Looking Back: A Retrospective of German Figure Painting
The 80s: Figurative Painting in West Germany at the Städel Museum
22 July to 18 October, 2015
Schaumainkai 63 60596 (at Dürerstraße)
Frankfurt am Main, Germany +49 69 6050980
Frankfurt’s 200-year-old Städel Museum used its impressive 2012 extension to revisit the somewhat unfashionable work of the last generation of artists to come to prominence in the west of a divided Germany. 97 mostly large works by painters born shortly after the war are set out in a mixture of geographic and thematic groupings, which keeps the flow healthily unpredictable: Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg as the main centers, and self-portraits, the body and politics as subject orientations. As in the US and Italy, this era’s expressive figurative painters — dubbed the Junge Wilde (“Wild Youth”) — were seen as an antidote to Minimalism and Conceptualism, and had their moment in the market before the crash of 1987.
Many of these works haven’t been exhibited since then, and only Martin Kippenberger (who died in 1997) and maybe Albert Oehlen have maintained comparable profiles. Otherwise, the mantle of figurative significance has reverted to generations before (Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter) and after (Neo Rauch and the Leipzig school). This show demonstrated that the work, though diverse, benefits from being seen together; that there are more connections than might be assumed with the preceding and succeeding generations; and that it’s worth looking again at a wider spread of the 27 artists included.
How coherent are these paintings, seen as a group? The majority can be described as loosely and somewhat aggressively painted, trading on the apparent speed of execution, with plenty of ambiguity. Maybe it’s me reading backwards to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ended the period covered, but I also found myself drawn into the frequency with which apparent contradictions — of visual languages or content — are brought together in the same painting, as if reflecting the divided nation. That’s to be expected in the section labelled “The Political Collage.” But other rooms feature the phenomenon as well, as in works such as Volker Tannert’s Small Ceremony for the Modern (1982), in which Albert-Speer-like floodlights illuminate a post-war skyscraper, and Gerard Kever’s Untitled (1982), which combines “televised” clouds with “real” ones. A particularly striking example is KaDaWe (1981), a vast (340 x 483 cm) collaboration by Salomé and Luciano Castelli, which adopts and subverts capitalist modes of display by depicting the artists in performance, mimicking the “poses” of meat hanging over a department store butcher’s counter. Kippenberger is the master of this mode, and all four of his works here conjoin disparate elements: Two Proletarian Women Inventors on their Way to the Inventors’ Congress (1984) shows the pair on their way to collect an “innovation award” — which was probably for something already well-established in the West — set against both a Malevichian monochrome and a swirling Abstract Expressionist background, mocking all ideologies equally.
The break from preceding modes doesn’t seem extreme in retrospect. Most of the subjects are straight from the lives of the artists: punk music, sex, the city, painting itself. When the Mülheimer Freiheit group (named for the address of a Cologne studio shared by Hans Peter Adamski, Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Gerard Kever and Gerhard Naschberger) give things a kitchily surreal twist, it’s to no radical effect.
The precedents of the Expressionist generation are often explicit: Rainer Fetting’s Large Shower (1981) puts Ernst Ludwig Kirchner figures into a gay sauna; and Egon Schiele is summoned by the quintessentially 1980s pre-VCR action of Werner Büttner’s Self-Portrait Masturbating in a Cinema, which neatly inverts the “paintbrush as penis” trope. A landscape by Berndt Zimmer, Field, Rape (1979), is close to color field abstraction. Walter Dahn’s Double Self (1982) reminded me of David Hockney’s early ‘60s work, when what would become Pop was still messy. And Milan Kunc is close to later mainstream Pop. Looking forward, the artists of the Leipzig school have continuities with their ‘80s forebears, many of whom taught them, though they generally paint with more clarity and a different historical awareness: more a unification of previously competing tendencies, less a tendency to accept clashes within a painting.
Who deserves more attention? There’s nothing here to challenge the primacy of the group who studied together in Hamburg, where Sigmar Polke taught Georg Herold, Werner Büttner, the Oehlen brothers and, of course, Kippenberger; but the geographic picture is complicated by Kippenberger’s move to Berlin in 1978. Bettina Semmer was in that circle, too, and she (along with G.L. Gabriel) emerged as the most substantial female presence in a rather male scene. Each of Semmer’s three contributions are striking in different ways, and though this show doesn’t look at what these artists — most of them still practicing — did next, her subsequent work is also varied and interesting. Tannert (a student of Richter) and Andreas Schulze impress, too, though the latter’s paintings have a monumental stillness rather at odds with the tenor of the show.
The prevailing intensity edges into the histrionic in the weaker works, and the free markmaking becomes more vague than dynamising. Can the so-called 80ers, as a whole, be defended as deliberately practicing “Bad Painting,” which opposes the idea of harmonious art, whether traditional or avant-garde? Kippenberger, as with a naïvely conventional portrait sharpened by the title Mother of Joseph Beuys (1984), delivers persuasively to that agenda. So does Oehlen: two of his works here allow mirrors to disrupt the illusionistic space of the painting, knowingly undermining the established codes. And in Moonlight Falling into the Fuehrer’s Headquarters (1982), they also reflect his viewers back into a space containing a swastika. As the show’s curator, Martin Engler, says, “Contexts are consciously ruptured. The moment of dissolution becomes the content of the image.” I don’t sense the same analytic justification for the apparent badness in all cases, so that I can’t see this show bringing the likes of Helmut Middendorf and Salomé back to international attention. Indeed, perhaps the museum implicitly acknowledges a more national audience by not translating the catalogue into English — as it does those for most shows. None of that, though, detracts from a fascinating and superbly presented time capsule of a survey.