Andy Warhol, Isa Genzken, On Kawara, Rosemarie Trockel – Johann König has been surrounded by great artists and their art since childhood. At the age of twenty, he founded a gallery, although he hardly saw anything.
What does it mean to not be able to see and become a gallery owner? How can you discover art if you can't rely on your eyes? What is seeing, anyway, when the world around you becomes blurred? As a child, Johann König was given Indian cassettes by Gerhard Richter. His father Kasper took him to the Städelschule and to Jeff Koons' studio in New York. A tragic accident at the age of twelve threw him completely off track. At the lowest point, he realized that art was his salvation. In his concrete church from the 1960s, he now runs one of the most spectacular galleries in Germany.
Sometimes when you tell a story, you have to begin at the end. Sometimes there’s no other way, because memory colours everything that went before, whether you want it to or not. My childhood ended one day in early February. I was twelve.
Everything around me smelled like hospital. A dull pain in my hands and in my face – a pain I would later discover was only a prelude to what happened after the painkillers wore off. I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t. I didn’t know where I was. I heard the voice of a man who introduced himself as Professor Ohrloff. Kasper, my father, was also in the room, the man told me. Kasper put a hand on my shoulder and said my name. But before he could explain that I was in the eye clinic at Frankfurt’s Goethe University, the professor asked me whether I could move my toes.
In a flash I remembered what had happened. The explosion. The door handle. My parents panicking. A&E. “If I’m blind I’ll kill myself,” I’d screamed repeatedly. I was overcome with fear; I wanted to touch my face but couldn’t. I wasn’t even able to move my hands. Everything hurt. The professor told me my eyes were covered and my bandaged hands, fingers splayed, were secured to a metal frame so that they could heal and the fingers wouldn’t stick together. I waggled my toes. Then, turning towards the direction my father’s voice had come from, I asked, “Kasper, am I blind?” No, he said, they’d just performed an emergency operation on my eyes, and everything had been patched up as well as possible – we would figure out the next steps later on, when we knew more. After the professor had gone, Kasper described everything he could see in the room around us: the bed I was lying in, the chair he was sitting on, the sippy cup on the bedside table, the white walls.
People often think that when you lose your eyesight, all you see is the colour black. Once upon a time it was common to talk about the “night” that enshrouded the blind. As the French writer Jacques Lusseyran – blinded at the age of eight – once wrote, even medical professionals used to define blindness in those terms, speaking of that “terrible night”. It always frustrated him. Lusseyran felt this description implied the prejudiced notion that the blind are cut off from the light of the world, in a philosophical sense as well as literally. In concrete terms, he wrote, it was also false: the world of the blind does incorporate the experience of light. It’s just never quite possible to say whether this experience is fed from within or from without. I’m not sure I can fully get behind the emphasis with which Lusseyran evokes this experience, but what I can say is that things don’t simply “go black” when you’re blind. In fact you see a very dark rust brown, a mixture of red, brown and black, small craters that seem to move – the pulsing colour of the interior body. It’s precisely not the case that you no longer see anything. You do see: it’s as though you’re trying to look outward from within, but you’re butting up against an impenetrable layer of flesh and skin; as though your gaze is trapped inside your body. Vision is taken hostage, and you only acclimate with time.
I actually had a wonderful childhood. I was born in Cologne in 1981, and spent the first few years of my life there. At first we lived in an apartment on Ehrenstraße in the city centre, above a bookshop owned by Uncle Walther, my father’s brother. When I was two years old we moved into a roomier place on Volksgartenstraße in the south of the city, a large, middle-class apartment in an old building situated in a lively neighbourhood.
It’s always interesting to consider the point at which you start genuinely remembering things. Memories from early childhood, especially, are frequently a mixture of your own memories and the stories other people have told you. I do recall that I often wasn’t keen to go to nursery. I remember Jens, my best friend, who lived in the same building as us, and I remember how much I loved it when Lili, Coco and Leo, my half- siblings from my father’s first marriage – they lived in Munich – came to visit for long weekends and holidays. I remember sitting in the bathtub while Edda drew me. How Kasper used to put me on his shoulders and ride around the neighbourhood on his bike, which was great fun, not least because it was so exciting and dangerous. One time I even got stuck on the awning outside the Turkish corner shop where we used to buy our groceries, but nothing terrible happened. I remember there was a cave in Volksgarten Park where I used to play, and that Leo – the older brother and ringleader – once fell down the coal shaft in the basement of the building next door while playing, and how worried everybody was. I remember the carnival, initially thrilling and then stressful, despite all the people throwing bonbons. I remember how much I adored buying my father his Roth-Händle cigarettes from machines on the corner, because I was allowed to keep the change that came shrink- wrapped inside the cigarette packet. You tossed in three marks and out popped the carton with a twenty-pfennig piece inside it – a small fortune. I remember going to the shop to see my Uncle Walther and Aunt Jutta, and the large brown hunting dog that belonged to my Grandfather Ernst in Linz. My Uncle Franz-Wilhelm’s Mercedes with the sunroof in Münster, and Brillux, the paint company my Grandfather Walter took over. We never had a car, and I was very impressed by the smart Mercedes. I remember visiting my grandmother in Münster, my father’s mother – I always felt she understood me especially well – and my grandmother on my mother’s side in Mallorca, where we often spent our summers when I was little.
And I can remember all the many artists who were friends with my parents. They made sure our house was always a lively place. Back then Kasper was a freelance curator. At the urging of Edda, who wanted more financial security, he later became Professor of Art in the Public Sphere at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
Cologne remained the central point in our lives, however, not least because in those years it was the undisputed artistic capital of Europe. Anybody who was interested in contemporary art in the 1980s would move not to London or Paris – and certainly not to Berlin – but to the Rhineland. The Cologne-based art fair “Kunstmarkt”, now “Art Cologne”, is the oldest such fair in the world. The city was home to countless artists, lured by the affordable cost ofspaces to live and work. This development was spearheaded less by museums than by private galleries, which sprang up like mushrooms. Galleries run by Monika Sprüth, Paul Maenz, Michael Werner and Max Hetzler were among the first; later came Daniel Buchholz, Esther Schipper, Rafael Jablonka, Jörg Johnen and Gisela Capitain. Tumultuous gallery openings merged into experimental concerts or ended in late nights, shaping myths that have endured to this day. At some point Paul Maenz even started hiring bouncers for his openings. Coolest of the cool were an elite group of young German artists who were occasionally subsumed under the woolly and not-entirely-accurate term “Neue Wilde”: Martin Kippenberger, for instance, Albert Oehlen, Georg Herold or Walter Dahn. The hostilities between the various camps rapidly became legendary, especially because they were conducted in public and occasionally led to some full-blown set-tos in the city’s bars and arty pubs. Rosemarie Trockel became famous for her large-scale knitted paintings, which read “Made in Western Germany”. And even the more established generation of German artists had largely moved to Cologne or already lived there: Gerhard Richter, Isa Genzken, Jörg Immendorf, Sigmar Polke. American artists like George Condo, Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo could be found there almost as often as back home in New York. Contemporary art influenced the life of the city. When Jeff Koons, for example, put on a new exhibition featuring his gigantic, colourful sculptures, sometimes a whole street would be blocked off. By the end of the 1980s, Cologne’s reputation was international. The New York Times Magazine even wrote that Cologne was becoming the world capital for contemporary art. Unimaginable today.
Despite the artistic boom in Cologne, the art market back then was far less developed than it is today, and art wasn’t remotely as expensive. These days, many people are into contemporary art. We take for granted that it’s common cultural property; more than that, it’s considered an aspirational lifestyle. In the 1980s, art wasn’t yet pop. It was a niche phenomenon, the preserve of a particular intellectual elite. I always noticed this when I had to tell people my father’s job. Everybody knew what the other children’s fathers did for a living – one sold insurance, one worked at the Ford factory, others were doctors, roofers or firemen, but mine organised exhibitions. How could I explain that? Nobody knew the word “curator”, and most people simply had no idea what an exhibition-organiser actually did. Sometimes I can’t help remembering the time my primary teacher explained to Edda that her husband did the same thing as Kasper. It later emerged that the aforementioned spouse worked at an advertising agency. Not bad either.
As I mentioned above, I was often frustrated as a child by how much contemporary art shaped our family life and how hard it was to escape it. Yet I learned early on that I had to defend it; after all, it was the centre of my parents’ lives. One of my abiding memories from the Cologne years relates to a conversation I had with the babysitter who often looked after me. I liked her very much, but we were frequently at odds – partly because she neither wanted to understand art nor could understand art and the whole shebang. At our house, works of art were usually treated like any other object. Paintings hung not just in the living room but in the kitchen and the corridor as well. Andy Warhol’s BRILLO BOX served as our TV stand. Our coat rack was technically a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. Isa Genzken had given my mother one of her WELTEMPFÄNGER [World Receiver] pieces, a concrete block with two antennae. I couldn’t stop looking at the enigmatic raster grid in one of Blinky Palermo’s Flipper paintings. A photo by Dan Graham, titled Highway Restaurant, kept me enthralled for ages, because it captured the local colour of 1960s America so well: a small family like ours – mother, father, child, backs turned towards the viewer – sit in the window of a fast-food restaurant. We also owned an ABSTRAKTES BILD [Abstract Painting] by Gerhard Richter from 1984: it featured smears, spilled paint, and in the top left corner a few flashes of green diamonds. When the babysitter saw the painting, all she said was, “Oh, I could do that.” I was only a tiny tot, but I explained to her that “But it’s not about whether you can imitate it, it’s about doing it first.” Looking back now, it sounds very precocious. But children absorb everything in their environment. I’ve experienced something similar with my four-year-old daughter, Greti. She loves guiding visitors through our apartment and our sculpture garden, saying, “Here, this is art, you’re not allowed to touch! That’s art too, but you’re allowed to touch it. The artist wants you to.” Hilariously, the Richter painting later hung on our wall the wrong way round for about ten years.
Johann König and Daniel Schreiber BLIND GALLERIST. Translated by Caroline Waight