If German art is a brand, American collectors are buying. No other country in Europe enjoys the prestige and attention currently afforded to German art. The exhibition “Life after Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection” is the most recent example of the phenomena, highlighting a group of newly-minted German art stars. KUOW critic Gary Faigin joins us with his perspective on this latest European invasion.
In the life history of an art exhibit, which comes first, the curator or the collector? Time was that curators were chiefly responsible for canonizing new artists and art movements, but in recent times the balance has shifted decisively in favor of wealthy art patrons and their freshly-acquired discoveries. The young painters of the downtrodden, formerly Communist city of Leipzig clearly fall into this latter category, since they were almost completely unheralded until their works were purchased in quantity by big-league collectors like Charles Saatchi and Don and Mera Rubell. The source of the Seattle exhibition, The Rubell Collection, a family museum partly bankrolled from the estate of Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell, has put its holdings of Leipzig art on tour, and the Frye is stop four on a five-stop US circuit.
The Studio 54 connection is especially ironic, since a sense of ambivalence towards the recent past is one of the chief things that links the work of these very different artists. If most of us have a love/hate attitude towards the golden age of disco, it’s nothing compared to the conflicted relationship to the German past manifest in the work of the Leipzig painters. These painters are demonstrably ambivalent towards any number of things, besides the late and unlamented German Democratic Republic (of which Leipzig was an important part). Here’s a few:
The artistic strategy of irony, the “knowing, cynical mistrust of institutions and shared truths”, and the resulting distancing of the artist from clear statements of meaning or intent, is most marked in works of the art star of the group, Neo Rauch, and least evident in the paintings of my personal favorite, David Schnell.
Besides his adherence to the least intelligible narrative program, Neo Rauch is set apart from the rest of the group in several other ways. As the oldest of the artists and the most prodigiously gifted, he is the only artist of the group to have achieved earlier recognition, and he actually taught several of the younger artists at the Leipzig Academy. It’s a credit to Rauch’s teaching that in spite of his powerful example, his youthful protégés show few obvious traces of his direct influence.
And the power of his work is undeniable, although it presents so many frustrations and difficulties. The best of his four works on view is also the newest, having been sent directly from the artist’s studio to the Frye and seen here for the first time. Flush with success (his work sells well into six figures), Rauch is clearly feeling his oats – the painting is enormous (almost ten by twenty feet), spectacular, electric with over-the-top florescent color, and even more weighted with bizarre and disconnected elements than usual. Vorfuehrung (Trial) portrays some sort of stage presentation and the audience response, set against a historic architectural background, and painted in his trademark Socialist-Realism-gone-wacko style. The action, such as it is, takes place under a florescent pink, Pepto-Bismol sky. Two figures occupy a small stage: a Polynesian giant wearing a floral necklace and looking pensive, and a flamboyant Napoleonic-era nobleman in top hat and tails. Arrayed before them as onlookers, a workman and an aristocrat struggle with colorfully tipped cudgels, a hapless figure is having a tapeworm removed, a man with two horns leans on his hand, and strangest of all, a beautifully painted alien lies asleep, only his beady-eyed head visible. Meanwhile, a masonry tower collapses, in three stages, in the background, while a cartoonish yellow explosion emerges, genie-like, from under the skirts of the Polynesian giant.
It’s obvious that Rausch does not expect us to connect his pictorial dots, and given the riotous stew of colorful allusions, codes, and pictorial inventions, we’re not even tempted to try. Can art aspire to significance when its only clear message is that nothing makes sense? At this point, Rausch is a brilliant entertainer with a seemingly endless trove of provocative imagery, but he is not to my mind a brilliant artist.
A much better balance between pictorial means and underlying message is represented by the work of David Schnell. Schnell is no less adept a painter than Rauch – although far less imaginative – and he is equally likely to deploy a sense of open-endedness, both technically and in terms of narrative. But he’s also much less all-over-the-place with what he’s attempting to accomplish. Rather than attempting to sum up nearly everything pertaining to the dilemma of being East German in the early 21st century, as Rausch is attempting to do, Schnell is content to explore a much more limited theme, the way tradition and structure can both protect and entrap, and the seductive power of change.
The key element of Schnell’s paintings is his use of perspective. All of his paintings are landscape vistas in which the exaggerated convergence of ranks of parallel lines creates a sense of visual movement and instability, as though what we see is being sucked into in a distant vortex, like water rushing down a sink. The inspiration for these riveting pictures are scrubby farms outside of Leipzig, dotted with decayed buildings and blocks of baled hay. The best-in-show, ten-foot canvas entitled Planks is sent inside such a ruined barn, the open doorway in the far distance framing a pastoral view. But the building is impossible, revealing through its unattached timbers more sky than structure, and tilting in every direction alarmingly. Though the individual timbers are delineated with architectural precision, the choppy use of color, unexplained edges, and vigorous brushwork creates a sense of turbulence, but the action is completely contained, and the glimpses of landscape through the cracks seem peaceful indeed. A more recent painting by Schnell entitled “Signs” revisits the barn/landscape motif, but the barn has been blasted apart, and now the planks and the pastoral have gone airborne in a sort of collective dance. There’s clearly something affirmative in Schell’s attitude towards the dissolution of the old order and its messy replacement by the new; he’s finding in the exploding of old forms and constraints a source of visual excitement.
All told, the “Life After Death” exhibit is the strongest group painting show to hit town in quite awhile, though it’s hard not to be a bit dubious as to level of hype that’s preceded these works, called the “hottest thing on Earth” by MOMA curator Joachim Pissarro. A fair amount of the work is unexceptional, and the weakest of the artists, Tim Eitel, has achieved a level of independent renown far exceeding the quality of his paintings – talk about being in the right place at the right time! If there’s any lesson to be learned from the brief, unhappy history of the former East Germany, it’s that what’s hot one decade can be dead cold the next, just as today’s art rebels can become the next generation’s old stogies. Taking art on its own merits has never been harder, but it’s also never been more necessary.