When a trade fair like Art Cologne strives to raise its profile, but has stagnated over the years instead of making decisive progress, industry jargon likes to say that it "realistically reflects the German market". For its current, 56th edition, this means that it is once again looking after internationally renowned participants and has shrunk to a number of exhibitors of 170. In purely numerical terms, this is particularly noticeable in the field of classical modernism, which is steadily losing importance in Cologne – while in contemporary art, many international as well as Berlin galleries give the traditional fair the cold shoulder. Its backbone is still formed by established suppliers and exhibitors who have moved from Cologne to the capital and into the world, such as Michael Werner (early works by Sigmar Polke such as a "kidney form"), Sprüth Magers, Nagel Draxler, Daniel Buchholz and Gisela Capitain are definitely worth seeing here. Overall, Art Cologne feels uncluttered, but also a bit thinned out.

Certainly not everything about the – at least perceived – standstill as the status quo is homemade. After all, the German market includes the ominous nineteen percent value added tax levied on the consumer good of art, which has put the local trade at a painful locational disadvantage compared to other European countries for years. Anke Schmidt, co-chair of the Federal Association of German Galleries, calls this an "absurd situation" and warns against the fallacy that only "rich people and expensive art" are at work in the art market. At the 56th Art Cologne, the Cologne-based gallery owner emphatically called on the federal government to reduce the tax rate again to seven percent, which is also the case in view of EU directives changed in 2022. As the association has calculated, this would not cost the federal government more than forty million euros a year. In fact, the lament about the unequal level of VAT in Europe has been wafting through the corridors of the Cologne art market for years.

Of course, a trade fair also thrives on the fascination of high prices, for example for Yayoi Kusama's garish green-red dotted abstraction "Infinity Net" from 1999, which can be purchased for 2.4 million euros at Von Vertes (Zurich); the painting "Don't Swallow Me" by Louise Bourgeois from 2008 for 1.3 million euros at Karsten Greve (Cologne) or the "Portrait of Mary Beebe" by Alice Neel for 1.2 million dollars at Aurel Scheibler (Berlin). A large-format, gestural painting on wrapping paper by the Viennese painter Martha Jungwirth at the stand of Thaddaeus Ropac (Salzburg) at 430,000 euros, the black-and-white triangular composition "Easy Ride" by Leon Polk Smith from 1985 at Edition und Galerie Hoffmann (Friedberg) for 220,000 euros, or a late self-portrait by Lotte Laserstein at Ludorff (Düsseldorf) for 150,000 euros.

New additions and rediscoveries

Art Cologne has always felt responsible for contemporary art at lower prices. Galerie A+B from Brescia dedicates its booth to the epicurean brushstrokes of the painter Markus Saile, a Cologne mannerist who cleverly arranges his paintings in correspondence (3000 to 13,000 euros). Thomas Rehbein (Cologne), who figures several smaller formats in the cluster (8000 to 13,000 euros), reports on a renewed demand for abstract, once "radical" paintings by Peter Tollens. At Kraupa-Tuskany (Berlin), two compositions by Pieter Schoolwerth, a cross between oil painting and digital prints, cost $65,000 each. Josey (Norwich) is taking part in a trade fair in Cologne for the first time ever. The gallery from the east of England surprises with a rediscovery of the Düsseldorf artist Elke Denda, who has since left the art world, whose exhibited paintings and sculptures from the years around 1990 oscillate ironically between figure and abstraction (3800 to 17,500 euros).

The Antwerp gallery Sofie Van de Velde is setting up a worthwhile "Conversation Booth" with two artists from the early 20th century and the present day: a stately suite of drawings by George Grosz from his own collection, including "War Cripples", "Scuffles" and other depictions of violence, is paired with the grotesquely hung figures by the Dutch sculptor Folkert de Jong (5000 to 55,000 euros). The booth of Dittrich & Schlechtriem (Berlin) is designed by Kiev-born Marta Dyachenko as an unfinished subway station for the International Congress Center in order to simulate a "transit place". Emanuel Layr furnishes his stand in a purist way. With two abstract marble sculptures by Benjamin Hirte, each weighing around 200 kilograms, the Viennese gallerist wants to once again tackle basic questions of sculpture, for which the art-loving Rhineland seems to him to be a suitable place of discourse (22,000 euros each). Layr admits that he "loves regional settings" such as Art Cologne, but wants to remain flexible in the selection of fairs and perhaps go to Turin again next year.

Art Cologne, Koelnmesse Cologne, until 19 November, admission 30 euros