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Revolt or Backlash?
Young Painting in Germany

This spring, three important exhibitions in Germany are dedicated to a survey of contemporary painting. A large number of the artists in these shows are also represented in the collection of the Deutsche Bank. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the controversial revival of a genre and the difficulties involved with being "definitely from today."

Everyone recognizes those poses that go along with viewing art: the steady gaze fixed upon a wall, hands buried in pants and coat pockets, a catalogue wedged under the arm, a contemplative lingering around a room. In museums and galleries, these gestures can be observed as frequently as the casual urban dress code that is intrinsic to a young art audience worldwide.

Tim Eitel
Krümmung, 2002
Courtesy EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin

The impressions that arise in an exhibition of Tim Eitel's paintings become duplicated in the situations he depicts on the canvas: his paintings in oil and acrylic portray people viewing paintings, surrounded by the cool ambience of office and exhibition rooms flooded with light. Spaces for modern art and the visitors in them appear here like so many elements of a stylized landscape of a civilization in which people, art, fashion, and architecture merge to form a many-layered aesthetic construct. The painter, born in 1971, skillfully pushes the exactitude of photographic realism to the boundaries of abstraction in his precisely structured compositions. His museum visitors casually make themselves at home in a multifaceted artificial world in which carefully painted surfaces are superimposed with quotes from the history of painting and from industrial design alike.

Tim Eitel
Frankfurt, 2002
Courtesy EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin

The taz, who reviewed Eitel's one-person show in the Berlin Liga Gallery this year, remarked that the young figures populating his paintings are "so definitely from today that it amounts to a sensation," adding that among the current Renaissance in figurative painting, they hadn't seen a "painting as intellectual and as unheroic as this, while at the same time being entirely aware of the heroism of modernism."

With deutschemalereizweitausenddrei in Frankfurt's Kunstverein, "Lieber Maler, male mir..." in Frankfurt's Schirn, and Painting Pictures in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, three important German exhibitions this spring are concentrating on a survey of contemporary painting. Like Tim Eitel, many of the artists in these shows are represented with works on paper in the collection of the Deutsche Bank. Eberhard Havekost, Bernhard Martin, Daniela Wolfer, or Franz Ackermann are only a few of the names here that stand for a generation whose approach to painting the art establishment has dubbed as being "definitely from today."

Eberhard Havekost
37 ° C, 2001
©Sabine Knust Gallery, Munich

Collection Deutsche Bank
Eberhard Havekost
no title, from "Sympathie", 1999
©Gebr. Lehmann Gallery, Dresden

Collection Deutsche Bank

For years, it was primarily the domain of video, performance, installation, and conceptual art to reflect upon the present and the zeitgeist; the new trend, however, already turned back to the canvas some time ago. A renewed appetite for painterly imagery has erupted that largely feeds on the paradigms of the consumerist world and popular culture while remaining closely interwoven with the discourses surrounding the media and reproduction. Public themes that were still the subject of heated debate throughout the nineties in Germany, such as the ongoing burden of German history in the Berlin Republic, are either for the most part avoided by the local artists of this generation or approached with distance and humor.

It was particularly the exhibition in Frankfurt's Kunstverein, which had restricted itself to German artists, that caused a huge commotion in the cultural sections of the major newspapers. While in Spiegel Florian Illies euphorically proclaimed a "new Frankfurt School of Seeing," calling the Kunstverein a national educational establishment and even according the exhibition itself historical potential, other critics reacted irritably or with bridled derision. The consensus here was that these heirs of Polke, Richter, and Kippenberger might be skilled in their craft and masters at the manufacture of aesthetically refined pictorial surfaces, but the results of their painting are lacking in position and empty of content. In this context, Katharina Wulff's adolescent girl worlds or the works of artists such as Johannes Wohnseifer, Wawrzyniec Tokarski, and Johannes Spehr, with their ironic images of mass culture and socio-political quotes, are seen as evidence of a prematurely proclaimed resurrection of German painting.

Bernhard Martin
Public Holiday IV, 1998
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Collection Deutsche Bank

Can the newly revived interest in figurative painting really be explained by the restorative tendencies of a time of crisis? Is this alleged return to oil, acrylic, and canvas indeed indicative of a yearning for secure investment in the face of drained budgets, for an art that can be presented both in museums and above the couches of private collectors alike? Are all these exhibitions on painting the reaction to an overabundance of theory prescribed at the very latest at documenta X? Or are the new generations of fresh painters rebelling against an ideological occupation of painting with outdated notions?

Wawrzyniec Tokarski
MANGA, 2000
©Wawrzyniec Tokarski, Berlin

Collection Deutsche Bank

Johannes Spehr
no title, 1995
©Thomas Rehbein Gallery, Cologne

Collection Deutsche Bank

One look at the works of the artists represented in the collection of the Deutsche Bank since the mid-nineties suffices to confirm that most of the "new" painters are indeed old hands that have been investigating the genre under a variety of aspects for some time. Painters like Eberhard Havekost, Katharina Grosse, or Franz Ackermann, whose works can presently be seen in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, were already being dealt lucratively years ago. While magazines such as the German Elle have been featuring artists like Frank Bauer or Johannes Kahrs in rapid succession under the catchphrase "pretty realistic," making them known to a wider public, the fact has been overlooked that these artists have already long since become integrated in an art discourse carried on by the academic world and incorporating a variety of genres. In their concern to mirror the zeitgeist, however, the media-savvy debates over this new appetite for realistic painting, pop, marketing, and politics are reminiscent of another national phenomenon that already caused a stir back in the mid-nineties and commanded high prices – not on the art market, however, but in the literary field.

Back then, the liberation from socio-political, overly subjectified prose engineered by various German "pop writers" including Christian Kracht, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, Sven Lager, or Elke Naters in publications such as Tristesse Royal (more here) or the internet project pool, occurred under conditions analogous to the current approach to painting. Prior to the brush and canvas, the coming-of-age novel had already been rehabilitated over the past decade, when people in their twenties who'd previously spent the majority of their free time sitting in front of the computer, hanging out in clubs, or poring over lifestyle magazines stormed the bookstores to buy Kracht's German Odyssey Faserland (1995) or Stuckrad-Barre's heartache book Solo Album (1998). The autobiographic look back over one's own (for the most part still quite young) life and the location of a disorientated self in terms of style, what pop music to listen to, and an affirmative positioning within a society largely determined by labels and consumerism were staged as a generation-forming event in the media. In reaction to the ponderous depth and deadly seriousness that still adhered to the conflict-ridden themes of the traditionally left-wing German intellectuals, many of these authors set out to examine the superficial sensations that had long been frowned upon. According to the witty pop-lit theorists, if you wanted to deactivate the cultural conflicts carried on since time immemorial in the name of charged symbols and signs, you had to sink back into the surface and give yourself over to the wonders of the trivial.

Frank Bauer
no title, 1999
Voss Gallery, Düsseldorf

Collection Deutsche Bank

Those who seek to classify current German painting often hark back to this inventory of attributes originally formulated in reference to German pop literature – attributes that still, apparently, pass as a synonym for collective coolness. About Frank Bauer, Elle boasts that the 39 year-old Richter student finds his subject matter on the Düsseldorf scene: "He shows them putting on makeup, in clubs, or tired at the after-hour." The artists himself reveals to the magazine's readers that painting is a little like pop music: "A good painting is like a good song. Suddenly it's there, and it's as though it couldn't have been otherwise." In Spiegel, Florian Illies confirms a number of common characteristics that find their expression in the taste for fashion: In Kai Althoff's (more here) paintings, a contemporary of his is wearing "the same trendy men's sweater as the young assistant in Frankfurt's Kunstverein – and all the other members of Generation Golf, who will have the opportunity to look in the mirror starting this Tuesday."

It's perhaps no accident that it was Illies who spectacularly proclaimed the aesthetic reevaluation of the genre – together with its successful marketing – to be a major issue of national concern. In Generation Golf, the German equivalent to Douglas Coupland's Generation X, Illies scrutinized the youth of the eighties, during which a consumerist culture gone awry became socialized by means of Nutella, Playmobil, and Pacman. The bestseller from the year 2000 finally coined the catchword that had long been missing – one that could summarize the generation born between 1965 and 1975 and "brand" both the young authors and the artists participating in the contemporary painting exhibitions. In 2002, following the termination of Illies' "Berlin Pages" originally intended to rejuvenate the renowned Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the literary critic and author Kolja Mensing wrote: "Florian Illies doesn't seem to have a problem straddling between an increasingly consumerist cultural landscape and the recollection of a conservative consensus of values."

Evidently, the curators at Frankfurt's Kunstverein don't have the slightest problem, either: whoever feels incapable today of uttering the words "pop literature" without blushing prefers, perhaps, to talk about painting instead – using similar criteria. In a manner similar to the previous controversies surrounding young German literature, part of this entails switching back and forth between the revival of a "classical" discipline and formulating the obituary of those seeking to reanimate it. Only a few weeks after the opening, the exhibition catalogue on deutschemalereizweitausenddrei entered the second edition – it makes for an excellent coffee table book, or an alphabetically indexed mail-order catalogue for the next art fair. While in the Shirn, only a stone's throw from the Kunstverein, the works of internationally renowned painters such as Peter Doig, Alex Katz , Elizabeth Peyton (more here), and Neo Rauch are "traditionally" documented in an extensive catalogue complete with essays and interviews, the Kunstverein's publication does entirely without didactic assistance, apart from a brief foreword by the curator, Nikolaus Schaffhausen.

Instead, the volume is held together with a piece of literature – the cryptic story Clamp by the Berlin-based author Ingo Niermann. In his text, Schaffhausen ascertains that the artists' interest in painting often results out of a desire for the original and an assertion of subjectivity. In a society that strives for objective criteria, it's just this attitude that we grow to like, because it renders its proponents vulnerable and comments on precisely what many of the exhibition's participants are accused of – restoration. It begins to seem as though the gauntlet were being tossed cleverly back and forth here. Regardless of whether it's the producer or the recipient – whoever picks it up has already, somehow, lost the game. Seeking an answer to the question of painting's role in the age of digital media is reminiscent of an anecdote related about one of the most famous champions of literary modernism: on her death bed, Gertrude Stein was asked, "Gertrude, what's the answer?" With her last breath, Stein countered: "What was the question?"

Tim Eitel
Blau und Gelb, 2002
Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin

In Tim Eitel's paintings, the encounter with an art that poses questions without answering them is shifted to an open space originally created by art. Thus, in his painting Blau und Gelb (Blue and Yellow, 2002), Mondrian's compositions and geometries appear as Modernist projections. The young man with his back to the viewer whom Eitel has positioned in the manner of Romantic painting is lost in contemplation of the work of art before him. The grid superimposed on his silhouette could be both an element of contemporary architecture and an element of painterly abstraction. The construction of the pictorial space, which wavers between being blocked and open, not only reflects the possibilities and limitations of representation in painting, but also the discourses carried on about it. The mysteriously quiet prison that Tim Eitel built both for his painted figure and the painting's viewer exerts such an attraction on us because it presumes our quiet complicity. It is for this very reason that it's so "sensational and so "definitely from today," because only those who have momentarily forgotten to be "from today" can reside within it.

Translation: Andrea Scrima