Gallerist Johann König: ‘The art market is progressive in its content, but conservative in its performance’
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In 2002, Johann König’s money was running out. The German gallerist had spent an inheritance from his grandmother and a €25,000 loan from his uncle on the rent and running of his space. After a string of financially unsuccessful exhibitions, he was preparing to close within a year of opening. “Then Jeppe Hein had this great idea for a sculpture, but it was sort of a crazy project,” König says.
Despite the prospect of going into debt, the gallerist commissioned the Danish artist’s piece — a large steel ball with a motion sensor which rolled about as visitors approached, gradually destroying the walls of König’s Berlin space. Buyers, who included the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, snapped up all three editions. “This was a very important moment,” König says. “It was the first thing I really wanted to do which turned out to be a financial success. It gave me the confidence to do things which I think are unusual and trust my own gut feeling.”
This kind of risk-taking has defined König’s approach for the past two decades. At 40, he has become an influential gallerist, representing Katharina Grosse, Elmgreen & Dragset and Turner Prize-winner Helen Marten, with a reputation for presenting bold contemporary art in unconventional settings. When we speak over video call ahead of his gallery’s appearance at Art Basel next week, I can see the austere ceiling of his Berlin gallery, housed in a 1960s brutalist church. Bright red abstract paintings by Chiharu Shiota radiate against the grey concrete walls.
König grew up immersed in art. His mother, an actress and illustrator, and father, an art professor and later director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, welcomed luminaries such as Franz West, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney and Rosemarie Trockel at their family home during the 1980s. Gerhard Richter was best man at his parents’ wedding. Nam June Paik became his godfather after a “Fluxus baptism”.
“Everything we did was related to art. For holidays, we went to Ireland to live with Isa Genzken or upstate New York with Bill Copley,” says König. But he also describes how this upbringing led to an early antipathy towards the art world: “I had the feeling I was competing with art for the attention of my parents.”
His attitude changed after an accident at age 11 left him partially blind. In his 2019 memoir, The Blind Gallerist, published in English this coming November, König describes how attending a boarding school for partially sighted children was key in shaping his understanding of contemporary art. It was here that a dedicated art teacher taught him to engage with art on a more philosophical level through the conceptual works of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. “For me it was eye-opening because suddenly I started to understand the relevance of art and all these characters from my family past,” König says.
After a few years at the centre of the Frankfurt art scene, König moved to Berlin and opened his own gallery at the age of 21. Since then, König Galerie has grown into a major international presence with spaces in London, Vienna and, as of last year, Seoul.
König describes his gallery — which represents a roster of 40 emerging and established artists — as “an old-school boutique gallery with some innovative features”. He is especially known for helping launch the careers of young artists, such as Polish sculptor Alicja Kwade, who began collaborating with him a few years after they met at her degree show in 2004. At Art Basel, König will show eight of the artist’s works — a series of stone globes balanced on top of or precariously positioned under cast-bronze chairs — as a public installation in the city centre as part of the fair’s Parcours section.
Such ambitious presentations are typical for the gallerist, for whom developing an artist’s career involves providing them with unique contexts to display their work. It’s the reason why, in 2015, he moved his Berlin flagship to St Agnes, a near-windowless deconsecrated church in the city’s Kreuzberg district.
“About 10 years ago I came to a crucial point where I wondered, what’s the purpose of a gallery today? I thought either I stop maintaining a space and solely work as an agent or I find something which is really meaningful for an artist’s practice and create exhibitions which have an impact. I looked around for special real estate: subway stops, water towers, churches and bunkers. And then I found this brutalist church.”
St Agnes has since become one of the city’s major art destinations, not only because of its striking architecture but also through König’s efforts to attract as wide an audience as possible. For instance, last winter school children, tourists and serious collectors lined up to see monumental AI works by Refik Anadol alongside modest-sized figurative paintings by Johanna Dumet.
“We try to build a programme which highlights artists which are very relevant in their respective discipline,” he says. “We try to show, say, the most important digital artist. It’s important that they are innovative and add to the conversation.”
A dynamic, wide-ranging programme is all part of König’s mission to create a more accessible “open house” atmosphere at his galleries. “I think most people in the art world aren’t aware of how many anxiety barriers there are for people to actually even go into a gallery,” he says. “And I think that, especially today, with Web3 and the metaverse, the physical experience of exhibitions is very important.”
Although König champions physical events, he also embraces digital opportunities. As well as staging virtual exhibitions in Decentraland and hosting regular NFT drops on his gallery’s website, last year he launched a digital venture called Misa.art, an online buying and selling platform which aims, in his words, to make the “art market more accessible and understandable for both collectors and artists”. Artists can apply to sell their work, while the platform appeals to collectors by offering greater price transparency, rating artists according to their exhibition history and allowing people to buy fractional shares of artworks.
This multi-faceted approach is in step with what König sees as the changing function of the gallery: “When I started, it was really about offering market access. Now I think the business proposition to artists needs to be much wider.”
Having staged his own in-house art fair, launched an app and opened an Asian outpost all in the past two years, König has certainly wasted no time in widening his own business proposition. But there’s still space for more. “The art market is extremely progressive in its content, but very conservative in its performance. Corona opened possibilities to doubt the rules a little bit.”