Cologne artist Walter Dahn is at home in a great many disciplines – painting, photography, screen printing, and even music. Now he has teamed up with the Speaking Garments label from Cologne to develop a small fashion edition that makes it possible to not only experience, but to even wear his art.
“I left you my dreams on your answering machine”, teal cursive proclaims from the black sweatshirt. It’s a quote from the song “Come On” by The Verve. The sweatshirt is one of five pieces the Cologne label Speaking Garments launched early this summer. Today, we have come to the cathedral city to have a look behind the scenes of the exciting cooperation between a famous Beuys student and a sustainably working fashion label. “What was your first record?” Walter Dahn, 68, dark-blue polo shirt, locks shot through with grey, and curiosity in his eyes, welcomes us with a question that immediately throws us into a vivid discussion about music as we are laughing about the sin of my youth, Hubert Kah’s “Sternenhimmel”. He enthuses about his first single, “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. “That truly left its mark on you. Then as it does today.” We are sitting in Hallmackenreuther’s at the Brüsseler Platz square. Dahn just had lunch here with his daughter: Spaghetti Bolognese.
The “Junge Wilde” or “Neue Wilde” (“young wild ones”/“new wild ones”) is the label under which Walter Dahn and the artist group Mülheimer Freiheit conquered the art scene in the 1980s. Dahn, who took up his studies under Joseph Beuys as one of his youngest students on 8 October 1971, his 17th birthday, expressing himself in print, painting, and photography, and found a second teacher in Sigmar Polke, tells a great story. His memories culminate in highly exciting excursions that join into an associative treasure hunt across the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Meetings with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, Imi Knoebel, and his close connection with gallerist Monika Sprüth, and intense friendships with George Condo and Richard Prince offer material enough to fill entire books.
Wanting to talk to this man about fashion, and fashion only, is just impossible. Still, he does have an opinion there. His understanding of fashion is strongly connected to this experience of music. “Roxy Music are the most elegant band ever. They were the first ones returning to short hair and suits after the Hippie years. Since their beginnings, you can surely call them the first post-modern band.” Walter Dahn takes a sip of his coke. “I have always been interested in pop as an option – and a term. It’s short for popular. From the people, for the people. It applies to film, fashion, or music, and any other expression of pop culture.” In Dahn’s case that was punk. “Punk was my first personal contact with fashion: violet leopard-print trousers, torn leather jacket, combat boots,” he is grinning in retrospect. Later, he admired the Belgians. “Once, I bought a horrendously expensive bronze Dries-Van-Noten dress to use in videos and on photographs. It later became part of my exhibition, marked by water and mud.”
Critics described his art as “jerky cheerful painting.” They called him the “oil punk”. Does he mind still being classified as the “young wild one” today, even though the Mülheimer Freiheit group only lived for a year and a half? “I’ve learned to deal with it.” In parallel with his artistic career, Dahn has been professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig since 1996. Exciting as the tales about his life are, he surely is a good teacher there.
Sampling is an important subject in his art, as his collaboration with Speaking Garments in Cologne proves. The label, which develops capsule collections in cooperation with artists, to be sold in limited editions, was created by Lina Miccio. She established an accessible and affordable manner of collecting in her collections. Walter Dahn is in good company. Before him, Michail Pirgelis, Jan-Ole Schiemann, and brothers Gert and Uwe Tobias have cooperated with Miccio, whose guidance in Speaking Garments, the project of her heart, is her affinity with fashion and art. “Walter Dahn was someone I really wanted for my fourth collaboration. His story and the strong influence of music in his work were interesting to me,” explains Miccio, who has just come in to sit with us. “Dahn himself has been playing in a band for decades. He’s a collector and archiver of pop-cultural pictures and quotes. I thought that was exciting.”
Did Lina Miccio need to convince him? “Not at all! I loved the idea immediately,” says Walter Dahn, whose master students Gert and Uwe Tobias helped design the last edition of Speaking Garments. “We knew each other by sight. We often both had our morning coffee in the small butcher’s shop Metzgerei Schmitz on Aachener Straße,” the artist remembers. They met again at a George Condo exhibition in Frankfurt – where Lina Miccio realised who the casual guy in a hoodie who was just enjoying his first coffee of the morning was. “I admired his style and knew of his story, but I hadn’t personally met him before.”
The meeting turned into a collaboration and a collection designed by Miccio in close coordination with the artist: a hoodie, a coat, a sweatshirt, a silk scarf, and a bag. They are all made of organically certified cotton and silk, printed and sewn in Cologne. Miccio, whose studio is on Benesisstraße, just a five-minute walk from Hallmackenreuther’s, is talking to Walter Dahn about the last two parts to complete the Capsule Collection: the bag and the shirt. His favourite piece, the hoodie, is already completed. Its back is decorated by the embroidery of two turtles playing music. Made by a German illustrator, the drawing can also be found on the cover of the “Terrapin Station” album by Grateful Dead. “I had seen the drawing and integrated it into my work. Underneath it I sprayed: ‘Only music can save us now’,” says Dahn.
His quotes could easily form part of a pop-culture quiz. Is it necessary to know or decrypt them? “Not really. The quote on the sweatshirt, “I left you my dreams on your answering machine” – makes sense even if you don’t know it’s from the first The-Verve-LP.”
Miccio believes that Dahn has a wild and a soft side, facets that are reflected in the coat that combines elements from three of the artist’s works: One is the slogan “Punk is the sound of my soul” from “Midnight Confessions, 2014”, printed on a removable cotton banner. It conceals the light-blue text embroidery about dreams on the answering machine from the work “Faxmessage, 1997/2003”. The branch print on the front of the coat refers to his work “Untitled (Soultree), 2015”. The coat was printed in elaborate screen printing, a technique Dahn himself frequently uses. Each of the 50 pieces is hand made by a local seamstress.
This fits with Dahn’s attitude, as he has always opposed capitalist ambition, the logic of career, the hypocrisy of professional marketing. Fashion away from great commerce is of interest for him. Our last question is whether Beuys would also have supported such a project. “Maybe, yeah,” says Dahn. “He even advertised whisky in Japan, so the ‘Lost in Translation’ story has already been done. He was very open to these things.”
Lina Miccio also loves fashion away from commerce. She wants to let the art speak for itself. Her limited editions are the key for her. “I can also imagine a special artist cooperation exclusively targeted at a specific retailer.” Is she going to tell us about her next project? No, we’ll need to wait and see. To put it a bit more pop-like: We’ll stay tuned.
Text: Ilona Marx
Photos: Thekla Ehling