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Leipzig is the new Berlin—at least that is what I have been told. Rents are still what Berlin rents used to be, after reunification but before the government arrived. Many artists have already moved their Berlin or Cologne studios to Leipzig. It is like Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain circa 1995, a combination of advanced, though scenic, urban decay pierced through with startling additions like high-tech (West) German mass transit or gleaming new bakeries and department stores. There is a developed Leipzig scene—the spreading waves of (West German-style) gentrification that includes clubs, restaurants, and of course, art galleries.
Another sign of the progress of reunification construction in Leipzig are two recent US exhibitions of “Leipzig painting,” both drawn from private US collections. Whereas German critics have acidly noted that the successful deployment of the brand name “New Leipzig Painting” can be attributed to the (marketing) talents of local impresario Gerd-Harry Lybke (founder of the highly successful gallery Eigen + Art), US critics have taken a less jaded view toward what MASS MoCA breathlessly announced as “the first art world phenomenon of the 21st century.” I think we need some critical distance from the marketing of the “new” around the work of these Leipzig-based painters—“new” being a convention of the art world employed after 1945 whenever figurative painting mounts a challenge to abstraction, as was the case in the early eighties around “New Image” painting. Part of this obsession with the new also has to do with the promotion of youth-oriented artmaking: with the exception of Neo Rauch, all the exhibited painters are barely thirty. Furthermore, it is painful to see that neither Herr Lybke nor the painters in this group have learned much about feminism since the Wende; this exhibition chooses, as did the sexist bureaucracy of the German Democratic Republic, to ignore female painters that work in Leipzig and the legacy of female socialist artists like Lea Grundig, Cornelia Schleime, and Angela Hampel.
This said, the work of the seven painters shown in Life After Death is significant because it continues the local tradition of socialist modernist painting of the Leipziger Schule of the GDR of the sixties and seventies, specifically as it was practiced, developed, and taught in Leipzig by Wolfgang Mattheuer, Bernard Heisig, Arno Rink, Werner Tübke, and by Willi Sitte in nearby Halle. East Germans have debated the originary Leipzig School since Lothar Lang’s seminal survey text of GDR painting and graphic art, first published in Leipzig in 1978. Germans from both the East and West are more aware of this tradition, and therefore many young German painters have chosen to train in that famed environment. The result, framed in the current US exhibition, is painting that oftentimes slides between figuration and abstraction and that reveals a high degree of craft, technique, and criticality approaching that of their (in)famous predecessors.
Curated by Mark Coetzee of the Rubell Family Collection and Laura Steward Heon of SITE Santa Fe, Life After Death presents the work of Rauch, Tim Eitel, Christoph Rückhaberle, Matthias Weischer, David Schnell, Tilo Baumgärtel, and Martin Kobe, all graduates of the art academy in Leipzig (which still carries its GDR title, Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst—the Academy of Graphic and Book Art). The paintings can generally be categorized into the genres of landscape, the interior, the human figure, or combinations of all three. Many of these compositions seem to detail East German locales: mildly decrepit, wallpapered interiors outfitted with seventies furniture in faded pastel colors, usually paired with various shades of brown; largely empty landscape vistas where the intervention of recent construction seems apparent; awkward figures dressed in ill-fitting, vaguely athletic clothing; and cramped city streets that do not look much different from cramped interior spaces. It thus appears that in their subject matter many of these paintings from Leipzig aim to touch upon Ostalgie, the widely discussed nostalgia for things GDR, by using some of its iconography (perhaps this element was a magnet for US collectors). But there is no longing sentiment to be found anywhere in these paintings. They are as far from nostalgic as one can imagine—they emit a plume of weariness, a kind of post-socialist, globalized ennui; all carry out a systematic emptying of iconographic meaning. In regarding them as a group, one realizes that these paintings, like the older generation of the Leipzig School, engage with major issues of modern painting itself.
Several of the painters—including Kobe, Weischer, and Eitel—focus on that key cusp of the Cold War, abstraction/figuration. The extremely refracted interiors of paintings like Kobe’s Untitled of 2005 come close to geometric abstraction; the tightly structured perspective of the space he delineates in the painting opens to reveal painterly drips and marks and the play of planar surfaces. Weischer also focuses on interiors. His work Chair (2003) depicts what looks to be the turn of a hallway, but the geometry is so flattened that not only the chair of the title but especially the perpendicular walls can be read as rectilinear complexes or even color fields. Weischer consistently refers to painting by including a painting-within-a-painting, from girlie pin-ups to depictions of cathedrals, thereby collapsing the referential aspect of these compositions and pointing self-reflexively to the nature of his own paintings as objects.
Eitel ventures, like Schnell, into the post-socialist landscape, where the dust is still settling. Other artists, like the underrated photographer Hans-Christian Schink (who also happens to live and work in Leipzig), have similarly pointed to the existential void created by reunification construction in the new states of the Federal Republic. The figures that populate Eitel’s paintings Film (2003) and Container (2004) seem both at ease and overwhelmed by their surroundings, like Magritte’s Belgian bourgeois. These compositions also skirt abstraction: the dark shadow that constitutes half of Film, for example, can be read as an advancing monochromic abstraction. Schnell, on the other hand, plunges himself into exquisitely colored explorations of accelerated perspective and enormous sweeping vistas. Bretter (Planks, 2005) plays with the figure/ground relation by revealing and concealing the vanishing point behind a screen of widely spaced and decaying planks that dominate the foreground and the viewer’s field of vision, and that, at points, Schnell reveals as articulated brushstrokes and drips.
But the most daring moments of the exhibition have to do with the figure, and Ruckhäberle matches Rauch’s already established fortitude in dealing with the human form. Ruckhäberle, originally from Stuttgart and having spent time at Cal Arts only to head further east to Leipzig, is a discovery; his work unfolds into great complexity. His paintings seem to connect back to American New Image, specifically to proponents of “bad painting” like Philip Guston or to the cynical West German painting of the eighties by Albert Oehlen or Jiri Georg Dokoupil. Ruckhäberle reveals his interest in crowded mise-en-scène compositions—his paintings bear titles like Theater and Komodie (Comedy)—and he repeats figures across the surface that strike stock poses or assume staged gestures. He consistently rejects modeling; his colors congeal into stained areas and quadrants that have the look of mistakes impacted in the underpainting. These details undercut the figurative elements they should be describing. In Theater (2003) Ruckhäberle positions six figures on the sidewalk under a marquee bearing the painting’s title. One realizes that the three central male figures are all variations on a single figure that Ruckhäberle turns by degrees to the right and straightens to stand upright; like two bookends, the same male figure in a black suit brackets these three figures. Ruckhäberle achieves an odd tension that points to the obsessive eroticism of Balthus and the expressionist Kirchner, only to reject it. From their positions on his shallow, flattened stages, Ruckhäberle’s figures rotate against the surface and short-circuit any sense of their own drama.
Rauch has not pushed figurative painting toward a Ruckhäberlean engagement with the void. The most senior of the painters in the exhibition, Rauch connects to what we might call the “real,” and to the recent historical trauma that marked the end of (actually lived) socialism. Of all these painters, Rauch knows firsthand the struggles of the first Leipzig School for a pictorial content that was true to their own idealist notions of socialism and that drew from the traditions of visual modernism. Rauch alone intimates the intensity and despair of the first Leipzig School. In his post-socialist paintings, familiar signifiers—disembodied and vaguely organic forms—float over the surface of the canvas as vignettes that unhinge the working of representation. They are remnants of an iconography that has been unmoored and to which other, alien signs are being added but that also lack any coherence. In Das Neue (The New, 2003) Rauch positions these signs in a space that is somewhere between seascape, barracks, and a living room, illuminated by signs advertising game arcades. The figures of Marx and what appears to be Abraham Lincoln hover over the scene, as does a snake, a lizard, and a fried egg in a pan. A woman knits while another figure, with his back to us, looks into the distance. Rauch’s compositions detach themselves from ideological frameworks while seeming to allude to a new global order with no idealist aims and no “master narratives” aside from the dynamics of the market. They also carry the memory of when the ambitious subject of history could still be broached—however problematically—in East German painting. Suspended in what might be purgatory, Rauch has us wait, resigned, as the globalized viewers of these paintings from Leipzig.
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, Arizona State University