What a pleasure to stroll through the spacious and elegant exhibition halls of Berlin's own art fair, Art Forum Berlin, Oct. 1-5, 2003. Now in its eighth year, the fair has moved to more compact quarters at the Berlin Messe, a pair of symmetrical, airy halls flooded with daylight. Designed in 1934 by Richard Ermisch, the structure has a buoyancy that is characteristic of German architecture of the 1920s and early '30s.
Buoyant also was the mood of the crowd at the Sept. 30 opening, despite the problems that face the only German art fair that specializes in contemporary art. Seven years ago, a group of dealers founded Art Forum Berlin as an alternative to the well-established Art Cologne (which opens later this month, Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 2003).
Back then, the Cologne fair was criticized for including too many galleries and offering too little overview of the contemporary art scene. Now, ironically, the breakaway faction seems to have achieved its goals -- Cologne is reinvigorated, and many of the original dealers associated with the Berlin fair have abandoned the enterprise.
This year, Art Forum Berlin has only 100 participating galleries, down dramatically from 150 in 2002. A total of 58 galleries come from outside Germany, including five from New York. The smaller size is likely to please visitors to the fair, for the shorter tour through the booths is more relaxing, and one really has the chance to see a lot.
Of course this facelift, the reduction of exhibition space, means less money for the Messe Berlin, the organization that underwrites the event. This year is the second in a row that the fair lacks a primary corporate sponsor.
According to Christian Goeke, chief operating officer of the Messe Berlin, the fair is focusing on keeping the quality high, no matter what the difficulties are. These include Germany's generally bad economic situation, as well as the newly established Frieze Art Fair in London, which opens Oct. 17 and which is considered a serious rival. In fact, Europe in October now has no fewer than four major contemporary art fairs -- Art Forum Berlin, Frieze, Art Cologne and FIAC in Paris (Oct. 9-13).
Obviously the question is, can all these art fairs survive? Among the four, Berlin is already suffering from the fact that 13 top Berlin galleries, among them Barbara Wien, Neugerriemschneider and Johann Koenig, have decided to skip their hometown event in favor of London, despite the higher costs. Sadly, as everyone knows, the art business in Berlin goes slowly, suffering from a shortage of local collectors and public institutions that have less and less money to spend.
So behind the charming flair of Berlin Art Forum is a serious struggle to survive. The overall impression of the fair, however, is very good. Much painting, photography, drawing; less video. It seems that the exhibitors are looking a little more towards sales and a little less towards experiment.
Some galleries have made museum-quality presentations. Rudolf Kicken, for example, is featuring an impressive selection of photographs, including works by Dieter Appelt, August Sander, Alfred Seiland and Ryuji Miyamoto. Of special interest here is a recently discovered floor piece consisting of 1,000 black-and-white photographs from the 1970s by Martin Kippenberger (priced at 500,000 euros).
Several solo shows stand out. The Swiss artist John M. Armleder has a wonderful new untitled "furniture sculpture" at Galerie Anselm Dreher, a cold and empty bar with neon light, a metal floor and a black wooden counter. The hazy bar mirror reflects one's image in a painterly way, and the piece is freighted with allusions to art history, from Manet to Edward Hopper. A peaceful and thoughtful island in the stream, priced at 110,000 euros.
The Swiss dealer Urs Meile (Lucerne) presents three huge touching and very silent paintings by the Chinese artist Xie Nanxing. They were sold on opening night for something like 28,000 euros each, so his courage was rewarded. The controversial New York bricoleur Tom Sachs, who with shows at the Guggenheim Berlin and the Hamburger Bahnhof seems to be everywhere, fascinates as well at Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris/Salzburg).
Judin Gallery (Zrich) presents a great show with drawings by the New York-based Post-Minimalist Barry Le Va, who influenced artists like Wolfgang Laib and was the teacher of Kiki Smith. The drawing Anti Illusion (10,000 euros) was already reserved by a New York museum. There is talk as well that Le Va may show at Cologne's Museum Ludwig next year.
Katrin Korfmann, for me a new discovery, has a one woman show at Art Affairs (Amsterdam). Her inkjet prints on vinyl reflect moments of perception and look at human beings very thoughtfully and carefully, showing them in seemingly frozen moments.
American Fine Art (New York) features two fine abstract paintings by Mary Heilman, titled Islands (1990) and Green JA (2000), for $25,000 each and a new canvas by Ian Wallace called Times Square and belonging to the series "July 11, 2003."
Another discovery are the small iris prints of Mark Woods, whose humble images found on New York walls display a sensitive eye for the poetic quality of form and material. They're $500 each at Suite 106 (New York).
The two huge new drawings by Neo Rauch on display at Harry Lybke's Galerie Eigen & Art (Berlin/Leipzig) are both reserved (needless to say) at 60,000 euros each. With Rauch, it is never a problem to sell. Rather, the difficulty is finding one to buy, as the artist produces far less than the demand.
Art Forum Berlin has still more to discover, for those who take the time. My personal favorites include three new videos by Corinna Schnitt at Olaf Stueber (Berlin), one of which was sold to the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and three complexly conceptual but at the same time beautiful scans from photograms by the Portuguese artist Joao Penalva at Volker Diehl.
Another eye catcher is a piece by the young Peter Welz at Markus Richter (Berlin) called Airdrawing, a combination of drawing and film that was created in cooperation with the choreographer William Forsyth and reminds me a little of the work of John Cage. Published in an edition of three, the piece is priced between 2,500 and 4,500 euros. Also at Richter are four attractive ink drawings by the Finnish artist Mari Sunna, which were also sold at the opening for between 750 and 1,000 euros.
The catalogue for Art Forum Berlin looks ahead and advertises the dates for its 2004 and 2005 installments (Sept. 29-Oct. 3, in both cases). We can't help but share the optimism. In the struggle for collectors and galleries in the art-fair jungle, Berlin, the most attractive and lively German city, really deserves to hold its own.
BARBARA WEIDLE is an art historian and journalist who lives in Bonn and Berlin.