The art collector, Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, together with her husband, the late Mr. Rolf Hoffmann, has built up one of the finest collections in contemporary art since the 1960s. At the fall of the Wall, they moved their home from Cologne to Berlin, settled down with their collection in a factory complex in former East Berlin they named Sophie-Gips-Höfe. Since 1997, theyhave been opening their “lived-in” contemporary art collection in their 1400m² home for the public on every Saturday.
Here, in this interview, Mrs. Erika Hoffmann talks to us on her collecting experience, her recollections of the art scene in the post-war Germany. She also shares her passion for art and how art has enriched her life.
Berlin, Aug 2010
Selina Ting [ST] : You studied art history in the 1950s, you have been travelling and seeing art since a young age. In 1968, you and your husband Rolf Hoffmann bought the Signal TS 1 (1966 – 1968) of Takis to start the collection…
Erika Hoffmann-Koenige [EHK]: Yes. That’s for us the beginning of collecting, but we didn’t have the idea of building a collection. I could just say that we bought this first piece in 1968 and it’s still here.
ST: What was the driving force to make you and your husband buy this piece?
EHK: It was actually me who bought the piece – and not for home but for my little boutique. You know I was a fashion designer, but I knew nothing about business. So to get some experience I opened a little boutique in 1968 that combined fashion, music and coffee bar. There was a niche at the shop front which at a certain time probably had a figure of local saints or Madonna. I wanted to replace it. So I had a work of Takis which gives out signals, kind of lighthearted messages from the universe. After a while, the city government became aware of it because it was sending out flashes which were considered disturbing for traffic. So I took it home. My husband laughed at me because so far we decided not to belong to the greedy class of bourgeois who always wanted to have things, to possess objects. Nevertheless, we were seduced. But at the same time, we only bought works with a personal interest, incorporating certain thoughts and ideas that we liked to consider and share.
ST: Did you know Takis before you bought the first work from him?
EHK: No. We hadn’t met Vlassilakis Takis before and never did. But this is a very good question because in the years to come, we spent more time with artists. We met many of them in the openings in the museum of Monchengladbach. And it was only after nightlong discussions and intellectual exchanges that we bought certain artworks. So the purchase was not at the beginning, it was like a final result only after long encounters, discussions, and the discussion between me and my husband.
ST: Since when were you conscious of building up a collection?
EHK: That was in the mid 1980s. You probably knew that my husband sold his company van Laack in the mid 1980s, at that point we got more conscious of what we wanted to do in the art. We looked through the works that we had purchased so far and tried to inform ourselves better, to find a deeper understanding of contemporary art.
ST: Did you figure out a direction, a theme, or an artistic style, that you wanted your collection to focus on?
EHK: No. We had already discussed before that we don’t want to define a direction or a theme – other than to stay with those things that really excite us, something that give us a personal feeling, probably alluding to some memories, experiences and some special interests, also to be faraway from our business. We wanted to have inspiration from different dimensions. I believe that every collection has a very personal character. For our own one we were more interested in works we feel close to than in those acclaimed by everybody or being valued by some important experts. Therefore we never had any advisor from outside.
On Collector-Artist Relationship
ST: Were you still living in Mönchengladbach in the 1980s?
ST: There were a lot of artists working in Düsseldorf, which is so close to Monchengladbach. I imagine it was the best place and the best occasion to meet artists at that time.
EHK: Yes, you are right. It was a crucial thing judging from today. Today, I would think that if we were not there by chance at that moment, we would have had a different life. But it was also because we were hungry for new ideas, and that contemporary art appeared to us as the only cultural activity in the city at that time.
ST: What brought you to Mönchengladbach first?
EHK: It happened that in 1945, the parents of my husband fled to the city from Naumburg when the Russians occupied their city. They settled in Mönchengladbach and started the business. So we were bound there. Then, we found it very exciting when Johannes Cladders became director [1967 – 1985] of the Städtisches Museum and he showed contemporary art, which was very stimulating for us.
ST: I visited Mönchengladbach in late June and I saw a beautiful collection of Joseph Beuys’ work there. It was Johannes Cladders who gave Joseph Beuys his first major museum retrospective in 1967. Is there any of Beuys’ works in your collection as I didn’t see any at the tour?
EHK: No. We only have two or three edition works, such as La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi [Photography, 1972]. Of course we have met Joseph Beuys many times, even before he had his first museum exhibition. I met him during my studies when he was still living in Kleve, recovering from his wartime experiences and working [in Kranenburg] on the fields of friends of mine, the van der Grinten brothers [Hans and Franz Joseph]. Drawing in the countryside was like a therapy for Beuys, and the brothers saved everything he drew. Of course we were impressed by his ideas, such as his concept of social sculpture in which culture regains its original creative unity of the spiritual and the material through art. This for us was the most important issue at that time. It’s the idea and not the material object that matters, particularly with Joseph Beuys. For instance, what I am doing here today, I see it as a form of social sculpture. I work with young artists, art historians, scientific researchers, musicians, writers, archivists…and the public to share and to contribute. That is a Social Sculpture for me, based on the idea of bringing all kind of creativity together from different parts of the society. So we have very few objects of Beuys because we don’t see them as the essential point of his art. Of course, other people have other perceptions. But for us, his ideas are much more appealing and convincing than his objects.
ST: What kind of person did you find him?
EHK: He was someone very charismatic, charming, and wonderful to talk with. He was a great performer but also a little vain and very much aware of presenting himself. He took care of his image. He loved beautiful clothes, very expensive clothes, which was appealing to us too, because we were in the fashion industry. He was really very impressive.
ST: You have collaborated with artists in some crossover projects, such as having Marcel Broodthaers’ designs for T-shirt and posters…
EHK: Marcel didn’t design a T-Shirt, he modeled for us. He wore a boldly printed dress shirt of our actual collection for some publicity shooting.
ST: I see. And Andy Warhol cat-walked for your fashion show as well…
EHK: Yes, he got enthusiastic about our suggestion and determined to do it as another professional job. For that reason he managed to have his photograph and measurements inserted in the Elite catalogue, the best New York model agency of the time, through which we had to hire, to brief and to treat him exactly like the female models, including payment. Just that – because he was so thin – we had to produce his shirts in a tiny size we had never made before. On the catwalk, he was, smaller and much shyer than his radiant female colleagues, seriously focused to pose and perform. Amidst the TV glamour, the flashes, and the music that was a touching moment.
ST: Are you still meeting artists before you make a purchase?
EHK: No. In fact I even prefer not to meet the artist before I decide to buy. Today, a purchase for me should not be influenced by personal sympathy but because it in some way challenges me. I appreciate to meet the artist later and to learn his or her own thoughts about everything. I find this more rewarding.
ST: You have a very personal friendship with certain artists, such as Isa Genzken, Kim Sooja [*1957, Korea; lives and work in New York], Chiharu Shiota [*1972, Japan, lives and works in Berlin], etc. Some of their works in your collection seem to be very personal, such as Kim Sooja’sbundle. I wonder if they are commissioned works.
EHK: The work of Kim Sooja’s you’ve just seen in my office is actually a gift. It’s very personal. We met Kim Sooja when my husband was still alive. Some months after he passed away, we had a party celebrating his life. Kim came that morning with the bed cover. She asked me to put some of my husband’s clothes inside and made a knot. I put some of the things that he would need for travelling… clothes, shoes, perfume, glasses, etc. In German, to say farewell is like “I have made my bundle”.
ST: Do you think the relationship between artists and collectors changed a lot during the last decades? Perhaps because the art market is different from how it was before?
EHK: Yes. But I think it depends very much on everybody involved. It can well be that many artists don’t want to have a personal relationship with the people who own their work. Already in the 1980s, there was a certain kind of hype which collapsed in the early 1990s… There is a very strange cycle of investment into art, and when people speculate, then the market might be badly affected. It’s not making anyone happy, and most artists are embarrassed by this.
On collecting and sharing – the Berlin Years
ST: What made you and your husband move to Berlin in 1995?
EHK: We started considering leaving Cologne when the wall came down. That was such a historical and exciting moment. Because we worked internationally during many years, we were very interested in how the world would change with the fall of the iron curtain, the end of the dialectic between the West and East ideologies. Of course, we wondered how we could contribute, not just participate, but contribute to that new dialogue. So, for us, our experiences with contemporary art had been such a crucial thing…
ST: The strength that you wanted to share…
EHK: Yes. And also because we believed that independent thinking is very much encouraged by looking at contemporary art as there are no rules, no criteria, but the freedom as well as the necessity to look with your own eyes and to make up your own mind. Of course, you can rely on an advisor, but if you are really interested in thinking, this is a very good training and challenge. I even suggest starting with children, to allow them to look and to have their own thought and not to give them too much information.
ST: This is also the principle of the guided visit to your collection.
EHK: Yes, our docents are trained not to give information which is not asked for. Only when people get interested in it, then the docents would talk about it. Usually the silence at the beginning is too difficult. But just leave everybody looking, and then of course, all information that they would like to have should be given to them and there would be exchanges followed between the visitors.
ST: So we are back to the idea of social sculpture.
EHK: Yes, absolutely!! Of course, Joseph Beuys was much more authoritarian than we would like to be. He just couldn’t stand any stupidity.
ST: And this is the moment of transition… your yearly re-hanging starts in July.
EHK: Yes, in July, for a practical reason. I hope this is the least rainy month, as we have to transport the works from the storage downstairs through the courtyard. This is not a museum where you have a big truck drive in and deliver everything in safety.
ST: This isn’t the only constraint that you are facing… I imagine certain art form, such as Performance Art would be difficult for you to present.
EHK: Yes, you are right. I can only invite artists to do a performance for a certain specific occasion.
ST: You designed 15 dresses inspired by the Russian avant-garde and showed them in the 1979 exhibition of Women Artists of the Russian Avant-Garde: 1910 – 1930 in Galerie Gmurzynska and then in LACMA. You also curated the show Buchstäblich – Bild und Wort in der Kunst heute in 1991 for the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal, then the Berlin–Amsterdam show in 2008 for Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, and last year you organized the With the Bicycle to the Milky Way for the Kunsthalle in Dresden. Would you imagine yourself a curator if not a collector? Do you have a passion for that?
EHK: I really love to install, that’s very true. But all these projects are not my first wishes. I was asked to. In Wuppertal, the project came immediately after we gave up working for our company and I was completely free floating. I had more time and I also wanted to return to my art historian practices, such as doing research and organizing exhibitions. Buchstäblich was a project with a theme given by the museum. Actually, the experience was a difficult one because I didn’t know the museum routine. I wasn’t the only curator and I couldn’t decide as I had been used to. In the museum, of course, I had no power. Nevertheless it was a very worthwhile experience as I met artists that I had never heard of before; I did research in a direction that I had never worked in before. I really liked that challenge. With Amsterdam, the director of the Rijksakademie asked me if I could do the selection and curating for a show of former Rijksakademie scholars living in Berlin. So, by doing research on the artists, I have learnt a great deal on the subject and enjoyed working on it.
ST: The Dresden project then must have been very different as it’s from your own collection.
EHK: Yes, it was indeed a very particular project. My husband and I intended to build an exhibition hall in Dresden in 1990 after the wall came down. The aim was to open up an institution to show contemporary art, from international private collections, including our own, offering them to and sharing them with the public. The building lot was offered to us by the city of Dresden. So, we started to lobby other collectors and entrepreneurs to join our initiative. But finally the project failed, perhaps it was too early at that time. Today, every institution is expected to function on public and private partnership. Anyway, in 2005 the actual museum director Martin Roth asked me to show a part of our collection in Dresden. I understood it as an offer to re-conciliate the issue because it still was an open ended story…we never got a final answer, never a “No” from the city authority to our initial project.
ST: Was it the first time that part of the collection was shown outside the family?
EHK: Yes, and I think it’s the only time. That’s not something I am interested in. My interest is here, to open my house and the collection for the public, and to do projects and events here.
ST: The idea of re-hanging the work every year under a theme is also a curator’s job.
EHK: Yes, probably. My habit of doing so only developed after my husband passed away. Before, we just discussed between the two of us. We had so many fights about it to come up with compromises that now doing it on my own, I have to fight against something, against myself, so I tried to find themes, ideas to start with.
ST: Today what kind of new artistic forms interest you the most?
EHK: That’s very difficult to answer because I don’t find so many interesting things. At my age, having seen so much, many things today seem somehow known. With contemporary information…I don’t use all the new technology, I am not surfing the Internet that much, I am missing a lot of new interpretations. So that’s probably the reason why things look old to me, a bit like those I have. On the other hand I also observe that many young artists are unaware of what has been done before. Here they are often amazed by seeing works created 40 or 50 years ago.
ST: Do you think that collectors would have a different interpretation of art history as they live with it? Would you derive your own account of art history?
EHK: Maybe. As everybody, I developed personal tastes and viewpoints according to my biography, in addition to the education I experienced under Cladders in Mönchengladbach, which was a radical view on conceptual art, minimal art, non-narrative art. In retrospective that also shaped my understanding and interpretation of art history.
ST: After 50 years of collecting, how would you see the role of a collector in the development of contemporary art?
EHK: That’s a tricky question for me who never decided to collect and feels embarrassed when being called a collector today, because I’ve little in common with those well known collectors of contemporary art appearing mainly driven by greed or lust for power. For me, purchasing works of art provides the possibility to live with them, to contemplate them whenever I wish, to enjoy their intellectual and emotional challenge in direct contact. This pleasure can be multiplied by sharing it with others, at home – as I do – or by giving loans to public museums. The private house however allows not only for a more intimate experience but also to install works not displayed in public institutions because they seem to be too difficult to take care of, too fragile or ephemeral, too daring or provocative at the present moment – or too expensive at the current art market hyped by investors or speculators. For the private collector, close to the pulse of creative production, it is most exciting to fall in love, to decide on his or her own, to spend his or her own money on something just discovered. To take that risk and the responsibility for such works, to make them visible to art lovers or store them safely, until a future general public may appreciate the artistic experiments and explorations of today, would be the most noble role of the collector of contemporary art.
ST: Thank you very much!
About Erika Hoffmann-Koenige
After having studied art history in Freiburg, Vienna and Bonn between 1958 and 1963, Erika Hoffmann-Koenige worked as a research fellow at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne. From 1968 onwards, over the course of 20 years, she was the designer of the ladies’ line Lady van Laack in her husband’s fashion business. In 1991 she curated the exhibition Buchstablich for the Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal. Besides, in the early 1990s, she and her husband also campaigned for a new public gallery designed by Frank Stella to be built in Dresden; a project never realized. In 1994, the couple moved to Berlin in order to gain a space for their “inhabited collection” which can be visited by the public in yearly changing arrangements since 1997. In 2009, the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau in Dresden presented the exhibition With the Bicycle to the Milky Way, curated with works from the Hoffmann Collection by Erika Hoffmann-Koenige in collaboration with Ulrich Bischoff and Mathias Wagner.