After weeks of studio work, the premiere episode of Faces of Berlin is ready! In this episode we'll be meeting Volker Diehl, a Berlin gallery owner with decades of experience in the art world and endless cool stories to tell. Volker talks about his career during the Cold War, his work with the likes of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, life in Moscow and many other fascinating things, in his trademark charming, nonchalant manner. The show is hosted by Elena Kaplyar-Balzer, founder of The Columbist.
More parts of Faces of Berlin are currently in production. Each episode on our new channel features an outstanding person living and working in Berlin, in a one-on-one interview. Our guests include artists, businessmen, people with creative talents manifested in endless different ways, all having one thing in common: they are extraordinary Berliners.
Photo by: The Columbist
Elena: Good morning! Now we're in West Berlin, in Charlottenburg district, close to the famous heritage so-called Green House built by the architect Gessner. We are at Niebuhrstraße. And today I am excited to present you our new video project Faces Of Berlin. And our first guest will be Volker Diehl, an internationally renowned gallery owner, and we are going inside of his gallery DIEHL to have a look at his current exhibition of German photographer Thomas Florschuetz. Let's go!
Volker Diehl: Hello, nice to see you! Very nice to see you. Welcome in my gallery and my new exhibition. It's Thomas Florschuetz, a photographer who I represent for almost twenty years I think. He shows new artworks, new photographs of a project he never showed public. And it's actually a very special project because he was able to make photographs just before the ethnological museum in Dahlem closed in January 2017. And he made a series of photographs in the process of closing down the museum. Here you can see, like, parts of the exhibition vitrines, different layers of room and perspective. He is very famous for his architecture photography. And here you see already some of the artefacts, some of the art objects in the storage.
This a vitrine which is still like it was planned for the exhibition. And here you can see that half of the vitrine, you see the nails, the screws on the wall, were already put down and in storage.
Elena: This is the main hall of the gallery where all the exhibitions are running. How many exhibitions did you have before Corona-time a year?
Volker: I mean we did pretty normal programme, this is our third exhibition this year.
Elena: Ok, cool, so maybe you show us the other creative rooms where Volker is working. Who is this artist?
Volker: That's a painting by another artist of my gallery, Martin Assig. A painting from 2004, called The Partizan. So, yeah, it's a woman with a gun on her back, with a lot of breasts to feed partizans. A very strong painting.
Volker: Please, follow me.
Elena: Cool – so this is the place where Volker is working. Wow! What a beautiful oasis!
Volker: That's my favourite room. My favourite gallery garden.
Elena: That's where a lot of inspiration comes from.
Volker: A lot of relaxing when I'm working here.
Elena: So who's taking care of all these plants?
Volker: I do, usually. It's my kind of meditation in between.
Elena: Let's have a seat and find out who the real Volker Diehl is.
Volker: Part of it.
Elena: Upon entering I introduced you as the owner of a contemporary art gallery. But in fact Volker Diehl is so much more than just a gallery owner. Talking about all you enormous professional achievements and collaborations, which of them are you mostly proud of?
Volker: Business-wise? I am always honest to myself and I am not just running after any kind of fashion or mainstream movement or just, you know, money and things like that. That took a lot of experience and, yeah, difficult times, business-wise. But with the age you come down a little bit, and then you continue much more in the way you started, when you were … I mean, I had an idea when I was 20-25 what I wanted to do. And in between I made a lot of mistakes, I was just running after something which I thought should be done or would be helpful, like a more opportunistic way. And I had to learn that I had to go back to my roots and to my … yeah, I can say it in a romantic way, to my dreams: work with art and artists the way I believe in. So that's what I am proud of.
Elena: But coming to the business part, the collaboration part of your experience. In one of the interviews you said Joseph Beuys changed your perspective of art.
Volker: Yeah, I mean I was lucky that in my early days I met a few really great artists. Time was very different than now. The art world was very, very different compared to now. But Beuys was really special. At that time, I met him April '82. I still have a few beautiful photographs. He was part of the Zeitgeist exhibition (Text) where I was PA of Normal Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides. I was a young man, 24 years old. Special personalities like Joseph Beuys you don't meet every day. He was very spiritual, very kind, very polite, very strong, and a really wonderful mind. And it was great fun to talk to him, to listen to him. He was very democratic, very different to many other people. No power games, nothing of that. He was always kind and good mood, and he was talking to the waiter in Paris in the same way as he was talking to me, or a big collector, or to my boss or to a politician. He was like a very democratic person I think, in many ways. And that's impressive for a young man.
Volker: It was great opportunity that I could spend a few weeks and months with him in Zeitgeist exhibition in Gropius Bau. He was the kind of personality who enters the room and changes the atmosphere right away. It's like without even saying a word. I really, really liked him.
Elena: Very nice. You have also a picture of Andy Warhol in your kitchen.
Volker: The story with Andy was also very interesting because we were visiting the Gropius Bau in April '82; the opening was planned for October '82, and Andy was walking around and then he took me on the side and he said – because he wanted to do special works for the exhibition, like most of the artists, also Beuys did – he said he always admired the architecture of Albert Speer. And if I could get him photographs. At that time there were not many books existing on Albert Speer's architectural oeuvres. So I went to the Landesbildstelle here and Ullstein archive and I found photographs from the Light Dome and from many other things, which we copied and sent to New York. He used several of the images. One image was the Light Dome Albert Speer created for the Reichsparteitagsgeländein Nurnberg I think it was '34, and he used that for a series of works. And when the first one was finished, it wasn't even put on a stretcher, he sent me an Ektachrome transparency, as a kind of thank you. And I still have it, and it's hanging in my gallery always in the backroom, reminding me of good old days. But one year later I visited him in New York.
Elena: So you were in contact.
Volker: Ok, it was not a time of mobile phone yet, not a time of computer, so I just called him and said I will be next month in New York and he said: you're very welcome, just come by. And he spent half a day with us, with Roland, my partner Roland Hargenberg and me, and showed us The Factory. We were drinking, had some food. Also very open-minded, very kind, and I mean we were just two young guys from Germany, but he spent almost the whole day with us. It was big fun. Unfortunately, 2-3 years later he died already.
Elena: What actually makes a good artist, and what makes a good gallerist?
Volker: That's a very tricky question. If I would know, I would be really super-successful.
Elena: You're really successful so you know it.
Volker: What makes a good gallerist is to be open-minded and to be ready to learn every day, and to believe in yourself and in your eye, and in your message you want to create for yourself. Most of the gallerists are very individual and very, very different kind of personalities. And the way they work and the way they are successful can be also very, very different. But I don't know, I mean I met, I was also lucky to meet several times Leo Castelli, who was like compared to, he was those days maybe the number one, now it's Larry Gagosian, so it very different, but in some way they were also very similar. Leo was more kind of romantic, elegant, wonderful gentleman. We did an interview with him and he took three or four hours. Again, he was talking about his life and he took us out, we had lunch later then with Ileana Sonnabend who was his former wife, and – yeah, a very different world to now, on one hand. On the other hand, what connects him with gallerists like Larry Gagosian is to have a great eye and to believe in the artist and in major artworks and into quality of the artist. So that's very, very important as well, but sure today it's different because business and money became a little bit more important than it was in those days. I mean, that's definitely a huge difference. And there are so many ways of being successful or to work with art now, it's like almost endless. And there are much more opportunities also now for galleries to work. But –I mean, I am more a kind of smaller gallerist who is working in his own niche, and I try to create my own style, my own content in the gallery. So, what makes a good artist successful – this is magic. A great artist is – they are very authentic; authentic in what they are doing, and they have to be authentic not only for five years but they should be authentic for their whole life, which can be quite long. I mean life is short actually, but ...
Elena: Not on the hype wave?
Volker: … to work on a high level continuously, over decades, it's very, very long. And this is definitely something which makes a good artist.
Elena: Ok. You have in the hall the Martin Assig work. This is the artist that you always called serious, a real artist. So, I would say this is – you were working together for mostly thirty years, so this is already friendship, probably.
Volker: Almost thirty years. Now it's a very good friendship, a long-time friendship. And what connects us is that we are both people who create strength out of doubts. He is a very doubtful person, and I am a very doubtful person, but to have doubts can be negative and can take energy, but it also can do the opposite. And I always liked that he was never making compromises – doesn't matter, he always was believing in himself and doing what he wanted to do. And it's not too easy for an artist sometimes because they are under enormous pressure: they see there is another colleague who has a museum show now, and they don't get a museum show. There is another colleague who costs ten times more than their own paintings. So there is this competition, which sometimes is a lot of pressure on the artist. You have to deal with that and have to be honest with yourself over years and years, and not give up, which sometimes happens. But he is a strong person, because he is a kind of a little universe by himself. He collects, he lives outside of Berlin, he has his house which he created over years, he built another additional barn to the house. He's like very much – how you say – grounded in himself. That helps a lot.
Elena: Calling him a serious artist, what is for you then 'not serious' artist?
Volker: I mean, he is a typical artist like most of the very good artists. He loves books, he reads a lot, he is a very intellectual person. He loves philosophy. He also additionally is interested in religion, which is not the case for many artists, but anyway I would connect it to the philosophical side. So that's a kind of serious attitude which I like a lot, because it's big fun to talk to him, and I always learn something when we meet.
The unserious artists – I don't know – in every profession you have people who are going deep, and other people are staying on the surface.
Elena: Let's say what is the five big, main changes for you in the art world from the time when you were working together with Andy Warhol, and now, like?
Volker: I was never working with Andy Warhol.
Elena: Ok, like meeting him. From that time, twenty years ago.
Volker: Ok, I was working for [him] when I worked with the museum, that's true. We had a lot of contact, telephone calls and letters et cetera, it was before the fax time. I think my first fax machine I bought mm-m, let's see, '85 maybe. Then, the next change was when the Wall came down, '89. '90. So the world opened up. It was like maybe the biggest change – not only with the art world, but this globalisation influenced all of our lives. Because up to '89 the art world was mainly Germany, Switzerland, Italy, a little bit of Belgium, and then the United States – especially New York, a little bit of Chicago. Los Angeles was like one or two, three galleries, it was small. There was no Miami at that time. And then there was no Scandinavia really, beside of few exceptions. Not even really England or France, only exceptional single galleries working there. No Spain, there was still suffering because Franco died I think in '75 and it took quite a while to recover. There was no Asia, just a little bit of Japan end of the 80s. There was no China, no Korea. There was no Russia or East Europe. So, in all those countries there were quite good artists working but there was no art world. There was no collecting, there was no contemporary art museums really. And so that changed a lot around 1990, and then in a few years it became a completely different world, especially we founded - it was '95 or '96 – we founded the Art Fair in Berlin, and that was right in the time when art world recovered. Because between '90 and '95 it was in deep depression. Art world recovered and was exploding, to the kind of art world 25 years later, now. So that was the second change.
Third change was that through internet and through social media and all the possibilities the art world became very different. This new technology creates also as a kind of equal, a new kind of artist, new kind of dealing, new kind of galleries. And that was definitely a huge change which is still going on. It's not finished.
Then the fourth change I think we are experiencing now because in the last couple of years art became a kind of currency. I mean, next to stocks, to real estate, to gold – people are now believing in that artworks can be stable by value, and people are – what we say – I wouldn't call it investing, I would call it more like parking money in arts, and that's a very new story which is only a few years old. I mean, there were always people investing in art, but that's a different story. But that huge wider mass of people is trusting art. That way is quite new I think.
And the fifth change we are waiting for. I'm sure the whole world, the art world will look a little bit different. But it's difficult to say how.
Elena: That was my next question.
Volker: It's very difficult to say how. Ok, a few things which we experience already is that it will be more virtual, but at the same time I know, I mean my clients, or my friends they always want to come and they want to see it, want to stand in front of it, they want to feel it. And I am the same. So, it's this combination. If you connect it in a nice intelligent way it gives you more opportunities.
Elena: So, fall in love with Berlin, after this travelling around the world, living in New York, living in Moscow, but always come back to Berlin. Why to Berlin? Is it still what the Germans call Heimatliebe?
Volker: Berlin and me, me and Berlin is a love and hate relation in a way. I mean, there were at least two or three times that I wanted to leave Berlin and live somewhere else. In the end of 80s I had the idea to move to New York, but then I met my first wife, we married, we got first baby, so I definitely had a few other things to think about. It was a wrong moment and then again I started to think about it and I – and then the Wall came down and then I thought ok, this is the place where I should be now. And yeah, I was a little bit like that, that I several times really wanted to move somewhere else. I lived between Moscow and Berlin but then with the crisis 2008-2009 I had a lot of problems, also financial problems. So I had to come back to Berlin again. I mean I kept my place here but I wanted to build up something in Moscow which didn't work out the way I wanted, so I came back hundred percent to Berlin.
Hm, political situation I am not really happy with. I think they are not using the possibilities this city has. But still I have a very good life here. As you can see I have a beautiful garden, beautiful gallery, my family is here, so at the same time I love my life here. So, it's a little bit like that. But that counts for other people in other cities as well so it's not so special.
Elena: Moscow. Coming back to this topic. A big part of your professional and personal life is connected with Eastern Europe and also with Russia. You were actually the first foreigner who opened the gallery in Moscow in 2008 – why Moscow, why Russia, how did you come to this decision?
Volker: It's not always a clever idea to be a pioneer, you know. I think mister Hammer who was also very much involved in arts, he said one day that as a pioneer you get a bloody nose. And you should be in the second role, it's much better, you know. To watch what's going on and then make your decision. That happened to me. I mean, I was first one, but it was the wrong moment, the financial crisis 2008-2009.
Elena: Nobody could predict it.
Volker: It hit us very much. So I had to close the gallery end of 2009. But beside of that I still love Moscow. I love East Europe, I have lots of beautiful stories to tell. I have many, many good friends there. I represent Russian artists, I represent Ukrainian artists, I represent Romanian artists. I somehow like East Europe a lot and I am sometimes a little bit sad about prejudice and the attitude of the West towards East Europe. I really always have to defend the Russians. But the culture and the people and life there is quite exciting, and I always enjoy to be there. It's a – I like the mentality, there's a lot what I like about Russians, but they – the way how Russians survive and always find a solution in the worst moments is very archaic way which I feel attached to. For me it's something I have never a problem with. I always find right away friends, and understand situations and can deal with it. For me it's a great country.
Elena: I have ten questions from the Marcel Proust questionnaire.
Volker: That's a famous one, yeah.
Elena: Yeah. He believed that this is the best way to open the personality.
Volker: I was always scared to answer them, so I don't know if I can...
Elena: Let's see. It's only ten. This is a quick question – quick answer: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Volker: As I already said: for me perfect happiness is balance between unhappy and being happy. Because it's impossible to be happy all the time, and it should be impossible to be unhappy all the time. So this is what I'm working on and believing in.
Elena: What is your greatest fear?
Volker: That, hm, yeah it's even hard for me to say, to pronounce it, but I think greatest fear is your kids die before you die. I believe in that.
Elena: What is your current state of mind?
Volker: Hm, full of ideas. As always. Too many actually. I always tell myself: say no, say no! I try to learn to say no. And I tell sometimes myself in the morning, standing in front of the mirror, I pronounce it. But it doesn't work. Women have it easier, because they learn at 13-14 that they should say no. But for a man it's sometimes difficult.
Elena: Interesting. On what occasion do you lie?
Volker: I don't have a clear answer because it's like when you know when you lie and you don't have a real choice you feel very unhappy about it.
Elena: You always have a choice.
Volker: It's like yeah, but sometimes you don't have. It's like very difficult. Sometimes it's to protect, you know, in the private life sometimes you make a mistake and it's maybe not really something you wanted or you mean. And if you say the truth... You know, what we say, I don't really know what the English word is, again we say in German: Notlüge.
Elena: Yeah, this is the same, like...
Volker : It's called white lie.
Elena: White lie? You see, we all learn something today.
Volker: I never heard. Funny. It's white lie.
Elena: Ok. Cool. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Volker: I don't know. I am happy with myself.
Elena: You're happy. Great.
Volker: It's all so useless to be unhappy with yourself. I mean, last year I was a little bit unhappy with myself when I lost ten kilos in three months.
Volker: Yeah. But things like that you can arrange, you know.
Elena: Yeah, sure. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Volker: Hm, I think I mainly like women who love to be women.
Elena: That's the answer. Ok. Then, what – or who – is the greatest love of your life?
Volker:I mean, sure I love my kids, I love my ex-wives, sure. They are the mothers of my children, so there's no doubt. My continuous love with – because I live for it every day – is arts, in a way. It's always a competition to my private love to my kids or to the mothers of my kids. Or to my lovers.
Elena: What is your greatest regret? Maybe you don't have it?
Volker: I don't have really regrets. Maybe …
Elena: Happy person.
Volker: If I think about it: I mean I'm very happy with my life, I don't regret what I did. But – a few, hm, a few trips, travels I would have done, I should have done which I still have a chance to do.
Elena: But you travel quite a lot?
Volker: I travel a lot but it's always connected to my art life or to private situations.
Elena: How would you like to die?
Volker: Without being sick and painful, painfully sick for a long time. That's the only wish I have. Rest is... I lived a great life, I am ok with everything.
Elena: What is your motto?
Volker: My motto? Keep yourself open-minded is really my thing. Even that I think sometimes I shouldn't be so passionate, so fast [smiles]. But I try to turn it into something productive, positive, beautiful. Whatever.
Elena: Cool. Obviously, there was no question you were afraid of.