to a cutoff date of 1910 for exhibited works, because they deemed it not “progressive” enough. Effectively, though, the emphasis was on art made during the past twenty years, which suited the inclinations of Stünke and, particularly, Zwirner. The former was deeply involved with editions and multiples, especially those of the Edition MAT, taken over from Daniel Spoerri, and the latter’s taste ran to American Pop—twin passions that notably operated at the busy intersection of art and commerce.

In fact, it was art and the artists themselves that, in the minds of the fair’s founders, gave them license for their venture. In propagating the idea of the fair, Stünke reportedly never tired of recounting Albrecht Dürer and his wife’s travels across Europe to sell prints, and he thereby wittily mobilized a towering German artist to ground historically contemporary trends toward free markets and editions. Zwirner adds that they “felt justified by the mode of production and marketing strategies of Andy Warhol—who had refunctioned his studio into the Factory—to give up the aura of the gallery for the art of this generation and to present it analogously to commodities at a fair.” Warhol, in Zwirner’s estimation, “changed the business of the art market more than any other art movement or artist due to the public interest in his persona and his work.” Consequently, while Zwirner’s booth at KUNSTMARKT 67 presented a wide array of artists, ranging from Max Ernst to Frank Stella and Cy Twombly—an apparent arbitrariness typical of the early fairs that soon gave way to quasi-curatorial hangings—it was Warhol’s “Most Wanted” series that hung in his gallery on Albertusstrasse and it was the German proto-Pop painter Konrad Klapheck whom he chose for the small monographic show each dealer presented concurrently and noncommercially at the Kölnischer Kunstverein.

Despite its expansive spirit, KUNSTMARKT 67 was not open to just any exhibitor, and even within the fledgling German scene there was still, amazingly, room for rejection on the grounds of space limitations and quality control—an exclusionary principle that operates in all major fairs today as an implicit guarantor of status. The most notable refusé was the Munich-based dealer Heiner Friedrich, who seven years later would cofound the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Zwirner specifically cites as a cause of his rejection the “uncollegial behavior” and “aggressive strategies” of Franz Dahlem, who until recently had been a partner in the gallery. Undeterred, Friedrich decided that “the positive solution is a demonstration of nonparticipation rather than a lawsuit or lamenting,” and at the last minute he rented a small exhibition space near the fair to stage the pointedly named “Demonstrative 67” with a selection from his stable. It would become the first in a long list of counterexhibitions and protests accompanying the early fairs, as well as the first in a tradition of guerrilla shows that today crop up everywhere from warehouses to unleased boutiques both to mock and to feed parasitically off the sudden surge in foot traffic.

If only they could all boast such an illustrious list of participants: John Hoyland, Konrad Lueg, Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Reiner Ruthenbeck, and Cy Twombly. One archival image shows the friends and sometime collaborators Lueg, Richter, Palermo, and Polke posing outside the storefront space, as if to announce solidarity with their outcast dealer, whose visage looms above them in a blown-up photograph. The setup reads as a loving but jokey homage to their champion and perhaps also as a comment on the growing dominance of dealers, whose physical presence and power over the art was felt strongly at the fair. Yet there was more: The portrait’s verso was painted monochrome gray and signed by Lueg, Palermo, Polke, Ruthenbeck, and Richter, who recently recalled that he likely painted it and possibly had the idea to hang it in the window. The panel neatly figures the mutually beneficial relationship between the artist and his agent—hinged on the double-sided coin of the work.

Inside the improvised gallery, many of the contributions also commented on the market. Richter exhibited Zehn Grosse Farbtafeln (Ten Large Color Charts), 1966, derived, although not exactly copied, from hardware-store paint charts. One of Richter’s first color-chart paintings and first abstract canvases, it reveals the most basic of painters’ materials to be steeped deeply in commodity culture. Notably, the work stands semifolded and freely on short stilts, an unusual installation the artist speculates may have been dictated by space limitations, but one that also played on the signature temporary walls of the nearby fair. To the right of this work hung one of Palermo’s cloth pictures sewn from shiny and matte white fabrics, part of a body of work that ingeniously intertwined modernist painting (impeccably flat monochrome) with popular commodity (ready-made fabrics in horizontal bands suggesting popular landscapes). Ruthenbeck, a Joseph Beuys student like Palermo and the only one to sell work out of “Demonstrative,” exhibited an oversize spoon and umbrella, monuments to the banal household goods of the German economic miracle that many observers feared the fair was also making of art. As one critic lamented: “Paintings and sculptures are being traded like refrigerators and sewing machines in a household fair. . . . Can one do that—put art on the market like any old household article?” The following year, Friedrich was invited to join KUNSTMARKT, from then on making his sometimes maverick, sometimes groundbreaking, statements from within: In 1969, he demonstrated the fair’s price dynamics by offering individual Brillo boxes by Warhol for ten marks on the first day, for twenty on the third, and for eighty on the last; in 1972, he rotated one-man installations in his booth on a daily basis, a strategy copied by fair exhibitors to this day. New color charts and cloth pictures were fitting parts of the program.

If Friedrich greeted his initial rejection with artistic ingenuity, other spurned dealers followed decidedly less noble paths and participated in the widespread criticism that would accompany the fair for years to come. The Mainz-based gallerist Alexander Baier made comparisons to a “cartel” and filed suit with the City of Cologne to withdraw the VPDK’s legal status as a nonprofit Verein, which hinged on whether the group of dealers stood to benefit economically from its association (as opposed to individual members making profits in or outside the fair). Baier, like Friedrich and other colleagues, was quite obviously concerned that exclusion from the VPDK and the fair would harm not only his immediate sales but also his reputation with clients, artists, and the press. What’s more, there were grumblings about the use for private commerce of the Gürzenich, a municipal building and fifteenth-century landmark that was commonly the site of cultural events such as concerts and carnivals. Yet the city’s cultural deputy, Kurt Hackenberg, clearly saw the fair as an opportunity to burnish Cologne’s reputation, and he rewarded the VPDK’s pioneering mentality by granting it the lease: “[They] precisely had the idea for the KUNSTMARKT,” he defended them. “Columbus, after all, was the first to discover America.” Aside from offering the building, Hackenberg also extended a loan to finance the show’s catalogue and advertising. In hindsight, what some regarded as a conflict of interest now seems a matter of course, with art fairs taking up residence in city-owned convention centers and with visitors’ bureaus announcing them locally and beyond. But even then, a fair was seen as a direct financial boon to its host town, for while the KUNSTMARKT participants split the admittedly cheap rent, Hackenberg in return negotiated for the city to receive the income from entrance fees for an expected two thousand visitors, who turned out in more than sevenfold numbers.

In light of the inclusion of only German dealers showing European and American artists in roughly equal proportion, critical debates also ensued about transatlantic relations (a tension concisely embodied in the fair’s poster, which was designed by Robert Indiana in the colors of the West German flag). In a nutshell, should the German art world be revived by building strength from within or from without? If Dieter Wilbrandt, who succeeded Zwirner as the VPDK’s secretary in 1968, could refer to the first fair as “an alliance of necessity [Notgemeinschaft] . . . in order to hold one’s own against overseas and to compensate for the missing metropolis,” why had only one gallery at KUNSTMARKT 67, René Block from Berlin, exclusively shown German artists? Conversely, if the aim had been to overcome the depressive provincialism of the German art world that had so poignantly plagued Zwirner, shouldn’t invitations have been extended to American dealers, who might even attract American collectors, curators, and critics?

A more international perspective was the aim of another protest exhibition of sorts, this one again involving Lueg, who by 1968 had begun to garner a reputation under his real name, Konrad Fischer. In this new capacity as a Düsseldorf-based dealer, he gave many American artists (especially Minimalists and Conceptualists) their first shows on the Continent, and together with critic Hans Strelow, he organized “Prospect: An International Preview of the Art in Avant-Garde Galleries,” which opened in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf just weeks before KUNSTMARKT 68. In marked contrast to its Cologne competitor and under accusations of letting in “the Trojan horse,” “Prospect” appointed an international jury, featuring, among others, Pontus Hultén of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and the Dutch collector Martin Visser. Twenty-five international galleries were invited, and the sixteen acceptances included Sonnabend from Paris, Sperone from Turin, Dwan from New York, and, as the sole German representative, Thelen from Essen. The primary mission of “Prospect” (reminiscent of Lausanne) was not to sell but to educate Germans about foreign developments. Yet perhaps because Cologne had so blatantly staged the market as central to a new, postwar art world, complaints were raised that such distinctions between commerce and information were “illusionistic, even naive.” Nevertheless, the emphasis was less on reasonably scaled and editioned works and more on large sculptures and site-specific installations (portending Art Basel’s current Unlimited section), embodied iconically by Daniel Buren’s signature striped wallpaper, which covered a portion of the more than thirty-foot-tall main space. This focus, in turn, bolstered Düsseldorf’s emerging image as a city of artists—largely due to its leading Kunstakademie—rather than rivaling Cologne’s developing reputation as a city of dealers.

Artists, for their part, were among the most vocal critics of the KUNSTMARKT during its early years. Coinciding with the second fair, members of the nonprofit organization Labor (“laboratory” in German)—founded by Interfunktionen editor Fritz Heubach, Cologne-based artist Wolf Vostell, composer Mauricio Kagel, and filmmaker Alfred Feussner—organized “5-Day Race” as a “parallel and contrast action.” Joined by guests including Jörg Immendorff and Nam June Paik, the artists created individual installations in the parking garage directly beneath the Kunsthalle Köln, where the KUNSTMARKT had moved that year. Paik sent two “prepared pianos”; Kagel created a sound installation of fifty German bird species chirping through loudspeakers; and Immendorff built a Stempelhaus (Stamp House), 1968, inside which he sat endlessly stamping messages, with occasional breaks to pace the garage in shoes made from transparent plastic bags filled with honey. In keeping with Labor’s “laboratory” charge to “research acoustic and visual phenomena,” these works were above all a plea for experimentation and new media that seemed to have no place at the fair. After three days, Labor called off its “Race” in solidarity with X-SCREEN filmmakers, whose alternative event had abruptly been ended by police because the Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl’s film contribution was deemed “obscene.” Hackenberg, in the meantime, permitted these protests in order to manage them. “He was a very smart politician and undermined [protest] by allowing it, because he feared polarization,” Zwirner explains. “He understood the rebelliousness [Aufbegehren] of the young, in part so it would not radicalize.”

In response to pervasive protests against the exclusivity of the Cologne fair, Art Basel and the Internationale Kunst- und Informationsmesse (IKI), both first held in 1970, were initially open to any dealer who wished to participate. The latter had origins in the 1969 and 1970 “Neumärkte der Künste,” which were organized by Ingo Kümmel and Michael Siebrasse to provide outdoor exhibition space to any unhappy camper and resulted, by all accounts, in a carnivalesque atmosphere far from the knack for quality that Friedrich had demonstrated in the first protest show. The ever-diplomatic Hackenberg had once more made public space available in the center of Cologne to calm combative spirits. But neither Hackenberg nor the VPDK ever effectively yielded to incessant demands to open the original fair to anyone and everyone, although the former did so symbolically in 1970. During the press conference held before the opening, Beuys, Vostell, artist-cum-dealer Klaus Staeck, and gallerist Helmut Rywelski staged the action “We Are Entering the KUNSTMARKT,” banging against the locked glass doors with their watches and keys. As people gathered and joined them, Hackenberg finally gave in. He opened the door, and the protesters set up an information stand with a “condolence list for the sudden passing of the exclusivity of the Cologne KUNSTMARKT.” Meanwhile, one of Beuys’s works had sold at the previous fair for a record hundred thousand marks.

The art fair continued, of course, although the excitement of the first years gave way to business as usual by the early ’70s. Moreover, the KUNSTMARKT’s blatant exhibition of the art market was paralleled by and replicated in broad sectors of German society. Art mingled with everyday retail and attracted ordinary shoppers from the streets: Department-store chains such as Kaufhof, with the help of some dealers, showed and sold contemporary prints amid other merchandise; and an alliance of some forty stores in downtown Cologne displayed in their shopping windows art by Beuys, Warhol, and others. Owing to an awakened public interest in collecting, combined with the economic recession between 1966 and 1967, art was increasingly considered a form of investment immune to inflation. A milestone in this development was the Kunstkompass (Art Compass), started in October 1970 by Willi Bongard, a former Die Zeit journalist who during the ’60s had spent two years in the US researching the relationship between art and commerce. The yearly survey ranked artists according to reputation and was based on a point system that calculated representation in important museum collections, international exhibitions, and art literature. Everyone who was anyone, from curators such as Harald Szeemann to dealers such as Alfred Schmela, diligently returned Bongard’s questionnaires. The ranking was juxtaposed with current average prices, allowing readers to determine which artists, for example, were still relatively cheap in relation to their reputations. Published in the economics journal Das Capital and also circulated as an independent newsletter available for subscription titled Art Aktuell, Bongard’s Kunstkompass, as one writer claimed facetiously, had the potential to become the “most discussed contribution to art criticism of the year.” Bongard’s project was only one example of the booming coverage of the art market gone public. National newspapers featured weekly art-market columns, and magazines such as Der Spiegel ran special issues on “Art as Investment.”

During its most vibrant years, between 1967 and 1972, the KUNSTMARKT was largely responsible for generating the most public and open discussion about the contemporary art market in history. As the Munich critic Georg Jappe put it at the end of that period, there is “no country where there has been so much debate about ‘Art as Merchandise,’ about art as a consumer article, as there has been in West Germany and German-speaking Switzerland.” Moreover, in its attempt to reconnect West Germany with an international art world, the KUNSTMARKT not only succeeded (with repercussions felt to this day, as art aficionados regularly trek to Berlin and elsewhere in the country) but became the indisputable model for all those contemporary art fairs that gradually sprang up around the Western world—not just Art Basel but also FIAC in Paris in 1974, Art Chicago in 1979, the Armory Show in New York in 1998, and Frieze in London in 2003. Paradoxically, though, what our two protagonists founded to bring people into the galleries is arguably beginning to keep them away. “That is the fault of the inventors of the art fair,” Zwirner comments with a seeming mixture of pride and responsibility when asked about the diminishing importance of gallery shows within a current global market fueled by fairs. “We had no idea what havoc we would wreak. . . . Back in the day, we used to hold back pictures for the openings. Now they are being held back for the fairs.”

Christine Mehring is an associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago.