Cologne isn’t Miami, New York, or London. The difference, when it comes to art, is a matter not just of geography, but of a whole approach to dealing and purchasing. Yesterday, as the first VIPs filed into Art Cologne at noon, there was little sign of buyers ostentatiously getting their hands on the first things that caught their eye, but that doesn’t mean that there was no business being transacted. Those who know how to look could easily spot conversations of the kind that might be leading to a serious deal.
Overall, though, the atmosphere was restrained and focused, very much in keeping with the displays put on by most of the exhibitors on the two floors of the Koelnmesse. “It doesn’t have the Frieze hype,” said David Juda, from London’s Annely Juda Fine Art. The message on day one was clear: this is a place where one can truly concentrate on the art. Certainly there is a lot of stunning art here; “museum-quality” is the descriptor that first comes to mind. Annely Juda, for instance, has gathered sculptures by Naum Gabo and David Nash, a geometric abstract painting by Ben Nicholson, an oil on canvas by David Hockney, and drawings by Kasimir Malevich. It might sound like an odd combination, but the pieces’ muted hues give coherence to the ensemble, the works echoing each other across media and decades.
Anne-Sophie Villemin of David Zwirner says the fair has definitely “moved up a notch since last year.” An impressive cluster of blue-chip galleries greets visitors as they walk in: Zwirner, Thaddaeus Ropac, Karsten Greve, Annely Juda and Hauser & Wirth. Daniel Hug, the fair’s director, is clearly announcing his international ambitions by giving such prominence to contemporary art players of this caliber.
As you’d expect to find at any fair — particularly one that proudly embraces its more conventional side — painting dominates most of the booths. A lugubrious, bluish “Singing in the Rain,” 1996, by Luc Tuymans makes a counterpoint to the sunny tones of Neo Rauch’s fish market scene “Fang,” 1998, at Zwirner’s booth, while the ghostly figures of “Auch nicht lila,” 2012, by Rauch’s contemporary Georg Baselitz haunt Ropac’s presentation.
Hauser & Wirth has dedicated most of its display to Belgian painter Philippe Vandenberg, an artist who has had relatively little exposure so far. Fairgoers encountering this vibrant work for the first time will no doubt be struck by the diversity of Vandenberg’s production, oscillating here between expressionist text pieces — “Kill Them All,” says an oil on canvas from 2005-2007 — and abstract works. This diversity, explains the artist’s daughter Hélène, reflects his desire to constantly renew his investigation of the human condition.
ZERO — along with the many artists more or less loosely associated with this avant-garde group founded in nearby Düsseldorf by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in 1958 — has been garnering increasing attention in the last few years. This renewed interest was no doubt spurred in part by the spectacular auction results at Sotheby’s in 2010, when 49 pieces from Gerhard and Anna Lenz’s collection sold for £54.07 million, more than four times the pre-sale estimate. Axel Vervoordt, a veteran tastemaker but a newcomer at Art Cologne, is featuring a Mack acrylic on canvas from 1961, a “nail painting” by Gunther Uecker (“Wind,” 1999), and the almost demure brown “Concetto Spaziale, Attese 1+1 – 40,” 1959, by Lucio Fontana. Moeller Fine Art is showcasing Mack’s Plexiglas screen “Veil of Light” from 1964, just two years before the original ZERO group was officially disbanded. Galerie Utermann is offering a late Otto Piene abstraction, “Black Seed,” 2000, whose fluid oils spread across the canvas like a blood stain.
On the floor dedicated to younger galleries (including the second edition of the fair-within-a-fair NADA Cologne), dealers seemed in good spirits yesterday. Alexandra Espenschied, from the local gallery Sebastian Brandl, enthused about the attention Art Cologne has been getting recently. The new generation, it seems, is fully behind the fair’s project of renewing itself while remaining true to its glorious past. Tobias Naehring, who launched his own venture in Leipzig two and a half years ago, said: “The Rhineland was the first place for art dealing, [Art Cologne] is going back to this tradition.”
Watch video of 60 Works in 60 Seconds at Art Cologne: