Panorama of Contemporary Art
A visit to the Städel Museum’s new Garden Halls
The new subterranean annex to the Städel Museum has just opened its doors—with a spectacular panorama of contemporary art. Among the highlights are numerous works on permanent loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Key works by Georg Baselitz, Neo Rauch, and Gerhard Richter help tell the story of recent art history in an entirely new way.
||At first glance, there’s nothing to see. No so-called signature architecture, no flamboyant trademark. The new Städel annex is hidden discreetly away beneath the lawn in the museum’s inner courtyard. All you can see of the 30,000-square-foot Garden Halls is a low hill with round skylights resembling bull’s eyes scattered about. The decorative connection between grass, glass, and steel brings Op Art to mind, yet it also has something unreal about it. Indeed, visitors to the new presentation of the Frankfurt museum’s contemporary art collection might feel a bit like Alice curiously following the White Rabbit down his hole: suddenly, you find yourself in a magical world that operates according to astonishingly different rules—because it’s not a simple exhibition space you enter upon descending the main building’s wide staircase, but a brightly lit arena of contemporary art, a universe all its own with main roads and side streets where you can easily lose your way.
Beneath the lawn, where you can gaze up into the sky through almost 200 skylights, you feel removed from the real world, transposed into an artificial cosmos in which the paintings seem to float and correspond with one another easily. And you immediately enter into this dialogue, because unlike most of the other larger museums, the decision was made here not to tell the story of contemporary art chronologically or divided up according to theme. Instead, a more up-to-date model was used in the Städel’s new Garden Halls to counter the notion of art history as a linear development that continuously generates new movements as it proceeds towards a future goal: it’s a network that places art in a context beyond decades, spatial boundaries, and clearly delineated currents. In the beginning, the Städel worked together with the Frankfurt architecture agency schneider + schumacher and the exhibition architect Kuehn Malvezzi to find a conceptual and aesthetic framework that creates space and openness—not only for the works themselves, but also for encountering them.
Thus, on the new lower level, the first thing you see is a wide-open space from which various paths branch off. "There are larger plazas and smaller ‘houses,’" as Städel director Max Hollein explains the architectural concept. "Like a visitor to a Renaissance city, you’re invited to venture around corners, maybe get lost in tiny back streets, only to find yourself again and again in a larger plaza situation. It’s a non-hierarchical, non-linear structure. The result is that you can take very different paths through this presentation." Visitors can explore the history of contemporary art without any rules or regulations in an open concept that allows for a juxtaposition of completely different positions without the need to rein them in through categorization.
Moreover, it’s a concept that provides space for a collection that has grown tremendously over the past years—so much so that the museum has repeatedlycome up against spatial limitations. Now, however, the Garden Halls make it possible to finally show far more of what the Städel has to offer. For instance seminal works by Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Jörg Immendorff and Dan Flavin. One can also experience a significant portion of the more than 850 works that have recently joined the collection—key works that further define the museum’s profile, close previously existing gaps, and help reveal an even broader panorama of contemporary positions than before.
Important and extensive series from the corporate collection have joined new acquisitions and donations of important works by artists like Thomas Bayrle, Peter Roehr, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Victor Vasarely. The Städel’s cooperation with its business partners already made headlines before the fact, in 2008. Deutsche Bank presented the museum with 600 high-caliber works from its collection on permanent loan, while the DZ Bank contributed 200 works from its renowned collection of contemporary art photography.
60 paintings and sculptures, 161 original works on paper, and 379 prints: the body of work from the Deutsche Bank Collection constitutes a custom-tailored addition to the Städel’s collection. The selection is primarily focused on classics from the collection’s early decades: Georg Baselitz, Martin Kippenberger, and Markus Lüpertz are represented with key works. In addition, there are pieces by Joseph Beuys, Konrad Klapheck, and Rosemarie Trockel. In particular, the Städel’s collection of works by Anselm Kiefer is augmented in an exceptional way by Wege der Weltweisheit: Hermanns-Schlacht, while extensive work groups by Hanne Darboven, Günther Förg, and Imi Knoebel expand the museum’s prints and drawings collection. All loaned works of art were selected together with the goal of continuing the Städel’s collection in a sustainable way into the future while making museum-quality artworks from the first decades of the bank’s collection more accessible to the public than before. "I’m quite sure that the art treasure we, as the Deutsche Bank Collection, have given to the Städel Museum, is an investment that will bear much fruit in the future," said Josef Ackermann, chairman of the board and the Deutsche Bank Group Executive Committee at the press conference held at the opening of the Garden Halls. This not only applies to the museum and the city of Frankfurt, but also to Deutsche Bank itself— "because companies, and especially banks, are a part of society. They can only flourish together."
The works from the Deutsche Bank Collection are not, however, shown in a separate gallery, but are integrated into the presentation in an associative manner. For instance, Rosemarie Trockel’s 1988 knitted picture Who will be in in 99? hovers above the main hall in a reference to the Constructivist art of Kasimir Malevich, hung in a corner like a Russian icon. The work looks down over an artificial landscape in which various different sections interlock. Beginning with the Russian avant-garde, for instance, the presentation traces how geometric and Constructivist abstraction also influenced the second half of the 20th century, from Ad Reinhardt and Donald Judd to Imi Knoebel and the hard-edge painting of John Armleder.
The curator of the exhibition and contemporary collection, Martin Engler, consistently seeks out unexpected connections and illuminating combinations: Eberhard Havekost’s cool architecture images, for instance, make Neo Rauch’s enigmatic paintings suddenly seem amazingly austere and real. In the presentation, the boundaries between media and genres repeatedly dissolve. The works of the European Informel, for instance, correspond amazingly well with the abstract photography of Wolfgang Tillmans. And the synergies between the Deutsche Bank and Städel collections become clear when Engler juxtaposes Beuys’s bronze sculpture Bergkönig(1958-61) and Anselm Kiefer’s woodcut Wege der Weltweisheit (1978), both from the Deutsche Bank Collection, with Anselm Kiefer’s huge mixed-media work Argonauten(1990). The relationship here is not only between references to German history and mythology, but also between the various material qualities of the works.
"It’s about making the quality of the individual work visible, but also about the fact that the Städel and Deutsche Bank collections augment each other in a very good, intelligent way and on a high level," says Martin Engler. The works of two artists closely connected to the history of the Deutsche Bank Collection play a key role in the contemporary art presentation: Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Along with selected paintings such as Richter’s Kahnfahrt (1965) and Polke’s Drehung (1979), Deutsche Bank placed great emphasis on collecting prints from the very beginning; according to Engler, it’s the prints that take on unique significance by virtue of their completeness. Under the motto "Capitalist Realism in the Age of its Technical Reproduction," an entire room is dedicated to the nearly complete graphic series of Polke and Richter.
Perspectives shift constantly in this exhibition; in one module you’re confronted with the question of how artists in the East and West have positioned themselves politically, and in the next works of artists like Georg Baselitz and Asger Jorn pursue the dissolution and recovery of the figure. There is no reliance here on static relationships, neither in the architecture nor in the concept behind the collection of contemporary art. At the press conference for the opening, Max Hollein stated that the new annex and presentation of the collection are "not the end, but a first major step in a continuous process of development." This step was made at the speed of light; according to Hollein, the Städel annex is "one of the fastest built cultural buildings" ever, taking only four and a half years from the initial concept to its completion. Concerted civic involvement also played an important role—something that functions better in Frankfurt than probably anywhere else. Half of the construction costs of 52 million euros came from public funding, and the other half was raised through the support of foundations, companies, and numerous citizens. The entire city, including the Eintracht Frankfurt soccer team, helped gather funds, ranging from small amounts to six-digit sums. Frankfurters love their Städel—especially because it’s represented the tradition of civic commitment for over 200 years. The fact that both personal history and art history are being told in such an innovative way promises an exciting future indeed.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf