View of “René Block,” 2015. Berlinische Galerie. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

View of “René Block,” 2015. Berlinische Galerie. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

René Block

Berlinische Galerie

View of “René Block,” 2015. Berlinische Galerie. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

This retrospective of René Block’s work as a gallerist, curator, collector, and publisher of prints, multiples, books, and catalogues highlights the remarkable arc of a career that helped shape the contemporary art world and continually responded to the shifting borders of our now global condition. “Ich kenne kein Weekend. Aus René Blocks Archiv und Sammlung” (I Know No Weekend: The Archive and Collection of René Block) surveys fifty years of this polymath’s groundbreaking activities, which began in West Berlin, continued in New York City from 1974 to 1979, and eventually led to exhibitions and projects with artists around the world. This career overview, part of a new genre—the curator retrospective—teems with correspondence, photographs, ephemera, and early television broadcasts of happenings and exhibitions, interspersed with artworks from Block’s collection. The result is not just the visual texture of a time but a glimpse into the thoughts, negotiations, and conversations from which exhibitions arose and careers emerged. The presentation at the Berlinische Galerie, “Archive Block 1964–2014,” is complemented by selections from Block’s personal art collection, “Geschichte und Geschichten” (History and Stories), at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Together these shows trace the course of a curatorial trajectory, which has included work in Turkey, Australia, the Balkans, Denmark, South Korea, and beyond, attesting to his perpetual attraction to the ever-shifting periphery.

In 1964 the twenty-two-year-old Block, waiter by day and gallerist by night, transformed a small cellar in West Berlin’s district of Schöneberg into Galerie René Block, a pivotal platform for some of the most experimental art in West Germany. Galerie Block’s inaugural show, “Neodada, Pop, Décollage, Kapitalistischer Realismus,” included the work of the young Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, Joseph Beuys, and Wolf Vostell, among others, who would become some of the gallery’s most significant artists. This first show, an effort to consolidate a German response to the inundation of American Pop in West Germany, would soon coalesce around Block’s codification of Capitalist Realism, a play on the socialist realism of the East and the capitalism of the West.

From the beginning, working on the edge has been a central part of Block’s curatorial position, which among other things meant working on the front lines of the Cold War. Berlin’s geopolitical position was also fodder for shows such as “Hommage à Berlin” (1965), for which Block invited artists from around Germany to confront signs, symbols, and sites of division. The group exhibition “Hommage à Lidice” (1967–68) commemorated the victims of the 1942 Nazi massacre in the Czech village of the show’s title. Shown in both Berlin and Prague, it was the first major effort in the visual arts to broadly address the National Socialist past in a public exhibition, and played a significant role in Germany’s process of coming to terms with its Nazi history within the context of the Cold War.

With these activities, Block transformed the way a generation of German artists engaged contemporary issues in their work, as well as the way they were publicly presented. Block’s curatorial position cleared the way for his artists to explore Germany’s fractured identity, split by the Berlin Wall and weighed down by their country’s catastrophic past. Yet questions of internationalism, not just of nation, invigorated his activities, as demonstrated, for example, by his support of transatlantic Fluxus events, his publication of easily disseminated multiples, the opening of his New York gallery, and his leadership of organizations such as the DAAD visual-arts program and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, both the peripheries and the centers shifted, yet Block continues to seek out the contours of our unstable but interconnected world—not for the sake of gratuitous novelty but with the understanding that in this globalized sphere, seeing how all the pieces fit together makes a difference.

Rachel Jans