The Flick collection has the look of a hurried shopping spree. Notable videos, paintings and sculptures by Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Franz West and others are installed cheek by jowl with mediocre examples by the important painter Luc Tuymans, silly newspaper photographs of soldiers cast as fashion imagery by Wolfgang Tillmans, ugly sculptures of women-as-giant-candles by Urs Fischer and other work that could be most charitably described as derivative junk. Only a fraction of the 2,500-plus works are on view, so perhaps I saw a middling tip of a grand iceberg. Whatever the case, they occupy an uninviting, Darth Vader-style warehouse clad in black corrugated metal.
That earnest wish inflates into corporate burlesque at Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, a joint venture between the powerful Deutsche Bank and the New York museum known for its efforts to clone its operation around the globe.
Their "museum" on the fashionable Unter den Linden, up the street from the Brandenburg Gate, is a glorified office lobby — the only bank vestibule I know that charges admission. During my June visit, Deutsche Guggenheim was showing selections from the bank's corporate collection — at 50,000 works, said to be the world's largest — with 300 examples chosen from the vaults by international collectors, dealers, art consultants, museum curators and bankers. (No artists were invited to choose.) These selectors were dubbed "The Godparents," their names and the explanations for their choices printed on the walls in large type — offering new levels of curatorial ostentation.
Guggenheim director Thomas Krens chose works on paper by Nauman, Neo Rauch and Max Bill because "I was moved by them, pure and simple." (Thanks, Tom — although three "moving" works out of 50,000 does seem skimpy.) The curved, tunnel-like walls of the installation design by savvy London architect Zaha Hadid was the best thing about the show. It was a nod to a famous 1942 Surrealist design made for Peggy Guggenheim by Frederick Kiesler, while the skeletal segmentation of her bleached-white tunnels suggested the carcass of a dead whale. That seemed apt.
An exciting scene
Despite these problems, Berlin's contemporary art life has been transformed since reunification. Currently, four cities stand atop the globalized art-world heap — New York and Los Angeles in the United States, and London and Berlin in Europe. New York and London are commercial centers, where art old and new is principally bought and sold. L.A. and Berlin are production centers for new art, drawing a steady stream of young artists eager to work there, even if the collector base tends to reside elsewhere.
Like L.A., where scores of diverse neighborhoods are too large to gentrify, Berlin is a multicultural sprawl, but here relatively inexpensive studio space can still be found. The tottering German economy, cut-rate housing in the former East and overbuilding from reunification have contributed to making Berlin the most affordable capital in Europe.
Established and emerging artists, both European and North American, live and work here. Some German artists, such as Hamburg's Daniel Richter and Dresden's Eberhard Havekost, keep studios in two cities, recognizing the importance of a presence in Berlin. Kids move here from all over, in the way they no longer do to the expensive environs of central London or Manhattan. These generational layers keep pumping life into a place already stressed by a modern network of social and artistic fault lines, which chart histories at once horrible and remarkable, glorious and grim.
Within a few blocks of the enormous blue and gold dome of Mitte's New Synagogue, left in ruins in the wake of Kristallnacht and Allied bombing but now restored as a history museum, several dozen galleries have opened shop. The once-scruffy neighborhood around Auguststrasse has been likened to New York's East Village in the 1980s. But, with fashionable eateries and design shops stuffed with as much Lucite furniture, shag carpeting and lime-and-orange knickknacks as a Palm Springs consignment store, it's more like "instant Soho," fueled by streams of cash from Moscow and Cologne.
Other galleries nestle behind a big, unused (but spanking new) office building by the river; another cluster is up the street from Checkpoint Charlie, the former immigration station between East Berlin and the American sector. Go to any gallery and you can pick up "Index," a fold-out guide with helpful maps.
Don't go before noon, though; several galleries listed with earlier hours didn't open until then — perhaps a legacy of Berlin's fabled night life. "Index" lists about 40 commercial galleries, along with project spaces and temporary art events. Except for a disorienting installation at Esther Schipper Gallery, featuring a precariously suspended walk-in room by Carsten Höller, I didn't see much of interest — although a one-shot stop in summer is admittedly not the best gauge of a gallery's program.
One important anchor for the district is the nonprofit Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, founded in the early 1990s by Klaus Biesenbach (now a curator at New York's MOMA) and housed since 1999 on five floors in a formerly tumbledown factory.
The current multimedia exhibition includes provocative drawings by L.A. artist Edgar Arceneaux, as well as a slightly surreal documentary video by local Berlin artist Klaus Weber, showing an auto accident at a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop near MacArthur Park. (Weber was an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades in 2003.) Altogether it felt just like home.
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Berlin to the core
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