Early spring finds Berlin still cold and unpleasant. The sky is mostly gray, there is a lot of rain and wind, and the countless construction sites seem to stay forever. And during this dim daytime, Douglas Gordon´s video installation at the first floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie at the Kulturforum is hard to see. It looks more dead than alive.
His two projections show John Ford's The Searchers and Andy Warhol's Empire State Building at such a slow speed that it seems like there's no movement at all. But the show is open all night, and looking out through the high glass walls of the Kulturforum's Mies van der Rohe building you see traffic and people with umbrellas.
When I was there I still had mine, a brand new designer umbrella. But I lost it visiting the Akademie der Künst in the Hansa Viertel district close to Tiergarten. "Drawing is another kind of language" is the title of a show there, featuring contemporary American drawings from a New York private collection. In Manhattan it seems that even the address and phone number of the collector in question are known to art-world insiders. In Germany, no one knew Werner H. Kramarsky and his collection until now. Berlin is the second venue here; the first was Ahlen, a city near Münster.
Kramarsky has a very fine collection, with drawings by Andre, Johns, Judd, Grosvenor, Hesse, LeWitt, Nauman and Ryman, among others. But this selection of 105 drawings (of a total of 2,000 works on paper) doesn't merely rely on big names. Kramarsky only agreed to the exhibition under the condition that James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, who proposed the project and curated it, would include the work of younger artists who are less well known.
So the show also includes works by Eve Aschheim, Jill Baroff, Nancy Haynes, Sharon Louden, Carol Seborovski, Steven Steinman, Joan Waltemath and several others. The inner logic of Kramarsky's collection is his interest in Abstract, Minimal, Postminimal and Conceptual art. And the young artists he chose for the collection follow these lines of tradition -- more or less.
At the opening Kramarsky acted shy but proud in a natural way. He was very pleased with the Berlin installation, which was designed by Christian Schneegass from the Akademie, and which made Richard Serra the center of the whole show. When asked about his passion for this specific terrain in contemporary art, he said, "Collecting is a little bit like making love. You don't know who your perfect partner is going to be. And you really don't make a choice that way. It happens to you. It develops. You see things and you say, Yes. That I feel something for. And that I don't."
His passion for drawing has now lasted for more than 40 years. He recalls discovering as a child that drawings galleries were always empty and silent, and nothing could get between him and the art. His father, who was born in Hamburg and moved to Amsterdam in 1924, was a collector of Rembrandt, Cézanne and van Gogh.
In fact, it was the Kramarsky family that sold van Gogh's Dr. Gachet for $75 million in 1990. That made things easier for Werner Kramarsky, but he claims that it didn't effect his collecting habits. When he started in the mid-'50, he said, it took him six months to pay the $175 purchase price of a Jasper Johns drawing.
In Berlin, the show has been very well received by artists, critics and dealers, as well as by the public. It show begins with key works by Johns, Kelly, Reinhardt and Stella, and the installation features many unexpected juxtapositions: an image of a cross by Joan Waltemath next to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty drawing, for instance, and a Brice Marden abstraction next to one by Nancy Haynes. It's a wonderfully thoughtful cosmos of American art, vital and even poetic at times.
At the galleries
Parallel to "Drawing is another kind of language" are exhibitions at several local galleries of American artists. Galerie Fahnemann shows Nauman, Tuttle and Ryman with the Germans Knoebel and Förg; Franck & Schulte have Judd, LeWitt and Mangold; Raab Galerie organized an overview of American drawing from four decades with Nancy Graves, Helen Frankenthaler, Kiki Smith, Dennis Oppenheim and others.
Especially interesting is the show at Galerie Borgemeister in the Hackesche Höfe. The presentation of works by Eve Aschheim and Morgan O'Hara helps familiarize Berlin gallery-goers with two younger artists of the Kramarsky collection, both based in New York. Morgan O'Hara's pencil drawings have a poetic and at the same time very minimalistic character. They remind one perhaps a bit too much of the drawings of William Anastasi, also a member of the Kramarsky "family."
Eve Aschheim's oil paintings, beautifully installed on gray walls, speak their own language. Done as fields of white with very few elements of color, they create a highly concentrated spiritual atmosphere. Their small format is reminiscent of Russian icons. Elliptic or circular forms develop a life of their own. The artist, influenced by Russian Constructivist art, creates a lot of movement with her hand-drawn and thoughtfully formulated forms.
Steven Steinman, another New York artist from the Kramarsky collection, shows at Winter Gallery at Friedrichstraße. His graphite drawing on paper in the Akademie is quite strong with its reduced lyrical tone, but his paintings at Winter look too decorative. It seems that Kramarsky chose one of his better pieces.
A real surprise, even for connoisseurs, is the recently opened show of Beuys Editions from the collection of Berlin businessman Reinhard Schlegel at the Hamburger Bahnhof, which is still surrounded by construction sites. Though there are not many original works among the 560 objects, postcards, notes, drawings, letters, photographs and posters, the whole space seems to breathe the spirit of Joseph Beuys, who had such an influence on German art following World War II.
After Berlin the show moves to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh and later to the MAK, the Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Austrian Museum for Arts and Crafts) in Vienna. The show is accompanied by an excellent catalogue edited by Heiner Bastian.
"If you have my multiples (that's what he called his editions, many of which were sold for very little and were made in very high or even unlimited editions), you have me completely," Beuys once said. Democracy Is Amusing is the title of a happening he arranged with his students; here it is documented by photographs. "Who doesn't want to think will be thrown out" (Wer nicht denken will, fliegt raus) reads a sentence on one of his postcards. Another is "Every grip must fit" (Jeder Griff muß sitzen). "La revoluzione siamo noi" (We are the revolution) is written on a big poster, which shows Beuys himself, moving forward, full of energy.
For Beuys the multiples were a way to spread his ideas to as many people as possible, to become "part owner" of them, as the German curator Dierk Stemmler put it. The show, beautifully and generously arranged by Eugen Blume, takes you on a trip through the world of Beuys. The lithograph Hind (Hirschkuh) or the Rueckenstuetze eines feingliedrigen Menschen (Hasentypus) aus dem 20. Jahrhundert p.Chr. (back support for a graceful person, hare type, of the 20th century AD) give an idea of the sensitive artist for whose thinking and creating the relationship between human and animal played an important role.
The single audio record in the collection, Sonne statt Reagan (Sun instead of Reagan -- "Regen" being German for "rain"), reminds us of his commitment to the Green party in the early '80s. Beuys' seriousness is obvious in a letter about the importance of Joyce. And his reflections on the nomadic aspects of human existence are witnessed in the beautiful sledge with a felt blanket and a flashlight.
This show is a pure pleasure that enlightens. It gives an idea of all the facets of Beuys including his humor, without being too didactic or too serious. Unfortunately Beuys made no umbrella multiple as far as I know. It would have been a good and practical investment for the next art tour through Berlin.
BARBARA WEIDLE is an art historian and curator who lives in Bonn and Berlin. She is presently preparing an exhibition of work by the Russian painter Marianne von Werefkin.