One day a few years ago, while Klaus Biesenbach was staying in a hotel in Mexico City, the housekeeping staff was alarmed to discover that he’d stolen everything in his room. The telephone was missing, along with the TV remote control and the pictures on the walls; even the curtains had disappeared. It turned out that Biesenbach, a top curator at the Museum of Modern Art, hadn’t actually taken anything. He’d simply gotten annoyed with all the clutter and decided to strip the room bare. The items were hidden in a closet, organized in neat little stacks.
“Small objects make me nervous,” says Biesenbach, 42, looking around his apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, which is notable for its lack of not only small objects but also large ones. The living room has no sofas, tables, pillows, books or lamps; the kitchen has no countertops, cookware or appliances, apart from a $99 mini fridge. As for beds, there is a mail-order mattress in the bedroom, but Biesenbach prefers to sleep on the one on the outdoor terrace, weather permitting.
Of course, Biesenbach, who is known to possess one of the keenest eyes in the art world (along with a large wardrobe of perfectly tailored Jil Sander suits), could easily be inhabiting a predictably glamorous, art-filled Chelsea loft, but he offers up a few reasons he’s not. Some have to do with his background in Germany, where he was part of an early wave of settlers in Berlin just after the fall of the Wall.
Raised in a small town in the West German countryside, Biesenbach was enrolled in medical school in 1990 when he decided to move into an abandoned margarine factory in East Berlin and establish the arts colony Kunst-Werke. Now an internationally recognized contemporary arts center, Kunst-Werke started out as a free-form creative space where artists from various disciplines came to work, often living in the complex’s small apartments. (Susan Sontag camped out there for a while, overlapping with Hedi Slimane.) In 1996 Biesenbach relocated to New York part-time for a curatorial job at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, but in 2004 he bought a Berlin pied-à-terre near the iconic TV tower on Alexanderplatz, in one of the massive state-built complexes that still exist throughout the former German Democratic Republic. He spent six months renovating the place, obsessing over appliances and concrete finishes—and ultimately, he now believes, wasting a lot of time. “I put in a new kitchen, and then realized that I never cook,” says Biesenbach, speaking in a Teutonic monotone. “In the end I thought I should have just taken the wallpaper down and left it at that.”
The building that houses Biesenbach’s New York apartment, on Grand Street near the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, also has echoes of midcentury socialism: First-time visitors often mistake it for a public housing project. It’s one of those monolithic brick towers from the late Fifties that are now commonly regarded as gloomy, pseudo-modernist knockoffs. “I used to think that this type of architecture was a failure,” Biesenbach acknowledges. But in Berlin, he says, “I realized how great it actually feels to live in a building like this. There’s a simplicity that’s incredibly liberating.”