Homa Taj In Conversation with Berlin Art Dealer: Christian Ehrentraut

Despite his relatively young age, Christian Ehrentraut has been a part of Berlin’s art scene for years. He began his career at EIGEN+ART, the gallery that launched the careers of Neo Rauch and Martin Eder. By 2002, Ehrentraut had co-founded the short-lived but critically acclaimed artist-run project LIGA Gallery which was responsible for establishing the so-called New Leipzig School. In 2005, Ehrentraut opened his first gallery followed by a series of salon-style projects from his home, until 2008. A year later, Galerie Christian Ehrentraut opened its doors in the heart of Berlin’s shopping and cultural district, on the Friedrichstrasse… (Also see: Berlin @ the Edge – part ii)

Homa Taj – You are a native Berliner in a(n arts) community that is populated with outsiders and foreigners.

Christian Ehrentraut – In a way, Berlin is a comparably young city: parts of East Berlin exchanged their population by (some say) more than 90 % which means that, after the Wall fell, 9 out of 10  of those who live there, now – let’s say in Prenzlauer Berg area – have moved in during the last 20 years… something similar happened in Mitte (the central part of Berlin – were all the galleries are), as well. After 1989, Berlin became a playground for ideas that attracted creatives from around the world. It was a proper melting pot, somewhat of a promised land. Rents were low, nobody knew whom the houses were belonging to. By the end of the ‘90’s, it was just very exiting to meet people who came from everywhere, and a lot of whom ended up staying. Meanwhile, a big number of internationally acclaimed artists are living in the city – the cultural diversity in all different kinds of fields could not be higher. Even today, Berlin remains some kind of “magnet”…

HT – You started your career at Galerie EIGEN + ART which is one of Germany’s most renowned galleries. What fundamental lesson(s) about being a gallerist did you learn there that has/have stayed with you?

CE  – I was working with EIGEN+ART from 2000 to 2002. At the time, we were a team of only 4 people in Berlin and one more in Leipzig, and this meant that everybody took care of everything. Handling the artworks, installing the shows, meeting curators and clients, dealing with collectors and, of course, working very closely with the artists. It was before the market started to heat up and literally every single sale, even the smallest drawing was a reason to properly celebrate for everybody involved. It would have been way different just a few years later with all the huge staff and specialized departments… It was a great chance to learn from the beginnings and get a wide view on all aspects of what a gallery stands for.

HT – What inspired you to join Galerie LIGA?

CE – Actually, LIGA was initiated by 11 artists in 2002 and they hired me as their director. We met because whenever one of them visited Berlin they, of course, dropped by EIGEN+ART. In 2002, when I was spending some months in New York working at Postmasters Gallery, and Independent Curators International, I got a call from Tilo Baumgaertel asking if I was interested in directing their newly establishing gallery. The artists, all recent graduates from the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig (Academy of Visual Arts, in Leipzig), rented a space in the Berlin Mitte area and were looking for somebody to direct it … so, they asked me. I said yes without needing to think about it! They all had great personalities, a group of friends and artists who appreciated each others’ works, and did not want to walk from gallery to gallery to ask if someone wanted to see their portfolios… so, they founded a gallery themselves. At the time, rents were comparably low in Berlin and we were lucky since all of us had some kind of background in the field and were able to build up a network of key figures in the art world who were impressed both by the works’ quality and the group’s dynamic…

HT – But how did the formation of the Young Leipzig ‘School of Painting’ come about?

CE – Again, LIGA was made up of a group of friends who studied at the Leipzig Academy, and shared the same criteria as to what they appreciated in a work of art. It was shortly after the fall of the Wall that they started studying in Leipzig; also, they came from both (former) West and East Germany …so, in some ways, they created their own (artistic) socialisation, if you will. Their teachers have also played an important role, however, I believe that meeting each other, wanting to do the same thing, discussing their works and needing to find their own ways in organizing and supporting each other were some of the things that made LIGA successful.

In any case, though they have been put together under Young Leipzig School and that most of them were painters, what I still find fascinating about their work is that each of them has a highly individual signature, and holds a very distinct position in what they are doing.

On the other hand, however, the thing that they all have in common is that each work takes time to develop, to build up in a highly complex way … and, that nothing is just made in an instance following a simple idea. This is one of the things that I still appreciate a lot about their work, something that continues to play a role in our current gallery program.

HT – So, you still work with a number of the Leipzig artists… What is it like, as a young dealer, to see the careers of artists whom you have introduced take off?

CE – From the old group, we are still working with Tilo Baumgaertel, Christoph Ruckhaeberle and Martin Kobe.

Of course, it was an incredible start for all of us, the artists as well as for me: working with internationally acclaimed collectors and Institutions at such a young age. The project improved our professional relationships enormously – to operate on an international scale with colleagues who are working on a high level such as Jay Jopling’s White Cube or Marianne Boesky; to deal with persons that you knew before just through art magazines; …and to mount shows in Museums you only knew as a visitor… Things moved very fast for all of us and, in no time, you could find an artist’s name at one of the three big auction houses …and International galleries were knocking on our door. None of us could have been prepared… We all learned our lessons, and sometimes the hard way. It was a blessing and a curse, at the same time, that all of that happened when the art marked started to boom.

And of course, this all set the foundations for Galerie Christian Ehrentraut, as it is now.

Some of the younger artists who studied in Leipzig include: Franziska Holstein who did her Meisterschüler with Neo Rauch, and Stephanie Dost who is doing amazingly intense and complex collages.

HT – Your most recent exhibition is called 13 – which features thirteen of the gallery’s artists and opened on May 13. So, what is your relationship with the number 13…?

13 sounds like the classical summer group show but, actually, it is quite important for us: since we moved into our space at 123 Friedrichstraße, in early 2009, we have had 13 exhibitions featuring the 13 artists that are currently in the gallery’s program. So, in a way, it was time for us to review what we have done so far, to see  mutual interests in different artists’ practices and what’s the “red line” between their different positions. It, also, gives our audiences – visitors and collectors – an idea of what the gallery is all about. The focus of our gallery still lies in painting, but now we have a group of new artists from different media: Andreas Blank is a sculptor from London, Yudi Noor and Stephanie Dost are installation artists, and Anan Tzukerman is a photographer from Tel Aviv. Putting thirteen artists from different media together can potentially run the danger of seeming like a mishmash, but actually, they all come together perfectly well and correspond with each other amazingly… The link between their work is that they are all about time and processes that build up with lots of different layers, and grow “somewhat” organically over a long span of time.

As for the opening, it was actually accidentally scheduled on Friday the 13th, so, in the end, the number seemed to fit…

HT – How does expanding your gallery’s roster – to include installation and video artists – encourage you to look at your (exhibition) space differently?

CE – Painting and drawing are so direct, like a handwritten text, in which you can read a lot from the author’s personality. And, of course, this can work in other media as well: Andreas [Blank] is somewhat of a “classical” sculptor working in stone and his moderntrompe L’oeil objects always show the tool-marks. The preparation for Anan’s [Tzukerman] photos sometimes needs months – casting his actors, building and illuminating the settings for his photographs, etc… They often remind me of proper Hollywood film sets. Some of the painters are expanding the borders of their medium a lot: Tilo Baumgaertel, for example, is doing incredible work making film installations, or Ruprecht von Kaufmann whose paintings on rubber or felt can be actually viewed as both painting and sculpture.

Our gallery space is not exactly a white cube space and I am always surprised at how much it changes with every single exhibition. And, the artists, too, love to play with it …

HT – How do you meet your artists? What aesthetic or personal criteria do you have when choosing your artists?

I have known most of them for a long time – we share the same criteria and have mutual interest in different things, and maybe the same kind of spirit and understanding in art. I first need to become visually attracted to get curious about what things are like… and an artist has to be able to communicate that in his work. What the artists whom we are working with do is, on the one hand, visually appealing but, at the same time, formally and conceptually very strict and focused. I like to compare visual artists to writers: there can be an amazing story but when a text isn’t written well and I have a hard time reading it, it is somehow lost… I love looking at an artwork and seeing how much time, research and energy was required to complete the piece.

HT –How would you define Berlin’s collecting community? Young, daring, etc…?

CE – It is true that there are more people visiting the city once or twice a year in order to buy art than there is a large resident community. [Please see Berlin @ the Edge, part i] Berlin still is more a city of artists and galleries, and that makes it so interesting for discoveries. And, actually, there are indeed some very active collectors on very different levels who are living here as well. I think that there are at least six large private collections open to public in a more or less Museum style way, as well as countless enthusiastic individuals with sometimes surprising fields of specialisation.

HT – Your gallery produces artists’ books or limited edition catalogues for each show…

CE – I am a big fan of artist books and limited editions of all sorts. As a kid, I collected records with colored vinyls and handmade covers…

For each show, at the gallery, the exhibiting artist does a small print in an edition of 400 signed and numbered copies which are sent to our clients, curators, press and close friends. There is no technique that we have not used by now: from silkscreens to woodcuts, laser-cuts, etchings, collages, hand-offsets, linocuts, etc. They have already become collectibles and people really appreciate and respond to them … It is also great to see them framed in collectors’ houses. Actually there is already a “secondary market” for them and, occasionally, one appears at auction.

Regarding the catalogues, it is our goal to give people an idea of what an artist does and, most often, the traditional catalogue format is not the best way to do so. For example, we did a book on Shannon Finley, last year, called Specters Into Signals and his paintings were really hard to reproduce appropriately as they play with transparent layers and high gloss… Funny enough, a totally different medium represented these qualities way better and, so in every few page, you will find an original 4-color linocut that overlaps and shines just as his paintings do.

Christoph Ruckhäberle founded a small book publishing company called LUBOK a couple of years ago, in Leipzig, with Thomas Siemon. Thomas collects all these big old printing machines and knows how to use them and it is great fun to collaborate and use all these sometimes old techniques. And, then, there is the infrastructure of Leipzig as a Book-City…

HT – What is next for (Galerie) Christian Ehrentraut?

CE – I am very exited that Nicola Samori is participating in the group show at the Italian Pavilion in Venice (Biennale) this year. We rented a studio for him in Berlin so he can prepare for his solo show, in October. In September, we will be showing Shannon Finley’s second solo exhibition …and, the New Year (2012) starts with an exhibition of Franziska Holstein’s work.

I hope to be back in the States later this year to participate in one of the American art fairs. Personally, my partner Rachel and I just had a baby, in February, and of course, this is my most beloved “project” at the moment.