The World on Paper
A conversation about the unbroken fascination of the medium paper

On the occasion of the opening of the PalaisPopulaire, Friedhelm Hütte, head of the art department, and the project team of Art, Culture & Sports, organized the exhibition “The World on Paper.” With over 300 works by 133 artists, it offers new insights into the diversity, history, and international orientation of the collection. A conversation about abstract formal languages, artists’s self-perception, and the unbroken fascination of the medium paper.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: For The World on Paper, the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire, you attempted to take stock of the Deutsche Bank Collection, as it were. You concentrate on a very classical medium in art: paper. Why?

Friedhelm Hütte: Almost everyone has put down thoughts, feelings, or ideas on paper at some point or another. Paper is a democratic medium, and readily available. It’s easy to use and conducive to experimentation. Paper is not spectacular; it lacks pathos. An artistic rendering that appears to be for eternity on canvas or in sculpture seems temporary or poetic on paper. Paper has an unpretentious, intimate aura. At the same time, it is very subtle and haptic, reacts immediately to the slightest physical influences, such as movement, moisture, and pressure. Even in the age of digitalization, paper is the medium on which the world—or better, worlds—can be depicted.

OKvG: And the Deutsche Bank Collection has focused on the medium of paper from the very beginning.

FH: Absolutely. For art after 1945, it is one of the world’s most important collections of works on paper. Paper has had a lasting impact on the collection since the 1970s. Photography, which uses the medium of paper as a carrier, was also included in the collection from the very outset. In the early 1980s, photography largely led a shadowy existence in museums and private collections. Due to its special development and significance, we will devote one or more separate exhibitions to this medium.

OKvG: In addition to the medium paper, The World on Paper emphasizes the internationality of the collection. How has it developed in this regard?

Britta Färber: While many companies viewed their art collections primarily as an investment and a means of representation, Deutsche Bank amassed a very young, experimental collection. It is not only geared to the epicenters and important protagonists of the art world. We also find current art in places where new artists and works are springing up, where ideas are still in the development stage or where certain aspects of artworks have been overlooked. That applies to European postwar art as well as to the new twenty-first-century art centers in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, where at an early stage we acquired works on paper by artists who today are internationally known and enjoy great popularity. In the opening exhibition, we wanted to use the medium of paper as a foil to show how global the Deutsche Bank Collection project is today.

OKvG: Since the inception of the Deutsche Bank Collection, many international exhibitions have shown works from the collection.

Christina März: True. Parts of the collection have been shown in almost 150 exhibitions across the globe. But many works have never or only rarely been seen by the public. There is a simple reason for this: There are so many fantastic works in the collection that there wasn’t room for all of them. The Deutsche Bank Collection can be thought of as an imaginary museum, as a large pool of themes, contents, and formal ideas from which many, very different exhibitions can be curated. Now our new house, the PalaisPopulaire, gives us the opportunity to explore it in more depth. In a series of thematic exhibitions, we will enable people to experience the full spectrum of the collection in the next few years.

How does the current exhibition approach the medium of paper?

Steffen Zarutzki: The exhibition takes up the architecture of the building and on three floors presents three thematic “worlds” that deal with central aspects of contemporary works on paper. The show begins with a section devoted to dynamic and constructive manifestations of abstract art. It examines the material, form finding, and the white sheet of paper, which is something like a transcendent, empty surface. You can experience how a reduced formal vocabulary is created on the sheet, which gives rise to an entire world or deconstructs the existing world in an abstract way. There are the great designs of the Bauhaus, of Constructivist art, such as Josef Albers’ color experiments, which have equivalents in the geometric works of Imi Knoebel, the color fields of Katharina Grosse, and the conceptual collages of the Korean artist Haegue Yang.

OKvG: You are also showing artists from the 1960s and 1970s, representatives of the ZERO group, and the artist composer John Cage, a pioneer of Fluxus.

FH: This generation defied art conventions with the help of paper. They made the most incredible things. They played with all kinds of materials, including stone, metal, water, and string. They tore and treated paper in order to produce new images, compositions, even sounds. In addition, you encounter great expressive painters such as the Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell or the dithyrambs of Markus Lüpertz, as well as the abstract watercolors of Gerhard Richter and the deep-black, meditative work of the Chinese artist Yang Jiechang. This section shows how the abstract vocabulary of postwar Modernism, of Minimal, Post-Minimal, and Conceptual art developed, and how artists today are pushing forward the visual language of abstraction. At the same time, the exhibition investigates how artists have dealt with the notion of an “artistic signature”—the extent to which the idea of the author characterizes the work, or whether, as in many cases, the material or the concept determines the form of the work.

OKvG: These are complex issues that have to be examined in depth.

Sara Bernshausen: Of course. But it’s well worth it. There is so much to discover. And the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, by guided tours, talks, and an app that provides ample information tailored to different target groups and explain the background in detail. The middle section of the show focuses on collective and individual images of the self, the body, and people, of memory and history. The energy center of this chapter is a block of early drawings and watercolors by Joseph Beuys that the artist kept together as a group until the 1960s. They correspond with works in which artists engage with their own bodies and in doing so give the paper an almost corporeal quality—for example, the ink drawings of the Japanese performance artist Atsuko Tanaka, which she made for her Electric Dress in the 1950s, or the works of the Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar. Another part of this section is dedicated to the subjective, artistic view of our collective memories, showing how history is inscribed in our memories and in our bodies.

OKvG: The exhibition begins on the top floor. Why did you opt for this unusual solution?

CM: In the abstract starting section, the spectrum ranges from large-sized, colored lengths of paper by Katharina Grosse to Wilhelm Müller’s silverpoint miniature, which seems as though it was almost breathed there. For this beginning, for this variety, the large exhibition room offers the appropriate setting. But some sheets are almost empty. Our idea was to show something like the creative genesis that occurs on the white sheet of paper. Basic shapes such as strokes, lines, hatchings, and dots spawn entire worlds that define themselves further—through signs, writing, numbers, ornament, or seriality. We wanted to give the works on the top floor more room for dialogue. The second section, as mentioned, deals with artists’ self-perception. The last section is Ultraworld, whose title was taken from a collage series by Doug Aitken. This chapter deals with artists’ investigation of urban spaces and new technologies, as well as new economic and symbolic functions of images and products. An important aspect are surfaces in today’s world: facades and architectures of global cities, comics, mass-media images. It is also about an overload of these images, about increasing virtualization, and attempts at finding orientation.

OKvG: What would you like to tell people who visit the exhibition?

FH: That in the works that have been selected they can discover hitherto unknown sides of well-known artists or new, global positions. We would be delighted if they, too, experience the fascination of paper. But the most important thing is that after they leave the exhibition they perceive their surroundings more attentively, walk through town with a different awareness, see shapes and colors in new and different ways. My wish for The World on Paper is very simple: that people take something with them from the exhibition— into their own world.