Strong Images: “The 80s. Figurative Painting in West Germany” at the Städel

Far more than just wild: in Frankfurt, a large Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition augmented by loans from the corporate collection takes a fresh look at the painter rebels of the 1980s—and opens up a new discussion about an entire generation.
In the early 1980s, their paintings hit the international art world like a stroke of lightning: Salomé, Rainer Fetting, Helmut MiddendorfElvira Bach, Albert Oehlen. They were rebellious, radical, and provocative, and in a relatively short period of time, they became stars representing a new Germany. But the excitement over the painters from Moritzplatz in Berlin or the “Mülheimer Freiheit” in Cologne cooled down almost as fast as the summer evening air following a thunderstorm. While very few of them, like Kippenberger and Oehlen, continued to play a role in the art discourse, their neo-expressive paintings were dealt and shown, but rarely written about. For many, they are still seen as little more than a phenomenon of the zeitgeist: ever since the late 1980s, they’ve been considered too superficial, too reactionary, not conceptual enough. “We’re looking at a generation of artists that generated a tremendously controversial echo in a clearly defined period of time through the power of their actions and the novelty of their painting,” explains Martin Engler, curator of the exhibition. “Nonetheless, to this day there’s no coherent narrative linking the paintings in any meaningful way with what went before and what came afterward.”

The 80ies - the film on the exhintion at Städel Museum

That’s about to change. After thirty years during which only very few people took a closer look at the work, the Frankfurt Städel Museum  is bringing the paintings of this era back into the art historical limelight. And it’s a big show: over 100 works by altogether 27 artists are on view, including Ina Barfuss, Werner BüttnerWalter Dahn, Rainer Fetting, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé, and Andreas Schulze. It’s the generation that followed the concept-heavy, minimalist 1970s, and it not only called for a return to the canvas, but sought to bring the social revolution into painting, too. Sexual liberation, street fighting, punk: in the late 1970s, major cities like Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg were in upheaval. And the painters themselves were as varied and full of contradiction as the urban scene they grew out of. The exhibition casts a discerning eye on these various scenes, each of which had a completely different mentality and approach to material: the ironic, cool Hamburgers, the physically expressive Berliners, and the artists from Cologne, who were inspired by Art Brut.

The journey proceeds through various different thematic sections. The show begins with the classic genre of portrait painting. Albert Oehlen’s Self-Portrait with Palette (1984), Werner Büttner’s Self-portrait masturbating in the cinema (1980), and Luciano Castelli's Berlin Nite (1979) present an intensive, critical investigation into the medium of painting. The confrontation with the artist self is followed by a glimpse into the walled-in city of Berlin and the gallery at Moritzplatz, which was founded in 1977 by Fetting, Middendorf, Salomé, and Bernd Zimmer in Kreuzberg. The city, exempt from military conscription and far away from the conservative provinces, became a key motif for these painters, who had gathered there from other regions in West Germany. Today, Fetting’s paintings of the Wall can be understood as a political statement. For him, though, the Wall was an everyday reality and part of the view outside his studio window. While artists like Fetting or Middendorf addressed the architecture of their city, in his landscapes Zimmer explored the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. The important role of punk and subculture become visible in some of the paintings, such as Middendorf’s Electric Night (1979): it’s not just the sketchily painted figures in the bright nighttime jungle that appear electrified, but the entire painting glows, too.

Helmut Middendorf on "Electic Night". The painting is on view at the Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition "The 80s" at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.

The “electrified big city natives” return in Fetting’s Big Shower (1981) as nude models. This painting opens the section dedicated to the body discourse, where Salomé confronts the viewer with radically homoerotic nudes. Next to these are the mystical-looking works of Christa Näher, with their hybrid beings of part animal, part human. The paintings of the time touched upon questions of gender and social norms in a remarkably open and provocative way.

The political stance of the painter rebels becomes even clearer on the top floor of the Städel. Along with icons like Albert Oehlen’s Führerhauptquartier (1982), Hans Peter Adamski's painting MAO (1983) are also on view here. The approach taken regarding the historical symbolism is often ironic, too, as with Kippenberger’s key work Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (For the life of me I can’t see a swastika in this, 1984). The swastika, both visible and invisible, undermines and questions the political symbol while also lending it an ironic touch. The works exhibited in this section of the show clearly demonstrate that the political aspect of the paintings is only one of the many different thematic set pieces that shift constantly and generate new meaning.

The paintings of the Hamburg scene around Werner Büttner, Georg Herold, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert and Markus Oehlen pick up on the political discourse. The group is connected mainly through their proximity to Sigmar Polke’s Hamburg academy class and Max Hetzler's gallery. While the Berliners practiced a deliberately direct access to painting, the Hamburg artists’ approach is more broken and constantly questions image, subject, and content.

The third geographic space connects to this: starting in 1980, the “Mülheimer Freiheit” with Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, and Jiří Georg Dokoupil worked in a collective studio on the street they named their group after in Cologne-Deutz. In his painting The Birth of the Mülheimer Freiheit (1981), Dahn recorded the moment on canvas. The “Mülheimer Freiheit” practiced a deliberate aesthetic dilettantism in which archaic-looking works come to expression that are often reminiscent of Outsider Art, but are always fascinating in a painterly sense. The works of the “Mülheimer Freiheit” visualize in a particularly vivid way the pluralism of styles that marked the new figuration around 1980. The critical view back in time that the Städel undertakes shows just how undervalued this era of German painting is, and to what degree it has influenced the anarchic strategies of the subsequent generation.

The 80s. Figurative Painting in West Germany
7/22 – 10/18/2015
Städel Museum, Frankfurt