True Stories: A Show Related to an Era – The Eighties
English / German
“I don’t have the impression that this is a historical exhibition, more that these works today are even more significant and important than they promised to be at the time,” says gallery owner Max Hetzler of this review of the 1980s, which he orchestrated with Peter Pakesch. Back then, both gallery owners worked at the cutting edge of art in Cologne and Vienna respectively, and early on they included artists from New York and Los Angeles in their rosters. A multitude of artistic strategies had emerged in these metropolises after the end of modernism, and painting experienced a new heyday, while the use of media and materials was freer than ever before. Pivotal works by Werner Büttner, Günther Förg, Isa Genzken, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Albert Oehlen, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, Franz West, Christopher Wool, and many others emerge as the most powerful statements from a time when great themes were approached with the most basic resources and a quirky humor in the post-punk spirit. A conversation between the gallerists as well as extensive on the artists and contemporary themes follow up on what instantly appeared new at the time or what is only now being recognized in its importance.
SWORDS INTO BEER TAPS
Amongst the younger painters to attract attention in Germany in the late seventies and early eighties, a group that exhibited primarily in the gallery of Max Hetzler took a special place: Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, Albert and Markus Oehlen, and later Georg Herold. Their painting became a broad field of very different activities: linguistic interventions and publicationsplayed a role as well as performances and stagings. The provocative character of the painting served to distinguish it from previous generations of artists, while the general air of provocation ensured any premature endorsement was subverted. For some of these artists, this also meant that they were long shunned by the institutional scene and only later accorded entry into the museums. The motto was Bevor ihr malt, mach ich das lieber (Before you start painting, I’d rather do it). Exhibitions were subordinated to topics whose relation to artistic issues appeared less than plausible, which foregrounded certain neo-dadaistic aspects. Ein Erfolgsgeheimnis des Herrn A. Onassis: Investieren Sie in Öl (The Secret of Success by Mr A. Onassis: Invest in oil) brought the idea of collecting to the level of the tabloid press, while Montparnasse, da war das Leben klasse (Montparnasse, where life was classy) offered a caricature of the most naive notions of the artist’s life that was barely tolerable. On the other hand, we were also told that Wahrheit ist Arbeit (Work is truth) and we had the transformation of Schwerter zu Zapfhähnen (Swords into beer taps) – the paraphrase of a pacifist slogan, with which the four artists kicked up quite a bit of dust at their exhibition in Vienna in 1983, resulting in the development of a close relationship to the city and its scene for the next few years.
Subsequently, Kippenberger and Oehlen developed a great interest in working in as many places as possible: Seville, Rio, Graz, Vienna, Thomasberg near Vienna, Los Angeles, and again and again the Rhineland or the Black Forest where the Grässlin family of collectors was. These excursions were accompanied, above all in Kippenberger’s case, by quite performative practices that underlined the special essence of being an artist. In Vienna in 1984, Kippenberger lavishly celebrated the week between the end of his first solo exhibition at the Pakesch gallery and the opening of an exhibition by Albert Oehlen at the same location. Between 12 and 16 December he organised the ‘First Vienna Carriage Race’ against Oehlen on the main avenue in the Vienna Prater, with the award ceremony in the Café Alt Wien on the same evening; the ‘Address to the Brainless’ at the University of Applied Arts; the performance of the Alma Band at a concert by Christian Ludwig Attersee, which Kippenberger thus hijacked for himself; and the nightly ‘Officers’ Mess’, a precisely regulated drinking contest in a friend’s bar…
But the outstanding beacon of the art world was of course New York. The major influential museums were there, the important galleries that showed the full power of American artists. Everyone wanted to go to New York, and Europeans or even Californians had a hard time if they wanted to succeed there. An exhibition by Joseph Beuys at the Guggenheim Museum in 1979 was seen as one of the first triumphs of German art in America, but gave rise to great perplexity. A perplexity that was exacerbated when the German gallerist Konrad Fischer exhibited works by Gerhard Richter in his New York gallery, which he ran with the American Angela Westwater and the Italian Gian Enzo Sperone. Richter’s grey pictures met with a clear rejection. Critics angrily claimed that his efforts were highly derivative in relation to the American art of the time.
Meanwhile Julian Schnabel was already travelling and looking around in Europe, and the number of young Europeans doing the same in New York was growing steadily. First in SoHo and TriBeCa and then, as rents skyrocketed, in the East Village, which flourished with a highly active scene that kept creating new locations and galleries. In this great metropolis, the whole art scene, the studios, the galleries and the restaurants were within walking distance – yes, it was a village. Only the museums were uptown.
Galleries such as Sonnabend and the newly founded Metro Pictures began to increase their commitment to European art. Between the exhibition by Gilbert & George at Sonnabend in 1980 and the first group exhibition by Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger and Albert and Markus Oehlen at Metro in 1984, a lot of things started to happen. The exchange became more and more lively, also promoted by ever cheaper fares for transatlantic flights. Here began the rise of Cologne as the European counterpart of New York. Favourably located in the Rhineland, the city became the centre of the German and European art trade of the eighties. Already, gallery owners like Rudolf Zwirner from Cologne had opened the doors of European collections and museums to American pop art, and Rolf Ricke and Paul Maenz, also from Cologne, together with Konrad Fischer from Düsseldorf had championed American minimal art. Now the increasing exchange between the Rhineland and New York brought more and more American collectors to Europe.
In collaboration with Galerie Max Hetzler Berlin | Paris | London