Pia-Marie Remmers

Boltenstern Bar, Vienna

A slit in the wall of Meyer Kainer’s upstairs viewing room reveals itself as a papered door with a narrow spiral stairway behind, from which one arrives in the Boltenstern Bar. Since 2007 the bar with an adjoining room for exhibitions, the Boltenstern Raum, serves the gallery as a supplementary space to their main premises. But the history of the venue began much earlier on.

The building in which the gallery and the Boltenstern Bar are located was once a part of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects. It was given to the Association by Kaiser Franz Joseph I in 1872, in gratitude for the members' work on the major building project of the Ringstraße, a route that circles the historical center of Vienna and is equipped with a variety of palaces, museums, the Burgtheater, and the famous Operahouse. In the process of the installment of the Ringstraße, the participating architects of the Association were commissioned to undertake the far-reaching standardization of the Austrian building industry. Everything, from step height to brick size, was standardised. From then on, the determined dimensions had to be applied to every new construction project. Thus, the architects became powerful men and the Association's building in the Eschenbachgasse was constructed under the most modern and luxurious standards. When the Nazis seized power in Austria, they revoked the Association's ownership of the building and license to standardize and handed it over to state officials. Since then, the Association uses some parts of the building as its clubrooms. There are no further rights extended to the group which, over time, has lost its influence.

In the 1950s, many rooms underwent renovations, and Association member Erich Boltenstern was commissioned to set up a bar on the first floor of the building. Bars were pretty trendy in the 50s, and everyone needed one: at home, in the office, or as a hangout spot in a restaurant. In Italy, bars likely originated and took hold to satisfy the fashion and long history of a quick Caffé, espresso. Despite the proximity to Italy, the trend could not be maintained in Austria. This may have been due to the local coffee house culture, in which functional processes are hidden away from the guests in the kitchen. In Italy, conversely, the bars opens up to the outside. This contrast could also have something to do with the respective way of life in these countries.

Boltenstern, who was born in 1896, never cooperated with the Nazis and enjoyed high popularity in the post-war years in Vienna. He built the Ringturm, the second high-rise building in Vienna (the tower is 73 meter high), and the Café Restaurant Cobenzl. He was also involved in the reconstruction of the Operahouse at the Ringstraße after its destruction during the Second World War. His style, labeled as gemäßigte Moderne(“moderate modernism”) developed out of the Wiener Werkstätte, an artist collective founded in 1903 to produce jewelry, furniture, textiles and ceramics. Like the Bauhaus in Weimar a few years later, it was based on the principles of William Morris and the British Arts and Crafts movement. The style of gemäßigte Moderne was accompanied by a certain purism. This simplicity was reflected in the use of Resopal (High Pressure Laminate), as seen in the tables and the counter of the Boltenstern Bar, and new technical tricks such as moveable ceiling spots. At the same time, it was characterized by pseudo-functionalism. For example, apparently practical tubes in the Boltenstern Bar turn out to retain none of their original function, but rather only serve to support a glass vitrine. This deception particularly evokes the slapstick classic “Mon Oncle” by Jaques Tati from 1958. Wallpapers have also played a major role within this style. Similar to the Renaissance view, it was thought that they would open up the room, whereas the white wall appeared silent: a commercial and ideological wall. For the Association's bar, Boltenstern chose a print of the so-called Canaletto View. The view, immortalized by namesake painter Canaletto (Bernardo Bellotto) in 1759, depicts downtown Vienna from the Upper Belvedere. For a long time now, the Austrian government has petitioned to have the view placed on the list of Unesco World Cultural Heritage Sites, as it is repeatedly put at risk by Viennese property developers. Shortly after the gallery took over the premises, the green, the red and the yellow armchairs, which originally belonged to the interior of the bar, were replaced to avoid giving a nostalgic impression. In return, white chairs by Franz West were placed around the tables.

In 2012, a trio of international artists was invited to take part in an exhibition at Boltenstern Raum. “Screens” presented works by Liam Gillick, Renée Green, and Heimo Zobernig. It remains to this day the only exhibition in which works were not limited solely to the exhibition area but were actively engaged with the interior of the  Boltenstern Bar. Liam Gillick built a rack system right in front of the counter, which exceeded it in both height and length. The shelves looked like the slats of a Venetian blind or, taken as a whole, like a multi-part pass-through to entertain thirsty onlookers. Nearby, Renée Green installed armchairs in front of wallpaper of the same pattern in the usually empty corner behind the bar. She modified the so-called "toile" pattern that was created in France in the 17th century by replacing the peaceful scenes of rural life with a violent tableaux of European colonialism. The inviting, bourgeois sitting area thus became a reference to a violent and racist European history, which against all attempts to conceal it, still permeates everything. Heimo Zobernig presented mirroring paravents, which didn’t make it to the bar and were only installed in the exhibition room. Set up in a circle, some of them closed themselves off completely, others allowed a glimpse through a thin gap, and yet others unfolded revealingly. In Zobernig's practice, however, there are a large number of bars to discover. He often used these bars, constructed from pressboard, MDF or cardboard and given pragmatic forms, to examine the relationship between utility object and autonomous work.

Shortly after this exhibition, due to the rising market value of Franz West’s chairs, they were brought back to the gallery’s storage and replaced by simple wooden chairs. However, West didn’t miss the opportunity to exchange the bar lamps' light bulbs for colorful ones to give the establishment a little more of a “ghost train character”. This is how the Boltenstern Bar still appears today.

When Christian Meyer and Renate Kainer saw the gallery-plus-bar-concept at Gavin Brown in New York for the first time in the mid of the 2000s, they decided to open their own version in Vienna, including a room for more experimental programming. As Austria doesn’t have a system of institutions, like the German Kunstvereine, which push younger artists onto the institutional stage, the Boltenstern Raum was at times conceived as just such an initiative. It provides artists with a professional background, yet leaves room for them to experiment. Especially in the early 2010s, this attracted many students from the nearby Art Academy, some of whom had their first solo exhibitions there, or would just hang out at the Boltenstern Bar to drink a few Weiße Spritzer.

Today the interior of the bar is under a preservation order. Exhibition installations in the bar are hardly possible, but references to the premises can be found in the gallery's exhibiting artists' works from time to time. In 2019, for example, artist Min Yoon, imagined a new fictional building on the basis of the spatial structures of the Boltenstern Raum. The exhibition referred to the fragility of the concepts of architecture and exhibiting, which we should always approach with a certain kind of skepticism.

(This text is based on an interview with Christian Meyer held by Pia-Marie Remmers in May 2020)

© Photos by Wolfgang Woessner, courtesy Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna