Watch on the Rhine: spurred by new museums and new directors, the Rhineland art scene is alive with fresh programming and energetic collectors – Report from Germany

Watch on the Rhine: spurred by new museums and new directors, the Rhineland art scene is alive with fresh programming and energetic collectors – Report from Germany – Directory

David Galloway

For all the hoopla with which Berlin is touted as Europe’s new cultural center, seasoned art-watchers are still apt to go to the Rhineland to take the pulse of the German art scene. As one proceeds downstream from Bonn to Cologne to Dusseldorf, the artland-heartland measures less than 50 miles, but its influence and energy stretch as far as Aachen in the west and Essen or Wuppertal to the east. Aachen’s Ludwig Forum for International Art was promoting multiculturalism long before the word became modish, while Essen’s Folkwang and Wuppertal’s Von-der-Heydt Museum boast premier collections of early modern art, founded by the patrons whose names the two houses commemorate. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Rhineland scene is the particularly intense, munificent engagement of private collectors devoted to the public good, not least of all the late “chocolate baron” Peter Ludwig, for whom museums are named in Aachen, Cologne and Oberhausen.

An art guide to the Rhineland lists 70 museums and more than 60 institutions for temporary exhibitions in the region, along with some 200 private galleries, most of which are devoted to contemporary art. At Cologne’s Kunsthaus Lempertz, one of the nation’s oldest auction houses, sales of modern and contemporary works have become major trend-setters. The city of Cologne also boasts the world’s oldest art fair, which last year drew 65,000 visitors. Add to this cultural smorgasbord dozens of opera houses, concert halls and universities, all within an hour’s drive, and the Rhineland synergy becomes obvious.

Yet it is not only the major cities and the internationally renowned institutions that contribute to the region’s extraordinary cultural bounty. Northeast of Cologne, at the Morsbroich Museum in Leverkusen (a colorless industrial town better known as the home of Bayer aspirin than as a site of cultural enrichment), the recently appointed director, Gerhard Finckh, has clearly signaled his intention to give the institution’s contemporary holdings a cutting edge. His first major show of 125 works from the previously unknown collection of Christian Boros, a Wuppertal advertising guru, filled 20 rooms on two floors of the museum. It was a varied but electrifying mix of work by young German and British artists, spearheaded by Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans.

High on the list of offbeat, off-road attractions is Hombroich Island, near Neuss, where traditional and contemporary art engage in a continuous dialogue-not just with each other, but with the island’s splendid natural resources. The setting, like the elegantly minimalist pavilions conceived by sculptor Erwin Heerich, encourages an intensely private, meditative approach to the works on view–intentionally a far cry from the blockbuster strategy through which more conventional institutions seek to fill their coffers. Nearby, in the former textile capital of Krefeld, a pair of villas designed for two local industrialists by Mies van der Rohe, Hans Lange and Hans Esters, offer distinctive contexts for temporary exhibitions. Unexpected impressions of a different sort await visitors to Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “The Palace of Projects,” a labyrinthine complex consisting of 65 separate installations [see A.i.A., Nov. `00]; the piece has found a permanent home within a former coking plant in Essen. The gigantic industrial facility, once the largest of its kind in Europe, will be further developed for other artists and other exhibition projects.

In Bruhl, only a short distance from Bonn, a museum is being created for celebrated native son Max Ernst. An earlier Ernst collection acquired by the city has been augmented by 57 sculptures purchased from the artist’s widow, Dorothea Tanning, and by a collection of 200 graphic works, including book designs. The city of Bottrop honors its own native son, Josef Albers, in a museum dubbed the “Quadrat,” opened in 1983, which also houses extensive works by the artist’s wife, Anni Albers, together with an Albers archive. The Quadrat’s director, Ulrich Schumacher, will soon leave his post to head a museum in nearby Hagen that honors his father, Emil Schumacher, German’s leading Abstract Expressionist painter, who was born in Hagen and died there in 1999. Joseph Beuys, meanwhile, is definitively represented at Moyland Castle in Kleve, where his friends and former patrons, the van der Grinten brothers, put their extensive collection on permanent view in 1997. At the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, a survey of the elongated, oddly vulnerable figures of native son Wilhelm Lehmbruck forms the core of an extensive collection of 20th-century sculpture. Art by Glaubner, Richter, Polke, Gursky, Ruff and others from the collection of the controversial contractor Hans Grothe, who recently sold key pieces at Sotheby’s despite having promised the artists that works would stay together, can be viewed in a long-term display at a former industrial site in the Duisburg harbor.

Regional Rivalries

Given the density and diversity of the region as a whole, Cologne remains its nerve center and its symbolic capital, though the city’s preeminence has diminished in recent years. According to Kasper Konig, the new director of the prestigious Ludwig Museum, “Cologne’s role as art metropole is a thing of the past. But the region itself has acquired a more cosmopolitan profile, with a new orientation toward Belgium and Holland, for example.” In large part, that reorientation is a result of the shift of the nation’s capital from Bonn to Berlin and a subsequent grassroots determination to show, one might say, that while politics moves on, culture remains. Attempts to coordinate the region’s cultural offerings have met with little success, for traditional intercity rivalries remain deeply entrenched. On the other hand, pragmatists argue, those very rivalries, rooted in the federalist system installed here by the Allies after World War II, have prompted an exceptionally high level of achievement.

Shortly after German reunification, many prophesied a mass exodus from the Rhineland to the east when Berlin again became the capital. Indeed, Rolf and Erika Hoffmann soon packed up their Cologne-based collection and, after a failed attempt to create a base in Dresden, founded a private museum in Berlin. (More recently, Cologne lost the coveted Brandhorst collection of works by Twombly, Kounellis, Metz, Warhol and others to the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.) Among local art dealers, a few hardy pioneers like Max Hetzler shifted camp, but relatively few colleagues followed his lead. Rudolf Kicken, the nation’s leading dealer in vintage photography, has now abandoned Cologne in favor of Berlin, but his former assistant, Priska Pasquer, has filled the gap with her own photography gallery. Dusseldorf’s Hans Mayer established a high-profile showroom in Berlin, but his gallery activities remain intimately linked to Dusseldorf, the capital and economic powerhouse of Northrhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest, wealthiest and most populous state. (It also boasts the greatest density of collectors in Germany–perhaps, indeed, in all of Europe.) According to Jean-Hubert Martin, director of Dusseldorf’s new Ehrenhof Art Foundation (the umbrella organization for the Kunstmuseum and Museum Kunst Palast), “Berlin will never become a central metropolis like Paris. Buying potential will, in any case, remain in the Rhineland.”

Dusseldorf photographer Andreas Gursky observes that “the threat of Berlin–or the imagined threat–somehow focused our energies in a new way, made us redefine our own local identities.” As though demonstrably casting their anchor here, Gursky and his colleagues Thomas Ruff and Axel Hutte are moving into monumental new studios custom-made for them within the shell of a former electricity works. The project has been realized by the architectural team of Herzog and de Meuron, which was responsible for the stunning conversion of a power plant into the Tate Modern. Meanwhile, Bernd and Hilla Becher [see interview, p. 92], who trained the new generation of star photographers at the local art academy, have also found new quarters in Dusseldorf. The makeover of a sprawling 1920s schoolhouse was largely financed by the city of Dusseldorf and the state of Northrhine-Westphalia.

Troubles in Bonn

Despite the recession blues that have echoed throughout the museum world for the last decade, the Rhineland shows conspicuous signs of vitality. And even while cultural budgets have eroded, a paradoxical building boom has gathered momentum. Hans Hollein has been commissioned to design an extension to his Abteiberg Museum in Monchengladbach–the institution that launched the nation’s museum-building frenzy in 1982–though funds for the construction have not been approved, and a new football stadium threatens to take priority. Still, the Abteiberg was able to inaugurate a handsome sculpture garden in April of this year. At Remagen, near Bonn, long-deferred plans to erect an adjunct to the Hans Arp Museum, designed by Richard Meier, are firmly on track again. Thanks in great part to a young and energetic new director, Raimund Stecker, nearly $16 million has been approved for an approximately 21,500-square-foot building that will hover, castle-like, above the Rhine and provide permanent space for showing the works of Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Below, the original museum building–the converted Rolandseck train station from 1856–will be reserved for temporary exhibitions. And a six-mile stretch of riverbank is to be devoted to sculptural and environmental projects.

In nearby Bonn, however, prospects are considerably less rosy. Deprived of its political eminence, the former capital is wrestling with budget cuts, an image trauma and a tourist drain, as well as seeming mismanagement. The city’s thinly strung but intensely hyped “museum mile” was a typical bloated by-product of the Helmut Kohl era. The gargantuan Federal Exhibition Hall defies any hope of intimacy or introspection; this kunsthalle functions best with blockbuster shows like “7,000 Years of Persian Art” or “Gold of Ancient Peru,” which draw as many as 200,000 visitors, most of them from the immediate region. (It should be added that two recent solo shows, of photographs by Jurgen Klauke and paintings by David Hockney, fared well in these intimidating spaces. Indeed, the hall seemed made to order for showcasing Hockney’s stunning 96-part panorama of the Grand Canyon, which measures a Wagnerian 123 feet in width.) With budget cuts of some 10 percent, the exhibitions program is not seriously threatened, but there will be less flexibility in the calendar. For other local institutions, including the Women’s Museum, budget cuts will doubtlessly bite deeper.

The Federal Exhibition Hall nods to a far more troubled neighbor across a graveled courtyard, the Kunstmuseum Bonn, which has been bruised by both curatorial and financial failures. While most commentators agree that the museum’s director, Dieter Ronte, is conscientious, engaged and honorable, his ability to function effectively within the framework of cultural bureaucracy could be questioned. His track record of exhibitions has been middling. Perhaps hope of reversing that image led Ronte into a four-city exhibition project titled Global Art 2000, conceived and managed by an events producer named Walter Smerling.

For a multilayered show designed to take stock of artistic achievements in the old century and look ahead to the new, with special focus on cross-cultural currents, 33 international curator-adviser-consultants were engaged, dismissed for budgetary reasons, and a few engaged again. A project designed to profile the superb museum resources of the Rhineland and to project a new regional identity ended as a series of four uncoordinated, unrelated and largely indifferent shows at Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, Duisburg’s Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle and Bonn’s twin institutions, the Kunstmuseum and the Federal Exhibition Hall.

Only the Cologne installment, “Art Worlds in Dialogue,” left a lasting impression, thanks to an ingeniously orchestrated confrontation of masks and totemic objects with early modernist paintings and sculptures. To see one of art history’s undisputed textbook “givens” realized in such dramatic form was well worth the price of admission (though perhaps not worth a total budget of roughly $2 million). Even with that impressive prelude, the exhibition, which featured 458 works by 126 artists but dwindled away into arbitrary categories and subcategories, remained an isolated raisin in an otherwise bland Kuchen.

In Bonn, the public stayed away in droves from the local installment of Global Art 2000, titled “Time Shifts.” Instead of the 250,000 visitors projected, scarcely more than 60,000 paid the price of admission. To bridge the deficit of nearly $1 million that resulted, Ronte a few months ago proposed selling works from the permanent collection, thereby releasing a justified torrent of protest. Ronte himself compared the situation to a “shipwreck.” Above all, critics feared that such deaccessioning could set a precedent for other public institutions, and the very thought of such a development caused a number of key patrons to break their ties with the institution. In the end, a compromise was found that was designed to please all and consequently pleased none. A work by Baselitz was sold for about $200,000 to the foundation maintained by a local savings bank, which in turn gave the painting to the museum on a “permanent loan” basis. The remainder of the deficit was reallocated by city and state auditors.

Ludwig Ascendant

Though Cologne’s contribution to Global Art 2000 fared critically and financially better than Bonn’s, it fell far short of the grand predictions of the show’s organizers. Furthermore, Cologne’s show was principally curated by Marc Scheps, former director of the Ludwig Museum. His high-profile encore did little to enhance the flagging reputation of his beleaguered successor at the museum, Joachim Poetter. The new-comer’s brief curatorial effort began with a survey titled “New York, New York,” loudly proclaimed to document a Manhattan renaissance. But it amounted to a less than stellar performance, and Poetter seemed to have difficulties in dealing with Cologne’s cultural politics.

Meanwhile, it became apparent that the legacy of the great collector Peter Ludwig would necessitate major changes in the museum’s infrastructure; more decisive and creative leadership seemed called for, and after months of rumor and behind-the-scenes negotiations, Kasper Konig was given the directorship. (In an odd act of financial legerdemain, responsibility for Poetter’s lifetime contract was taken over by an anonymous sponsor.)

With a single coveted gift, after his unexpected death (of appendicitis) in 1996, Ludwig unleashed a chain reaction among Cologne’s museums. The great collector and patron and his wife, Irene, had pledged to give the museum their extensive Picasso collection, consisting of 180 unique pieces and 700 graphics–the largest private collection of Picassos in the world. The condition was that the Ludwig Museum become sole tenant of the space it originally shared with the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. An agreement to that effect was signed in 1994, when 90 works were officially presented; the remainder were consigned in 2001. It might seem that Cologne could revel in a wealth of Picassos and boast yet another museum to grace its diversified cultural skyline. But the process disconcerted some critics, who saw it as an example of the near-dictatorial power enjoyed by a handful of contemporary collectors.

To understand such fears, it is necessary to know that the name of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum honors two enlightened, art-minded burghers. Ferdinand Franz Wallraf, canon and rector of Cologne University, left his extensive art collection to the city on his death in 1824. A museum expressly built to house the works was finally realized in 1861, thanks to the efforts of a local businessman named Johann Heinrich Richartz. Today the institution accommodates works dating from 1200 to 1900, but its international renown rests primarily on its rich medieval and Baroque holdings. The original Wallraf-Richartz building (the so-called Wallrafianum) was destroyed in World War II and a new one erected in 1956; a decade later, the latter was invaded by Peter Ludwig’s bravura collection of Pop art–first “temporarily” displayed in the foyer, then advancing boldly up the stairs and occupying more and more of the premises. What began as a supplement to the historical collection soon outstripped it. A solution was found in 1986 by creating, in the shadow of the venerable Cologne Cathedral, a vast duplex to house both the Wallraf-Richartz and the newly created Ludwig Museum: proof positive of art’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to create strange bedfellows.

Thanks to Ludwig’s insatiable appetite for new acquisitions, space was already at a premium when the industrialist offered the city the Picassos. An agreement was ratified before Ludwig’s death, thus compelling the exquisite Wallraf-Richartz collection to move into its third postwar residence. The site chosen for the new building is only a short walk from the Ludwig. It is situated in one of the city’s historically richest quarters, once favored by goldsmiths and painters, yet one that until recently exuded a derelict air. Despite numerous mementos of Roman power and medieval pomp, the area had never fully recovered from the devastating aerial attack of 1942 known locally as “the night of 1,000 bombers.” The decision to situate a new Wallraf-Richartz here was thus made within a larger context of urban renewal. The architectural competition was won by a local hero, Oswald Mathias Ungers.

An Intellectual Idiom

Born in the nearby Eiffel Mountains in 1926, Ungers opened his first architectural office in Cologne in 1950 and quickly adopted the city as his hometown. His earliest works (above all, his private residence in a Cologne suburb) became legendary in architectural circles, yet there were few clients for his sparse, subtly intellectual idiom. In 1965 Ungers began a long association with Cornell University, including a six-year stint as chairman of the department of architecture. His triumphant return to the German scene was signaled by his ingenious though oddly introverted 1984 conversion of a historic villa on the River Main in Frankfurt as a home for the German Architecture Museum. The very existence of that institution (the first of its kind in Europe) signaled a new consciousness of the built environment and, above all, heralded the fashion for creating museum structures as ostentatious showcases that have often seemed more intent on presenting themselves than their holdings.

From the moment the Frankfurt museum opened, Ungers moved from one prestige project to another. Yet his achievements did not receive unanimous praise. His almost fanatical adherence to a minimalist geometry of forms, applied even to torturous furniture, was praised by some as consistent, criticized by others as sterile and cliched. For the new Wallraf-Richartz, completed at a cost of approximately $32 million, Ungers worked within a strict grid-module derived from the adjacent Church of St. Alban’s. In subjecting the entire museum structure to such uncompromising dictates, he settled for the tyranny of geometry over the celebration of human creativity, patronage or urbanity.

This is a building where visitors seem to be unwelcome. The sole elevator is cunningly obscured, and a tortuous staircase is theatrically accentuated. At ground level, a bistro and book shop have been elbowed aside to create a senselessly spacious foyer, floored in black basalt. The museum’s tuff-stone cube also sits on a black base, and the whole is banded by twin rows of slate panels, incised according to the designs of Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay with the names of such celebrated tenants as Rembrandt and Rubens, Durer and Cezanne. Although there is a venerable tradition of incising great names on libraries and museums, these memorial plaques, coupled with the black-floored interior, intensify the feeling that one is entering a mausoleum. Nor do the upper levels offer conspicuous compensation. The artificial light streaming from gridded glass ceilings seems needlessly aggressive. In such surroundings, the grandiose altar paintings of Stefan Lochner and other masters seem to yearn, above all, to fold their wings.

The good-news footnote to the tale is that the new building became spatially insufficient even before it opened, thanks to the donation of 170 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by the Foundation Corboud. The Swiss industrialist Gerard Corboud and his Cologne-born wife, Marisol, have made the works available as a permanent loan, as well as providing funds for the maintenance and expansion of the collection. Cologne promptly renamed the institution “Wallraf-Richartz Museum–Foundation Corboud.” At present no decision has been made about whether to seek additional space off-site.

A short walk away is the parish church of St. Peter’s, where the resourceful priest Friedhelm Mennekes stages some of the Federal Republic’s most gripping exhibitions. After almost four years of renovations, which have underscored the amazing clarity of the interior spaces, Art Station Saint Peter reopened last year with a handsome show of sculptures and installations by Eduardo Chillida, who has donated an altar to the church. And to commemorate the festive reopening, Martin Creed conceived a permanent light sculpture for the bell tower.

Changes and Wishes at the Ludwig

The departure of the Wallraf-Richartz collection meant that the Ludwig Museum’s art of the 20th and 21st centuries could now expand into about 108,000 square feet of exhibition space. Yet it was not merely a question of freeing more works from the Ludwig’s crowded storage rooms. The building as a physical plant, as well as its reputation and its orientation within the Rhineland’s museum landscape, had suffered setbacks in recent years. In part (perhaps even in large part), the crisis resulted from the vacuum created by the patron’s death. He was not just the museum’s greatest beneficiary and vanity-prone namesake, but a larger-than-life presence, maintaining an office on the premises and enthusiastically engaging himself with virtually every aspect of the institution’s business. Ludwig endowed no fewer than 17 museums in five countries, but Cologne was his preferred venue.

In one of his first major achievements as director (and a symbolic act of conspicuous significance), Konig ordered the building “purged” of later structural additions and improvisations and returned to the state in which it was opened in 1986. For this goal, the original architects, Peter Busmann and Godfrid Haberer, were engaged. They, in turn, formed a team with Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture to reconceive the entrance area and bring the visitor into quicker, closer touch with the collection than was previously possible. That aspect of the work is still in progress.

After nine months of restoration of the exhibition spaces, the museum reopened last November with a wish list of new acquisitions and a radically new presentation of the permanent collection. Though approval of the refurbished image was not universal, the general tenor of critical and public response ranged from qualified acceptance to enthusiasm. Plainly, Cologne had made the right decision in luring Konig away from his twin jobs in Frankfurt as rector of the Stadel Art School and director of the mini exhibition hall known as Portikus. As head of the school he had acquired administrative experience, and his penchant for innovative programming and his inherent improvisational skills had been sharpened by his work at Portikus. It was hardly surprising that at the age of 57, Konig might be seeking new challenges. Although he lacks a degree in art history, ordinarily a prerequisite for the directorship of a German art museum, his successes as an independent curator (a concept he largely invented) plainly helped to calm the skeptics: his 1981 Cologne survey, “Westkunst,” and his 1984 Dusseldorf “von hier aus” (from here on), as well as the series of sculpture spectaculars conceived for his native MOnster, broke new ground and are now virtually legendary.

There was no doubt about Konig’s savvy, his renown or the range of his international connections, yet his appointment indicated that contemporary programming would likely take precedence over the classic art-historical scholarship that has long been the pride of the German museum world (and, by implication, a rejection of the wheeling-and-dealing, corporate-flavored “American model”). Even his supporters conceded that he had no experience with the nitty-gritty of acquisition, conservation or research.

For a new director to make curatorial changes is not uncommon. However, controversy was caused by Konig’s dismissal of Reinhold Misselbeck, 53, who for nearly 20 years developed the Ludwig Museum’s video and photography holdings and himself conceived a number of pioneering exhibitions. One of the two new curators whose appointment Konig made contingent on his own acceptance of the position in Cologne was Thomas Weski, formerly responsible for the photography collection at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. Misselbeck assumed he and the new curator would work in tandem, but in the fall of 2000, Konig informed him that he was to surrender all curatorial authority within a week. Misselbeck objected. Subsequent attempts to arrive at a settlement failed, and the conflict was scheduled for adjudication by a labor court on Nov. 6, 2001. But Misselbeck died of heart failure three days before the hearing.

Konig’s reinstallation of the expanded Ludwig Museum makes it clear that he has a new vision for the future of that institution. At the core of the presentation is a bravura display of 526 works by Picasso, which is both a nod to the Ludwig bequest and a showcasing of the museum’s strengths. (Only Paris and Barcelona have more extensive Picasso holdings.) At the heart of this survey is a room containing 347 engravings that Picasso completed in a fury of creativity, rage, anguish and frustrated sexuality during a single year, 1968. The suite is hung wall to wall, ceiling to floor against a blood-red background, creating an effect that is quite literally breathtaking.

In a second dazzling installation, Konig sought to emphasize that while the Ludwig Museum houses works collected by Peter Ludwig, it is by no means limited to that collection. When the Wallraf-Richartz and Ludwig moved into shared quarters in 1986, the Ludwig “absorbed” the other museum’s holdings in 20th-century art, including, for example, the Josef Haubrich Collection of Expressionist works that the Cologne attorney had deeded to the city in 1946. Though the local kunsthalle is also named for him, the actual Haubrich bequest more or less vanished into Ludwig’s museum. Some collectors became wary of cooperating with the institution.

In providing generous space for the Haubrich Collection as an entity, Konig sent a signal to collectors. He also irritated some visitors by installing many of the Haubrich works in a stacked, salon style. Yet one can argue that clustering the works helped to highlight recurrent motifs, gave weaker works the support of stronger neighbors and communicated a sense of the fullness of the collection itself.

Konig’s reinstallation also rescued many individual works from storage. For the past 30 years, for example, nine of the museum’s 13 paintings by Max Beckmann have been packed away; today they can be viewed as a rich cluster. Furthermore, the museum’s extensive in-house storage depot is now accessible to visitors, by appointment.

Konig’s most unambiguous signal to patrons took the form of a show, scattered throughout the entire building, titled “Museum of Our Wishes” [Nov. 1, 2001-April 2002]. The director borrowed pieces by some 60 artists–a distinctly mixed bag that ranged from Robert Filliou to Candida Hofer, and from On Kawara to Martin Kippenberger–which he considered necessary additions to the collection. More than half the works (valued from about $2,500 to $2.5 million) have by now been purchased with museum funds (he had negotiated an acquisitions budget of more than $1.5 million) or donated by foundations, individual collectors, patrons or the artists themselves. Konig’s announced intention is to bring the collection into the present, to close gaps and to reinforce such strong points as the superb Pop art collection, which, for all its plenitude, contained no Ruscha, Wesley or Copley–all three in the wish-list show. He is also reorienting acquisition policy toward individual works, as opposed to the absorption of entire collections, which typically arrive with strings attached. Nonetheless, he made clear that the private collector will continue to play a central role in future calculations.

Expansion in Dusseldorf

The museum scene in nearby Dusseldorf, Cologne’s traditional Rhineland rival, has been somewhat less turbulent but also fraught with change. A long-deferred, urgently needed extension for the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW), Dusseldorf’s flagship museum for modern art, has finally been approved. It will add about 21,600 square feet of exhibition space to the sleek, postmodern 1986 structure the NRW currently occupies at city center, near the opera, the art academy, the Hofgarten and the city’s leading galleries.

The museum now administers its own “branch office” in the form of a splendid neo-Renaissance palace built in the 19th century and over-looking a fairy-tale park, the Schwanenspiegel. Ingeniously renovated at a cost of about $48 million by the Munich firm Kiessler and Partner, it is crowned by a glass cupola larger than that which Sir Norman Foster conceived for the Reichstag in Berlin (and yet realized at less expense). Since its opening in late April, visitors can stroll through this light-flooded space or through lower levels ideal for video art and installations. The original NRW building has now been dubbed “K20” (for Kunst of the 20th century), while the newcomer is officially called “K21”–abbreviations that one hopes will soon fade into oblivion.

It is clear that the dividing line between the two houses must remain flexible: some contemporary works are rooted in the last century, while some from the last century anticipate developments in our own time. Director Armin Zweite of K20 insists “it is not the date of a work but its artistic stance which will determine its future location.” Because the permanent collection holds few works by younger contemporaries, K21 director Julian Hynen has, for his inaugural presentation in the new facility, depended heavily on loans from such private collectors as Heinz and Simone Ackermans, Reiner Speck, and Wilhelm and Gaby Schurmann; the loaned works are exhibited together on a long-term basis under the collective title “Startkapital” (Start-up Capital). Parallel to this survey, the new K21 has launched its program of temporary exhibitions with a retrospective of the work of Katharina Fritsch, jointly organized with the Tate Modern (Apr. 21-Sept. 8), to be followed by shows for Daniel Richter (a painter born in 1962), Rodney Graham and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The reconceived K20 was inaugurated by a Gerhard Metz show (which closed Apr. 16), and a major Surrealism show opens on July 20 (through Nov. 24). Later presentations will include the works of Jessica Stockholder, the architects Herzog & de Meuron, Gerhard Altenbourg and Gerhard Richter.

For another juggling act, Dusseldorf’s city fathers have earned decidedly mixed reviews. The Museum Kunst Palast is a joining of the historic city art museum and a neighboring complex for temporary exhibitions, erected in 1926. The latter, hastily repaired after extensive damages in World War II, became something of a decrepit white elephant, though it had its own loving fans who treasured the quality of improvisation the space had inspired. In the first major public-private partnership of its kind in Germany, the building was razed to create prestigious company headquarters for a private energy concern, along with new spaces for temporary exhibitions, constructed behind the preserved facade of the original building.

For some, the energy company’s acquisition of such a choice downtown building site for a bargain price of less than $10 million (which covered one-third of the museum construction costs) set a dubious precedent. However, the company also pledged an annual contribution of $1 million, over a period of l0 years, to finance the exhibition space, plus as much as $1.5 million in sponsorship monies for annual operating costs. As in Cologne, Ungers was engaged as master builder, and he delivered results that are widely considered more agreeable than those achieved for the Wallraf-Richartz. While some critics feared undue corporate influence in the enterprise, with the choice of a general director for the museum, Dusseldorf made clear its determination to create an institution of international standing.

Jean-Hubert Martin, 57, who administers both the old Kunstmuseum and the new exhibitions facility, first came to prominence in 1979 with the legendary “Paris-Moscow” show at the Centre Pompidou (where he was director of the modern art collection from 1987 to 1990) and cemented his stature in 1989 with “Magiciens de la Terre,” which more than any other single exhibition challenged the Eurocentric bias of the Western art scene. Later, as director of the Museum of African Art in Paris, Martin integrated contemporary works into the ethnographic collections and thus reaffirmed his determination to erode traditional categories and hegemonies. Martin’s work for biennials in Sydney, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo and his artistic direction of the Lyon Biennale in 2000 strengthened his international reputation, and his knack for spotting talent is renowned (for example, Kabakov’s first one-man show, seen in Bern and Dusseldorf in 1985, was curated by Martin).

Given his general interests, it came as no surprise when Martin announced that his Dusseldorf debut would consist of “art to kneel down to,” in the form of 68 contemporary altars from 34 countries. As diverse as the examples proved–an altar from Ghana with its sacred masks and statues hidden under cloths; a Tibetan altar with colored monstrances and sacrificial gifts of rice and flowers, butter and oil lamps; a Korean “car altar” accompanied by a pig’s head stuffed with money–they were not historical or ethnographic reprises but examples of shrines in everyday use. As “assemblages,” they revealed much in common with contemporary installation pieces or even with performance art as it has evolved in the West.

“Altars and Shrines of the World” [Sept. 2, 2001 Jan. 6, 2002] was a bravura attempt at underscoring Martin’s globalization theme. “If we really want to recognize non-Western artists as equals,” he insisted, “we must also respect their frames of reference, and in many cases the frame of reference is religious.” Most of the works on view were created expressly for Dusseldorf and ceremonially consecrated by the priest-artists who realized them. It was, of course, a gripping, sometimes moving experience to see faith expressed in such a wild variety of artifacts, brightly colored images and offerings of food and flowers. Yet even when the air was heavy with incense, there was something curiously stilted about these reconstructions. They seemed like so many brittle butterflies pinned within a display case. Decontextualized and competing for attention, they illustrated at best the appeal of the exotic, not the persuasive force of the global.

Martin followed this debut with two shows, one of which–the smaller–seriously compromised the other. The subsidiary exhibition [Feb. 2-May 5] presented works by three artists who use unusual materials. Ghada Amer, Egyptian by birth, returns to the tradition of embroidery, often in conjunction with abstract painting; American Liza Lou encrusts household objects with beads and sequins for her witty, labor-intensive installations; the Belgian Wim Delvoye showed X-ray images and also created an elaborate mechanical digestive tract. Delvoye’s X-ray (of an erect penis in a vagina: allegedly a first) left both much and little to the viewer’s imagination, while his digestive apparatus produced a stench so great that the space in which this post-Surrealist Wunderwerk was housed had to be hermetically sealed.

Normally there would be no compelling argument against the presentation of idiosyncratic works such as these, despite the thinness of the show’s critical premise. This was, however, no normal moment in the life of a new institution. Having roamed the world to compose his inaugural show, Martin made the rich, complex achievements of Dusseldorf photographers the theme of his second major exhibition. Serious consideration of these artists was much anticipated and long overdue. Yet with his experimental trio occupying two entire galleries, roughly one-third of the available space, there was simply no room for the comprehensive photography exhibition that he had announced. The actual exhibition, “today till now. contemporary photography from dusseldorf part I,” down to its programmatic lack of capitals, came across as a self-conscious and ultimately botched effort. Acknowledged international figures including Ruff, Gursky and Katharina Sieverding made up the roster for the first installment [Feb. 22-June 16]. The second part opened May 25 and continues to Aug. 25; the overlapping dates afford a brief, and welcome, three-week interval when the two sections can be seen together. Nevertheless, the lesser-known but by no means less-talented younger artists such as Gudrun Kemsa and Elger Esser would have benefited from a joint presentation with their esteemed colleagues for the length of the entire show. As it is, they are likely to be lost in the shadow of the extensive press coverage of the first segment.

Early on, Martin made a decision that riled many traditional museum directors but opened up new possibilities. For the renovated Kunstmuseum, two contemporary German artists, Bogomir Ecker and Thomas Huber, were charged with devising a new installation of the historic collection, which ranges from Baroque to modern and is especially noted for an enormous accumulation of drawings. Disregarding chronology, schools and even genres, the artists came up with a rearrangement that is sometimes heady, sometimes irritating but never, ever dull. It prompts new ways of looking at familiar works that had hung so long on the same spot that they might have been so much wallpaper. “A museum,” the two artists insist, “should pose questions and not merely reconfirm that which is already known.” Like the new display of the holdings of the Ludwig Museum, also designed by someone lacking the customary art-historical credentials, the unconventional juxtapositions conceived by Ecker and Huber can be seen as symptomatic of a new epoch in the rich, often contradictory history of art in the Rhineland.

Author: David Galloway is a freelance critic and curator who lives in Wuppertal, Germany, and Forcalquier, France. He is emeritus professor of American studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group