this issue contains
>> Re-reading the 80s
>> Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
>> Barbara Kruger
>> Interview Rainer Fetting

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You once said: "I'm not making art; I'm making art history."

At the art academy, I couldn't take colleagues seriously who were imitating their professors, students who were painting what was fashionable at the time, Beuys or Cy Twombly, for instance. I wanted to do something that was new, that caused a stir, something original, and something that reflected its time. Art history, basically.

Didn't you have any idols? Kirchner and the painters of the artists' group "Die Brücke," perhaps? Van Gogh, whom you painted again and again?

Of course the Brücke artists were completely important. I was interested in Expressionism all throughout art history - Velasquez, Goya , El Greco, van Gogh, Picasso - all the way up to the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School and Andy Warhol. In my painting, I wanted to take what was abstract in the Americans' work and convert it into figuration. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning were very important to me; my works have proceeded through their painting.

Rainer Fetting,
Van Gogh Gauguin - Rückkehr der Giganten, 1980,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Do you have the feeling that something is being carried on in the works of young painters today?

I can't really say. I just found Peter Doig's London show very interesting in a painterly sense. There's a spooky atmosphere in the paintings. I also see a lot of energy in Norbert Bisky's work, whose pictorial sensibility goes in another direction entirely. I'll bet we can expect more from him.

The art market has changed…

I'm not so sure. The art market was hysterical even then. When I became successful, new artists were becoming established all the time. There's always resistance, and you have to fight to attain a mental and financial freedom from it. As an artist, there is always a conflict between the inner will to express and the usual successful work the gallery wants you to deliver. Do you refuse, or do you go along with it? You need money to continue to develop artistically and to become more independent. But I don't really remember making any compromises. That's why I've had plenty of difficulties with gallery dealers throughout my career.

How were you discovered?

It must have been in 1979. I was standing at the bus stop on the way to the employment office when Salomé told me that Heiner Bastian was coming to the Galerie am Moritzplatz with the Swiss collector Thomas Ammann. Ammann was beside himself; he was hopping happily around in circles. He bought four paintings in one swoop. Later, Bastian became my manager and hooked me up with international galleries. There weren't any waiting lists yet. I think it was rather difficult to sell my paintings.

VPreparing his first exhibition
"Figur und Portrait"
at the Galerie am Moritzplatz, 1978
©Rainer Fetting

But then suddenly you became a famous painter. You underwent training to become a carpenter in Wilhelmshaven, where you were born. Wouldn't sculpture have been closer?

Sculpture came later. In the beginning it was a fascination for the image.

Why did you move to New York in 1983?

I was depressed in Berlin: we artists always met at the same places, in the Exil restaurant or the Dschungel club, you always saw the same people wherever you went. The old circle of friends fell apart; success brought a lot of envy with it. Although I was the last one to get accepted into a gallery, I wound up with the best dealers. After a concert tour that included a group exhibition with Salomé and Castelli in France, I had a lot of alcohol and drug problems and was pretty down.

Rainer Fetting, NY Kids, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Deschler, Berlin,
©Rainer Fetting/V.G. Bild-Kunst

And then you were suddenly without a gallery in New York. Why was that?

Before I went to New York, I'd had exhibitions with top galleries: Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone, Anthony d'Offay; others joined the list. At the time there was a lot of pressure and distress, which is particularly difficult for young artists to deal with. The times were tumultuous, new talents were constantly emerging, suddenly others were being favored, and I felt I was being put off, so I made the appropriate decisions. In the end, I was without a gallery.

And you didn't know anyone in America at first?

Actually I did, some artists from there visited me, especially graffiti painters. But I was pretty much uninterested in making painter contacts. I only consented to one collaborative project, with the graffiti painter Daze. You can see the graffiti influence in the first pictures I painted in New York, works like The New York Painter.

Rainer Fetting, Desmond and Ginger, 1999,
Deutsche Bank Collection

You found new motifs in the new city, the yellow taxis, the subways…

That was later. But what was very important was that I met Desmond, who still models for me. New York was something very different from Berlin, which in the end was totally provincial and confining. It was exciting to discover New York at that time: the gay scene, the adventurous city landscape with the piers, and outside the window ownerless dogs roaming about. New York had something uninhabited about it; it was like being in the wild. I started painting wolves. Then came the paintings of deserted piers and the wooden picture series, for which I used wood from the piers.

Rainer Fetting, Iron Man, 1983,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Gay desire is expressed in your art: in the male nudes, in the shower pictures.

My paintings derive from a fascination for painting. In the process, I've used my environment and history for my painting. And because I'm erotically fascinated in the male body, this has entered into the images as well, of course.

You returned to Berlin after the Wall fell. The '80s were over, not just in a calendar sense, but also as a life feeling.

New York was no longer what it used to be, either. It became cleaner, more bourgeois. I had the good fortune to always be where the exciting things were happening, where major changes were taking place.

Rainer Fetting, Südstern, 1989
Courtesy Galerie Deschler, Berlin,
©Rainer Fetting/V.G. Bild-Kunst

You were fascinated by the Wall; it appears in many of your paintings.

I wanted to go to Berlin in the mid-seventies to get away from stifling West Germany. The Wall was a part of life in Berlin, especially if you lived right around the corner. The way I painted it at the time was a taboo; it was frowned upon.

In the '80s, you lived in the district of Kreuzberg, which was politicized through and through. It was the major time of the housing fights.

We painters were already dyed-in-the-wool Kreuzbergers when the squatters arrived fresh from West Germany for the riots. They lived across the street when Bischofberger drove up to my place in Oranienstraße in his limousine. And of course I was afraid. They came from outside Berlin and spread terror.

All in all, it doesn't sound as though you missed the '80s all that much.

There was a lot of struggling and envy and existential anguish, but in retrospect it seems like an exciting time. There was a creative atmosphere. We were all very lucky that we didn't have to go through a war.

Rainer Fetting, Jungen am Meer (Sylt), 2007
Courtesy Galerie Deschler, Berlin,
©Rainer Fetting/V.G. Bild-Kunst

Are you sick of being associated with your beginnings at Moritzplatz so often?

No, because I made some important paintings at the time. But I'm sick of false compassion, which can't replace a true exploration of my work.

Have you become bitter?

More than anything else, I'm especially proud of what I've achieved during all the years that followed Moritzplatz. Unfortunately, my work is not sufficiently well known. And to help this along, I try to fill in the gaps and make my work more accessible.

Rainer Fetting, Selbstportrait, 1985,
Deutsche Bank Collection

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