The Complex Collection of Friedrich Christian Flick


The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin is presenting “Local Histories,” featuring a vast array of works from the controversial German art collector Friedrich Christian Flick, a billionaire heir to the Mercedes fortune. Nina Siegal spoke with Gabriele Knapstein, director of the museum, about Flick and his collection.How did you come up with the concept for the exhibition, “Local Histories?”Our curator, Matilda Felix, came up with the idea based on an article by Donald Judd (who as you know was both an artist and an art critic) from 1964 called “Local History,” and in this article Judd reports what he’s seen in the New York scene over that year. The artists he mentions are working in different fields but he connects them to a common interest in expanding into space, be it by using painterly and sculptural means like in the work of Lee Bontecou, or the sculptural approach of George Segal or John Chamberlain, but also the impact of Jackson Pollock’s action painting.Quite a lot of different artists are brought together within Donald Judd’s reflections. So we started with that idea, looking at how artists group themselves together in a way that crosses art historical categories and style descriptions and looks into the influences and networks and art histories that the artists write themselves.We have looked at this from a sense of place as well, and we’ve dedicated sections to different artists in those places: New York in the mid-’60s, Dusseldorf in the late ’60s to mid ’70s, Cologne in the ’80s, and Los Angeles in the ’90s. We found that these local histories could be told with brilliant works from the Flick collection.Are the majority of works in the exhibition from the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection?Yes, the bulk of the works are from the Flick collection, which ranges from the 1960s up to the 2000s with major works from European and North American art history. I think we have about 60 to 70 works from his collection and then an additional 30 loans from the National Gallery and other collections. We’ve devoted a very large exhibition area of about 4,000 square meters to the show.Mr. Flick is a controversial figure in Germany because his grandfather was a top-ranking Nazi who was convicted by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal of producing weapons for the Nazis, using slave labor, which led to the deaths of more than 40,000 people. Mr. Flick has tried to distance himself from his grandfather’s crimes by establishing the F.C. Flick Foundation “to support the struggle against xenophobia and racism,” and by giving millions to Holocaust charities. He declined our request for an interview. Do you think the public is still concerned about the fact that the Hamburger Bahnhof is showing his works?We had a discussion at the museum when we started to work with the Flick collection and there were public forums to discuss this issue and the museum very carefully went through a process of discussing with Mr. Flick but also with other public figures and politicians to make sure that we were making the right decision. Mr. Flick very clearly distances himself from his grandfather’s activities and on that basis, and on the quality of the collection, it was decided in 2004 that this cooperation is a good cooperation from the national museums in Berlin. We also actively supported the historic research about the past of Mr. Flick’s grandfather, and it was very clear for us that it needed open and public discussion, but the collection is art historically important and it needs to be shown. The fact that he also founded F.C. Flick Foundation, is a very clear signal that he reflects on his family’s past and isn’t aligned with that history. I think there are still people who see it in a critical way, but it’s not the focus of the discussion anymore.How central is the Flick collection to the exhibitions in the Hamburger Bahnhof?The Flick holding is the largest collection we have in the Hamburger Bahnhof. We have a long-term loan contract with the Flick Foundation of 1,500 works which have been at the museum since 2004, plus another 268 works that Mr. Flick has donated to the museum over the years and are now part of our permanent collection. The Hamburger Bahnhof has its own collection and two other private collections: one from Erich Marks, also on long-term loan; and the collection of concept art, Arte Povera and other works from the collection of Egidio Marzona. All these collections together allow us to do large art-historical shows with work from the ’60s up to the present time.Since 2004, we’ve been using the Flick collection as the basis for changing presentations. We start from the works in the collection and come up each year with a different curatorial approach and we either go with thematic or monographic show, adding works from the National Gallery and a few loans to round it out.How many exhibitions have you been able to make using this collection as a basis?Since 2004, we’ve had one or two exhibitions every year based on the Flick collection, and 16 shows that are strongly based on this collection.How would you describe Mr. Flick as a collector, and how much is he involved with the exhibitions of his work?He has a very passionate relationship with Contemporary art and that was the impulse to put together the collection.From the beginning, he didn’t collect single works by artists, but whole bodies of art by these artists, and that’s why this was a collection which actually needs to be in the public realm. It goes far beyond what you would have in your private home. The collection is really very useful for a museum and public institution to work with. As a collector, he was always visiting galleries and art fairs, he had a close exchange with many artists he was interested in and he became friends with many of them.The collection has key works by Bruce Naumann, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Paul McCarthy, Thomas Shutte, Rodney Graham and so on, and that’s why working with the collection it’s also possible to curate monographic shows. One does have to add some loans here and there, but you can also curate monographic shows out of the collection. We have shown solo exhibitions by Wolfgang Tillmans; Richard Jackman; by Roman Vitna, the Swiss artist; Bruce Naumann and there are other solo exhibitions which can be shown in the future. Mr. Flick isn’t involved in any of the curatorial work; we work with it as we work with the other holdings in the museum. He’s quite private. We always inform him and he visits the show, and he’s also a member of the Friends of the National Gallery.These works are mostly on loan. Do you know what will happen in the future with the collection?We have been in continuous exchange over the years with Mr. Flick and we are quite optimistic that we will also continue in a cooperative way for the future. Beyond that, I cannot say.This column appears in the February 2019 edition of Blouin Art+Auction. Subscribe at              Founder: Louise Blouin 



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