whitehot | September 2007, Heiner Freidrich: co-creator of the Dia Art Foundation
Creating Artistic Gateways: Heiner Friedrich on Art, Nature, and Humanity One bright and early morning in May, Heiner Friedrich, co-creator of the Dia Art Foundation, sat quietly at a comfortable table on the verandah of the Casa Del Mar Hotel. Having ordered breakfast during his brief stay in Santa Monica, he gazed out of the colossal windows at the ocean and spied a rather curious presence: a reddish brown haze hovering above the greater Los Angeles area, spanning the entire coastline. He asked me what on Earth had caused this phenomenon.
Luckily, he had asked the right person. I had actually been an environmental studies minor at UCLA and knew a considerable amount of information about pollution, especially in relation to southern California. I responded, telling him that the hideous brown blanket was actually the inversion layer: where the wind pressure essentially condensed and capped all of the carbon dioxide, sulfurous and nitrous oxide emissions (among other chemicals) from various factories and motor vehicles, trapping us all in a pit of poison gas. I described how some days were worse than others, depending on where the wind was blowing. Either way, whether the inland valley bore the brunt of the toxic fumes or the coastal region, the gas was basically stagnant here, as the neighboring mountains also formed a natural barrier to the filtration and passage of most of our air.
He did not look too happy about this. And I’ll never forget what he said, which was something to the effect of “Well this has to be stopped!”
His response was so logical and so simple that I almost laughed. Thus began a long conversation having to do with what we as individuals can and should do to improve this world we live in. I soon discovered that Friedrich was indeed one major agent in improving the world, namely our quality of life and experience through the expression of art.
Although not an official artist himself, Friedrich is a gentle and unusual force to be reckoned with, having developed a profound respect for nature and humanity from an early age. Growing up during the second world war, Friedrich had been witness to the unbearable atrocities that humans have notoriously inflicted upon themselves and the environment. In fact, from the age of six months to 6 years, he had lived in Berlin, fortunately departing just in the nick of time during February 1945, only months before a bomb destroyed his family’s home.
Having grown rather accustomed to seeing rubble and destruction, his family moved to Bavaria two months before his 7th birthday. Living in a land that was distinctly endowed with nature in its more complete form, his youthful perception of life changed dramatically: “Nature became my grand master” he assertively recollects.
Heiner Friedrich, in his own words, became focused on the events of the sun, the moon, the seasons, and the abundant landscapes as his primary teachers. In nature, he recognized divinity. In nature, he found the first and original artist.
Thus began his ascent into the culture of creating and appreciating beauty. Not before long, one interest led to another and at the age of 24 he met Franz Dahlem and opened a fantastic gallery in 1963 in Munich called “Friedrich and Dahlem,” which eventually came to be known solely as “Heiner Friedrich.” And this was only the first of many galleries and artistic displays pioneered by the self-taught anomaly, who never actually received any formal training in art.
Yet, by founding and providing for various artistic displays, Friedrich was able to work directly with numerous up-and-coming artists, commissioning them to create personalized exhibits, whose products were at first transiently maintained, only to be replaced by another exhibit after a finite length of time.
Significantly, the painful experience of having to “let the art go” actually inspired Friedrich to seek out ways in which to maintain works of art in a permanent setting, for the constant inspiration and enjoyment of all, a task that he has and still continues to triumphantly manifest into the present day.
When asked about his favorite accomplishment, he responds in a way that is not surprising in the least. In his heavy but playful German accent, he declares: “The Dia Art Foundation has been the main avenue of my life’s work.” Established in New York in 1973, the Dia Art Foundation became the first permanent home to many famous works of contemporary art. To this day, a number of art collections find permanent homes with his ever-expanding exhibits, including an increasing number of venues in New York and throughout the United States .
In awe of all that this inspired individual has done for human culture I felt compelled to ask a simple and sort of *lame* question comparable to asking an artist to decide his or her favorite color.
Alas, I could not resist. What was his favorite genera of art? And did he have a favorite artist? The response I received was not too surprising actually. He had no favorite genera. But how did he choose which art pieces to purchase and display? His answer was rather esoteric. He was simply “guided and directed” by the individual works themselves, which transcended any inclination he might have in gravitating toward any one particular artistic style: “The REVELATORY POWER was what we looked for . . .”
As for his favorite artists, well, when it rains it pours! He began a seemingly endless list of artistic geniuses to the point of overwhelming my pen, as I made a futile attempt to scribble down names as fast as I could. However, he did highlight certain individuals, including Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, Barnett Newman, Walter De Maria, Fred Sandback, Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo, and Dan Flavin -- and he absolutely insisted that I view the Dan Flavin exhibit at LACMA. And of course, the Dia Art Foundation works closely with the Dan Flavin Art Institute in New York on behalf of the exhibit. Ah yes, ulterior motives!
But if Heiner Friedrich did not insist upon my viewing of this unique display, all of the signs posted around LA do the trick just fine. In fact, all of the Dan Flavin advertisements are almost in direct juxtaposition to the current “Zoopsia” advertisements (see my first article on Tim Hawkinson for more information).
Having the pleasure of meeting him that day on the Casa Del Mar verandah, I find that it is no wonder that Friedrich continues to be relentlessly inspired by nature, art, and the interesting people he meets. With a youthful passion for living joyously in the present, I envy Friedrich as he affirms and reaffirms that art improves our collective quality of life -- especially since art, he maintains “cannot be corrupted.” So what is so great about art again? What about art makes the world a better place?
Yet again, he returned to a significantly clear but nondescript tone, effectively mirroring my question in his reply. “Yes,” he says in that familiarly simple and matter-of-fact way, “art makes the world a better place.” How can anyone possibly disagree with that?
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief