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Art in circles

Hans-Joachim Müller relishes being plunged into the thick of contemporary art at the Städel Museum's radical new subterranean extension in Frankfurt.

From high up in the skies over Frankfurt the gleaming window eyes that are cut into a domed stretch of lawn like circular daubs must be easy to see. With your nose pressed against the cabin windows you try to peer inside, down there between the Städelmuseum and the Städelschule, where they've built the new exhibition hall.

Exterior view of extension
Photo: Norbert Miguletz
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

From the street, though, it's invisible. No extra entrance, no architectural enticement to distract the flaneur from his stroll along the Main. This, step three of the sweeping Städel extension reveals quite how discreet this ambitious project is. You have to already know that this museum has 3000 square metres worth of underground annex and a collection of contemporary art that in a brief 10 years has swollen into something truly presentable.

Stairway to extension
photo: Norbert Miguletz

But who in Frankfurt doesn't know. After all, fifty percent of the restructuring and construction budget – around 26 million euro – has been scrabbled together from private pockets. And the director Max Hollein did not reel in only potent sponsors. A substantial amount of cash came in small envelopes; the way Frankfurt's citizens pulled together for the new Städel building is pretty unique here in Germany.

View into the new garden halls
Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Elsewhere people chain themselves to trees to stop them being felled. Here, they might not have given the shirts off their backs, but they did give any they had spare for the well-being of this museum. And it looks out from the quieter bank of the river at the metropolitan skyline with the sort of laissez faire that makes life's contradictions seem bearable.

Exhibition view
photo: Norbert Miguletz

The Modern collection re-opened a few months ago. Not long after visitors could climb the stairs to the newly furbished rooms of the Old Masters. Now the stairs also go down a flight. A seductively elegant passageway constructed by Frankfurt architects Schneider + Schumacher leads visitors into the newest museum section in the basement beneath the garden. Standing on the steps and bathing in the glistening white of laboratory-like artificiality, it feels like stepping out of a UFO. Pure cinema. You feel you should be wearing the high-cut white suits sported by Malcolm McDowell and his "droogs" in Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange".

Gerhard Hoehme (1920–1989)
Zimbal, 1966
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Walking yourself warm down here will take a while. The ways are long and filled with surprises. There's no interior architecture to usher you in any particular direction, as James Stirling does in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie. The curator for contemporary art Martin Engler and his team have opted for a modular wall system that divides the vast space into open and closed cabinets and wide hallways. Spacious, generous is the immediate impression.

Rainer Fetting (*1949)
Erstes Mauerbild, 1977
© Rainer Fetting

At no point does the site feel transparent, easy to read. You are plunged into the thick of things and left make your own way through six decades of contemporary art. If you walk in circles, or get entangled in the geometry of visual axes, it all adds to the experience. But you understand soon enough that the lack of a guiding axis is more than just an architectural aperçu.

Günter Fruhtrunk (1923–1982)
Ohne Titel, 1963/64
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The new Städel section eschews chronology, mistrusts handed-down hierarchies. Just as Felix Krämer in the Modern Art section upstairs shows the avant-garde back to back with long frowned upon refuseniks of progress, Martin Engler likes to tell of buried and forgotten parallel events, flipping backwards. He apparently feels no obligation to the narrative of the post-war speed train hurtling ever forwards, ever onwards, preferring instead to lead us through a contemporary art museum minus the mainstream, that chips to art historical discourse with its own idiosyncrasies.

Sigmar Polke (1941–2010)
Ohne Titel (Drehung), 1979
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Not that A-list, world masters of the contemporary art scene are entirely absent. Frankfurt also has its Daniel Richters and its Gerhard Richters and orients itself to the charts. But with 600 works from the Deutsche Bank collection and over 200 photographic works from the DZ Bank, the Städel is now home to an exquisite contemporary spread that has been and rounded off into a proper museum collection by an active buying policy in recent years. And it does not simply repeat and reproduce what is already on show everywhere else.

Markus Lüpertz (*1941)
Ohne Titel, 1965
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The Städel Contemporary is what you might call the contemporary of the recent past. Neo Rauch is represented with a wonderful ensemble from his early years. Baselitz and Schoenebeck, as they took on the late seventies with aplomb. Lüpertz with the "Ziegel" paintings that launched his career. Polke of 1979, Palermo of 1970, Hoedicke of 1964.
Thoughtfulness pervades this retrospective and wraps you in its charms. Which is not to say that artists like Michael Beutler or John Armleder will not be called upon to create in situ installations freshly stamped with the year 2012.

Georg Baselitz (*1938)
Der Acker, 1962
© 2012 Georg Baselitz

The absence of things that have been seen to death is not for mourning. The Americans and the international art world deputies are not missed – the ones the exhibition business recommends. You won't find yourself standing in front of Cy Twombly's overwhelming canvasses but, instead, in front of the strong but unknown German Gerhard Hoehme. Indeed post-war German painting is given centre stage here. Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Karl Otto Goetz, Günter Fruhtrunk, all names which have been off the art radar for aeons. When the Munich artist Fruhtrunk died in 1982, younger artists were barely able to able to remember his constructivist work, which very much went its own way within the framework of Constructivism.

Wolfgang Tillmans (*1968)
Freischwimmer 54, 2004
© Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Köln / Berlin

Martin Engler deserves to be warmly congratulated for the expertise and resoluteness with which he occupies the willfully abandoned gaps in art history, demonstrating with an almost light touch how vital the dialogue across the generations can be. Not that the photographic artist Wolfgang Tilmanns is an Informel artist in disguise. But next to whirling lines of Karl Otto Goetz, which draw you in like a black hole from 1956, his experimental photographic "Freischwimmer" images almost seems like an homage to a legacy that only the grandchildren inherited.

K. O. Goetz (*1914)
Ohne Titel, 1956
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

A certain amount of suspicion has accompanied the birth of this contemporary art collection. Not without reason has MMK, Frankfurt's Museum for Modern Art - founded in its day in conscious opposition to the Städel, which had supposedly parted ways with the present - harboured fears of an incursion into its field of competence and hegemony. In actual fact, the partnership could hardly be more ideal. There are scarcely any crossovers between the two collections, indeed they complement one another by singing the praises of contemporary art in two very different voices.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902–1968)
Rotklang, 1962
© Elisabeth Nay-Scheibler, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The Städel, though, undoubtedly deserves credit for having the edge right now, thanks to its tireless and imaginative management. The overhaul prescribed by Hollein and his team is commemorable. One of Germany's biggest museum's has revamped itself top to toe, using the opportunity to stake out its own identity and expand in a way that is unprecedented in the contemporary museum landscape. Just how successful it has been in fitting out its very distinctive art apartments will finally become clear with the opening of the new exhibition halls under the domed lawn with its grid of gleaming window eyes.

Exterior view
photo: Norbert Miguletz
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Here in the kingdom of the contemporary where the past casts its gentle shadow overhead, the old idea of the universal museum has been put to rest at last. No longer are we meant to marvel at the spirit of art as it progresses from room to room in slow but unstoppable strides. In the new Städel art does not move ever forwards, it starts from a different place each time.

It might still feel slightly incongruous to be lingering so far underground for art's sake. The classical museum experience is used to the sort of light that bathes the art experience in the wakeful, vivid rays of day. In Renzo Piano's Fondation Beyeler on the outskirts of Basel, the water lilies in the pond outside intertwine with Monet's "Nympheas". Here in Frankfurt, nothing grows through the skylights. They keep the world at bay. Bringing you all the closer to works of art which had grown a little distant.


Hans-Joachim Müller is the art editor for Die Welt and lectures at the Hochschule für Kunst und Gestaltung in Basel.

This article was
originally published in Die Welt on 22 February, 2012.

Translation: lp - let's talk european