Q/A Kasper König

What was the role of the rediscovery of artists in the 1960s and what is it today?
 Photo: Michael Dannenmann, Düsseldorf

In the mid-1950s, Alfred Hentzen, director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, was offered some pictures by Kasimir Malevich by a friend who had been storing them under his bed. He thought it was time to show them. Hentzen wrote back: “What is forgotten is forgotten for a good reason.” At the time, everyone was into the School of Paris. Willem Sandberg, however, caught wind of this offer and secured the works for the Stedelijk Museum. But you can’t lay the blame at Hentzen’s door – after all, this wasn‘t long after the Nazi era. People were still really insecure and nobody wanted to be reminded of the past. Informel was the only valid universal language. Rediscovery is always important when standing on the edge of a cliff. Every generation has to write its own history from scratch, after all. As in 80s New York, where radical feminism saved the art world at a time when it was merely a lifestyle choice by forcing people to confront the essentials: meaning and positioning.

I find teaching interesting, because it‘s how I notice that people from a different generation have a completely different take. It’s not better or worse, just different. Many highly talented students know all about what is happening right now and have no idea what was going on thirty or forty years ago. There are some good reasons to forget, after all. Remembering can be a burden. I remember once telling Nam June Paik that I was going to church to hear the St Matthew Passion. And he replied in all seriousness that I should forget Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Yet he knew a lot about the history of music. He was a real avantgarde revolutionary. I thought about what he‘d said a great deal at the time. Today, of course, there is so much more of everything – but in those days the level of engagement was much greater; perhaps because of the lack of some things, as well.

People get more interested whenever we suddenly don’t know where we are headed. At the moment we really are in a very risky. Firing people up for ideological and religious reasons is incredibly dangerous. Things are being set in motion that are way beyond anyone’s control. And the Cold War is suddenly upon us again, too. 
For me, it is depressing to see how we have from time to time simply lost touch with our natural reactions after all. The very fact that the Palace of the Republic* was demolished and is being replaced by a ridiculous reconstruction of a historical building has neither rhyme nor reason – it would have been good to show how two different timescales can co­exist side by side.

Mike Kelley played a huge role in rediscovering artistic positions. He wrote essays on the likes of Öyvind Fahlström, Corita Kent and Paul Thek at a time when they had not only been forgotten, but when their works had been repressed. Ludwig Gosewitz is an artist who will no doubt be rediscovered in grand style very soon. His glass works are amazingly beautiful. All hand-blown. Daniel Buchholz has been buying a lot of his works and must be wanting to get him more recognition soon.
I think that this fad of galleries rediscovering artists ultimately does have a very positive effect, even if the reasons for doing it have more to do with building a media profile and forging links with the artists a gallery represents. Things are not respected unless they have a price. People really shouldn’t say that just because something is expensive they don’t want anything to do with it. Rediscovery should be about wanting to find something out. When I tear an article out of a magazine it tends to be a re-evaluation. Re-evaluating something also means adopting a critical approach to your own values and questioning the status quo. And that’s where rediscovery becomes massively important. For instance, when I look at Richard Serra’s large sculptures today, it seems a bit macho and regressive. I love Hans Scharoun’s concert hall for the Berlin Philharmonic, but does Serra’s sculpture Berlin Junction really need to be there right next to it or would it be so bad if they took it away for a change? That would cause quite an outcry, of course, but in twenty years you could think about whether to put it back again.

The posthumous reconstruction of works by Charlotte Posenenske gets on my nerves these days. Even if it is theoretically part of her original project, the whole procedure is questionable. When an artist dies, the work is either completely forgotten, or else it takes on a new significance because it has suddenly stopped and it’s seen in a different light afterwards. Günther Förg was an artist who overproduced, and now that he is dead we are starting to see the ten per cent of his work that is unbelievably good.

As long as people are still working, it is often impossible to look at their work with fresh eyes because there are far too many interests in play. Everybody wants a slice of the cake. The galleries want to pander to their collectors and bolster a certain trend. Exhibitions then usually almost make themselves. It’s a pretty overheated business.
One of the biggest problems is with major institutions such as the MoMA. They just can’t get enough; they want to buy everything, do everything–as if they had a monopoly on modern art. Institutions have to get away from that kind of mindset. Just think of what the Kestnergesellschaft achieved back in the day! They showed Bruno Goller in 1958 and in 1969 they mounted the very first Magritte exhibition in Germany. It is important not to focus on the canon and instead to work with selfcritique. Especially in times when the market is so extreme. That’s how, in twenty years’ time, people will be able to say, Look at how interesting the approach was back then.

One of the best shows we ever had in the Museum Ludwig was the one with George Brecht. He contributed so much to the history of ideas that there is almost nobody in the same league. An exhibition like that might only interest eight hundred people in the world, of whom, however, three hundred actually come to see it, some even from as far away as Australia. Another place where interesting exhibitions happen quite often is the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Max Hollein has a very good eye for what is happening. But things then tend to get hyped to the point where they ebb away fairly quickly. This anti-cyclical tendency leads to a kind of gambling mentality in the art world. If a rediscovery proves to be nothing more than a flash in the pan, it can actually be very detrimental to artists. Ultimately, the capitalist system does work quite well as far as information is concerned. Someone with real intelligence, a truly groundbreaking artist, will not go unnoticed. So that’s some­ thing you have to acknowledge about capitalism, for all its ugly side effects: Nothing is left off the table.

* the former East German parliament building in Berlin


Translated by Ishbel Flett

KASPER KÖNIG has long been one of the most important curators in Germany. In the 1990s he was rector of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and founded the Portikus exhibition space. From 2000 to 2012 he was director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and in 2014 he curated Manifesta in St. Petersburg. In 2017 he will be part of the curatorial team for skulptur projekte münster, which he co-founded in 1977.