While the reopening of the Reichstag is turning the world's eyes to Berlin, Art Frankfurt is celebrating a more international ruling body -- the contemporary art world. This is a realm more or less blind to borders and ruled by four things: commissions, buzz, exclusive representation and, most importantly, Prada outfits. All of those factors were evident at the Thursday night opening of the fair, which ran Apr. 22-26, 1999, at the spacious, airy Messe located within the central city.
The fair included 183 galleries divided into two sections: the more blue-chip top floor featuring "Art since the '60s," and the downstairs "New Attitudes," a more freewheeling assembly of galleries featuring a concatenation of contemporary artworks.
The rather odd subtitle of the show, "The Art Fair that Keeps to the Subject of Art," reflects its ambitious, business-oriented tone. Younger art is its drawing card, with 72 galleries here representing emerging artists -- a higher percentage than any other European art fair.
According to Art Frankfurt manager, Marianne El Hariri, the younger galleries provide an energy that encourages the more established galleries to make the effort to keep up to date. "They seem to have been awakened by the success of the youngsters last year," she says. "Their strong performance has given everyone the self-confidence to take more risks with what they show."
Like with any art fair in a foreign city, I found myself first drawn to more familiar objects and artists. For me, a healthy contingent of Los Angeles galleries provided down-home appeal -- plus a lot of exciting new art works. Suzanne Vielmetter featured a preview of some of the artists she will be representing in the new gallery space she plans to open. One of her booth's highlights is a strong series of haunting desert C prints by Stefanie Schneider, a young German artist now living in L.A. Adapted from Polaroids taken on damaged film stock, the photos have intriguing, washed out surfaces and suggest noirish, queasy narrative scenarios (editions of five, $500).
L.A. dealer Richard Heller presented a large wall of more drawings of bears, guns and distressed ladies executed in ink, watercolor, and yes, root-beer syrup by Marcel Dzama, Winnipeg's own fey genius ($250 a pop). For the price of a couple of schnitzels ($100), Heller also has some rather lovable, oddball drawings by Dzama's uncle, Neil Farber, who will soon be showing in L.A.
Rosamund Felsen has a stunning wall drawing installation by Renée Petropoulous, based on the artist's remembered rendering of her grandmother's kitchen amalgamated with the kitchen setting of Fassbender's Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven ($7,200). Felsen also had an amazing new Jim Shaw "Dream Series" painting ($3,500), a study for a room-sized, painted installation to be executed in his huge (400 works) Casino Luxembourg retrospective "Everything Must Go 1974-1999," May 7-July 4, 1999. (It travels to the Museum of Modern Art in Geneva and should be really terrific.)
L.A.'s Newspace reported sales of some campy color portraits of L.A. types by photographer Antonio Mendoza. Newspace also had a surreal photo montage by Toni Wells, a gorgeous monochrome painting by Alan Wayne and a conceptual drawing project by Tiffanie Morrow. Another L.A. gallery, Works On Paper, featured strong works by Jessica Stockholder and a dynamite Kusama gouache.
Ten in One, soon changing camps from Chicago to Chelsea, had a bevy of good Windy City artists, including Michelle Grabner (who showed one of her handsome household abstraction paintings, this one based on the patterning of a plastic sponge), Walter Anderson (who filled a wall with his wry text pieces -- appropriately enough in German), and one new to me, John Spear, who offered My Lover/The Spy/Constellation Confidential/The Waterslide Park Betrayal, an epic, funky, tasty collage of felt, doll parts, and scraps on a striped blanket ($3,800).
New York was represented by American Fine Arts, Thomas Erben Gallery (who had a choice John Wesley gouache of a mysterious blue bedroom for 8,100 DM), and I-20, which did well with the staged photos of nudes by Spencer Tunick. Tunick is about to have his first European museum show in Bregenz, Austria, organized by Gerald Matt, the director of the Vienna Kunsthalle.
Some fun New York art popped up in unexpected places. I was happy to see Jane Kaplowitz' stunning "Taxi Driver" watercolors (2,800 DM) appear in the booth of Galerie Oliver Schweden alongside funny, poetic new text pieces executed in thread by Rob Wynne (my favorite reads, "I won't go to bed," 2,000 DM). Constant Comet, a luscious, kooky resin painting by New York artist L.C. Armstrong (15,000 DM) -- soon to be featured in a show at L.A.'s Angles Gallery -- surprised me at Frankfurt's Hubner Gallery.
The blue chip galleries featured more predictable rosters. Berlin's Schultz showed large and small works by A.R. Penck as well as large portraits of women and kinkier works on paper by Cornelia Schleime, who also showed her more widely known, heroic portraits of famous women. Keeping to the floor's time frame, Paris' Galerie Marion Meyer featured an interesting group of mid-century works by modernist masters, including a kitsch painting by Francis Picabia, prints by Man Ray and a stunning oil by Max Ernst from 1953, Springtime in Paris (1,000,000 DM).
The two large booths of Darmstadt's Galerie Sander were the most dazzling ones upstairs, featuring a gorgeous abstract portrait by Karel Appel from 1962, Janine (195,000 DM), an impressive Jack Tworkov and a reasonably sized Morris Louis (450,000 DM) that looked totally of this moment. Milan's Vismara Arte included a jaw-droppingly beautiful threesome of hard-edged geometric abstractions from the '60s by Swiss artists Camille Graeser, Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse.
Other notable big-ticket items included an Alighiero e Boetti rainbow-colored embroidery that mixes letters with Arabic and Cyrillic markings at Stuttgart's Galerie Kaess-Weiss. Stuttgart's Brigitte March Galerie featured large works by Les Levine from both the '70s and the early '90s.
Back in "New Attitudes," Dusseldorf's Galerie Michael Cosar showcased the giant C prints of the angst-ridden set by Bettina Hoffman (6,500 DM) and Zurich's Galerie Schedler had a tough and beautiful Attila Richard Lukacs installation of portrait heads of hot rough guys.
One of the strongest showings was by Berlin's Asian Fine Arts Factory which featured several works by New York/Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang, including his new wall relief of tiles, One By One (35,000 DM), and some handsome calligraphic takeoffs by Xu Bing, who was one of the stars of the New China survey show that was at P.S. 1 and is currently at SFMoMA. When will New York or L.A. get a young Asian art gallery that really has its act together like this one?
New German art clearly is representative of the extreme eclecticism of the '90s art world. Siegendorf's NN-Fabrik showed works by Pavel Schmidt, including a beer stein fountain that looked like some unholy collaboration of Paul McCarthy and R.M. Fischer.
Reminiscent of some of the lounge-about works by Andrea Zittel was the baseball mitt couch, Playpad by Bernhard Martin (21,000 DM) at Frankfurt's Voges + Reisen which, on the plus side, served as a kind of hangout for the young art crowd.
Cologne's Thomas Rehbein Galerie showcased a number of young figurative Germans, including the kooky cartoon-like watercolors of Johannes Spehr that look like some weird combine of Jim Shaw and Henry Darger. Also at Rehbein were the pastel-colored, surreal drawings of Nikolaus List that gently depict a variety of sticky handfuls of oozing goo.
Back upstairs, Munich's Galerie Karl Pfefferle featured some nice Jiri Georg Doukoupil drawings along with stunningly bold target paintings by the young Turkish artist Ekrem Yalcindas, who now lives in Frankfurt. Painstakingly painted, these psychedelically colored process works play off tree rings and Islamic crafts. Impressions, remembrances… sells for 14,000 DM.
Wiesbaden's Galerie Erhard Witzel featured the out-there, inventive process works of Ilse Haider, including her images of nude men in silicon whose body hair is depicted by hundreds of somewhat crumpled stick pins (ouch) (14,800 DM). Berlin's Wohnmaschine sold a cool, hand-colored photograph by Florian Markel with contemporary models recreating Rembrandt's Salome on the city streets. The gallery also showed a large, messy, swirl painting by Anton Henning that proved that goofy new abstraction in an off-kilter palette is not unique to L.A.
One of the best features of Art Frankfurt is its accessibility to young collectors. Cologne's Galerie Hundertmark complied by offering smaller works by such names as Joseph Beuys, Hermann Nitsch and a great drawing by Gunter Brus, all for under 5,000 DM.
Affordable art was showcased in an entire section of the fair called "Multiple District" that featured prints and editions from such hip sources as Parkett and Portikus. Stuttgart/Berlin's Walter Bischoff Galerie featured an edition of William Copley's S.M.S. project, which brought together an amazing array of artists including Ray Johnson, Christo, Yoko Ono and Roland Penrose.
With its emphasis on the young and the affordable, Art Frankfurt is cleverly nurturing an art-voice for its city. Yet it still must contend with the power of old money in Cologne and the grassroots energy of Berlin. By keeping the quality high -- and continuing to invite all those young galleries from afar -- the fair might soon be able to put Frankfurt on the art map.
MICHAEL DUNCAN is an art critic living in Los Angeles. He is the author of a new book on contemporary art in L.A. to be published by St. Martins Press.