INTERVIEW WITH ANDRÉ ODIER
The journalist Marcus Woeller interviews André Odier, secretary of the Friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
This autumn the Berlin State Museums are showing a series of exhibitions on the theme of the Kult der Künstler (Cult of the Artist), which involves a wide range of different artists' personalities. What was the background to this?
It was Peter-Klaus Schuster who came up with the idea for the show, which also marks his departure from Berlin. He very much wanted to organize a big festival for the occasion, and the Cult of the Artist is something he had already been thinking about for a long time. Rather like for the Jahrhunderausstellung (Millennium Exhibition) of 2000, he wanted to make the artists themselves the major subject of the show. Of course, as director of the Nationalgalerie he was able to get their three houses involved, and make sure that the series was based on an intelligent idea. Thus the Kulturforum shows the enduring nature of the cult of the artist, outlining, as it were, the big idea. Then the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neue Nationalgalerie, and the Hamburger Bahnhof show various examples of this. There are no big names like Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, or Edouard Manet, but rather artists that one would not expect to see.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is showing works by Paul Klee and Jeff Koons.
One of the shows is called Das Universum Klee (The Klee Universe), showing a comprehensive selection of Klee's work. It's about the big themes that preoccupied him from childhood until the Bauhaus, about dreams, fears, landscapes, stars - that is, the whole range of his work. We were determined to show his universal ideas, for most Klee exhibitions only ever show excerpts. We want to illustrate the whole range that can be found in Klee's work. With Koons we're taking a very different approach: we're showing only one series,Celebration. It consists of sculptures and paintings. We're showing eleven gigantic sculptures from it in the upper lobby.
Klee and Koons are vastly different artists. What was Koons' reaction to being shown in the same building as Klee?
Koons was very enthusiastic about showing his work alongside Klee. He even sees some connections between his work and Klee's art. Koons' series Celebrationdeals with the theme of the world of the child, and Klee is always trying to get to the bottom of children's drawings, and to make work that is completely free from any preconceptions. In this respect there are some points of convergence. But on another level there is, of course, a complete break between Koons and Klee, which is also exciting. Finally these exhibitions show examples of what an artist is, of what art can do, and where its cult begins.
Koons is both an artist and his own marketing expert. He employs a team of almost a hundred people and is seen as a control freak. How do you plan an exhibition with someone so skilled in operating with the media?
Really it was no more complicated than dealing with any other artist. Artists of his caliber like to be kept informed about everything we're doing. I think it's quite simply because they're perfectionists. Even if they feel very honored to be showing in the Nationalgalerie, they're also apprehensive and want to check up on exactly what's going on. During the preparations for the show we visited Koons two or three times, and he came to Berlin. So it was a case of gradually coming together. Basically what the Americans always want is a great deal of information. But even if we thought that one or another particular thing he wanted to know was really only of secondary importance, we were still happy to pass it on. So working with Koons wasn't much more complicated than working with any other artist. We just did a show with Jannis Kounellis, and he was also almost addicted to information. But at the end of the day that was fine with me, since we worked well together and communication is very, very important. As representatives of the management we are, as it were, a permanent fixture at the Nationalgalerie; but most artists are here just once as guests, and for that reason we need to stay in good communication with all of them, as a foundation to producing good work. That way they know what we're doing, what we, so to speak, plan to do with them as their partners; and most of the time they don't express any opinion about it - they just want to be kept informed, and say, great! Very nice! Then they're in the picture and not foundering around somewhere, but really are alongside us and thus heading with us towards the opening. And anyway, we're all control freaks when it comes down to it . . .
Did you have to deal more with Jeff Koons the human being or Jeff Koons the CEO of his own brand?
You can't really separate the two. There was a good reason why we chose Koons for the Cult of the Artist, he really is a very remarkable personality. We wanted a contemporary artist for the upper lobby of the Mies van der Rohe building; someone who represents this cult of the artist as an individual, and whose personality stands out and isn't separable from their art. We chose Koons, but there were also other names. Jeff Koons the individual is also Jeff Koons the cult figure - a marvelous construct. Which one did I deal with? I dealt with a very pleasant, polite person, who was very friendly and very professional.
Koons has a show on in the chateau of Versailles right now which is causing quite a stir, and which has received some rather bad reviews. Is that bad or good for the Berlin exhibition? Or to put it another way, is bad publicity also good publicity?
Here I must quote Elizabeth Taylor, who once said, "I don't care what they say about me so long as they talk about me." I certainly wouldn't go that far myself, but I think it can be good when art rubs people up the wrong way. Most of the criticism about the show in Versailles is primarily about the relationship between the art and the place. It might well have been different had it been in the Pompidou Center - I don't know. In any case, the conditions here are completely different, although there are parallels between Versailles and the Neue Nationalgalerie. In Versailles you have, so to speak, the epitome of a certain architecture and a certain period, and here in Berlin with Mies van der Rohe we also have the best of its kind: the temple of modernity; reduced, minimal, stripped to its absolute basics. Koons found it very, very exciting. To be coming straight from Versailles, with all its Rococo, gold leaf, and splendid red interiors, to the Neue Nationalgalerie, where the light is a problem, where it's too bright, where the rooms are too high, where everything is so empty! Koons thought these were marvelous conditions for showing his works in a new way, for presenting them in an entirely different light. I was in Versailles and I liked what he did there a lot, it worked very well with the rooms. Amid all the excitement a very funny quote appeared: they said it was as if someone had drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Art people like us find that kind of criticism very amusing!
You are the secretary of the Friends of the Nationalgalerie. How are you promoting the Cult of the Artist?
With Koons we're taking a pretty sensationalist approach. We're advertising with objects: colorful, with large typeface above them, so that the screaming object is covered by a name. Just like with the Cult of the Artist - the name comes before his work, because the artist also is his work. At least, that is certainly the case with Koons. With Klee we wanted to do things quite differently. With him we worked with various different motifs. On the advertising posters you'll find the typeface at the bottom on a colored ground, together with Klee's name, and above it a work of art. Pure and untouched! With Koons we worked primarily with two motifs, with dogs and hearts; while with Klee we had about nine motifs, since we wanted to show his entire range. Each of us had a different idea of Klee and we wanted to bring all of them out. With Koons it was very simple: crash! Bang! There's the color, there's the name. The aim is to leave people gasping for air, unable to breathe. So the advertising should have the same effect as the artworks, which weigh many tons.
Presumably merchandising also plays an important role?
A large children's section goes very well together with Klee. He so often takes animals as his subject matter. But we also wanted to address the theme of food in a way that was funny. That's why we're thinking of involving some celebrity chefs, and that's where Klee comes in with subjects like the The Roast Chicken or Hens and Eggs. We're also touching on the theme of Angels and Heaven. With Koons's work we're basing it very simply on materiality. The surface of the work of art is the starting point for our ideas. But I don't want to give too much away here. We will of course also be selling posters, prints, and postcards. I'm particularly looking forward to the posters that will be produced while the show is on at the Neue Nationalgalerie. That's something people really like the idea of, and which they often ask about.
For a long time the Friends of the Nationalgalerie were headed by Peter Raue, who left a lasting influence. Now the director is Christina Weiss. Has this produced any kind of change in the associations direction?
No, not really. We all want to continue pursuing our two main aims: putting on exhibitions and making acquisitions for the Nationalgalerie. We want to put on shows that pay for themselves financially, so we can also put on more important exhibitions that aren't financially profitable. We certainly plan to do other blockbusters, if they can be made to pay in every sense of the word! And we don't have a problem doing these blockbusters because, of course - and we're very careful about this - we make sure their content is good. The exhibitions always have to be good, since the name of the Nationalgalerie is at stake. And art exhibitions are becoming ever more expensive these days.
I guess Koons wasn't exactly cheap.
Very expensive! Incredibly expensive! We didn't pay Koons a penny for his work, but we got works on loan from Asia and several from America. The dog weighs several tons, a giant yellow diamond over two tons: these weren't the kinds of things we could just cart into the Nationalgalerie, we had to have a crane over, which brought everyone into the building, and a special construction team from America. The logistics involved were anything but simple. That's what makes it so very expensive! But bringing a Van Gogh over here is just as expensive.
Peter Vetsch, the long time press officer for Art Basel, is moving next year to Berlin to take over the artistic direction of Art Forum. Are you tempted by the idea of moving into curating yourself?
Yes, I think so. Of course I'm tempted by curating. Although I'm not an art historian; I studied literature. But I know where I'm coming from, and I've been in this business for twelve years. I've learnt a certain amount during that time and have also curated a couple of shows: small-scale affairs, nothing dramatic . . . But I think I'd find it just as exciting to teach what I've learnt to the next generation in a university. To show how exhibitions are made, how to get a lot of people involved, how art and commerce can go together. As I see it, this can only work under certain conditions: quite simply, art must always come first, the standard must be set there. If it has quality, then you can do anything - quality redeems everything.