Peter Pakesch (born 1955) is a Vienna-based curator and the director of the Maria Lassnig Foundation. He began his curatorial career at Forum Stadtpark and Steirischer Herbst in Graz, before opening his gallery in Vienna in 1981. The Peter Pakesch Gallery was instrumental in establishing Vienna as one of the centers for contemporary arts in Europe and he exhibited artists such as John Baldessari, Ilya Kabakow, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and Franz West.
In 1986, Pakesch co-founded the Grazer Kunstverein with Helmut Strobl, the institution became a renowned center for the visual arts in Austria. Peter Pakesch became the director of the esteemed Kunsthalle Basel in 1996, where he continued his support and presentation of contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Michael Majerus. He also curated exhibitions for the National Gallery in Prague and was the artistic director of Universalmuseum Joanneum and the Kunsthaus Graz from 2003 until 2015. Recently curated exhibitions include Mike Kelley. God’s Oasis (Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 2018); and True Stories: A Show Related to an Era – The Eighties (Max Hetzler Berlin, 2018).
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You started your career in public art institutions, curating for the Forum Stadtpark Graz and the Steirischer Herbst. Could you tell us more about the Austrian art scene of that period, specifically the 70s?
PETER PAKESCH: Austria in the 70s was kind of an awkward situation. Generally, one has to mention that Austria was at the forefront of the modernist movement at the beginning of the 20th Century but throughout the First World War, through Nazism in Austria and the Second World War; there was very much a throwback. The achievements of the early 20th Century, especially in Vienna with its modernity in philosophy, literature, music, art, and architecture, were disrupted.
We have this old story with the fall of the Habsburg empire when a country with a huge and very heterogeneous structure found its big metropolitan capital of Vienna too large for its new smaller territory after 1918. That led to an antagonism between the urban, socialist Vienna, and a very Catholic countryside. Creating a permanent source of political troubles towards an Austrian version of fascism in the mid- 30s, altogether very conservative, clerical, and very backward. We know how history continued with Nazism and the Second World War, a huge disruption was to ensue as it did in many other places. Afterward, there was an overarching feeling of devastation and no idea of this previously glimpsed modernity. The general orientation became one of restoration, yearning for a recreation of a fake idyllic 19th Century Biedermeier, a policy the socialist and conservative camps had agreed upon. A third camp, a nationalistic one, was suppressed and continued to act in the subconscious, always producing inscrutable contributions to the common political and cultural discourse. That was the historic compromise that dominated the country for years to come with a big emphasis on classical music, opera, and classical theatre. The Salzburg Festival, created early in the century as a symbol of Austrian identity, became successful in these years under the post-Nazi conductor and Impresario Herbert v Karajan.
The contemporary culture was not a part of the plan. There was hardly any international art presence, nor were there avant-garde movements of post-war Western Europe and America. All of the contemporary art presence unfolded underground. It was only after 1960, in the region of Styria, that cultural politics developed an interest in contemporary art production. The region’s capital, Graz, became home of the Forum Stadtpark; the biennial exhibition Trigon, set up by the Neue Galerie am Joanneum, the Musikprotokoll, an exemplary music festival, and finally, a great festival, the Steirische Herbst; an innovation on a European level. All this happened through the initiative of writers, architects, artists and the strong support of two conservative politicians – the governor Josef Krainer Sr. and the councilor for culture, Hanns Koren.
Both politicians believed that a progressive policy in culture would be adequate to banish the ghosts of the past. There was also a small geopolitical idea that aimed to go by the limits of the Cold War. Trigon meant to bring together and following what happened in Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria – countries were quite antagonistic in post-war Europe. Their idea followed the concept of Inner Austria as the Habsburg province between Styria, Carniola, and Friuli was once called. These were cultural politics created as a tool to fight post-war nationalism, ideological borders, and, in the end, the Cold War. It worked, and it is still working and creating a certain European identity. Politics and culture were avant-garde at this time and would radiate all over Europe.
An important player in Graz of that period was the Forum Stadtpark, an artist cooperative and interdisciplinary foundation that brought young artists, architects, writers, and musicians together to create one of the foremost progressive places in Austria. For its interdisciplinary practice, it was known as an important place and as a model it was unique. Forum Stadtpark’s activity in literature was highly influential in the German-speaking world. Simultaneously, the Steirischer Herbst festival held a unique status where there was hardly an institution comparable on a European scale.
For me, it was very important to grow up in such an environment. I finished school in 1973 and began my studies in architecture. The setting of architectural classes was very open in Graz. Trigon, the exhibitions at the Neue Galerie, and the Literature Festival at the Forum Stadtpark were major influences for me. As in those days, there were fewer impulses in Vienna and other Austrian cities, thus Graz was far more advanced. In Vienna, of course, there was Galerie nächst St. Stephan with some activities and the Museum of the 20th Century (Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts), but the majority of production and exhibition activity was in a quasi-underground setting.
LŠ: You talked about Trigon, which was created in association with the Neue Galerie in Graz – what are your memories of this celebrated exhibition format?
PP: Very important and good memories! I think I even saw the first Trigon in 1965. It is still a kind of vague remembrance but I have a very strong memory of Trigon 67′. I was 12 years old by then and I had visited the exhibition with my family. It was on their part to ridicule contemporary art, but it provoked the opposite in me. I was fascinated to see this new world.
And the show was already very controversial prior to the vernissage because there was this sensational architecture by the architects Günther Domenig and Wilfried Huth. The commissioned architecture was very much influenced by contemporary streams such as Archigram – an important experimental English group of the period. The architects erected a big plastic mobile and flexible architecture in the middle of the city park, next to the Künstlerhaus. There was very high tension around this show and the architecture of the show was, of course, an artwork. Definitely, Trigon 67′ was one of the most important international shows of those days. For example, it brought the first international presence of Arte Povera with the work of Luciano Fabro who was very young at the time. It was also the first showing of the Spazio Elastico by…I don’t remember the name anymore…
LŠ: Enzo Mari or Colombo?
PP: Colombo! Gianni Colombo with Spazio Elastico. That was the main piece, which impressed me. And, this piece as I learned later, was a crucial piece in the documenta in Kassel a year later, and at the Venice Biennale in 1968 it won the main prize for painting. Yet, for Graz, it was created first and it was super successful. There was also a piece by Mark Adrian that impressed me very much and the big piece by your grandfather – Miroslav Šutej. It was all in all a very different, new, and completely unseen world and it was for me a big eye-opener.
I should also stress that I was very much influenced in school by my teacher, Alfred Kolleritsch, an important figure in Austrian literature, who published the foremost literary magazine Manuskripte, a central publication for German-speaking literature. So, I was very fortunate in my situation with a lot of very strong influences. And, of course, Trigon was a major influence – a very advanced program – all the topics were always very much on the edge.
LŠ: What were the limitations of public art institutions in Austria in the 70s and 80s?
PP: In Graz, you had the Forum Stadtpark and the Neue Galerie and in Vienna, there was the Museum of the 20th Century and the Galerie nächst St. Stephan – but that was it. These were open and dynamic institutions, but there were limitations. Neue Galerie was very strong with Trigon, but it was space limited to show its regular collection. Not at all comparable to German or Swiss institutions of that period, which were in those years, certainly the role models for Europe with more advanced and dynamic programs and with larger budgets for acquisitions, etc.
In Austria generally, (and it lasted until the late 1980s) the whole museum situation was very limited. Because the museums were stuck in a cyclical bureaucracy and mostly underfunded. They went through a general and necessary restoration in the early 50s and after that, everything was still. The profound reformation of the Austrian museums started years later as a result of an incident in Vienna, when the building of the county’s main museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was so desolate that it started to rain into the building, unto itself. Finally, the officials understood that they had to do more for art institutions. But this was only in the late or mid-1980s! Austria today has a very strong museum situation, which is very well funded and all institutions have a new infrastructure.
We should emphasize that Austrian culture is strongly related to the performing arts, where opera, theatre, and music are still more present in the public’s attention. The museums have achieved a lot of work and are very much frequented, but the country is a country of the Performing Arts. And you see it in many different aspects.
LŠ: As a curator, what were you interested in contributing to Forum Stadtpark and the Steirischer Herbst? How did traveling to the USA contribute to the formation of your curatorial interests?
PP: It started with the curiosity that I had with Trigon and with the possibilities that I got through my teacher, Alfred Kolleritsch, who immediately brought me into the Forum Stadtpark. So even still as a pupil, I frequented it very regularly. And it was a kind of very low-level debate, there was not a big threshold and you could approach the Forum very easily. They were very open to young people and so I grew into this institution.
On the one hand, I was studying architecture but then on the other hand I had ambitions of doing things with artists. And actually, one has to say the word curator was not invented by then, at least in the German language. And, of course, there were two different worlds. There was one world of art historians who would enter the museums and would not be at all interested in contemporary culture. The study of art history in Austria in those days was super conservative – contemporary art was not a part of the curriculum nor was modern art. So, it was super historic and they were experts in the Middle Ages and such. But I was not interested at all in studying art history! And in the other world, there was the current life of an art world.
Architecture was much more interesting and inspiring but I’ve never completed my studies. At the Forum Stadtpark there were artists who would organize their activities and I organically grew into their program and identity. Through my involvement early on, I developed a certain curatorial practice that came out of somewhere else as opposed to an art historical approach. They were these two different worlds in exhibition-making, one closer to the artists and one more theoretically driven, but there was also a certain openness established by people who understood and acted within both worlds – like the director of the Neue Galerie, Wilfried Skreiner. He was interested in my curatorial activities and, of course, there were these touching points.
I remember I was once invited to the Steirischer Herbst to organize artists’ performances – a new thing by then. A festival of so-called non-verbal theatre, where I was supposed to curate performances, among them one of The Kipper Kids, a super interesting and small performance group. They were Californian and strongly influenced by Viennese Actionism. One of them brought Hermann Nitsch to Los Angeles in 1975. We initially met through my first trip to the USA in 1977, where I saw them in Venice Beach and was fascinated by what they were doing. I was happy to be able to invite them to Graz but I remember I needed a good venue for their performance and I thought that the baroque ambiance of the Neue Galerie, which was housed in a historic palace, was the perfect place. So, I approached the institution and they agreed, as the museum was also involved in the Steirischer Herbst, they were not really in a position to say no.
The Kipper Kids were a playful version of what Hermann Nitsch was doing – the rituals were ironic and they would throw cakes around. Upon the agreement of the Neue Galerie’s participation in staging their performance, we had to take precautions with the architecture. With my background as an architect, it was decided that I would design the plastic cage built for their performance. The plastic cage was open to the public in the front and all the rest were plastic foils. Of course, they loved it, and it looked fantastic. Through my work with the institution, I also realized that the Neue Galerie’s structure was very bureaucratic and I became afraid of these hierarchies within the museum’s model. I was very happy and appreciated that through my work with the Forum Stadtpark I could move in a far more open situation.
With Künstlerschaufenster (Shop Windows by artist) I also did a large project for the Steirischer Herbst. It was before I went to America for a longer period – the project unfolded under the general title of Art and Public. We organized a show of artists’ installations in the shop windows in the center of Graz and as I was still very young, 24 by then; the festival wanted someone to come to look after me and that was Wilfried Skreiner. It was not easy as he still was a very bureaucratic and kind of authoritarian guy. But in the end, we got along and the project developed very well. Artists included the likes of Laurie Anderson or Dieter Roth, so large was the range of artists, and it became a very exciting but also a very controversial project. Today it would be completely normal of course, but for then, it was extreme.
Altogether I was able to act within an open field, with very small means but a lot of possibilities. Perfect for a young person like me. I was between 22 and 24 by then. Now, looking back, I’m impressed by how much was possible.
LŠ: Did the travels to the USA also contribute to the formation of your gallery in Vienna in 1981?
PP: Two travel destinations were important for me – well three maybe. One was definitely Germany: Düsseldorf and Cologne. There was one gallery in Düsseldorf, Konrad Fischer Galerie, that was very important. And there was a special music club in Düsseldorf. It was called Ratinger Hof, which was beside Kippenberger’s SO36 the hottest spot for bands on the continent. I had not yet met Kippenberger at that time. On the other hand, there was always the Biennale in Venice as there was the documenta 77′ in Kassel.
The Venice Biennale in 1976 was super important for me. Seen now in retrospect, it was a very good and profound exhibition. I saw a lot of artists there, got some catalogs and I was able to further enter the field. There were these large shows which would give me general information about the artists that were interesting, and in those days, it was much easier to approach them. For example, at the documenta, I would get some phone numbers, and then when I went to America and I would call these people (Chris Burden, Charlie Simmons, Terry Fox, Tina Girouard, Laurie Anderson, etc.) and visit them. The approach was much easier then! And of course, because the artists did not have this kind of success and exposure, they were much more interested and open. Especially the American artists, who were always interested to have connections to Europe. Of course, they were all very active, especially in New York. Nonetheless, the reception was stronger in Europe and it was always more important to show here. So as a European, one definitely had a certain advantage in approaching American artists.
1977 was the first time I went to America. I was traveling for three months; in California, in the southeast, and I spent a long time in New York. I was able to meet a lot of people, and as the Austrian situation (which I described before) was structurally underdeveloped, it was especially American as well as the German gallery system that impressed me with its flexibility, and courageousness – they were always the galleries with the most advanced projects.
After the first New York trip and the shop window project in Graz, I understood that I was no longer happy with my architectonical studies. I understood that I would not become an architect myself, yet I was not sure if I could become an artist or what to do. Later on, when I had the luck to have spent nearly a year in New York, and when I was able to do a lot of artistic activities there – for example, performances at the Mudd Club, which is absolutely legendary now – I gradually understood my capabilities. I was also close to a lot of artists in my generation, and the impression was huge. Furthermore, as I got to understand a lot more about the functioning and the structures within artists’ communities in New York – the idea was getting stronger and stronger, that a gallery would be the easiest vehicle to work with for me.
As I returned to Austria from New York, there was an approach from the Neue Galerie; on the one hand, there was a possibility to do a show there – at that time my strongest activity was photography. And Skreiner, in addition to a show, also offered me a curatorial position for photography. But I still remembered the strong hierarchy and the inflexibility of such an institution, therefore I was not so sure if I wanted such a role. And as for my artistic path, I was too unsure and I understood that I did not have the consistency to become a real artist. In the end, on the day I signed the lease for the gallery in Vienna, I declined the show and the position at the Neue Galerie – and this was for me a crucial decision.
In forming a gallery, I understood that the gallery could not happen in Graz but Vienna, as the city had changed a lot. In one instance, certain artists such as the Viennese Actionists were coming back from their times in exile. There was more of a gallery life in Vienna, with far more interesting artists; young artists, or even students at the School of Applied Arts (Die Angewandte), which became very open, even with some international teachers. There was suddenly a very rich nightlife in Vienna with a similar spirit to New York, which for me was very impressive. So, I realized that the city was the place to be at that time, and it was the right move, to be honest, to open a gallery there.
For me later on, Vienna in these days was the anticipation of the opening of Eastern Europe, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Until then, Vienna was sleeping, as it was so close to the Iron Curtain, on the edge of Europe, the ‘Free World’. A huge grey city with very few activities, and that suddenly changed. Just a decade ago we would for example go to Bratislava and not be able to enter easily – that kind of old Eastern European background would be closed off. Yugoslavia was always a different thing because it was easier to enter as it was more open.
So, the 1980s represented a lot of changes, and Vienna suddenly moved into the center of Western European and American attention. This was founded through the revival and the new attention on Vienna at the turn of the century – there were these big shows at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art around Vienna 1900. There were also books by the Italian writer Claudio Magris or the American Carl Schorske during this period. Suddenly there was this renaissance of Vienna, and people started to realize the potential, a young scene developed. Within the Austrian context, the whole artistic atmosphere and the energy switched quickly from Graz to Vienna. Vienna was the larger town with much more potential, the media was stronger, and there were new, intellectually driven publications such as the weekly Profil with a greater interest in contemporary art.
I was able to do a very good strategic move at the opening of the gallery, by asking Hermann Nitsch, who had not shown in Vienna for a while, to celebrate his comeback to the city with a retrospective of his work. There was one collector who showed up with very early works by Nitsch, that was never seen before, and he wanted to show them with me – this was a big sensation! Actually, the works are now an important part of Mumok’s collection. So, I had a great entrance to Vienna! In-suite, I continued with the artists of my generation, and this happened under very difficult conditions – because the art market was practically non-existent.
LŠ: You mentioned that there was almost no art market in Vienna and when you talk about your gallery it feels like a place for artistic experimentation. How did your artistic practice shape the format of your gallery?
PP: Yes, I think generally, there are two different types of the gallery. The first type of gallery is oriented around the artists and artistic moves, while the other type is more oriented towards the merchant aspect, where art is a commodity. I was never interested in this aspect. I was interested in how the gallery could be a vessel or a platform where artists could have their activities and develop their oeuvre. My role model was the gallery that I mentioned already, which was Konrad Fischer.
Of course, everybody by then knew about Leo Castelli in New York and he played a similar role. In my time and my generation, it was also Max Hetzler in Stuttgart, later Cologne; we became close and together we concentrated on a similar group of artists, and as such became a community.
Sometimes such galleries like Konrad Fischer or mine were founded by people who were artists themselves or came from being an artist. So, I think that was always an important part for me, that I understood how and what it meant, deep down, to make art and all the profound necessities out of which art came, and what it meant for a gallery as well as curatorially and within institutional situations. The aspect of the production of art was always important. This certainly was not something one could conceive beforehand. It’s just something that was happening through friendships and the closeness – we would go out together and spend much different time together. So, for example, in the late afternoon, the artists would come by the gallery, and in the evenings, we would go out together. During the days, I would do errands in the gallery and answer letters. Every other month we had a different show. And I was always interested to get shows from artists from outside and of course it was interesting to host them and to have them around. Soon after, I also organized studios for artists from abroad.
There was also this group of artists who were showing with Max Hetzler Gallery; artists like Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Günther Förg. They became very interested in the city of Vienna because in those days Germany was still split into halves. There was essentially no big, metropolitan city in Western Germany, they were all provincial middle cities and Berlin was non-existing through the separation. I think it was Kippenberger who once told me how important it was for him to come to Vienna, because it was a metropolitan place where people would speak German, and the culture was different. So, it was for me and them, a kind of fascinating situation, because Austrian artists still tended to be very provincial and not so active; very romantic, and still very much in the 19th Century. When these aggressive, modern, and dynamic German artists came to Vienna, of course, they created a certain antagonism in a certain respect. Both groups looked at each other in a very special and suspicious way, but they acknowledged each other, there were friendships. Kippenberger stayed for months in Vienna, Albert Oehlen too.
There was another reason for these approaches, it had to do with the fact that in Austria, suddenly, the culture of contemporary advertisements arrived and developed. There was a big influence and influx of young German professionals, close to the big German advertisement companies who were also traditionally close to artistic communities. The major company in Austria was a branch of GGK from Düsseldorf. One of the initials of that company stands for Karl Gerstner an artist and graphic designer who was a close friend of Dieter Roth, Richard Hamilton, and Daniel Spoerri.
We were also looking to Italy and getting lots of interest from there. Again, the reminiscence of Vienna’s past was very strong in northern Italy, as there was a vital interest in contemporary Vienna. So, Italy also became one of the first and strongest markets for me. In this way, Vienna also became part of a triangle between Italy, Germany, and Austria. I also sold works of German artists to Italian collectors. That expanded later in the 80s as I made my first steps to Eastern Europe, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. All that became very interesting for us.
After 1945 Austria was in a very special geopolitical situation, of course. It was not only conservativism, there was also an ambivalence between the perception of the west and the east as different cultures. Western abstraction versus Eastern realism. In Graz, we also knew through Trigon about some of the Avant-garde of former Yugoslavia, a remarkable exception in those days.
But my orientation was towards the West, Germany, and the United States, as reflected quite well and early on in my gallery program. But some experiences changed my focus: a very early show of young western, Austrian art at Müscarnok in Budapest in 1985, which gave me a mind-changing experience of cultural proximity beyond political or language differences. Shortly afterward, the first encounter with Ilya Kabakow, for a show about Art and Literature in Graz in 1986. The meeting with Kabakow, a few weeks after Chernobyl gave an impressive insight into the declining Soviet Union and the geopolitical changes to come. At the same time, we started to look more to California, to discover American art beyond New York and the East Coast. That led to Graz 1988, a show for the Steirischer Herbst that included artists between Moscow and Los Angeles. A very new idea back then!
LŠ: In addition to partnering with German galleries on specific projects such as Max Hetzler and Konrad Fischer – were there other galleries that you worked with, perhaps in the USA?
PP: This developed step by step. Hetzler was, of course, the gallery I was closest to and it was also through the artists, for example, Hetzler would show some of the artists I represented and vice versa. Then there were Italian galleries. First, there was in Milan, Luigi de Ambrogi, who made a show with Herbert Brandl, which was very important. Then it continued with Giorgio Persano and Mario Pieroni with artists such as Franz West.
Early on, I started to go to art fairs as I did not have much of a market in Austria, I had to look for the market somewhere else. I would participate in a lot of art fairs and I would make friends with other galleries such as Jean Bernier in Athens or Marga Paz in Madrid and with some American galleries such as Sonnabend, Luhring Augustine, 303 in New York; Robin Lockhart in Chicago; or Rosamund Felsen and Regen Projects in L.A. Many different galleries; some of them don’t exist anymore and it was all mainly based on friendships – a very good, loose and informal network. Once for example, we did a show together (Pieroni in Rome, Marga Paz in Madrid, Luhring Augustine in New York, Joost Declercq in Ghent, Hetzler in Cologne, and myself in Vienna); all six galleries in six different places, with six artists (Ettore Spaletti, Cristina Iglesias, Christopher Wool, Jan Vercruysse, Günther Förg, and Franz West) represented by each of the galleries. We went to the opening in Rome at Mario Pieroni’s, and afterward, there was a big party at the Villa Malaparte on the island of Capri – a very famous party in a legendary building, documented by similarly legendary photographs by Günther Förg. The show was very impressive, the artists were friends, and there was a great feeling of community.
The 80s gave a certain kind of understanding of how international arts could function and exist. I was very lucky and very happy to be part of this. As an Austrian gallery, it was the first. All were based on friendship – on the relationship between the artists, galleries, and curators. Curators such as Jan Hoet, the Belgian curator; Denys Zacharopoulos, who was in Paris in those days; and American curators such as Ann Temkin, then with the Philadelphia Museum, or Ann Goldstein with LA MOCA.
LŠ: How did you choose the artists you worked with?
PP: This was a very organic process. In the beginning, there were some artists that I was interested in and with whom I became friends. Again, all based on very informal communication – still from my time in Graz, I knew about artists such as Herbert Brandl and the whole group around him. He was just finishing his studies and was a super exciting painter. And through him, I would meet others – such as Otto Zitko, Gerwald Rockenschaub, and Gilbert Bretterbauer.
And then Franz West would come to visit me in the gallery all the time. At the time, we started to work more and more together and it was not so easy with Franz West in the beginning. On the international approach, I was looking around and if I found something interesting, I would approach the people – again in those days, it was still easy. Vienna became attractive as a location, and the gallery gained more and more reputation, for being open and in an interesting way, heterogeneous. And through Max Hetzler, I would get more and more links to America, to galleries as well as artists.
I never would show Austrian artists that were not of my generation. The only exception was the show for the opening of the gallery with Nitsch. My focus was to give weight to the artists of my generation. I could have worked with Maria Lassnig, with Günther Brus, or with Bruno Gironcoli, but then there would have been a certain distraction, as these people were already so much more established. It would have taken away attention from the younger artists.
This was different with some international artists. Early on, I showed John Baldessari. This was important to both of us. He had not shown for a long time in Europe, and at that time he came up with things that were so brand new, so young! And he was such a crucial figure with all the other younger Californian artists, such as Mike Kelley, Steven Prina, and Liz Larner; all of whom I showed later. I also exhibited works by Sol LeWitt, who, of course, was a super-established artist. But his work made moves in the 1980s which became very important to the younger generation. He was also a very generous person, and he collected a lot of art. He would right away buy works by Franz West, Marcus Geiger, or Heimo Zobernig at my gallery, and he would become friends with all of them. Again, friendship turning into interesting and productive working relationships. The same situation was with Joseph Kosuth who was one of elder artists who were extremely interested in meeting and seeing what younger artists were doing. A show with Kosuth was crucial to me already at the Forum Stadtpark.
In Austria, the segregation between the generations was much bigger. The elder generation; some of them would respect younger artists, but it was not the usual practice. It was either the elder generation or the younger generation. Yet I was friends with both, but I chose to work with the younger generation.
LŠ: In 1986, you co-founded the Grazer Kunstverein with Helmut Strobl. How did your work for Peter Pakesch Gallery translate into the concept of the Grazer Kunstverein? As the founding and artistic director, what was your vision for the institution?
PP: It was not always an easy situation. As I mentioned before, there were structural problems in Austria. Something was missing between the gallery and the museum. In those days, especially in Germany and in Switzerland, you had these fantastic entities called Kunstverein or Kunsthalle, that were very important for artists. Nowadays the situation has changed and it’s different. I had the dream to create such a structure and Helmut Strobel helped me.
I knew him from the time of my architectural studies. He was older than me, and he had also studied architecture in Graz. He was in the urban planning department of the city while I was studying. I was working with friends on an urbanistic project about the reuse of old industrial buildings, which became a big topic by then and was very new to Austria. Strobel would give us a commission from the city to do a study on the old industrial building structures in Graz. I was flattered and motivated to do the study of the reuse and through that, I got to know Strobl in more depth. He also later followed my activities in the gallery and was very sympathetic, even buying some paintings of Herbert Brandl.
When he became the City Councilor for Culture in Graz, he right away asked me what my suggestions would be for an art institution. I told him about my dream and the situation in Switzerland and Germany. He suggested that we should do a trip together. We first went to Paris because through a cousin of his, he had a connection to Pontus Hulten, who was the then director of Pompidou and with whom we met.
Afterward, we went to Basel, as I was an admirer of the structure of Kunsthalle in Basel and the city was always an important place for me. My approach to Basel was early on through literature, essentially through some writers that I knew there. We visited the Kunsthalle and learned about the institution and how it functioned. We also went to Zurich to see the Kunsthaus. So, Strobel understood that there are other kinds of structures, such as semi-private institutions. And that was the idea – to try to initiate and establish such a space in Graz; a Kunstverein. Strobel was enthusiastic, and we founded this institution together. It still exists successfully and it has through time become an important hub for young curators and artists.
At the start, I was responsible for the programmatic side, which was, of course, not easy regarding the conflict of interest I had with my work at the gallery. I tried to solve it in the way that if artists were present at the Kunstverein, then I would not show them at the gallery. Quite naive, of course, within the perspective of today. Early on, I invited Albert Oehlen in 1987 to the Kunstverein, after I had worked with him at the gallery in 1984. So, I interrupted my work at the gallery with him for some time, until I showed him again in 1990. Also, early on, I invited Ilya Kabakov to come to Graz. It was his first trip to the West in 1987, and at the gallery, I only showed him after I stopped working for the Kunstverein some four years later. I tried to keep the two spaces apart in this way. But of course, in the end, it was very helpful for the gallery because I could make more international connections. Of course, my activities at the gallery gave me a standing that could mobilize loans, artists, and corporations for the unknown Grazer Kunstverein. It was a situation where both sides would profit from each other.
And fortunately, the structure of the Grazer Kunstverein still exists. It became a very special, experimental, and very highly regarded place as well as in Graz as internationally. So, it was not necessarily developing the way we thought it should, and again, there were a lot of possibilities. We were able to make very interesting and very important group shows, such as Die Wahlverwandtschaften – Art and Literature, 1986, Painting – Wallpainting, 1987, or Graz 1988, an early show presenting artists from Moscow to Los Angeles together. The idea of the global was very new by then.
The Kunstverein has a strong continuity and own distinguished profile through all the eight directors since I started with it which I think is great.
LŠ: I would like to touch upon your work as the director of the Kunsthalle Basel, which you took over in 1996.
PP: Yes, that was a wonderful and very unexpected situation. I closed the gallery in 1993 because I understood that the role of the gallery, how I liked it to be, had come to an end. I was not happy to be only the manager of artists and also, I was not happy to be too involved in the day-to-day commercial activity. I started to think of larger projects, and at the same time, I also started to work for the National Gallery in Prague. So, I saw my future in a semi – institutional activity, but doing freelance projects.
Then suddenly the position in Basel had become vacant, and I was, of course, super interested in it because it was always one of my favorite and ideal places to work. I still think it’s one of the most ideal places that exists for art. I applied, and I did not expect that I really would have a chance. But I went through the process and they liked my approach. So, they were courageous to take somebody like me, who came from the commercial field for such a position – for me it was perfect and it did mean several years of tremendous work.
Of course, it was a unique situation for which, unconsciously, I was longing very much. In this situation, I was very lucky to work with a completely new generation of artists. I was able to do my first shows in an institution with Michel Majerus, Olafur Eliasson, Diana Thater, Pawel Althamer a.o. During my time at the gallery I was linked to my generation and in Basel, there was a new generation up front. I was also able to show some artists of my generation through major shows; Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen or Christopher Wool, and historic figures like Edward Krasinski or Eugene Leroy. But it was the new generation that was fascinating for me.
It was also as important to connect the local and regional with the international, to create a greater regional network for artists. With this aim, we initiated a local format called Regionale in Basel and its surroundings. Once a year, a lot of regional artists would be able to show their work in an annual show with a couple of institutions in Alsace, south Germany, Baselland, and the City of Basel itself. It became a very dynamic project and it is still, after more than 20 years – a very fascinating format. In the end, it was the whole city that became so fascinating for me as a certain kind of laboratory and the Kunsthalle in the center has a unique tradition to show artists early on. That was a real privilege!
LŠ: Ending the conversation on a very light note – What are some of your favorite exhibitions realized to this date in a gallery or public art institution format?
PP: So, so many! I recently did this project with Michel Majerus and Joseph Kosuth. It comes to my mind that in Basel I did the first show with Michel Majerus and it was an amazing show – to work with a super young artist with this incredible vision and to create a unique show, which became historical.
And very recently in Graz, I did a big public project with Joseph Kosuth, located on the facade of this historic building, the Museum Joanneum – a big permanent piece, which quotes the astronomer Kepler and which is also an exemplary public commission. So, the range is fortunately pretty big. And in Graz, I think I did some very strong shows – one show I did around Andy Warhol, which was very important for me. It was about contextualizing Andy Warhol within the frames of American painting with Barnett Newman and Christopher Wool, as well as the filmmaker Andy Warhol – contextualizing his films with other experimental work like Bruce Connor or Sharon Lockhart.
There were also projects with historical collections such as a project with Simon Starling and Superflex with all the Collections and venues of the Universalmuseum Joanneum. Further a project with Sharon Lockhart and Ai Weiwei on the earliest artifacts of Styria, an important part of the archaeological collection with stone tools. Sharon Lockhart created her installation around the collection there and Ai Weiwei made a piece with porcelain replicas from these archaic stone tools for another parallel show. This was all very fascinating!
There were so many different shows and I would not want to miss any. And if I counted them I think there would be several hundred and that was of course one of the big privileges throughout my whole life! It was a big adventure to work with so many different artists.