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Art Berlin Contemporary

by Kimberly Bradley
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In just three years and four editions, abc -- short for art berlin contemporary, a hybrid showcase straddling the line between gallery exhibition and art fair -- has gone from being a 2008 renegade experiment to being the main fall art event in town in 2011.

This spring, Art Forum Berlin, the 15-year-old contemporary art fair in a city notorious for its scant collector base, was abruptly cancelled after talks about a potential merger of the two events broke down. The people at Messe Berlin (the company administering most of the events at the city's convention center), and abc's founders --dealers from galleries Kamm, Klosterfelde, Galerie Neu, Neugerriemschneider, Meyer Riegger, Nordenhake and Esther Schipper -- just couldn't agree.

The news sent a ripple of unease through Berlin's local art scene, but over the long rainy summer, tensions died down and abc's organizers carried on in putting together the event, which took place last weekend, Sept. 7-11, 2011.

Like the first abc (a free-form sculpture show that met with mixed reviews), this year's event took place at Station Berlin, a warehouse complex under a web of elevated train tracks in a rough patch of town. And like preceding editions, the show had a theme -- this time being "about painting," a concept meant to "cast a wider net" into "what is painterly." The event was curated, with each gallery showing one artist (mostly -- though dealer overlap resulted in a few doublings), totaling 130 artists in all.

Different this year was the size and scope of the event. With 120 participating galleries, it was up dramatically up from 75 in 2010. About half of the participants came from outside Berlin, which was not surprising, given Art Forum Berlin's absence.

Marc Glöde and Rita Kersting did the curatorial honors, but how do you curate something that's not really either exhibition or art fair? In German there is a term for such a beast: "Verkaufsschau," or "sales exhibition."

"The artists were selected first," abc co-founder and gallerist Esther Schipper told me about a week before the show. "The galleries second." 

I went in with healthy skepticism, but at the preview it didn't take long to realize that "about painting" took its mission seriously, so there would be some good stuff to see. Exploring the concept of "the painterly" were not only the expected oil-on-canvas works but also photographs, sculptures and videos addressing painting in often intriguing ways. In the end, everything is "about" painting -- haven't the painters been telling us that for years?

"For Rita Kersting and me, it’s especially about the impact other media has had over the past few years on painting, and how painting influenced other media," said curator Marc Glöde in an interview.

Standout non-paintings included Dutch veteran Rineka Dijkstra's Ruth Drawing Picasso, Tate Liverpool, a 2009 film of a chubby, uniformed English schoolgirl drawing what turns out to be a Picasso painting. Fellow Dutch artist Gwenneth Boelens showed thick, blurred transparent plates at Klemm's, which turn out to be oversize glass negatives used to make large, haunting black and white photographs of, here, a lighthouse (the blurs are leftover from the photographic chemicals).

The young German artist Markus Zimmermann's sculptures at Sassa Trülzsch are rectangular frames given depth and texture, then put on stilts. At Galerie Neu, Danish artist Sergej Jensen's conventional canvas frames are actually strips of neutral-hued fabric sewn together into meditative Arte Povera-esque minimalist work. Similarly seamed and nearly as monochromatic is the work of young Mexican artist Pablo Rasgado (shown by Arratia, Beer), who cut square chunks from the drywall of the show's four-meter display walls, and hung their fragments, reassembled, near the gaping holes.

Speaking of which, the unusual exhibition architecture by Jan Unger meanders through the elongated main hall in a way that at first seems intriguing (the jigsaw-puzzle walls make for some cool juxtapositions of works hung by adjacent galleries) and then a bit exasperating (it was impossible to avoid having to backtrack and see not only the same works, but the same people, twice or even thrice. . . unnecessarily making for some awkward social situations).

As for the conventional paintings, it was nice, for once, to see lots of them -- by artists spanning generations -- in one place in a city that seems often to eschew 2D work. Ah, vets Marlene Dumasand Elizabeth Peyton were given the same weight as newcomer Latifa Echakhch from Morocco. Germans made a strong showing, too, as could be expected. Katharina Grosse's large canvas displayed her usual swaths of popping color, and Gabriel Vormstein's figures painted on sheets of the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung's newspaper -- channeling Egon Schiele, perhaps -- were, as always, hauntingly beautiful.

Ironically, Matthias Weischer, the young Leipzig School star championed by Eigen + Art, departed from his signature canvasses and exhibited a room divider painted with flowery patterns, flanked by furniture-like sculptures. Along with some funky graphic wallpaper, it was all apparently made in reference to the interiors he often paints, but the overall effect was almost creepy, like grandma's lost objects in an old East German house. 

Larger works were on view in a second, more expansive hall, like Matt Mullican's oversize oilstick rubbings or Kay Rosen's huge wall painting HI from 1998, which lists the letters of the alphabet to I, with the last two letters in a contrasting color (perhaps joking reference to the exposition's abecedarian title). Some artists referred to perception and color: Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig's neon monochromes recall the backgrounds used by film producers, while Icelandic weather artist Olafur Eliasson's made a round, painted color scale that played, as is his usual approach, with optics. German conceptual artist Florian Slotawa's Motorräder, a group of shiny parked motorcycles, was displayed in this section, too.

The bikes were the one piece in which the connection to painting completely escaped me, but no matter. "About painting" managed to contrast and connect both stars and emerging artists, conventional and non-conventional works, even paintings and other media in ways that were thought-provoking and remarkably democratic.

And, taken as an event, abc turned out to be more convincing than Art Forum Berlin was in recent years (or even than abc was in the past, for that matter). Problems like missing work labels notwithstanding, viewers were spared the usual visual overload. The art dealers got a good deal, too, with a low (€3,500) participation fee and a chance to take advantage of the weekend's energy by mounting other shows in their own galleries (the city was packed with openings on Sept. 9, 2011).

Collectors I spoke to liked the less frenzied format, even if there was some grumbling about things being hard to find on the gallery map. (I spotted German royal Gloria von Thurn und Taxis being led around early in the day, and younger collectors like Iasson Tsakonas were in attendance, too). Dealer Mehdi Chouakri told me that yes, works were selling, too. Even the catalogue put out by the fabulous Milan-based Mousse Publishing -- paperback-sized, concise and featuring both curator essays and lighter pieces by writers like Nick Currie (aka Momus) -- was fun to read.

With abc, the Berlin gallery scene may at last be coming into its own, with an event that neither tries to sell the tired "poor but sexy" thing nor attempts to emulate increasingly corporate art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, but is location-appropriate. Berlin's art world is willing to take risks, and doesn't have to be rich and slick, just interesting. The typical regional art fair didn't and wouldn't do it justice; Art Forum Berlin, after all, was originally set up in the mid-1990s largely to compete with Art Cologne.

Abc, on the other hand, was born in and for Berlin, and has the potential to evolve into an honest reflection and showcase of local art sensibilities, which have traditionally been more about content than commerce. That is, if it doesn't slip into the role of a normal fair (which could very easily happen), or become too clique-y (which it's already been accused of). To use a couple of clichés: time will tell, and to thine own self be true.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.