Art and a Cup of Joe

Starbucks may have popularized the notion of café-as-living-room, but students, artists and self-styled bohemians have been lingering over cooling cups of joe in public spaces for centuries. A delightful new exhibit titled "More Than Coffee Was Served: Café Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany," at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York (through Nov. 25), celebrates the role of the coffeehouse as both hangout and inspiration for George Grosz, Otto Dix, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Käthe Kollwitz and other artist habitués of the Starbucks of their day.

As sociologist Ray Oldenburg has noted, cafés are prime examples of "third places": public gathering spaces outside the home and workplace that foster community and democracy. Whether low-ceilinged, dimly lit German beer halls or grand Viennese Kaffeehäuser, cafés provided the artists displayed in this exhibit a place to work, socialize and plot social revolution long into the night--all for the price of a cup of coffee.

In Vienna, Klimt, Schiele and the modernist architect Adolf Loos were among the regulars at Café Central and Café Sperl, both still in operation. These opulent coffee palaces could be considered works of art themselves, with their marble-topped tables, arched ceilings and formally dressed waiters ferrying drinks on silver trays. But while many of the works in the exhibit are set in cafés, they are often indicated by little more than a sketched-in table and chair, suggesting the generic idea of "café" rather than any specific location. It was the people who made the scene--and almost every picture contains at least one human form--in pieces ranging from Grosz's solitary, blue-washed "Café Guest" to Ludwig Meidner's playful, cacophonous "In a Café," a pencil-and-ink cartoon of a café so packed with chaotic life that even the saltshakers appear to vibrate on the tables.

Klimt is perhaps the best known of these former café patron-artists. In contrast to his highly publicized Adele Bloch-Bauer portraits and nature scenes scheduled for auction Nov. 8 at Christie's, the four portraits on view here--three sketches and an oil painting--reveal the artist's softer, more contemplative side. Both his blue-chalk sketch "Woman Resting in an Armchair" and his pencil drawing "Seated Woman With Hat and Veil" reveal a looser, less restrained hand than his more stylized, better-known works. It is refreshing to see Klimt in context with his contemporaries and realize he was once just another caffeine addict sipping coffee with a sketch pad balanced on his knee.

Loos was also a fixture of the Viennese café scene, and his iconic bentwood café chair is included here, as an example of the form-follows-function design he championed. It would have been nice to see more examples of modernist design--a coffeepot, or a cup and saucer--but the show follows the artists in making the ambience of the café its chief concern.

Many of the works, especially the pencil and pen-and-ink sketches, evince a manic energy, perhaps due to the fact that they were dashed off in highly caffeinated (or intoxicated) states. The frenzied nature of the drawings may also indicate anxiety over the coming wars (the show spans the period 1897-1932), or may simply be an indication of the claustrophobia and jealousy created by so many artists packed together at such small tables. Grosz had a particularly jaundiced eye for his surroundings: in the hectic pen-and-ink "Queen Bar," tuxedoed and bejeweled patrons swill champagne while an orchestra labors in the background. In the equally charged lithograph "Dr. Benn's Night Café," naked women straddle the knees of plump businessmen. The title of his busy, anxious pen-and-ink "Café Megalomania" speaks for itself.

Other artists depict the café as a stag-ing ground for dissent. Kollwitz's "Six People at a Table by Lamplight" is awash in moody conspiracy, as somber-faced patrons huddle in earnest discussion. Two other etchings by Kollwitz show similar groups conversing intently in humble taverns, a universe away from Grosz's louche imbibers. Some of the most charming works in the show are less pointed in their social critique: Moritz Jung's "Café Caricatures"--11 postcards portraying café scenes and habitués--are both whimsical and affecting. They are small, colorful mementos, but no less evocative of the fertile atmosphere cafés continue to represent.