Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art from Germany
Saatchi Gallery, 18th Nov 2011 – 30th Apr 2012
By Ben Lewis
As I walked round Charles Saatchi’s new survey of German art, I was filled with the same sense of inverse cultural nationalism, that I first felt 25 years ago, aged 17, in 1984, when I was blown away by the Max Beckmann exhibition at the Haus der Kunst. I wondered: why is German art so much better than ours?
Anti-nationalism aside, there are other good reasons why I left the Saatchi Gallery for once in a relatively positive mood. Saatchi has always been quite good at German art. He brought Anselm Kiefer to London in 1986 in a big show at Boundary Row, exhibiting him in a boldly contrasty two-person exhibition with American Minimalist Richard Serra. He was relatively fast on the uptake with Thomas Scheibitz and Frank Ackermann, showing them in his “Triumph of Painting” show in 2005, along with Martin Kippenberger and Jörg Immendorf. Now he’s filled his four-floored gallery with a good cross-section of the generation down from Scheibitz.
Also, this show has none of the made-for-Saatchi feel of his Middle Eastern exhibition, where there seemed to be an Arabian version of Sarah Lucas, called Shirin Fakhim, and the centrepiece, a huge room full of women in burkas made out of tin foil (“Ghost”, Kader Attia, 2007), was silly funfair art. Nor do we have here the large numbers of effectively identical work in Saatchi’s Chinese show, like the ghastly rooms of Zhang Xiaogang and Feng Zengjie. German art, thanks to its long history, is better at resisting Saatchification than the art of other nations with younger contemporary art scenes.
The centrepiece of this exhibition is a superlative room of Isa Genzkens. Genzken’s feverish creativity has led to an uneven and over-large oeuvre, but Saatchi had only good pieces, here. There were some mirrors covered in shiny wrapping tape, and a handful of her totemic, strangely monumental sculptures with their plinths wrapped in tinsel and plastic flowers, topped with perspex chairs and toy models of monsters, cars and soldiers. Genzken, to my British eyes, feels firmly located in a Sigmar Polke lineage. There’s the same pop art collage aesthetic and a sense of impending consumerist armageddon, finished off with the fetishisation of the transient, but with a visual vocabulary that is updated for today’s society and made with objets trouvés, not paint. “Do we really produce so much crap?” her art asks rather simply. There’s the contradiction between her obsessive love of the cheap materials of the contemporary high street and her formal discipline. Therein is the visual tension with which she conveys the manic tension of consumer society.
Genzken is the Ausstellungsoma, aged 63, presiding over a brood of Enkelkinder who often, but not always, looked like her disciples. In other rooms are handfuls of lyrically-arranged junk and urban detritus from Thomas Helbig, Friedrich Kunath, Kirstine Roepstorff and Ida Ekblad. In common with these artists, Alexander Bircken’s vertical arrangements found materials and rubbish – like wire mesh, stones, blue plastic and painted apple cores -takes Genzken’s neurotic pop down a notch or two on the dial, with fewer elements in calmer arrangements.
But Genzken is not the whole story here. Other artists in this exhibition often seem to be evoking a modernism from the 1900s. In English we might call them Modernist fogeys. The Romanian twins Uwe and Gert Tobias, whose abstract woodcut prints, with the folkloric shapes, are so chromatically and texturally seductive, recall the woodcuts of Schmidt-Rottluff and geometric paintings of Kandinsky, reversioned within a graphic Street Art sense of design. Markus Selg travels via the wood carvings of Baselitz and Balkenhol into a wonderfully melancholic modernist-primitivism, which made me think he was the lovechild of Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Müller. Meanwhile, Georg Herold’s elegant but sexy reclining figures owe something to Modigliani in their elongations and geometry. A couple of artists combined Genzken and Retro-modernism. Max Frisinger echoed Fernand Léger’s ‘tubist’ paintings with a breathtaking three-dimensional construction inside a large glass vitrine out of furniture off-cuts and other bits and pieces.
Genzken is an ex-wife of Gerhard Richter, who currently has a huge retrospective at the Tate Modern, so Saatchi was rather cannily positing an alternative, both in aesthetic and youthfulness to Nicolas Serota, the Tate’s director, and an art mandarin with whom he has some rivalry. It worked quite well. In contrast to Richter’s neutral, cool, calculating abstract project, we had manic pop art and modernist requiems.
As a survey show, there are predictable shortcomings. It is full of the kind of thing you expect Charles Saatchi to buy. The work is bright, simple, large in scale, often cartoonish in its aesthetic and displays its heritage a bit too obviously. The most guilty of this latter crime is André Butzer whose thickly impastoed abstracts look to me like A.R. Penck with extra dribbles and a few Halloween masks. I couldn’t see much of a point in this sub-COBRA splattering, nor in much of the ponderous and gaudy paintings from Stefan Kürten, Jutta Koether or Ida Ekblad. Too much paint, too much detail, too much apocalypse. Only Andro Wekua, Georgian-born Berlin resident, who was in Venice this year, triumphed on two dimensions, with a huge image of a sunset, realised on 170 glazed ceramic tiles. The translucent colours of sky and clouds, and simple geometry of a long road receding into the distance, with a sun at the vanishing point, felt like a grand statement about the twentieth century history of central and Eastern Europe though I could be reading too much into it.
Then there were the gaps. We Brits are lucky that Saatchi has the time and money to give us such a large-scale show of young German art, but Charles only collects a certain kind of art. Where, I wondered was Hauser and Wirth’s upcoming Cuban-born Berlin artist David Zink-Ye, whose meticulous porcelain octopuses and metal palm trees create a new fantastical and tropical minimalism. And where was former Rosemarie Trockel student and beguiling-artist-in-her-own-right Thea Djordjadze. I had a sense that the Rosemarie-Trockelist direction in German art, with its aesthetic of rigorously pared-down objects was absent from Saatchi’s exhibition.
I suppose you are really wondering what does a British person make of German art today? There are some similar trends. We also have a lot of artists who work with junk, and a lot of artists who revisit modernism nostalgically. But we do it so differently. Our retro-modernism is ephemeral and decorative. We are likely to paint up a nice old wallpaper as a work, as Marc Camille Chaimowicz does, while you have Thomas Kiesewetter, among my favourites in this show, whose dramatic twisted metal sculptures compress Matisse, Picasso, David Smith and pop art car sculptor John Chamberlain and into welded works heavy with mourning and what we call ‘angst’. We’ve even taken your word! We Brits are predisposed to find in all German art a seriousness informed by the weight of your twentieth century history, but some of that clichéd image of German culture seems undeniable. Look at the different ways you and we do shiney: we have Damien Hirst’s shiney gold-plated cabinets full of industrial diamonds, you have Isa Genzken’s shiney assemblages of tinsel, mirror-tiling and gold tape. It’s the sleek versus the obsessive. It’s the difference between Oscar Wilde and Werner Herzog. We are lightweight, witty, diffident, detached. You are intellectual, searching, passionate. That’s why I think German art is so much better than ours.