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The Alchemy of Art – A conversation with Götz Valien

Paris Bar Berlin, 1993 - The Saatchi Gallery

Götz Valien welcomed me in his studio for an interview on the subject of "Paris Bar." The quote marks are excerpts of his answers.

Rooms with large windows, a group of painters in front of their blank canvases are waiting for an idea. An idea that does not come from pure inspiration, inspiration comes from others; they only provide the mechanical work and their hands. In art history, behind many artists has been a hired painter, shut up in a small room filled with canvases, paint and dust. For instance, this practice was very common in classical art. Artists such as Goya, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Dürer had some pieces ascribed to them that were not actually the result of their work, as specialists later discovered. Their style was imitated, but upon closer inspection slight differences can be appreciated. These paintings are not even signed or signed by the same custom painters, nor by painters that collaborated with these artists in their academies. Recall, for example, “Colossus” of Goya. In 2008, it was discovered that the composition contained the initials A.J. Why sign a painting? Because in fact, its authorship was not really important, what mattered was who had commissioned that work: the teacher, the renowned artist, who provided the idea. This practice did not die with the great masters of yore; custom paintings are still very common in our contemporary world. The difference is that in classical art they were young people who wanted to learn how to paint and the technique, while nowadays they are also artists. Most of them have studied in art academies and are, often times, even better than the famous artists that commission a painting because they cannot paint them themselves.

The story that follows this introduction begins in Berlin and ends in London in the auction house called Christie’s. It all began in 1991 in a studio in Berlin where the artist Götz Valien, who calls himself a “creator of images”, had to make a painting for the artist Martin Kippenberger, who calls himself an artist. Kippenberger was faithful to the German neo-expressionist style, which acquired the name of Neue Wilde. He died in 1997.

“I never saw him, I’ve never spoken to him” said Götz Valien. Kippenberger wanted to make a big painting showing how “Paris Bar” was like at that time, a landmark of Berlin in a time where one could breathe life and debauchery in that kind of atmosphere. On one of the walls of the bar hung several paintings by artists from the same period as Kippenberger. One day all those paintings would be taken down and they wanted that moment to live on through more than simple memories. “Paris Bar” is 212 x 382 cm and shows that one wall with all the paintings. “He couldn’t make it”, then Kippenberger decided to find somebody who would do it. “I said to myself that the price was ridiculous and the work too much, but I knew who Kippenberger was. I will do it.”

Götz Valien painted two versions of “Paris Bar” for Kippenberger. For the first one, he won DM 1000 and for the second one a little more. The latter remains in the Pompideu Museum. Kippenberger made, devised or commissioned this painting for the sole purpose of getting free food and drink for the rest of his life in Paris Bar.

After the death of Kippenberger in 1997, the painting remained hung in the bar but the owner, Michel Würthle, had to sell it in 2005 because he found himself having economic problems. He sold it for EUR 700 000 to the Berlin gallerist Volker Diehl, who cleaned it, restored it and then sold it to Charles Saatchi. Saatchi, one of the most important European collectors gave it to the Auction House Christie’s in London. In 2009, the painting was auctioned to an American collector for 2.5 million Euros.

What determines the different prices that can be given to an art work? On the one hand, it could be said that time plays a significant role, but on the other hand the artist is also important. Furthermore, we can also add a third factor that can increase the price: the circumstances surrounding the artist. There is no doubt that Kippenberger was a real artist surrounded by the excesses of the era; the aroma of alcohol and rolling tobacco. In this way, they obtained that “Paris Bar”, which at first moment cost DM 1000 (500 Euros), seventeen years later was sold at London auction house for 2.5 million Euros. “I discovered it before, because they made an advertisement in the magazine (MONOPOL, Fall 2009). It was just an advertisement, where you could read that “Paris Bar” would be up for auction. In Christie’s ad there wasn’t nothing about me, about that I had painted it. But I know that it was known before.”

This is how contemporary art works. The thread that unites the work of art with the artist is often so thin, that it becomes difficult to tell who it really belongs to. “It was so embarrassing for them, because there are many specialists, and all that was written there was wrong. It was not painted on 1991, it was on 1992. It is not oil on cotton, it was color of house paint. And, obviously it was not totally Kippenberger’s. So it was their fault”. The false attributions are par for the course: paintings of dubious origin are sold in auction houses, where it is assumed that a group of analysts and specialists has worked to secure and authenticate the works. But after some platitudes there is no doubt that thoughts arise about the art market operating like a mafia.

The commissioned art is configured as a default deception, an open secret that the auction houses ignore. After this incident, more transparency has been requested from Christie’s in particular and auction houses in general. When people asked Christie’s for the authorship of the painting, at first they said that Kippenberger had commissioned another artist to do the painting. Sometime later, Alexandra Kindermann, press representative, confirmed that it was entirely a work of Kippenberger. Another worker at the auction house issued a statement, which again questioned the origin of the painting, implying that despite efforts could not say with 100% certainty that the painting belonged to Kippenberger. Finally, Andreas Rumbler, international director of Christie’s settled the issue by saying that whether the picture had been painted by him or not was not important. For the collector in the USA, the authorship is not important either. “I’m a bit skeptical with that entire story, I can believe, but I think the collector must have known about the painting”. The conclusion of it all is that the important thing was to get the money they expected from it, or even more. It was the record of Kippenberger, and for that the auction house preferred to obscure the truth.

This is how contemporary art works. Since Duchamp turned a urinal over and decided to call it spring, contemporary art rose with conceptual ideas, leaving all craftsmanship in the background. The artist stands with concepts and ideas, and that is what prevails, manual labor is in the background, also raw artistic vocation you have. Martin Kippenberger was a known German artist in Berlin scene of the 80’s and he had a ghost painter, or in words of Valien, a “worker”. But that did not matter, in words of Kippenberger “It is the idea that counts.” “Painting means having an idea, of course, but it also has to be realized. For me, the idea alone means nothing. Maybe the artists in the future will be just managers who have an idea, and they will have a lot of people to realize it. I think ‘why are these people even going to an academy’, if as I see it, we are more like workers.”

After you get involved in this story, you can realize about what marks the difference between the artist and painter. Face and hands. Kippenberger and Götz Valien. “People prefer to have an idea, and think that some idiot will do it for them. Therefore it was a mistake to do it, because I’m not a worker”. No, he is not a worker, he is an artist. Valien’s compositions show a world that can only exist inside our minds with a purely and clean technical. He is a wizard, who can make real that which exists only in our imagination or in our personal universe. “After that entire Kippenberger story I have to say, I don’t know what makes an artist. For me it is the alchemy of idea and making it. I know what I make. The process of the construction, of the meditation about the frame takes also long time and it is good to have the painting layers and materials to build up a picture like this. If I just take a brush and I make a line in a canvas, it is not the same. I can’t transform what is in my mind from nowhere to something without painting it.”

One of the last questions I asked to him, it was if he would paint the “Paris Bar” again. He took a long drag out of his cigarette, and he replied, “maybe”, but this time it would be for him, and it would remain hanging in his study.

Text by Isabel Valencia


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