In memoriam Heike Curtze
Her fine, discrete smile, her gentle and subtle voice, her radiant, inquisitive and intensive look immediately created a unique, vibrant aura around Heike Curtze. It attracted everyone who met her, it was unconventional, peculiar and at the same time completely fresh, real. Without any theatrical effects or gestures it appealed irresistibly to everyone, because it was strong, natural, elementary and simply true. She was like this. That was Heike. Her openness, curiosity and true interest for any form of art was inseparably connected to her profound empathy for the artists as person and for the people, for the very different personalities around her. Her immediate, spontaneous approach to others involved warmness, sensibility and a true affirmation of life. This joy of life and art, this joy of literature, music, nature, friends, discussions, dinners, exhibitions, this intellectual and sensual pleasure, all that was her element of existence.
With her shockingly sudden death Vienna lost someone who personified, par excellence, the esprit of this town. Heike Curtze was not only a gallerist and art lover, not only a great and passionate protagonist of several paradigmatic artists of the last five decades of Austrian art, not only an internationally well accepted and loved expert of contemporary drawing, but above all and most significantly a keen intellectual, an important figure filled with empathy, culture and warmth.
She fully embraced the arts, the artists and the entirety of life. Her subtle irony was based on deep knowledge and serious reflectiveness; her sharp critical mind never offended anyone because it was not tainted by cynicism; her humor was full of humanity, understanding and tolerance. Heike was one of the most tolerant and generous people I ever met. Her tolerance originated from her openness and curiosity, from her emotional capacity to enter into someone’s inner universe without giving up her own vision of life. Heike Curtze understood the unlimited, uncontrollable complexity and labyrinth-like, contradictory, inconsistent richness of human behavior and enjoyed true art which is always acknowledging these challenging contradictions.
That also meant: she was far from being naïve; her pleasant smile could also reflect some latent criticism, some subversive irony, some distance from the things she did not accept. Her tolerance was not the indifferent absence of criticism but the deep understanding of the multiplicity of values and identities.
In the Summer of 1984, I met Heike for the first time in Vienna where we had an intense discussion about the changing situation in Central Europe. She was very interested in the Budapest art scene where I came from. Heike much appreciated the painting of the Budapest artist Akos Birkàs, one of my closest friends and intellectual partners in the 80’s, whose work she represented for a long time. More significantly, she valued him as a great connoisseur of classical painting.
These years were fascinating, exciting and adventurous in art and politics. Heike followed with great interest and passionate engagement the entire transformation of Central Europe. Hungary, the long-time and let’s say, difficult, revolting but also loved “small brother” of Austria, evidently played a strategically important role and received - in a certain sense – a model-like position in this turbulent political transformation. During that time I noticed Heike’s profound interest in politics and history, which remained until the end a constant subject of our discussions.
Observed from the other side of the – still existing – “Iron Curtin”, which was famously and somewhat theatrically cut at the Austrian-Hungarian border in June 1989, by the hands of Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, Vienna represented for us, artists, art historians, critics, writers, philosophers the “first station” towards the West, towards the democracy, towards the freedom, towards the future Europe we hoped to enter soon. At the same time – very strangely, but also logically – towards the past, towards the – very probably illusionistic – idea of multicultural, multiethnic, tolerant, “soft” Mitteleuropa. We believed in this cultural and political dream, in the multiethnic, tolerant Mitteleuropa, what we had created for ourselves from the literature, music, philosophy, art and architecture… For younger generations it is very likely not evident anymore, that Vienna represented for us, in Budapest, at that time, the common past, the lost myth of Mitteleuropa, the home of Freud and Musil, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka and Géza Csàth, the whole beautiful Welt von Gestern, my grandmother was speaking about with invariable euphory and unabated emotional explosion throughout my entire childhood. The historical and culturally comprehensible paradox was, that this nostalgic dream about the lost Mitteleuropa became in a certain sense the paradigm of the common future, of our new spiritual home, of our new air of freedom and creativity.
Heike and I had several discussions about this subject. She invited me to give a lecture about the work of Akos Birkàs, at the opening of his show in her gallery in Düsseldorf, in 1987. That was actually the perfect occasion to discuss in depth many of our common interests, art and politics, history and literature. It was a great evening, a nice dinner, a beautiful atmosphere, a real Begegnung!
After this opening, we met regularly in Vienna. I always visited her gallery when I came to Austria and we continued our discussions. I had the chance to be present at several beautiful openings in her gallery, where I met her artists and friends, first and foremost Hermann and Rita Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, Kurt Kocherscheid, Dieter Ronte, who was at that time director of the Vienna Ludwig Stiftung, Gunter Brus and Christian Ludwig Attersee. Also common friends from the United States, Israel, Italy, like Osvaldo Romberg, Paul Wallach, Andrea Fogli as well, as our Viennese friend Sylvia Eisenburger. I always enjoyed and admired Heike’s incredible capacity for creating a spontaneous, intensive and joyful atmosphere at evenings where so many different people met each other and exchanged their views. These unique, completely unusual, perhaps even anachronistic and “old-fashioned” but beautiful and free ambiente, reminded me of Parisian salons of the 19th century.
That was exactly her: her universe: artists, writers, theater people, collectors, different intellectuals and friends from the press, economy, politics, but also complete outsiders, “poetic strangers”. Heike, with her somewhat extravagant but always extremely sophisticated attire, usually in red-violet-orange or green-yellow harmonies. At her side the brilliant and sophisticated Bernd Jeschek. Bernd often gave readings in the company of younger artists and the great Vienna Masters at renowned literary evenings. We had beautiful discussions, delicious buffets and fine wine, that was her world. It was all so unique and fascinating for me, a non-Viennese at the time, who would later live for a long time in Vienna – something extremely exciting and authentic: it was the Vienna of my life, it was the embodiment of something profoundly real, exceptional, singular “Viennese” mixed with my own phantasms and cultural dreaming about Vienna. Paradoxically, Heike Curtze was not Austrian, she came from Germany to Vienna, however she always maintained strong connections to Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne where she created par excellence her Viennese salon d’art, the real home for art and literature.
During my Viennese years, Heike had been a real defender of my museum politics, a great protagonist of my program and a faithful, constant visitor to my exhibitions. Sometimes we worked together on projects, which involved artists we both loved and esteemed and this beautiful collaboration continued well beyond my Viennese years.
She worked with me – and generously helped me – to realize the exhibitions of Arnulf Rainer and Gunter Brus in Saint-Etienne; she came for several openings where I presented some young Austrian artists she also appreciated and even in recent years we had projects in Peking, Singapore and Rome. We met at art fairs in Brussels, Paris and Cologne, where she exhibited delicate and subtle works by her artists. Her enthusiasm and engagement for art, her profound interest for artists remained vivid until the last moment of her life. She lived with art, in art, for art; her oxygen was art.
Some weeks ago, we were still working on a Gunter Brus exhibition planned for Rome. We had several discussions by telephone and she was full of optimism, she believed she would overcome the illness. Heike never lost her sophisticated humor during this difficult year, not even during her last weeks. Heike observed the world during the Covid epidemic, she followed the events with sarcasm and a critically sharp point of view. Heike had her opinion about politics, art, human behavior and she had her vision about the near future… Her presence, the presence of her warmth and her beautiful, clear, open mind, her enthusiastic embracing of art, her love of life stay in our memory.