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

>> archive


Anselm Kiefer, le chef d’oevre inconnu, 1982,
Deutsche Bank Collection

And the eighties are becoming more and more present in art, as well. Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, and Robert Gober are being honored with gigantic retrospectives; painters like George Condo and Anselm Kiefer are fetching record prices; Jeff Koons is celebrating a huge comeback on the art market; and Mike Kelley has caused an international uproar with his latest installation Kandor. At the same time, young artists like Wade Guyton, Kelley Walker, Seth Price, and the Norwegian Gardar Eide Einarsson demonstrate the influence major names of the "appropriation generation" such as Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger exert on today's scene. Under the title Generation Zeitgeist, the German art magazine Art has dedicated a title story to the eighties. But is it really about a rediscovery of the "New Wild, punk, and irony" — of "chic, flashy art"? What remains relevant today in the divergent positions of the eighties?

Elvira Bach, Weibliche stehende Figur, 1989,
Deutsche Bank Collection

The first thing one notices is how similar the two situations are. The 21st century starts out with incredible excitement on the art market and witnesses debates over the return of figuration in young German painting. As the "New Wild" once experienced, representatives of the "New Leipzig School" are launched as a national phenomenon under a catchy name and marketed internationally.

Salomé, Seerosenteich, 1982,
Deutsche Bank Collection

And like the Berliners Elvira Bach, Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé, and the painters of the Mülheimer Freiheit, a quarter of a century later, Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, and Norbert Bisky are identified with a rejection of conceptually oriented art lacking in sensuality. This strict polarization, however, seems highly dubious, because like the "New Wild," the new German painting stars of a reunified Germany work with appropriation and recombination, with adopted painterly gestures and media imagery. Thus in his early paintings Neo Rauch juxtaposed the pictorial language of socialist and totalitarian propaganda with motifs from American popular culture and romantic landscape painting, recording the post-reunification era as a state of social paralysis.

Neo Rauch, Stereo, 2001,
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Courtesy Galerie EIGEN+ART, Leipzig, Berlin

Twenty years previously, the "New Wild Ones" used the visual vocabulary of German Expressionism, "primitive" art, Art Brut, and Outsider Art. Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, and Jiri Georg Dokoupil, the protagonists of the Mülheimer Freiheit, were only on the surface interested in the subjectivity of painting and "personal" expression. On the contrary, they were more concerned with a rebellious act of piracy and the annihilation of the authentic individual style. "Continuities in my work do not interest me," asserted Dokoupil in 1981. "I'm interested in work with breaks, contradictions."

Walter Dahn, untitled, 1983,
Deutsche Bank Collection

It wasn't a matter of continuing the modernist project, but of sabotaging it—entirely in the vein of post-modernist thought, which has arrived at the end of the "grand narratives" and can only proceed in a recombination of existing images and ideas. For the "New Wild Ones" of the early eighties, recycling expressive painting was a subversive gesture that questioned the possibilities of "authentic" expression in a society increasingly defined by technology and media. Part of punk's subversive attitude was always the rejection of the authentic, the cynical idea that it was all a media performance, a "great Rock 'n' Roll swindle," a rebellion that negates itself in a commercial sellout.

Jiri Georg Dokoupil, untitled, 1982,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Never before had the connection between the music and art scenes been as symbiotic as it was during the early eighties. The "discourses" in young art didn't occur in art schools or academies, but in the scene's bars and clubs. Among these were the Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf, the Blue Shell in Cologne, the legendary SO36 founded by Martin Kippenberger, and other Berlin institutions like Dschungel. Artist Marc Brandenburg recalls how important punk culture was at the time: "It went far beyond the look. It was the first time a term had been found for a group of completely different people—blacks and whites, men and women, gays, lesbians, and heteros, all connected by a single aspect: the radical desire to be an individualist. Before that, all young movements had been dominated by straight white men."

Record Cover Geile Tiere

Berlin of the early eighties toyed with sexual and political ambivalence and the decadence of the Weimar Republic. While young women shaved their necks and went out in uniforms and riding boots and young men applied eyeliner and polished their fingernails black, the "Moritzboys" acted androgynous through and through. With their band Geile Tiere, Salomé and Luciano Castelli staged themselves as martial versions of the conferencier from Cabaret: in straps, leather pants, and high heels, eyes lined heavily in black, their half-naked bodies covered in whip scars applied with make-up. They gave legendary performances in which they belted out their hit "Alle sind wir geile Tiere" (We're all horny animals).

Salomé, Selbst, 1975,
Deutsche Bank Collection

In the early eighties, entertainment hovered between pain and lust. "Listen with pain"—a song by Einstürzende Neubauten — summed this up well. Together with the Neubauten, bands like Die Tödliche Doris and Sprung aus den Wolken performed in 1981 in the Tempodrom in Berlin in "Die große Untergangsshow—Festival Genialer Dilletanten" (The Great Decline Show—Festival of Dilletante Geniuses.) The "incorrect" spelling of the word "dilettante" was originally an error in the flyer and was, in the Merve volume of the same name edited by Wolfgang Müller, to become a synonym for a Berlin scene in which punk's do-it-yourself attitude led to a unique merging between art, performance, and music.

Concert by Die Tödliche Doris, early 1980s
Photo © Eva Maria Ocherbauer

With ironic distance, people flirted with the aesthetics of National Socialism, pointing provocatively at the wounds the Third Reich had inflicted. And back then, these wounds still largely determined the appearance of the divided city. The empty lots around Anhalter Bahnhof and Potsdamer Platz, the facades of entire streets of buildings still pockmarked by grenades, the abandoned embassies around Tiergarten, all were described by a look that quoted the past and, in connection with wave elements, produced new old stereotypes: the proletarian, the soldier, the dandy, the transvestite, the femme fatal, the Hitler Youth.

Claudia Skoda-Produktion:
design by Rainer Fetting, Sweater "The Kiss", around 1980,
from the Masterpieces Collection
©Claudia Skoda

Berlin was influenced by various different protagonists such as Martin Kippenberger, the designer Claudia Skoda, the filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, and the style icon Tabea Blumenschein, while the painters from Moritzplatz made up only one facet of a multifarious scene. As a whole, however, they embodied the image of a front city abroad, a creative laboratory that produced avant-garde impulses by virtue of its very island existence.

Rainer Fetting, Yellow Cab, 1991,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Particularly in New York, this vitality met with great resonance, because in a certain sense the two cities were very similar. "New York was a scary and legendary place," recalls the lead singer of the Talking Heads David Byrne in the book New York Noise. "And downtown was like a bohemian living museum, which was thrilling for an aspiring artist and musician. It was all very new and exciting—and it was incredibly funky, the sleaze and poverty were everywhere."

Flyer Danceteria, 1983

Like in Berlin, financial downturn had created free space for a new generation: "There was more of a crossover between creative mediums then," says artist Cindy Sherman. "People were experimenting with making art, being in a band, making a film, or being a stand-up comic. Perhaps it was because until then there were very few precedents for making money out of those things, so there was little pressure. You were free to try anything." And as in Berlin, very different currents joined to create a larger picture in the American city.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled,
from "Für Joseph Beuys", 1986
Deutsche Bank Collection

[1] [2] [3]