Since its first edition five years ago, Berlin's abc (art Berlin contemporary) has been, and continues to be, a work in progress. Set up as a private initiative to showcase contemporary art unfit for an art fair booth by a handful of Berlin galleries, the abc has grown in size and importance to include the city's most important galleries. It functions on an invitation only-basis and its crossover format has influenced other art fair efforts such as Independent, held annually in springtime in New York. This year it has played an instrumental role in calling into life the first Berlin Art Week, a week of citywide art events in museums, galleries and art spaces.
In the beginning, taking its lead from Art Basel's Unlimited section, abc was touted as a curated sales exhibition, rather than an art fair. For its first edition, Berlin galleries were invited to present one, large-scale sculptural installation per artist with a participation fee of 1,000 euro per artist and a maximum of three artists per gallery. The exhibition was held in the Station Berlin, a renovated postal train depot, a location to which the fair would return in 2011 and 2012.
In 2009, as a non-curated effort, abc widened its scope to include international galleries. It continued to resist being called an art fair, albeit that each presentation was purchasable and included a plaque on the floor with the telephone number of the gallery -should the need arise to inquire about the price. The 2009-edition was the most restrictive, with the number of presentations per gallery limited to one and each forced on to a 1968-Egon Eiermann table. While only 64 galleries participated, it was arguably the most internationally significant edition to date, since it included presentations by such heavyweights as Mexico's kurimanzutto and Poland's Fundacja Galerii Foksal.
The third edition, running parallel to Berlin's premier art fair Art Forum in a building adjacent to the fair, was themed with a ‘moving image' focus, curated by Marc Glöde and felt like an annex to the fair. Counting 56 participants, it was the smallest edition thus far and only included a handful of international galleries, such as Ellen de Bruijne Projects (Amsterdam) or A Gentil Carioca (Rio de Janeiro).
Last year the abc returned to the Station Berlin and due to the cancellation of the Berlin's art fair Art Forum, it more than doubled in size. It showed a curated selection of art under the title ‘About Painting' and included a broad selection of international galleries, invited under the same restriction as their Berlin-colleagues, to show a position of relevance to the painting genre. Belgian gallerist Jan Mot aswell as Dutch big gun Paul Andriesse were invited, but as kurimanzutto, Foksal, de Bruijne Projects or A Gentil Carioca in the preceding years, they did not reappear for a second helping in 2012.
This year, abc -with 129 participating galleries- had no thematic restriction, which participants were happy to hear, especially photo-specialists Kicken, who brought a first rate selection of photographs by Götz Diergarten, Jitka Hanzlová and Hans-Chrsitian Schink. Gallerists and visitors had mixed feelings about upholding the ‘invitation only' policy and criticism has been levelled at the Berlin-initiative for its gallerist-dominated selection committee, now composed of nine Berlin gallerists. However, there were no complaints about the participation fee of 3,800 euro per artist with a record number of 148 artists being shown.
In front of the entrance, in the most prominent position of the entire event stood ‘Geen Titel', 2012, a large metal sculpture by Belgian artist Peter Rogiers presented by Galerie Thomas Schulte (Berlin). Inside, the exhibition stretched through three large halls, one more than last year. There were neither booths, nor fixed walls, with galleries often using scaffolding and building site fencing to create their temporary exhibition spaces. Jan Wentrup used the scaffolding optimally to showcase new paintings by Florian Meisenberg, three of which were sold on the opening day. International participation was solid, with roughly half of the exhibitors being non-Berliners. London galleries trumped up a strong mix, including upcoming galleries Rob Tufnell, Vilma Gold and Ibid and more established names such as Carl Freedman and Maureen Paley, who sadly failed to show up for her presentation of recent work by David Thorpe in conjunction with Berlin heavyweight Meyer Riegger.
Belgian participation was also strong, with Tim Van Laere showing an installation by Kati Heck, Berlin-based gallery Bourouina presenting new works by Any Wauman and Rinus van de Velde on view at the wall rented by Galerie Zink (Berlin). After three years of absence, Lüttgenmeijer returned to abc and showed the much-debated Jason Dodge's ‘Acquamarines inside of an owl', 2012, which consisted of a dead owl on top of a cardboard box. Ulf Aminde's six channel video installation presented by Tanja Wagner also caused a stir. It showed short video clips recorded in the street of people on drugs, without them noticing.