Three stories above one of the busiest tourist spots in Berlin, the corner of Oranienstraße and Friedrichstraße, Christian Ehrentraut and I sit down to discuss the artists he works with, his current exhibitions, and future plans.
One has the feeling that his new viewing space is a cultural corner, tucked away from the bustling tourists below, turning their maps and pointing for orientation. There is no conspicuous sign announcing the space, just a quiet, hand written “Ehrentraut” on one of the buzzers. Upon reaching the 3rd floor, the door swings open to a sun filled exhibition space, and an even sunnier Ehrentraut. The space is surprisingly still, considering the Trams and restaurants rumbling at street level. A short hallway leads to the main room, currently showing Ruprecht von Kaufmann.
We sit down at a long wooden table in the large multi-purpose ‘kitchen’ area. I can imagine the table scattered with wine bottles and candles burning low in an atmosphere filled with laughter and intense debates after a long dinner with collectors, curators, and artists in attendance. Ehrentraut himself is authentically approachable, readily providing a personal anecdote, or stories of life in Berlin, however his dedication to and knowledge of the arts becomes apparent the moment the talk turns to artists and exhibitions.
Alicia Reuter: The artists you work with use a variety of mediums, what is the link that you see between them?
Christian Ehrentraut: Actually, I don’t think it’s such a wide variety of mediums, it’s mainly painting, or it’s all painting related. Sometimes it appears as an installation, especially here in my space because the works are done for the space. At the space on Brunnenstraße, I was focused on single pieces, and therefore it looked like an installation, site specific in a way. The medium is the painting on canvas or on paper, or, in the case of Stephanie Dost, with images rather than with color. She’s the only one that works with photography. She was one of the first graduates of Neo Rauch from the academy in Leipzig, where they discussed painting itself. The whole composition of her collages is very painterly. The composition, the concept, how the colors are used in the pictures, it’s painting without painting.
Why haven’t you become involved with new media?
I hope it’s some way of quality insurance. I have a very direct approach to painting. I know for myself which criteria I have to consider a painting good or bad. I know which things I like in a painting, which things I don’t. I know how I like a painting to be executed, and I just don’t have the interest in photography, it’s nothing that I’m into, that I really have a feeling for. Photography is what is depicted, so maybe there’s a beautiful young girl depicted in some nice situation, and I think, “Oh, that’s nice”, but this is much more a personal reaction than a professional one. Then I don’t know if I only like the image, or if I like the photography, the same goes for video. I don’t like the fact that with video you are forced to look at it for a certain amount of time. With painting you can look at it, and sometimes it drags you in, you can get sucked in, but then you can go. However with a video, you’re standing there and 15 minutes has passed and nothing has happened and you leave and you’re left with the feeling that you missed something.
So, it’s the more immediate impact of a painting, piece of video art, or sculptural work that attracts you?
Yes, exactly. For example I like William Kentridge or there are video works of Tilo Baumgärtel that I really love. They’re more like moving paintings.
What attracts you to an artist? Is there a particular style that you are drawn to?
Yes, I think so. The simplest answer is that I like it when there are many things happening on a small scale rather than when there’s more happening on a larger scale. I sometimes have the feeling that painting and literature are very close. You have the surface, in the case of painting, the paintings’ surface, and in the case of literature, the cover of the book, but there’s so much more going on inside. With some artists, for example Ruprecht von Kaufmann, Stephanie Dost, or Martin Kobe, their works are so complex that they take hours and weeks and years to really get through, and maybe even then you don’t get it, because you’ve got layer after layer. Layer in the sense of the word as well as in the depiction. I like it when you can really read yourself through a painting, rather than looking at it or watching it.
Tell me about your involvement with Leipzig and the LIGA gallery.
I’ve never actually worked in Leipzig; LIGA Gallery was based in Berlin, with painters from the Leipzig Academy. At that time nobody was willing to go to Leipzig because it was too far off, like a small city in Saxony. Therefore the artists were looking for a space here in Berlin, because the scene is so much larger. Everybody, at that time, who was seriously interested in art, from around the world was coming to Berlin at least once or twice a year, for the fair, just to see studios, or for some other occasion. Numerous international artists moved to Berlin because the rents are so low, and that in turn attracted the galleries. For this reason, all of a sudden, there are 450 galleries in Berlin. Where the artists are, the galleries come, and then the collectors, and therefore Berlin was a better spot than Leipzig for the LIGA gallery
Do you feel an attraction in particular to the Leipzig artists?
It was such luck and chance that so many artists of one generation, or of those years, were so exceptional, but there are certain personalities that for some reason ended up there or studied there. Normally that doesn’t happen. The artists I’m working with, and the LIGA artists that I used to work with, what makes them interesting for a wider audience, is that you can see they are very skilled with what they are working with. They’re very good craftsmen. That they know a work isn’t finished after a couple of hours, or a day, it grows more or less organically and sometimes, such as in the case of Martin Kobe, a work needs 4 or 5 months before it is finished. I like this organic growing of a work that starts with a study, then another, and another, and then it makes its way to the canvas where it is again worked through. There are some artists I appreciate that have an idea then bring it to the canvas and then it is finished. I like Jonathan Meese, for example, but I don’t believe in artistic genius. I mean, maybe Picasso, but he’s a different question altogether, (laughs) but this idea of artistic genius, of having an idea, bringing it to the canvas, and then maybe it’s just a line that brings an artist fame. I like the procedure in a more sophisticated sense. When you see the study, you can see that the study is important. The steps between the study and bringing it to the canvas, changes the work so much. It’s the same subject and the same images, but it develops considerably.
You often curate exhibitions in other galleries and museums both in Germany and in the U.S., why is it that you continue to maintain a space in Berlin when you have so many opportunities to curate in other spaces?
There could always be more opportunities. (laughs) Well actually, this space serves more as a display room than as a gallery. Galleries are open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 6, and people can come whenever they like. Galleries are located directly on the street level, so people stop in when they do their shopping on a Saturday morning. People come here after they call, or for the receptions. You know the table is big (gestures to the table at which we are sitting) so people can sit down when we have a dinner or a breakfast, but it’s not operating as a gallery.
When I was here on a previous occasion a comparison was made between this space and Salon 94. Would you say this is an accurate comparison? And what are you planning to do with this space?
I like the idea of a salon very much; I know that Salon 94 acts differently. It’s very clean, very posh, whereas this space acts more privately, people have time to come and see the work. It’s more discreet, people can come sit down for an hour or two and experience the works. I don’t consider this as a gallery and I don’t consider myself as only a gallerist.
You’ve said in the past that you consider yourself to be more of an art agent, and I was hoping you could define what you mean.
It’s all about definition, if I wanted I could consider myself a gallerist or a curator, but none of it fits one hundred percent. When I think about what I am doing, maybe they are strange words, but maybe I am some kind of Ambassador of Art. (smiles broadly) I’ve said agent because it fits best, because I am working with a couple of artists. I like working with others galleries as well. In Martin Kobe’s case, I think it’s just brilliant to be working on a very small level with Martin, so directly, and helping him work with White Cube in London, which is more of a proper gallery. That’s huge and of course they can do a lot of other things that I can’t do, but never the less what I’m doing for Martin is necessary. The same goes for Christoph Ruckhäberle. It’s not representation as in a proper gallery, but I am working with them and representing them in a certain way. However it’s not that I want to have this artist exclusively, rather I’m helping them to find a good gallery he or she can work with. In the case of Stephanie Dost, we’ve been working together for the last 4 or 5 years, but a big part of the job was to bring her to the Marianne Boesky Gallery, where she just had her first solo exhibition. Again the same thing, Marianne has a proper gallery and can do different things from what I can do.
So it’s not a contentious decision to blur the lines between curator, gallerist, and agent?
No, it’s a long term self experience trip, other people go to … (laughs)
Tell me about your first show, how did you get your start?
It’s really hard to say, I was working as an intern for Judy at Eigen Art and that grew into an assistance ship for 3 years, then I was working with a group of curators in a gallery in the U.S., and I came back and started LIGA, and then the space on Brunnenstraße and now this space. In between all this have been the shows that I’ve curated, but it’s like you’re invited into it. Maybe you start helping hanging a booth at an art fair, then you start to get a feel for the way a painting could work, then you have an experienced dealer, gallerist, or curator with you who draws you into it at certain points. Of course you have your personal ideas of what you like and don’t like, what you experienced from shows that you’re seen.
You’ve worked in the , what are the differences between the New York arts scene and the Berlin arts scene?
I think the whole art scene became very globalized. It’s galleries working in their personal way; it has to do with the personalities of the artists and the gallery directors. It’s too diverse to say that Berlin is this way or New York is that way. There are single galleries in Berlin that can be directly compared to galleries in New York, or the other way around. New York for example, is one the one hand much harder than Berlin because it is much more expensive than Berlin. It’s a cliché, again, so I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I have the feeling that a lot of the Chelsea galleries have to care about having commercial success, whereas here in Berlin prices are lower and so you can try things out and if it works then it’s fine and if not then, that’s ok. New York is easier regarding reception, it’s not all of New York, of course, but it centers on Chelsea, and you have these ten or twelve streets where there’s 300 or 400 galleries and of course there’s the other scene in Williamsburg or Chinatown. I had the experience that especially journalists took their job very seriously (looks at me and grins) and did the big tour to all the galleries. Of course it’s much harder when you’re on the 7th floor of a gallery house and one of 200 galleries. I was surprised to see in the guest books of the shows that all the writers were there, and that’s much harder in Berlin, because it’s much harder to get around. You’re in Mitte, but Mitte is quite big and you can’t do everything by walking. You have the centers at Jannowitzbrücke, Zimmerstraße, and Brunnenstraße, and this street and this street and this street, and just you can’t make it in one or two days.
What do you see happening in the future of the Berlin arts scene? Do you think it will continue to have opportunities to be experimental?
I’m skeptical about this growing, growing, growing arts scene, as I mentioned before, it’s around 450 galleries. Many artists consider themselves “artists”, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do like to be serious, I like to have an approach, some working ethics, and some inspirations. Sometimes it seems like (he whistles and sweeps his hand through the air) “ Ok, making a painting.” Art has become so fashionable. You can flip open a magazine like Brigette, or Vogue, or Bravo, or Girl and every one has an art section. People are often asking “Oh did you find something new and interesting” and the answer is “No” because, for me, it’s really rare to find works that I like. I don’t like this jumping on a train of things that are hip.
Is there someone in your field that is an inspiration to you, or who influences what you do?
I’m totally grateful to Judy, at Eigen Art. I appreciate that he’s so true and devoted to his artists, he doesn’t throw his artists out. The gallery opened in 1983, in the GDR, and a lot of the artists working with him are from that time, and of course they had highs and lows, but he’s still with them. He’s been working with Neo Rauch since 1992, and he wasn’t a success in the first years. What I also admire is someone is able to open another’s eyes to art. I just read a biography of Joseph Vuveem, and what I found interesting is how he opened a lot of American’s eyes to European art, and taught them how to appreciate it. I don’t know if it’s politically correct so say that. (laughs) He sold 90 percent of classical works in American museums. I like selling work and I think it’s a good situation when you see people respond to work and really fall in love with it, rather than seeing it as an investment. The investment part is fine, it’s not a problem, but it’s always good to see people really appreciating art. Again, with the exhibition at Artnews Projects, Rusche, the collector who lent his works for the exhibition, had collected to that point only Dutch Old Masters, and then he opened up to contemporary, because of Ruprecht von Kaufmann.
What are some of your upcoming exhibitions and those of the artists you’re working with?
Martin Kobe has a show running through September 16th at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. We selected works from the collections of the museum of old Masters and new Masters from the printing and drawing departments. Afterwards, he’s having a show in October in the White Cube in London. We’re having a show here with Ruprecht von Kaufmann through August. He’s then having a show at Conrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, from whom he received a grant. Stephanie Dost is having a group show in Madrid. I’m still hoping to make a drawing show that will span 5 or 6 centuries. This is a long-term project, and I’m not sure yet where it will happen.
We stopped by the opening on the following Saturday to take some photos of the space and Ruprecht von Kaufmanns’ work. It was as I had imagined- Ruprecht’s work in the main viewing room, heads bent together in murmured contemplation. Ehrentraut procures wine for his guests, and converses with a natural familiarity. Conversations bubble over the table skewed with wine glasses and artists' catalogues, the air is heavy with projects on the brink of conception.