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Interview with Christos Joachimides, beleaguered exhibition organiser and agent provocateur

“We have wanted to create more of an essay than a history, so we made a list of artists who have done something decisive... or who created work that one simply cannot overlook”

Described by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens as “one of the great exhibition organisers in the last half of the twentieth century,” the Athens-born Christos M. Joachimides has been living in Berlin since 1958. Ever since his first internationally acclaimed exhibition, “Zeitgeist” in 1982, Mr Joachimides, sixty-four, has continued to organise world-class exhibitions, such as “German art in the twentieth century” (1985) and last year’s “Africa: art of a continent,” often in collaboration with his long time friend Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy in London.

From 7 May to 27 July, the Zeitgeist Society for the Support of Art, an organisation founded by Mr Joachimides, will be presenting “The age of Modernism: art in the twentieth Century” in Berlin’s Martin- Gropius-Bau. Approximately 350 works of art by over one hundred artists are on display, giving visitors the chance to “relive the revolutionary upheavals of Modernism which have changed both the art and the ways of seeing more radically than any preceding century,” as promised by Mr Joachimides.

Preparations for this ambitious show have been underway for almost five years and have been unusually bedevilled by problems. First, the show had to be postponed. Then its original sweeping title, “Art in the twentieth century,” had to be modified; a press release explained that exhibitions of this scale must always be understood as “works in progress.” When it was revealed that the exhibition would only be shown at its first venue, Berlin, and not subsequently at the Guggenheim in New York and the Royal Academy in London as planned, rumours of inadequate loans began to circulate.

Mr Joachimides is known not only for the content of his shows, but also for his skill at raising the sums needed to support them. Politically well-connected, his Zeitgeist organisation reportedly received DM 14.4 million from the Berlin Lottery for their project at a time when many cultural institutions have been forced to close due to cutbacks. Some argued that a portion of the grant should be returned since the show is now smaller.

This criticism culminated in a damning editorial, “The Zeigeist scandal” which appeared in Der Tagespiegel, one of the city’s leading papers, on 15 November 1996, accusing Mr Joachimides of misappropriation of funds and of “shopping around the name of Guggenheim” for an exhibition that “does not seem necessary.” Monika Zimmerman, the newspaper’s then editor, attempted to dig up more dirt by writing a letter to Krens implying that the Guggenheim wanted nothing to do with the exhibition and considered it “banal.” However, this was rebutted by Krens in a letter of support which confirmed his continuing enthusiasm for the project (the Guggenheim remains the biggest lender) and asked that his words be published in the paper–a request which was ignored.

The Art Newspaper spoke with Mr Joachimides at the Zeitgeist headquarters in Berlin about his vision of modern art and his upcoming show.

Mr Joachimides, you founded the Zeitgeist organisation in 1985. How did this come about?

The Martin-Gropius- Bau in Berlin was badly damaged in the war and was reopened after its restoration in 1980. The first exhibition shown there was “The Prussians,” followed by the Zeitgeist exhibition in 1982, which was the first show I put together there. With such an exhibition, it is necessary to have an organisation to supports your ideas and projects. Therefore, after much related discussion, some friends and I founded the Zeitgeist Gesellschaft, a private non-profit organisation. Its membership consists of a small group of individuals, sort of like an English club, which is composed of well known art historians and architects who give their help and advice. Zeitgeist is a Berlin organisation, but by no means a local one.

And what role do you play?

I act as the General Secretary and director of Zeitgeist, but I don’t work for that organisation alone. When I organise exhibitions, I do this as an individual. Like a director who works in the theatre, I make guest appearances on other stages.

Are you a curator?

I don’t consider myself a curator. There is an inflation of this word–everyone now calls himself a “curator”–which makes this word dull.

How did you start to organise exhibitions?

I was born in Greece, but I studied at the university of Heidelberg 1953-57. I started to write in German, which became my intellectual, my “artistic” language. When I was still quite young, I had the chance to write about art for the most influential publications of the time like Die Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Zeit, Die Welt, etc. But I was never a journalist. I didn’t have to write about the small exhibition opening around the corner. I had the privilege of seeking out what I wanted to write about. I was more of an art critic.

But very soon I realised that this type of work was not satisfying or interesting enough. I thought, “Why should I comment about the things other people are doing?” when I knew that I could do the same things better. I don’t mean “better” in the sense of knowing more than others, but I wanted to cross over to the other side, where my colleagues would then write about and criticise what I was doing, à la bonheur. One naturally does not begin with these huge shows, but rather with smaller, more experimental things.

What was your approach?

I began early on to think together with artists. I did not to use them as objects of entomology as so many art historians do, who are afraid to touch artists because they think they are too wild or too strange or whatever. On the contrary, I lived with these artists and had the chance to follow how they thought. I had of course my own thoughts to contribute and acted as a sort of sounding board. I started working with young artists like Baselitz, Lüpertz, Koberling, Hödicke who have since then become famous. At that time they were Meisterschüler, still at the art schools and very young. I caught onto this new wave and together we did a lot of adventurous things during the 60s.

Was there anyone with whom you were particularly impressed?

Yes, I met someone who made a great difference in my life–Joseph Beuys. Although I am not an artist myself, I was influenced by Beuys’s personality. He had enormous strength. He could remain standing for eight hours without a break. His aura was magical. The last work that he made in public was for our “German art in the twentieth century” exhibition in London when he was obviously very sick. He had a great sense of humour. The day before he died, I talked to him on the phone and he said, “I’m working for you. I’m sitting at the window and sewing.” This was a metaphor of course.

And are you involved with artists of the younger generation as well?

Absolutely. “Zeitgeist” was the first exhibition in a series which is concerned with young contemporary art. Eight years later, “Metropolis” followed. The next will be called “Ausblick/Outlook” and is scheduled to take place in 1999/2000. In parallel, we do exhibitions that are more historical, but presented from a contemporary perspective. In “German art in the twentieth century,” “American art in the twentieth century,” and now this totally different project, “The age of Modernism: art in the twentieth century,”

In Berlin there are many very interesting young artists, not to mention galleries, which are important. Unfortunately, what we lack here is a platform for young art such as Portikus in Frankfurt and the Kunstvereins (art societies) in Cologne and Bonn. What is needed here, especially since we have such a thriving art scene, is a kind of experimental Kunsthalle (exhibition hall) which would offer more space than the galleries can and which would give young art a real public platform. I have been fighting for something like this for quite a while now.

So what do you think of Berlin’s much discussed role as “Kunstmetropol”?

I think these words are really too weighty. When I see how things are going politically here at the moment, I am frankly unwilling to use terms like “Kunstmetropol” (art capital) and be so optimistic. I hope very much that we will have the chance to do important things in Berlin–this is my city–but it will be a long road. An important part of my work at the Zeitgeist Gesellschaft is to participate in this struggle, to help Berlin make the transition from a provincial city to a great metropolis, but this is a process and not a decision that can be made in some boardroom meeting.

This myth of Berlin has demoralised Cologne. All the galleries want to come here, although there is still no market here. The money and the potent collectors remain in the Rhine region. Berlin’s surrounding countryside is very beautiful, perfect for holidays, but the farmers in Mecklenburg are not going to start buying art all of a sudden. Near Cologne, by contrast, you have an important museum or a productive city every few kilometres. It’s simply a different landscape.

What brought you to Berlin in the first place?

I came here on account of a woman. I wanted to punish her with my presence. I knew her in Heidelberg and loved her very much. I wanted to marry her and she couldn’t decide. In the end, I lost her of course, but I had Berlin.

Is Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy still involved in the forthcoming exhibition, although it will now not be travelling to London as originally planned?

Yes, of course.

How would you describe your relationship with Mr Rosenthal?

We are the closest of friends. At this point, we have become family. He knows my mother, I know his children, I knew his wife before he knew her, etc.

And how did your collaboration start?

I met Norman in 1964. At the time, he was very young and working for the ICA in London. He was told to check out the situation in Germany and made a research trip. The British Council called me up one day and asked if I wanted to meet with a young English colleague. It was one of those cold, dark winter days here and I was in a bad mood. “Must I?” I asked myself because I didn’t feel like it. But we met for coffee. A thin young man came in wearing one of those very English navy coats. He spoke perfect German because his family is of German descent. He explained that he wanted to do an exhibition about German art, one that would present good, well-known German artists of the time such as Gerhard Richter, perhaps someone from each geographic region.

I told him that we could certainly do something serious like that, but that I thought the idea was totally boring, that we should do something a bit more extreme in London. I agitated a little, suggesting that we should create something together with young artists, taking the exhibition “Art in the political struggle” that I had done in Hanover as a model. That show was an attempt to analyse the situation in society through the lens of conceptual art with people like Beuys and Hans Haacke. That’s how our exhibition “Art into society: society into art” was born and we’ve been doing projects together ever since.

Is there a problem with the loans to the current show?

There are loan problems with every exhibition. When you do an exhibition which encompasses the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, of course people and museums have problems parting with their works for a long period of time. But problems can be solved.

And what actually happened with the Guggenheim?

The Guggenheim is practically a co-supporter and co-presenter of the exhibition, as well as the largest lender. At the beginning, Norman and I, perhaps too optimistically, thought that we could send this exhibition throughout the world. Reality showed otherwise, however. The responses to our loan requests repeatedly said “Berlin only.” This is because Berlin was to be the first venue and lenders were not willing to multiply the risks by having their works shipped to additional addresses.

We have learned from this experience that exhibitions of this nature, like the “Circa 1492” exhibition in Washington a few years ago, should have only one venue. As this became clear, Norman, Thomas Krens and I had a meeting and decided that all three of us would continue to concentrate our energies in order to ensure that this exhibition which we all wanted will be magnificent, but now, of course, only in one place.

What do you think are the highlights of the exhibition?

I am very pleased that we will be able to show two of Kandinsky’s major works “Composition VI” and “Composition VII”, together. That has only happened on one other occasion in Europe. I was also proud and happy to have received Picasso’s “Grand nu à la draperie” (1908) from the Orangerie in Paris, a work that they never loan, as well as Picasso’s “L’amitié” from the Hermitage.

How did you come to choose such an overwhelming theme for an exhibition?

It was unavoidable that after the four exhibitions Norman and I have planned at the Royal Academy we would be thinking about what art in this century really is. We did not want to do a huge exhibition or an overview with “isms.” We have wanted to create more of an essay than a history, so we made a list of artists who, in our view, have done something decisive that made a difference or who created work that one can simply not overlook. This has more to do with a concept than how much we value a particular artist. For example, Juan Gris is an excellent artist, but he is not in the exhibition. We have chosen to show Cubism at the moment where it originated, in the struggle between Picasso and Braque.

Once we decided upon what we thought was important, we had to organise the chaos. We came up with the proposal of dividing the century into four paths. The first is adventurous deformation, what we have called “Reality and destruction,” represented by artists such as Picasso, Kirchner, Bacon and Baselitz. The second is “Spirituality and abstraction” with artists like Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein and James Turrell. Another section is “Dream and myth.” It includes artists such as Ernst, De Chirico, Klee, Hopper and Bill Viola. The fourth path is entitled “Language and concept” with Schwitters, Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer and others.

You begin with early Picasso and Matisse, but where do you end such an exhibition?

This is not “Metropolis,” this is not Documenta. Although the young, fresh artists in London, for example, are very interesting, artists who are still in their twenties would not meet the two criteria upon which we based the exhibition. They are too young to have had a measurable effect on art history and they don’t yet have a body of work that can be surveyed. That’s why the youngest artists in the exhibition are artists in their late thirties or early forties: Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Katharina Fritsch, and Jeff Koons.

Why was the title of the exhibition changed?

The original title was misleading. Art history is very different in Europe from America or England where it includes everything like India, Asia, etc. In Germany, art history follows the Greco-Roman tradition: medieval art, Renaissance, etc, through to Modernism, which is something concrete. One knows where and with what it begins and where it ends. That’s why we have made the title more precise. “The age of Modernism: art in the twentieth century.”

What does “modern” mean to you?

That is a question which we hope the exhibition will open up. What is the modern? Is it an epoch in art history like the Baroque or is it a perpetuum mobile, a new phase of human history? What I think is important is that this exhibition is a rejection of this whole absurd discussion about the Postmodern. First of all, it is an architectural expression that has been wrongly applied to art. Second, I do not believe that young art has anything to do with this Postmodernism that was conceived at the end of the 70s/early 80s, but rather that there is a direct line that can be traced from the beginning of the century to today.

Do you see yourself as a provocateur?

Yes, of course. I always want to cast a stone in the water, so to speak. My exhibitions have been most successful when they make people foam at the mouth. That is a sign that they get under the skin. I’m always afraid that one day people will comment on my exhibitions with words like “wunderbar,” “excellent,” “bravo.” That would mean that something was wrong. For example, when we did “A new spirit in painting” in 1981, a famous critic described it as “immoral” in the Sunday Times in January. Six months later, the same critic wrote that it was the most important exhibition of the previous year.

Do you think that as a foreigner living here you are in a special position, are looked at differently, or have certain opportunities that you might not otherwise have?

That is difficult to say. One’s own roots certainly always play a role. There are perhaps very few Germans who have observed German art so intensely. People identify me with German art, which is understandable because I find it very important and because I have defended it aggressively and will continue to do so.