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Art Market

Art Cologne, the World’s Oldest Art Fair, Boasts Impressive Art and a Tranquil Atmosphere

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Nov 21, 2022 8:58PM

Installation view of Ruttkowski;68’s booth at Art Cologne, 2022. Courtesy of Koelnmesse and Art Cologne.

It’s the oldest art fair in the world, a hub through which some of the world’s most important artworks have traveled. Indeed, when Art Cologne opened this week with 43,000 visitors attending its recently minted November slot, there were some tongue-in-cheek references to the fair’s luminous past: At Galerie Opdahl’s booth, Dag Erik Elgin’s oil paintings meticulously enlarged the wall labels that hung next to famous artworks sold at previous editions at the fair.

Elsewhere, the references to the Rhineland’s rock-solid place in art history was more subtle—the security guard at London gallery Bastian’s booth, for instance, watched a grand piano with a dish containing a spinning toy on top of it. The instrument was part of a performance, Gyroscopic Sculpture, by perhaps the most famous artist from the region, Joseph Beuys, in which he played a piece by Erik Satie. This is the only piano from the German artist’s work to be in private hands. Priced at €5.2 million ($5.3 million), it was still unsold after the preview days, despite both private and public interest, said a gallery rep.

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In his opening remarks, fair director Daniel Hug singled out galleries that had traveled from outside Germany to attend the fair. In particular, he noted nearby Belgian and Dutch galleries, of which there were seven and eight, respectively; thanks to the new November slot, they no longer had to skip Art Brussels. The event’s 190 galleries were, in fact, dominated by German and Austrian outlets. Indeed, though Art Cologne has traditionally seen itself as an international fair, German was the lingua franca of the event, with barely a word in any other language audible in the booths.

One of just three American galleries at the fair, New York’s The Hole was doing good business, with almost half the booth sold out before the busy weekend began. The gallery offloaded several of Matthew Hansel’s surreal faux-collage paintings; Loretta (2022), finished just days before the fair, was snapped up immediately, for €30,000 ($30,743). Two paintings by Peter Opheim, priced at €6,800 ($6,966), had also gone. The popular New York gallery was returning to the fair after a four-year gap, and many visitors were learning about it for the first time. The fair was a great opportunity to meet new collectors, said a gallery representative.

Installation view of Neon Park’s booth at Art Cologne, 2022. Courtesy of Neon Park.

Melbourne gallery Neon Parc, which had traveled even further, showed the large neon-splattered canvases of Dale Frank, whose work dealer Geoff Newton had brought to the fair several times, meeting significant demand from fans in the area, he said. Having attended for 12 years on and off, Newton noted that he had seen more international galleries like his at the fair before COVID. He described the fair as “buoyant,” adding: “It’s Art Cologne. Something good always happens.”

Dealers from Zina Gallery, founded in 2020 and participating in Art Cologne for the first time, hoped that the fair would be a way to network internationally. “For an emergent gallery from Romania, the fair is a great opportunity for us to establish links to the European and international art scene and to present artists that otherwise have very little support and opportunities within the country’s borders,” said gallery representative Iulia Vlad, who was showing hallucinogenic, internet-inspired paintings by the young Romanian artist George Crîngașu.

George Crîngașu, The Fire Spite, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Zina Gallery.

George Crîngașu, The Forest Fire, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Zina Gallery.

Many gallerists praised the fair’s new layout, which featured two color-coded rings of carpet to help with orientation. “The setup feels great, especially compared to the crowded booths of Frieze London,” said Christina Wigger, senior director at Düsseldorf gallery Kadel Willborn. Art Cologne, by comparison, was calm and spacious, with the number of floors slimmed down from three to two, making the fair more manageable for both galleries and collectors.

This calm was also evident in the pace of sales. Almost every gallerist noted the leisurely rate of decision-making at the fair, particularly in comparison to events with more collectors from the U.S. As Lena Zimmermann from Cologne-based Galerie Buchholz put it, “It’s Cologne, it’s not super fast. There aren’t American clients here,” she said. Nonetheless, on preview day, the gallery had already sold a large oil painting by Anne Imhof for €140,000 ($143,433), as well as another painting by Vera Palme.

Alex Katz, Orange and Black, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Thaddaeus Ropac.

“We look after our customers in the Rhineland at Art Cologne,” said Arne Ehmann, gallery director at Thaddaeus Ropac. The international gallery made one of the biggest sales of the fair with the monumental painting Orange and Black (2006) by Alex Katz, which went for €950,000 ($973,531).

For Sabine Schiffer, director at Galerie Michael Werner, the event was full of familiar faces. “The collectors are local,” she said. “So, since we are a Cologne-based gallery, it feels like we’re seeing the people we usually see in the gallery, but all in one day.” This booth was strikingly accessible in both its presentation and its pricing, with more than 250 drawings lining the walls from floor to ceiling in a salon style. Many of these works, by artists such as Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz, were priced under €3,000 ($3,074), Schiffer said.

Installation view of Michael Werner Gallery’s booth at Art Cologne, 2022. Courtesy of Koelnmesse and Art Cologne.

Also aiming to attract buyers at the lower end of the market was Jozef Zahorjan from Zahorian & Van Espen, who had replaced his wall labels with newly printed ones that included the prices, “so that people know it’s affordable,” he said. Having participated in Art Cologne since 2018, he seemed elated to be in the main section for the first time, especially right at the front of the fair, thanks to this year’s reshuffling of established and emerging names.

With Frieze London now “impossible” for a gallery like Zahorjan’s, given the new delays and costs of importing artwork from the EU due to Brexit, Cologne represented an important geographical hub for the Prague- and Bratislava-based gallery. “Art Cologne is getting better and better,” he said jubilantly. “You can quote me on that!” Even so, sales were slow on the preview day—no surprise to Zahorjan, who, from experience with Rhineland art collectors, expected buyers to go away and think about a sale before returning later at the weekend.

Installation view of Sprüth Magers’s booth at Art Cologne, 2022. Courtesy of Koelnmesse and Art Cologne.

Rob Tufnell, a London gallerist who used to run a gallery in Cologne, agreed that the preview day was one for the “serious and informed collector” at this art fair—not the time for the editioned pizza boxes by Ed Atkins, Pae White, and Liam Gillick that hung on his booth’s walls. He had, however, sold two small airbrushed paintings by kitsch-inspired British painter Edward Kay to the same collector, for around €4,000 ($4,099) each: One was a careful replica of the Muppet Count von Count, the other of a Van Dyck portrait.

Sprüth Magers also enjoyed a particularly successful fair, selling a photograph by Bernd and Hilla Becher (for €20,000, or $20,495, to an American collector) and a drawing by George Condo (for $150,000 to a Swiss collector). Pearl Lam Galleries, meanwhile, reported a lot of interest in the Nigerian artist Babajide Olatunji’s large, hyperrealistic portraits of imaginary characters with scarification facial marks (priced from £18,000–£30,000, or $21,227–$35,378). One local collector came back three times just on the first preview morning, said a representative for the gallery.

Babajide Olatunji, Tribal Marks Series III #72, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Babajide Olatunji, Tribal Marks Series III #73, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Several dealers noted the challenges and uncertainty for the market at the moment. Though his booth had seen good sales, Christian Nagel, owner of Cologne- and Berlin-based gallery Nagel Draxler, was aware that his colleagues at other booths weren’t feeling so positive. “Not the best Art Cologne so far,” was his verdict. Between the Russia–Ukraine war, financial recession, climate change, and the lingering fallout from the pandemic, “people aren’t in the best mood,” he said.

Though Nagel Draxler has hosted dedicated crypto areas in its art fair booths in the last few years, none appeared here (perhaps because of the sour atmosphere in crypto following the FTX bankruptcy). In this sales environment, Nagel said, paintings, instead, make more sense to focus on. He had already sold several before the weekend began: by Alex Wissel for €8,000 ($8,193); by Hell Gette for €15,000 ($15,363); and by Sayre Gomez for €200,000 ($204,842).

While the impact of global events never seemed far from dealers’ minds, the buyers in Cologne seemed undeterred—even if they moved a little slower than their American counterparts.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019