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>> Susan Davidson on Jackson Pollock
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>> Europe and the New York School
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Being German Is At Least Something Else
A Conversation With Gerd Harry Lybke

A new generation of German painters is currently attracting attention and celebrating success in the USA. Yet there’s a tradition behind this phenomenon. Following their arrival in the nineteen-thirties, emigrants such as the painters and architects Josef Albers, Hans Hofmann, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe exerted considerable influence on the North American art scene. Later, it was Joseph Beuys and the Junge Wilden as well as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Georg Baselitz that figured among the most important European artists in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Born in Leipzig, Gerd Harry Lybke is not only blessed with a strong temperament, but has also been one of the most important gallery dealers with his gallery Eigen + Art in these parts for some time. His transatlantic connections are excellent. In an interview with Ulrich Clewing, he discusses the reasons behind his continuing popularity

Gerd Harry Lybke, Foto: Birte Kleemann

In New York and the US in general, the painters of the Leipzig School are currently…

Sorry, but I have to interrupt you here. The Leipzig School doesn’t exist. What does perhaps exist in Leipzig is a special form of imparting knowledge, a kind of schooling or special relationship between professors and students that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’m sure you know that the Leipzig Art Academy offers some special things: photographers can learn how to expose a photograph themselves, book printers still work with the old lead type. And the first thing painters learn to do is how to stretch a canvas and prime it properly. What I want to say is this: in Leipzig, they’ve consistently turned disadvantages to their advantage. Of course, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they tried to remodel the Leipzig school into an art academy just like all the rest. But it didn’t work – and so Arno Rink and his former assistant Neo Rauch just kept on painting in their own stoic way. And yes, that has an effect.

Neo Rauch, "Weiche", 1999,
Deutsche Bank Collection

But it’s still interesting that German painters are currently in such demand in the United States – also because the realistic styles of artists like Rauch or Daniel Richter were considered backwards and traditional, if not downright reactionary, ten years ago. What changed this perception to such a degree?

I think it’s important to remember that the Americans are way ahead of us Europeans in certain respects. Ten years ago, people could hardly look at representational painting here without wanting to throw up. Really, that’s how it was. Back then, though, it was different in the US: through video and photography – Bruce Nauman’s self-portraits, William Eggleston’s landscape photographs, Bill Viola’s films – people had more experience with what art can convey. It was a big thing when Neo Rauch began opening the door to the international market for himself and other painters in the nineties. Don’t forget: if you were a painter here in Germany in 1990 and thereafter, nobody was interested in your work. The young artists that began studying back then made a conscious choice in favor of painting – and against everything else. In the meantime, we’ve become reconciled to the fact that a painter is allowed to depict something on canvas. But that wasn’t always the case.

Neo Rauch, "Diktat", 2004, The Rubell Family Collection,
Courtesy Galerie Eigen + Art, Berlin/Leipzig

Would you have thought ten years ago that Neo Rauch would become the successful painter he is today?

No. And he didn’t think so, either. It’s always about getting over this inner tragedy that you carry around inside you, a certain idea about yourself that you have to translate into reality. You butt up against resistance, every day really, and that goes just as much for me as for anyone else.

When did you meet Neo Rauch for the first time?

I’ve known Rauch since 1981. He was always a good cook, something that should have made me more alert. I myself modeled for five years at the Leipzig Art Academy. That’s why I’m not only familiar with his biography, but with all the professors, too – and the way everything developed. Of course, in those days it wasn’t necessarily all that sexy to be friends with a painter. Somebody like Hans Schulze, who was doing performance – the mathematics of water was the thing back then – was far hipper. And even the Group 37,4 was more in style; there were a lot more girls there than in our weird painting class. Posing as a model day after day for these painters helped teach me something – basically, what it means to make a painting.

So it was learning by doing…

It was a preparation for the wild times today, a quiet period of acquiring the skills and technique and questioning one’s work – the philosophical handicraft, all of which is very important. Apart from that, Professor Arno Rink and his assistant Neo Rauch weren’t interested in the students painting what they wanted to paint. Arno always came to class for the critiques and asked: "Why is this blue there? Is there an urgent reason why it isn’t some other color? Because when you make it blue, you’re excluding every other possibility. Can you tell me why you made this radical decision?"

Daniel Richter, "Öpfermiethen", 2004,
Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

It’s about the necessity of form.

Exactly. Today, the guys from Leipzig are a bit different than the others that kept rising up in these waves. The ones who were in Leipzig learned that the most beautiful thing is to be in the studio and not at some party. And the second thing they learned is that it’s best to produce as few unnecessary paintings as possible.

But that still doesn’t explain what so fascinates the Americans about German art.

Daniel Richter, "Trevelfast", 2004,
Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

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