Cornelius Tittel visits the "Neuen Wilden" artists, asking why the once wild young men and women are now all but forgotten.
"Poor boy," thought Rainer Fetting on the evening of 25 March 2006. Not much more. Just: "Poor boy." Although his face was reflected in the window of the "Ruz" tapas bar, he was not referring to himself. He was looking across the road, to the other side of Auguststrasse in Berlin, straight into the window of Eigen+Art gallery. He saw people smoking, drinking and blowing kisses.
Francesca von Habsburg was trying in vain to get up the few steps into the gallery, past American billionaires, Japanese curators, German former ministers and all the other people who may only have been there for the free drinks, on this evening in the middle of Berlin.
Somewhere amidst all this, leaning against a wall, was Matthias Weischer, the poor boy from Leipzig who once again had sold all his paintings before the invitation cards were even printed. Six months before, one of his works had sold at auction for 321,000 euros.
The number "321,000" hissed round the room, "at 32 years of age", and the other numbers didn't sound bad either. The crush was like a cocktail party on Wall Street: wild, hysterical, but tense, as if it was important to keep an eye on stock prices even after the close of trading.
A few weeks later, the very thought of this evening will send a shiver down Rainer Fetting's spine. As bad as if he was driving very slowly past the site of an accident and had looked too long at just the wrong moment. "No," he will say, unlocking the door to his studio at Südstern in Berlin's Kreuzberg district: "I couldn't go in there. I sat down at the window across the street. The people waiting in line, the atmosphere, it all reminded me too much of the old days."
For Rainer Fetting, the old days is 25 years ago. In the old days, Fetting was what Weischer is today: young, successful, an international star. In the early 1980s, the art world had had enough of Conceptual and Minimal Art, it felt a hunger for paintings, a hunger satisfied by Fetting and his fellow Moritz Boys (of the Self-Help gallery at Berlin's Moritz Platz) with their large-format canvases. At this time, Fetting's pictures had titles like "Van Gogh at the Berlin Wall" or "The Big Shower." They showed scenes from the gay subculture and looked like they had been painted after an amphetamine-fuelled sleepless night by some revenant version of Max Beckmann.
Fetting became a star of the Neuen Wilden (or young wild artists). After the celebrated "New Spirit in Painting" show at the Royal Academy in London, he entrusted his business to Anthony D'Offay, Bruno Bischofberger and Mary Boone, the three most successful gallerists of their time. Collectors waving blank checks, invitations to dinner with Gloria von Thurn und Taxis - everything Jonathan Meese, Daniel Richter and the painters of the Leipzig School are experiencing today, Fetting has seen it all (see our feature "A sight for sore eyes" on the New Leipzig School).
Anyone who wants to know what life after fame might look like for the star painters of today need only visit the heroes of yesterday. Salomé, Fetting's former partner, loved to fly Concorde and is now happy if he "manages to keep the costs under control" when he paints. Elvira Bach, who showed at Documenta in 1982, now shows at Festung Rosenburg. Or Rainer Fetting, who once told journalists he was making not art but art history, now admits he "sometimes feels frustrated."
Everyone has their own destiny, says Fetting. "Some people only become famous when they're dead, others have sustained success, and others are destined to be feted then forgotten." This last destiny is one he shares with almost all the major star painters of the 1980s who disappeared from public view in the wake of the art market crash of 1990. With the Italians Cucchi, Chia and Clemente, with David Salle, Julian Schnabel and the painters of the Mülheimer Freiheit group (named after street where they shared a studio in Cologne).
There are now so many famous corpses lining the wayside of recent art history that Maurizio Cattelan's Wrong Gallery recently published a book dedicated to the "100 Most Forgotten Artists." It featured nothing but rave reviews from the international art press of the eighties and nineties. With Rainer Fetting featured several times.
Not that there is any cause for serious concern. Fetting still has a few loyal collectors, he rents out his New York loft for top prices, and in Berlin he owns half of a tenement block where he lives and works with more than 700 square meters. The only thing is: "Hardly anyone hears about what I'm doing, the major magazines stopped writing anything and never started again."
When Rainer Fetting talks about his meteoric rise, he tells a story of being subjected to excessive demands. The story of a young painter from Berlin's down-at-heel Kreuzberg district who becomes a star overnight, who has no command of business or small talk, whose sole desire is to paint, and who responds to the art world with an arrogance born of shyness. "Once a boom like that gets underway, when everyone is tugging at you, it's hard to carry on doing your own thing. You're under constant stress."
To him, this pressure was so great that over the years he fell out with all of the gallerists, as a kind of act of defiance. And now he sits there and is annoyed that his show is at Kunsthalle Emden in the deepest provinces, while Immendorf's is at the New National Gallery in Berlin (see our feature "The art of the ape" on the show).
"It has nothing to do with quality," he says. "The works exist. If I was able to do a major show again, I'd blow away some of the people being celebrated today. But I don't get the chance."
Fetting shows some new works – in one large-format picture, a hurricane sweeps across a road, bile-green palm trees bend over double. Fetting still knows what he is capable of. If he was young and from Leipzig, he would be sure to score record prices at auctions. For the hurricane and for the underground pictures leaning against the wall in the next room.
As he sees it, it would only be fair for him to be given a sporting chance, to go head-to-head with Georg Baselitz or Gerhard Richter. "That's something I'd like to see. Baselitz selects his fifteen best works and I select mine. Then we'd see. That would be an interesting project, but it hasn't occurred to anyone, because even the major museums only follow trends, and the powerful gallerists obey them."
Now Fetting is sitting in his office. On the wall above him hangs a photo that shows him with Andy Warhol. The picture is 25 years old, and even then, he looked into the camera as if he didn't trust all the excitement. "It is not an easy path," he says, and hands over a pile of catalogues. "The main thing is that things that are good get made."
The Berlin collector, dealer and curator Heiner Bastian is probably right: it probably really is true that after success, there are two options open to artists: "Either they achieve classic status," he claims, "or they disappear."
But there are different ways of disappearing, as one notices after a short trip on the underground through Kreuzberg. Just four stops from Fetting's studio at Südstern is the place where it all began for the Moritz Boys and the Neuen Wilden. Salomé (paintings here) still lives in the same house where he and Fetting, together with Helmut Middendorf and Luciano Castelli, founded the Moritzplatz Self-Help Gallery in 1977.
"I'm still here," he says, pouring himself a cup of lukewarm peppermint tea. While Fetting carries on his bitter struggle for a place in art history, Salomé gives the impression of a former pop star who is happy to take yoga courses and do some voluntary work for AIDS support groups.
In winter – says the man who once sold the output of an entire year to Bruno Bischofberger in advance – in winter he doesn't paint at all. The heating costs for his studio on the first floor are just too high. "Things could be going a bit better," he says, but on the whole he is content. "My work has hung in almost every museum in the world. I can't ask more than that." Even the rock'n'roller in him, so he claims, has achieved all of the major objectives: stretch limos, flights on a Concorde, a jet-set life between Long Island and Bad Doberan, fast money, fast drugs, and even faster sex. People who knew him at the peak of his success describe him as an egomaniac.
Salomé's arrogance seems to have given way to a kind of humility. Maybe he is enough of a rock'n'roller to guess that there are worse things than being a one-hit wonder. Maybe someone broke it to him gently that his new pictures are so bad that he can be glad of the chance to show them at all. One thing is certain: he has seen through the first rule of the art market. "Children," says Salomé, "always need new toys."
Elvira Bach is someone else who once produced the kind of toys which, for a few years, big collectors and museums were queuing up for. She too still works in Kreuzberg, she too shot to fame overnight as one of the Neuen Wilden. Bach went for a broad approach, both physically and in the marketing of her art: at Documenta in 1982, the broadsheet art critics enthused over her female figures, and not long after, you could buy them in the supermarket, decorating wine labels, boxes of biscuits and a tea service by Rosenthal. For "Bunte" magazine, Bach became "Germany's best-known woman painter;" for the art world, she became a persona non grata.
"I was always very happy doing all that, and I still am," she says today. "That's what made me really successful." Elvira Bach sits at a long table in her huge light-flooded studio, smokes, laughs and smokes some more, always alternating between the two. Around her stand dozens of canvases all showing the same motif. A woman who, like Bach herself, wears fat gold earrings and red lipstick put on so thick it looks as if she has drawn an outline round the shape of her mouth. It is a woman who 20 years ago would have been called "strong" – Bach's only motif. For so many years now that the accusation of her living off self-plagiarism has long-since become a platitude.
The way Elvira Bach strolls over to her fridge, cigarette in hand, to fetch a bottle of champagne, in the early afternoon, she would make a good role model for young star painters who already sense that their days in the spotlight of the international press are numbered.
Martin Eder, for example, whose never-changing pictures of innocent nymphs and little pussy cats sell like hot cakes around the world: could he not follow her example and produce initial editions of 500 prints, or a pretty tea service?
"And why not?" asks Elvira Bach. "People are always saying: buy more art. For me, commercial has long since ceased to be a dirty word." Elvira Bach pours another glass, soon after four o'clock the bottle is empty. "Commercial, provincial. What do they mean?" She can even cure the young artists of their fear of the provinces. "You know," she says as her parting shot, "I've had both: big shows in big cities and little shows in small towns. I like it best in the provinces. At least there someone is pleased if someone famous shows up."
The art market has a tendency for categorical judgements, says Heiner Bastian, and when he says "art market," he is not talking about sleepy provincial outposts. "Thumbs up or thumbs down. Classic status or oblivion."
Heiner Bastian should know. He has worked with the greatest classics, as private secretary to Beuys, later as the curator of the loveliest Warhol retrospective (shown at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin and The Tate, London). He also gave advice to those who disappeared, to Fetting and Salomé, as well as he could. It was he who purchased Fetting's "Big Shower" for the Marx Collection. "A powerful picture," he says, "even today." But it is not on show; since the opening of the Hamburger Bahnhof it has been in storage.
Does Bastian know why they disappeared, the former Neuen Wilden? "Their painting was probably just the expression of a feeling, a zeitgeist," he says: "And when that feeling disappeared, the art went with it." Bastian briefly raises his eyebrows, totally unsentimental, as if he were talking about asymmetrical haircuts, leggings or shoulder pads.
He doesn't say that the forlorn figures and sad interiors of the Leipzig School might also just be the expression of a particular feeling or zeitgeist. Anything is possible, even a revival of shoulder pads. But, he says, it's not likely.
The article originally appeared in Die Welt Am Sonntag on May 14, 2006.
Cornelius Tittel is cultural editor for Die Welt.
Translation: Nicholas Grindell