Andreas Schalhorn

At the scene of the events. On Matthias Beckmann's Berlin studio drawings

Between 2010 and 2012, the draftsman Matthias Beckmann visited the studios of 88 artists living in Berlin. He started with familiar colleagues and friends but then step by step widened the circle, bringing his theoretically quite infinite endeavour to a conclusion at a certain point and, as is testified by the present publication, into a representative form. As a rule, at least three upright format A4 pencil drawings were made per visited studio.

The choice of the subject is only consequent within Matthias Beckmann’s graphic work: He had already, in many ways, concerned himself with the public places of art presentation (museum, special exhibition, gallery) in earlier series of drawings. Here too, the drawings were made on site, details and perspectives were put to paper, including the recipients of art as well (for instance 2004 in the shape of the queue in front of the “MoMa in Berlin” exhibition at Neue Nationalgalerie). With the studios something distinctive is now added to this: Beckmann leaves the public spaces of art and its reception and proceeds to the rather exclusive scene of its conception and development. In 2008, he had delved into the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett’s (Museum of Prints and Drawings) restoration workshops, a place likewise usually not open to the public. As early as 2003, he also drew for the first time in a museum depot, an area  specifically assigned for the storage of art (we will occasionally encounter this aspect in the studio sheets too).

The series of the Berlin studio drawings was preceded by several drawings Matthias Beckmann made in the studio of his artist friend Hans Pfrommer with regard to a joint exhibition. In Berlin, his centre of work and life since 2003, Beckmann subsequently developed his ambitious studio project. To visit selected artists’ studios right here, in a city that has become the creative center of the European art world after the reunification, seems especially tempting and reasonable. Not least due to a long spell of cheap studio rents, Berlin has turned into a magnet for many more or less renowned national and international artists. In its way, Beckmann’s project offers a selective and yet – also due to the diversity of the artistic media used by the visited artists – authentic portrait of the current Berlin art scene. One may be curious as to how the number of artists and studios in Berlin will develop in the years to come. How will the already manifest gentrification and the increasing rents and housing prices affect the urban sociotope of the artists and the creative – including the galleries on site? Will a town like Warsaw some day be the next big thing?

Matthias Beckmann is not the first artist to deal with the subject of the studio. But he does add, as is yet to be expanded on, new facets to the multi-layered genre of the studio picture rooted mainly in modern European art. His concentration on drawing is itself quite remarkable, as since the 19th century special attention with the public had been mainly gained by the photographic documentation and staging of the artist in the studio. One could, for instance, think of Ernst Scheidegger’s pictures from Alberto Giacometti’s studio in Paris or of Hans Namuth’s photos on Jackson Pollock.[1] Moreover, the depictions artists made of their own studios (including the self portrait in the studio) represent a distinct genre with a long tradition, a notable example of which being the tireless draftsman Adolph Menzel in late 19th century Berlin. The Swiss Alberto Giacometti, too, captured his Paris studio in various drawings, lithographs and etchings in the 1950s and 1960s – along with the utensils and furniture there, the completed works, the works in completion (sculptures mostly) and the persons sitting portrait there.

In contrast to Giacometti, who quasi doubled his own artistic style in his studio depictions, Matthias Beckmann is admitted to an artist’s studio as an outside observer – and brings along his own drawing language. Furthermore, he does not aim at stylizing and staging the visited artist, does not turn the studio into an allegory. As to the self-staging of the artist in the studio, the monumental “Painter’s Studio” by Gustave Courbet (1855, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) provides a famous example in 19th century painting. Courbet’s self-staging in a room filled with prominent visitors, in which he himself, along with a model in front of a painting on an easel, forms the center, has an inherent programmatics going beyond the mere representation of a real space. This is attested by the ambitious subtitle of the work: “A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life”.[2] As said before, Matthias Beckmann takes a different way, offering a platform to the structure of the studio per se (as a place where art is created) and refraining from symbolic elevations. His observations stick to the facts – but strike surprising creative sparks from these.

But exactly what kind of place is the studio which Beckmann visits for drawing? What happens there with the art? The German translation of an essay by the U.S. American theoretician and artist Brian O’Doherty was published recently, dealing with the artist’s studio and its representation as antipole and basis of the white gallery space (“white cube”). [3] O’Doherty  remarks on the particular status of the studio and the artworks assembled there: “The studio is more or less crowded with artworks, periodically depleted as they migrate to the gallery. Artworks lie around, parked, ignored in remote corners, stacked against the wall, reshuffled with the cavalier attitude allowed only to their creator. As one work is worked on, the others, finished and unfinished, are detained in a waiting zone, one over the other, in what you might call a collage of compressed tenses. All are in the vicinity of their authenticating source, the artist. As long as they are in his or her orbit, they are subject to alteration and revision. All are thus potentially unfinished. They – and the studio itself – exist under the sign of process, which in turn defines the nature of studio time, very different from the even, white, present tense of the gallery.”[4] In the studio the artworks are still “aesthetically unstable” (O’Doherty), as long as they are “accompanied only by the artist (and occasional visitors, assistants, other artists), they are vulnerable to a glance or a change in light. They have not yet determined their own value. That begins when they are socialized on the gallery walls.” [5]

To have the pleasure of witnessing the quasi fragile, still unofficial state of a work (though this is not the only subject of the drawings) was a particular privilege for Matthias Beckmann: “Being allowed to draw in an often very intimite place of reflection and production is also a form of hospitality and trust. That some artists did not want this, and I therefore could not draw in their studios, is very understandable too. All the more astonishing is the general openness I encountered.” [6] In their way, many of Beckmann’s drawings illustrate O’Doherty’s quoted observations about the studio as a temporary art storage space. Look, for instance, at a sheet made in the residential studio of draftswoman Pia Linz. To the right it shows a transport box rested against the wall, now dominating the room. Does it contain one of Pia Linz’s big topographic drawings? We can not tell from the drawing.

With Beckmann, who acts as a discreet and alert observer in the studios visited by appointment and does not make the visited colleagues the main subject, the settings of things and spaces seem laconic and objective. The artist as ‘master of the house’ is featured indeed, sometimes rather casually though, in part, from a distance. Rainer Splitt, for instance, is present in the form of his working hands on the three sheets Beckmann dedicated to his studio . On other sheets (absent) artists are represented by their work utensils – such as Nanne Meyer’s and Malte Spohr’s drawing pencils. Or, as on the first sheet from Frank Badur’s studio, by the depiction of an exhibition catalogue with the artist’s name on it. Within the trio of drawings dedicated to this artist (the studio by the way being located in Potsdam!) one could almost talk of a title page. The film and video artist Bjørn Melhus, for his part, looks at us from the poster of his exhibition “Live Action Hero” that took place in 2011 at Haus am Waldsee. When Beckmann drew in his studio he was not even there. The artist Gabriele Basch is seen from a distance as a rear-view figure at the work table on one sheet, more prominent, however, and also isolated from every spatial context appears her sleeping dog in his basket on the third sheet. The second sheet dedicated to Basch’s studio concentrates on the partly reticular, partly chaotic internal structures on a painting based on one of her papercuts. 

With the drawings made in a concrete studio Matthias Beckmann tries to bundle up a certain spectrum of facets and motif variations, so that in the end a convincing consonance will ensue. At the same time he takes liberties and lets his eyes wander – sometimes out of the window into courtyard and street, as is attested, for instance, by the drawings in the studios of Massoud Graf-Hachempour and Matthias Mansen.

Looking from the playful laconic perspective that underlies Beckmann’s line drawings, one will realize that a contemporary artist’s studio is not at all the mythical-mysterious laboratory as which it is still widely seen, but oscillates between showroom, workshop, conference room, storage place, archive, library, apartment and office or combines some of the mentioned functions. As not only painters were visited, but also draftspersons, sculptors working in installation and media artists, the traditional easel, though only seldom found at the visited painters (Thomas Huber, Volker Stelzmann, Peter Thol), has become superfluous as an almost clichéd starting point for characterizing a room as a studio. Some artists will only conceive and plan their works in the studio anyway and have them executed elsewhere by others.

In Beckmann’s drawings one encounters empty and tidy studios as well as rooms in which things pile up, congest and mingle. Is the vintage car in Markus Sendlinger’s garage studio, escorted by some beer crates in the adjoining room, part of a dismantled or planned installation, an object of utility or simply the bulky relic of a former user of the space? On some of Beckmann’s sheets it is sometimes hard to distinguish between where there is an artwork and where not. (The very dull slogan “Is this art or can it be dumped?” may come to mind.) Only the initiated, close friends that is, collectors or dealers of one artist or the other, who have the licence to visit the studio, will probably know how to decipher Beckmann’s well dosed subjective spatial fragments without major problems. Or else see the familiar studios with completely new eyes. This also goes for the artworks there, which often appear truncated in Beckmann’s renditions. A conceptual series of drawings by Bettina Munk, displayed on the drawing table, is perceived and drawn by Beckmann in such a way that it seems to be fixed vertically on the sheet. Such changes of perspective encourage the viewer to look closely and repeatedly in order to comprehend the game of angles instigated by Beckmann and to identify what one sees in the drawings.

As for the fundamental character of a studio space - regardless of its connection with further functions  – Brian O´Doherty aptly talks of the “studio of accumulation” as a possible term for an “aesthetics of redundancy” (compare the studios of Wolfgang Petrick) and – as antipole – of the “studio of monastic bareness” as the result of a potential “aesthetics of elimination” (compare the studios of Monika Brandmeier, Frank Badur and Karin Sander.[7] But it is only Matthias Beckmann’s distinctive drawing style that brings the things in the studio to their very own point, that uncovers or makes connections which can convey impressions of order and chaos. His economical way of drawing, reducing everything – including shadow and light – to a few outlines and internal drawings and functioning as a “filter of perception” [8], shapes his studio pictures. Despite their non-expressive style it would be wrong to call his drawings objective. If only because with the reduction of what has been seen a process of abstraction in valuation and selection is activated that produces its very own figurative structure of narration.

To come back again briefly to the topos of the “studio of monastic bareness” coined by O’Doherty: Maybe some of the visited artists have also cleaned up a little after the date arrangement with Beckmann, which sometimes was the most strenuous part for him. And did the cartoon with hot dog stand and salesman by “The New Yorker” cartoonist Zachary Kanin already adorn a wall in Malte Spohr’s studio before Beckmann’s visit? Be that as it may – the caricature certainly is a fine ironic comment on Beckmann’s subject and the work place of the visited artists anyway. Matthias Beckmann himself, by the way, appears in only one of the more than 250 drawings of the studio project: On the third of the sheets drawn in René Wirths’s studio he is partly seen in a mirror – with pencil and paper in hand. Thus he suggests where his studio is: “Today I feel that my studio is wherever I draw at the moment. Only hesitantly would I call my present work room, which as part of the apartment is not clearly separated from it, a studio. It is the room with the drawing table in it.” [9] Because he keeps drawing on site, and thus with and between the things, his true studio is an “ambulant” one (Freya Mülhaupt) that needs no constant place. His own work room, on the other hand, is first and foremost his archive and depot.

Through his linear drawing language, which reduces the things to their essential form elements, Matthias Beckmann changes the seen and selected objects and spatial structures. In a sense these first of all – and that is what makes it so tempting – have to be reconstructed by the viewer of his drawings. In his imagination, he has to add colors, light and shadow in order to really get wise to what is depicted and to put flesh on its bones. And so, ultimately, we do not only get to know something factual about the actual subject (the studio) from Matthias Beckmann’s works but most notably about how the artist creates it newly and in multifarious ways in the drawing. Hence, the intrinsic art we really catch sight of in the studios of the visited artists is Matthias Beckmann’s art of drawing. Nevertheless, it mirrors the characters of the visited artist colleagues in the shape of their studios in a unique way, thus creating an impressive document on contemporary art in Berlin – an homage to the countless artists working in the town and its surroundings.


[1] See also Michael Klant, Künstler bei der Arbeit – von Fotografen gesehen, Ostfildern-Ruit 1995 (also diss., University of Heidelberg 1991).

[2] “L’ Atelier du peintre. Allégorie Réelle déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique (et morale)”. See picture under

[3] Brian O´Doherty, Studio and Cube. On the relationship between where art is made and where art is displayed, Princeton 2008 (German title: “Atelier und Galerie. Studio and Cube”, Berlin 2012)

[4] Brian O´Doherty (see note 3), p. 40

[5] Brian O´Doherty (see note 3), p. 41

[6] Matthias Beckmann in a mail to the author, may 4, 2012

[7] O´Doherty (see note 3), p. 42

[8] Matthias Beckmann cited from: Freya Mülhaupt, Die Zeichnungsfolge “Berliner Ateliers” von Matthias Beckmann führt in ein Labyrinth der Wahrnehmung, Kunstforum International, vol. 208, may-june 2011, p. 253-257, here: p. 253

[9] Matthias Beckmann, cited from: Freya Mülhaupt (see note 8), p. 256