Städel Museum inaugurates underground building to house Contemporary art collection

Posted filed underArchitecture, Contemporary Art, Germany, Museums.

A general interior view of the newly opened Städel extension building in Frankfurt Main, Germany, 22 February 2012. The underground building houses the collection of contemporary art and cost around 52 million euros. The spectacular architectural building, which took more than two years to build, is characterized by 195 glass portals that let daylight into the eight meter high rooms. EPA/BORISROESSLER.

FRANKFURT.- With the opening of the extension for the presentation of contemporary art, the Städel Museum has carried the largest expansion of its nearly two-hundred-year history– with regard to its architecture and its collection alike – to completion. In the autumn of 2009, in conjunction with important additions to the museum’s holdings, work commenced on the construction of an annex designed by the architectural firm schneider+schumacher of Frankfurt. Situated beneath the Städel garden, the new light-flooded halls provide some 3,000 square metres of additional exhibition space, thus doubling the area available for the presentation of the Städel’s holdings. Thanks to the completion of the annex, from now on visitors will be able to experience 700 years of Occidental art under one roof in presentations of equally high quality: the Old Masters, Modern Art and Contemporary Art. The grand opening will be celebrated with an Open House and major public festivities on 25 and 26 February from 10 am to 8 pm each day.

“Together we have achieved so much”, observes Max Hollein, Städel Museum director. “Thanks to the unparalleled dedication of many, with its new building and the substantial expansion of its contemporary art collection, the Städel has made yet another quantum leap in its history of nearly two hundred years. We interpret this splendid support as a mandate for the institution’s future.”

The financing of the overall project – which encompasses the refurbishment of the old building as well as the construction of the new – has already been concluded. Amounting to approximately 52 million euros in total (34 million euros for the annex and 18 million for the renovation measures), fifty per cent of the project costs have been funded with support from businesses, foundations and innumerable private citizens, and fifty per cent with public subsidies.

As Prof Nikolaus Schweickart, Chairman of the Städel Foundation, emphasized, “the joint efforts of the public sector and a wide range of business, foundations and private individuals light an important beacon for the Städel Museum’s continued existence and represent a remarkable demonstration of cultural commitment in the twenty-first century. Museum work in this form would be unthinkable without the active involvement of numerous citizens, partners, patrons, sponsors and visitors.”

“For centuries, Frankfurt has been able to rely on its citizens’ unique sense of loyalty to their city”, Mayor Petra Roth proudly points out. “All the more does the city of Frankfurt feel an obligation to support the refurbishment of the Städel Museum’s old building and the construction of its new annex with the substantial sum of altogether 16.4 million euros.”

Prof Dr Felix Semmelroth, Deputy Mayor in Charge of Culture of the City of Frankfurt, sees in the Städel extension a case of “magnificent collaboration between the Städel Museum and the public sector. Together they have succeeded in enriching the Frankfurt Museum Bank with a veritable architectural jewel – the spectacular new building by the architects schneider+schumacher of Frankfurt”, Semmelroth adds.

Since its founding some two hundred years ago, the Städel Museum has been a unique art museum, and one which from the beginning acquired the art of each respective era of its history as an integral part of its collection – whether that of the Nazarenes in the early nineteenth century, or later that of the Impressionists and Expressionists. In the new annex, the contemporary art collection will find adequate accommodation in the Städel Museum for the first time. Building on a substantial basis, this collection has undergone significant structural expansion over the past few years. Through the transfer of 600 works from the Deutsche Bank collection and 220 photographs from that of the DZ Bank in 2008, as well as through numerous major donations and a stringent purchasing policy supported substantially by the Städelkomitee 21. Jahrhundert, altogether some 1,200 additional works of contemporary art have recently made their way into the Städel’s holdings.

As Dr Martin Engler, Head of the Contemporary Art Collection at the Städel, explains, “the presentation of contemporary art in the Städel brings out lines of connection that define the art of the post-war period as an art-historical entity in its own right, as well as one inextricably interlinked with early modern art.” With a selection of more than 330 works, this first presentation of the collection will devote itself to central themes of abstraction and figuration in painting and other media such as drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture, as well as to the reciprocities between them. Individual areas of the collection have been completely reorganized. Now geometric-constructive abstraction has as much of a place of its own in the Städel as does painting which has expanded within and beyond the boundaries set by the canvas stretcher – into new media and above all into the third dimension. Art Informel, traditionally already well represented in the holdings, has been further enhanced there in recent years by the addition of works by artists of various nationalities, while also being conceptualized historically into the past and future. Above all, however, deliberate emphasis has been placed on showing how the various areas of the collection interrelate. In that context, a special effort has been made to present artistic stances to which relatively little attention has been paid to date, for example geometric abstraction in European post-war art.

The new building designed by the architects schneider+schumacher of Frankfurt and situated beneath the Städel garden provides an optimal setting for the presentation of contemporary art at the Städel Museum. Reaching as much as eight metres in height, the new halls are supplied with light through 195 perfectly round skylights measuring 1.5 to 2.5 metres in diameter and forming a distinctive pattern on the garden lawn. “For us it was important to create a building which can assert itself as independent and prominent work of architecture while at the same time offering optimal space for the presentation of art”, Prof Michael Schumacher of schneider+schumacher explains. “Since the ceiling is supported by a mere twelve columns, the interior offers a high degree of flexibility, making an entirely new spatial structure possible for every new presentation of the collection on the 3,000-square-metre exhibition area”, Till Schneider of schneider+schumacher points out. The design of the first presentation was developed with the Kuehn Malvezzi architectural firm of Berlin; with a system of interlocking galleries it offers a flexible path through the contemporary art holdings. As Prof Wilfried Kuehn sums up the concept of the exhibition design, “the dynamic and intuitive visitor route in the Garden Halls forms a specific contrast to the axial structure of the presentations in the Main Wing”.

Founded in 1815 as a private foundation, the Städel Museum has meanwhile assembled a collection of some 3,000 paintings, 600 sculptures, 500 photographs and more than 100,000 drawings and prints. The Städel thus presents a survey of seven hundred years of European art history from the early fourteenth century, the Renaissance and the Baroque to the nineteenth century, early modern art and the present. Among the highlights of the internationally renowned holdings are works by Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Alberto Giacommetti, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Wolfgang Tillmans and Isa Genzken.

The Presentation of the Contemporary Art Collection
The “present” begins at the Städel Museum with such figures as Josef Albers, Jean Fautrier, Hermann Glöckner, Ernst Wilhelm Nay or Fritz Winter, since these artists – all born in the century before last – have served as important pioneers, players and teachers for art since 1945. They are thus paradigmatic of a historical continuity connecting the art of the European post-war period directly with that of the early modernist era while at the same time launching themes still relevant today. In keeping with this expansion of the art-historical framework, the art of the present day must likewise be viewed from a broader perspective in order to comprehend themes and developments which – apart from their dissociative tendencies – also shed light on the connective, affinity endowing aspects.

Owing to its stylistic diversity as well as its longevity, the oeuvre of Ernst Wilhelm Nay – one of the most prominent artists of post-war Germany – is a particularly potent example of this outlook on European art history. Encompassing the figural painting of his early years and various stages of abstraction – first gestural, later organic-geometric –, this lifework tells a history of art that ranges from the waning of early modernism to the hard-edge painting of the sixties.

Yet the oeuvres of such widely differing artists as Fritz Winter and Josef Albers likewise reflect the great extent to which pre-war and post-war, the first and second modernist eras, avant-garde and neo-avant-garde are intertwined – formally and with regard to their protagonists. Geometric-constructivist abstraction – one of the chief focusses of the presentation of the contemporary art collection at the Städel – thus stands out as a formative narration. Launched by artists such as the Russian Suprematists and Piet Mondrian in the early twentieth century, a line of development wends its way to Lyonel Feininger, László Moholy-Nagy, Hermann Glöckner, Otto Freundlich, Josef Albers and Adolf Fleischmann, then carrying on with Ad Reinhardt, Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, John M Armleder or Joseph Kosuth, interconnecting the entire century with regard to form and content alike.

A similar path was taken by European Art Informel, which already commenced prior to the war before coming into its own with all force later on, buttressed by the experiences of World War II. Beginning in the 1920s in the work of Jean Fautrier and continuing in the 1930s in that of Fritz Winter, it aids us in discerning post-war art’s deep roots in the early modern period. At the same time, Informel becomes legible as a term of both historical and formal significance, possessing relevance far beyond the 1950s for the art of the present day, as exemplified by the works of such artists as Imi Knoebels, Per Kirkeby or Wolfgang Tilmans.

One of the most suspenseful aspects of modern art is its multifaceted endeavour to broaden the concept of painting. In the wake of Minimal Art, painting gave up the two-dimensionality which had been its essential distinguishing feature for centuries, left the wall and self-confidently entered the third dimension. From the 1960s onward, this “extended painting” repeatedly found itself infiltrated by reality – an infiltration which again and again inspired it with new life. This phenomenon is witnessed, for example, in the sewn canvases of Piero Manzone and Yves Klein’s sponge reliefs, in Günther Uecker’s nail paintings and the use of everyday or industrial materials in the works of John M Armleder, Gerhard Hoehme, Isa Genzken, Imi Knoebel, Michael Beutler or Leni Hoffmann.

Yet however vehemently abstraction established itself in the twentieth century and reality entered painting in a wide variety of forms, the figure and object have by no means disappeared from the art of our own present. The juxtaposition of such widely different painterly concepts as those of Asger Jorn, Georg Baselitz, Leon Golub or Eugène Leroy exemplifies the degree to which figural painting survived on the brink of non-form, the dissolution of its integrity. In the works of other artists, for instance the sculptures of Otto Freundlich or the paintings of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Neo Rauch or Corinne Wasmuht, the proportions of abstraction and figuration are balanced at the very most.

The interplay of painting and photography – an aspect of central importance for the new presentation at the Städel – was another characteristic manifestation of the process of expanding and redefining the concept of painting. A decisive factor in the discourse on painting was the ever-more-evident tendency to undermine photography’s claim to the immediate illustration of reality – initially the medium’s chief distinguishing feature. Photography now adamantly insisted on its own reality and its autonomy as a medium. In the age of digital imaging techniques – employed, for example, by Jörg Sasse and Andreas Gursky – as well as of photographs created in the darkroom entirely without a camera – as in various works by Wolfgang Tillmans – it becomes apparent how closely the two formerly so competitive media converge. In the case of an artist like Katharina Sieverding, photography is above all a neutral pictorial medium for which reality merely provides an occasion for independent pictorial intentions, or which reduces the real world to autonomous painterly pictorial structures. The concept of painting undergoes a surprising expansion even here – not into the third dimension or the world of real objects, but as an entirely different – and essentially competitive – method of pictorial production.

The presentation of the contemporary art collection at the Städel shows that the boundaries between the genres are permeable, and a general tendency towards hybrid pictorial techniques becomes apparent. Whereas formerly the finest distinctions had to be made in order to develop adequate definitions, now the concept of a history of art comprehensively interlinked before and after 1945 proves valid. Above all, however, it is important to fine-tune the definition of contemporary – or that of the contemporary art museum – used over the past decades to distinguish it paradigmatically from traditional art history. Contemporary art – long considered to have emerged from history following the paradigm shift in art around 1960 – could thus be newly incorporated into that history. This art and its history have not yet come to an end – nor has the demise of painting, so often pronounced in the past, ever actually occurred. What has changed, on the contrary, is the conception of what constitutes painterliness – and with it the definition of the painting museum.