View of “Painting Forever! Keilrahmen,” 2013.

View of “Painting Forever! Keilrahmen,” 2013.

“Painting Forever! Keilrahmen

View of “Painting Forever! Keilrahmen,” 2013.

Looking at the list of participants in the exhibition “Keilrahmen” (Stretcher Frame), you would expect a decent survey of painting from present-day Berlin. Among the seventy-four names on the checklist were artists as varied as Armin Boehm, Willem de Rooij, Rainer Fetting, Anton Henning, Olaf Holzapfel, Maja Körner, and Anne Neukamp. The show was part of the manifestation “Painting Forever!” in four Berlin institutions: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlinische Galerie, Neue Nationalgalerie, and Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, each presenting its own angle on painting. KW chose to present one painting each by a variety of artists who are (or used to be) based in Berlin.

Entering the spacious hall of KW’s lower ground floor, the viewer was immediately aware that this was not an informative survey but something more like a curator’s solo piece. KW director Ellen Blumenstein chose to hang all works together on one big wall, salon style. The installation was completed with a sculpture by Nina Rhode, Kanzel (Pulpit), 2009, which the visitor could ascend to gain a distant view from a higher standpoint and from which painters in the exhibition talked about their work in a series of lectures. In a curatorial statement consisting of twenty sentences about the frame, Blumenstein points to the fact that a painting is defined by its circumstances. She suggests that putting so many works together creates connections and new contexts. In fact, the opposite happened here: The context obstructed any possibility of seeing the individual qualities of the works, and the paintings killed each other.

If you hang a work by Frank Nitsche—IDE-24-2011, 2011, a kind of abstract face with two forms that can be read as eyes—so low that an eye-to-eye meeting is impossible, you take something away from the work’s potential. If you hang a Sergej Jensen (Untitled, 2011) so high that you cannot perceive its surface, you deny its essence. These are just two examples of the disastrous effect of the salon hanging here. Putting this diversity of styles and approaches so close together resulted in babelian confusion rather than dialogue. Instead of orchestrating connections and leading the viewer through a well-considered ensemble, the curator appeared to have just hung what she could get, and any which way. And this was the other defect of the show: the poor choice of works. Certainly there were some interesting exceptions, among them canvases by Amelie von Wulffen, Julia Rüther, and Daniela Trixl, or the aforementioned Jensen and Nitsche. But if you imagined you’d made a fresh discovery, as I did in the case of Isa Schmidlehner, it was impossible to confirm it with a closer examination.

I like to think of curators as experts at making artworks visible, facilitating their reception by creating an interesting context for them. But some make works invisible by submitting them to an idea. Was it ignorance or arrogance on the curator’s part that made “Keilrahmen” such a disappointment? Ignorance means being blind to what paintings actually need in order to shine. Arrogance was suggested by the way the curator’s presentational conceit ruled here over matter; artworks were deliberately denied physical space, even though huge amounts of white wall were available. Whatever the explanation, this exhibition failed to represent the depth, imagination, and vision that can be found in the studios of so many painters in Berlin at this moment.

Jurriaan Benschop