In 1815, Johann Friedrich Städel founded a museum under his name, giving his entire fortune and sizable art collection to the people—not the city—of Frankfurt. Nearly 200 years later, the institution has undergone something of a rebirth, reinvigorating its contemporary collection under the direction of Max Hollein and curatorial vision of Dr. Martin Engler. According to Hollein, however, the Städel’s new contemporary wing—opened on February 25 with a whopping 18,000 visitors in the first weekend—is not such a departure from the museum’s previous activities, rather a continuation of a project left behind in the 80s.
In an interview with the berlin art journal’s Alexander Forbes a week before the wing’s unveiling, Hollein explained: “The first directors of the museum were artists and its collection always spanned from late medieval to whatever contemporary was at the time. We were, for example, the first museum in Germany to acquire French impressionism; the Städel bought from Max Beckmann’s studio, Beckmann works, Kirchner works and also my predecessor in the 70s and 80s was very active in collecting the works by Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Baselitz, Yves Klein, and Francis Bacon. Nevertheless, in the last 15 years, the Städel was not so focused on continuing to build its contemporary collection. The decision that I had to make as a director was also whether to take this as a given and stop this almost 200-year tradition, or to say no, actually, this is one of the values of this institution, that it kind of always also embraced the contemporary.” As one can see upon descending into the remarkable, 3,000 square metre space designed by Frankfurt’s schneider+ +schneider architects, Hollein’s choice was decidedly the latter.
Perhaps of equal importance, Hollein remained steadfast in the Städel’s commitment to being of and for the people. “The idea was to not really lean on the public side but to try to galvanize the private sector in that sense,” he says, “also to show people that not only is this your museum, but also that you have a responsibility for it, if you want the next generation to experience it in the way that you might have as a child.” So, from small donations from private citizens to vast contributions by others, his vision bloomed. From previous work with Deutsche Bank on the Deutsche Guggenheim project, Hollein was able to cull a remarkable swath of contemporary art, impossible to attain with the miniscule acquisition budgets typical of German art institutions.
All this goes to say that Frankfurt has a new gem on its contemporary radar, not radical in a traditional sense—they’ll leave that to us in Berlin or even the Museum für Moderne Kunst across the Main—but in the way that they’ve cast off curatorial conventions for contemporary art in favor of a more classical approach, best explained below, by the curator himself, again in conversation with Forbes during a private viewing of the collection:
We try to focus on contemporary art, not in terms of specific movements or styles such as informal art or abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop, concept. We focus more that all these groups or aspects are much more interlinked and can be seen as part of a big narration than it’s normally done. We try to frame something like informal painting, on one hand an aspect of the 50s, loosely related the world experience of fascism but also with a certain impact on further movements. There is a work of Wolfgang Tillmans in that space, which gives the idea that there is an informal condition going on until nowadays. Upstairs, in the Old Masters and Modern departments, you definitely have rooms with 50, 60, or 70 years in one space. It doesn’t create any problems for the beholder. So I was wondering if there could be similar approaches with contemporary art.
On the one side in contemporary art you have abstraction and figurative painting, but now, you find out that these things are not so clearly divided. That starts in the 80s already or earlier. You have an artist like John Armleder, who is combining Marcel Duchamp and Malevich, combining readymade and self-referential painting. There’s no more opposition between the real and the painting
It’s about getting back to the founder, this idea of having a contemporary art museum. In the moment when we’re saying that all this is contemporary, important contemporary painting, we have in the work of Corinne Wasmuht, we have this divide between abstract and figurative.
It collides and collapses in a certain way as well, that these clear oppositions don’t really exist any more. On this wall, we have a classical Neo Rauch, a late work of an informal painter, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, and a rather young artist from Leipzig, living in Berlin, Frank Nitsche. You have different approaches to reality or this limbo between the world and the abstract. When you look at it you could have different ideas of how it might go together but still three different approaches. [Nitsche] is always coming from a real object, as Elsworth Kelly did. But through abstraction he gives a reference to the real world. With Nay, the grandfather of hard-edged painting in Germany, he says there’s nothing like reality, but there is my painting.
At one point you span the whole room with one artist, Ernst Willem Naye, who is going from figurative art to being an important personality in post-war, informal art, but is also very close to Kirschner. It really has its feet in early modernism but is also championing abstraction. He was one of the heros in Germany of post-war art.
We wanted to show artist like Schönebeck who were parallel people like Georg Baselitz in Berlin at the same time. They didn’t get as important, but they produced work that researches the loss of form and the image of the human being after the second World War.
We were picky in choosing really crucial and important work…it’s crucial to the work of the museum: that it makes selections, it constructs histories, it doesn’t follow the market or anything as given. The collection that we inherited, Max Hollein and me, was already a very good one. There’s nothing I got from that period that I said I didn’t’ want. It was excellent work. We bring together our work and the work of the Deutsche Bank that was given to us and really see that on both sides, we really had important work.
The funny thing about a broader narration of contemporary art is that if we talk about the 80s or I talk to my parents about the 60s, we don’t have this clear idea of contemporary art. For you or my assistant, for her it was always clear that photography was part of art history. Not for me. When I went to university, it just started, and it was part of a really important point where Gursky, Jeff Wall, or Tillmans are saying, “but what we are doing is painting.” It’s about images, about the reflection on what an image can do. And to a certain extent it’s about abstraction and depiction, not at all about documentary or reference between art and life. Certainly, we do talk about different contemporary realities. You must first discuss what “contemporary” you’re talking about. This includes a vast amount of ideas on contemporary art. Only if you exclude these differences, can it be told as a complete story. You have to accept the differences but find a common thread or idea.
by Alexander Forbes
[Images: Architectural view of the New Städel, Photo: Norbert Miguletz; Installation views, Photo: Michael Hudler, Courtesy the Städel Museum, Frankfurt]