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German Turbo

The Contemporary Museum Keeps Pace With the Art World’s Newest Dynamo

Superflat: With its stiff air of intimacy, Christoph Ruckhäberle's "Arrangement" creates a fitting sense of unease.

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/18/2004

The New Leipzig School of Painting

The New Leipzig School of Painting

The international art market is as fast-paced as it is fickle, anointing new masters, movements, and cultural hot spots as swiftly as Jennifer Lopez swaps suitors. New York’s post-Warhol neo-expressionist movement, led by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Julian Schnabel, dominated collectors’ wallets during the 1980s. By the early 1990s, critics were fawning over London’s bumper crop of hot young things, which included the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. And recently, contemporary art collectors in New York and London have been shelling out big bucks for massive, often melancholic canvases by young painters educated at the Leipzig School of Painting, in Leipzig, Germany.

Ranging in age from 27 to 35, and heavily influenced by the disorienting, surrealist-influenced works of their mentor, Neo Rauch, as well as the uneasy industrial environment of post-wall Germany, the New Leipzig School of Painting, or “Young German Artists” movement, has become the 21st century’s first bona fide artistic phenomenon. Major Leipzig School exhibitions have been mounted in New York and Miami Beach. Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz spent $20,000 for a recent work by Leipzig wunderkind Matthias Weischer. And eager collectors must wait over a year to obtain a piece by Rauch himself—the 44-year-old painter’s works often pass the $100,000 mark at auction.

Thanks to the Contemporary Museum, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to feast your eyes on Germany’s finest. For The New Leipzig School of Painting, on display through Sept. 4, the museum has assembled six brand-spanking-new works by five of the movement’s major players—including Rauch and Weischer—giving Mobtown art enthusiasts a rare chance to tap into painting’s global zeitgeist.

The four younger artists featured in The New Leipzig School are clearly cut from similar cloth. Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell, and Weischer were part of the original Liga (“League”) quintet of Leipzig painters who debuted with a group show in December 2000, and subsequently studied with Rauch. All three artists use nostalgic, dreamlike imagery and lush colors to subtly reference Germany’s legacy of socialism and its continuing effect on the cultural landscape.

Schnell’s “Tontauben (Clay Pigeons)” presents a landscape that is simultaneously industrial and pastoral. Beginning with a strong command of perspective and line to create a sense of uniformity and order—wooden boxes rest atop each other in stiff, slightly ominous arrangements, suggesting unfinished work or stilted progress—Schnell balances his composition with elements that hint at nature’s more chaotic agenda. Shoots of grass poke through wooden deck work, gently challenging the lines. Large, mud-brown clay pigeons (the titular “Tontauben”) whip freely through Schnell’s mottled, oversaturated blue skyscape, balancing the rigidity of the boxes below. The visual tension created here is organic, real, and immediate—Schnell’s draftsmanship is superior.

Unfortunately, Ruckhäberle’s two pieces are less impressive. In “Ruby Slippers” and “Arrangement,” the artist’s flat, disproportionate human figures and stiff, unconvincing interior backgrounds are at odds with the bold narrative elements inherent in his work. “Ruby Slippers” depicts seven young women, all copies of one another in dress and physicality, as they sprawl, mope, and otherwise inhabit a severe, linear bedroom. There’s a strong sense of movement and identity here—the figures seem to capture the same character at seven different moments in time, stop-motion style—but Ruckhäberle’s skewed perspective is distracting and unsettling. “Arrangement” is more successful, as the stiffness of his two female subjects echoes the stiffness of their surroundings, creating a fitting sense of unease. Here, the elegantly disproportionate bodies of Ruckhäberle’s women transform them into still-life elements—they are as “arranged” as the painting’s lone orange, brown umbrella, and floral spray.

Matthias Weischer has emerged as a major star of the New Leipzig School, and justifiably so. With milk crates, televisions, and clean-lined modern furniture, Weischer’s post-millennial roomscapes perfectly capture his generation’s transient, Dumpster-scavenging lifestyle. “Matraze (Mattress),” the smallest piece in the Contemporary show, immortalizes a first-apartment staple—a mattress on a bare floor—with striking charm and thick, textural oils. Smears, daubs, dents, and incised lines give Weischer’s walls a genuine feel, while blue and pink accents suggest the presence of adjacent, equally minimalist rooms.

Hailed as a “major new painting” by the museum’s press materials, Neo Rauch’s “Suche (Quest)” is a fine example of the painter’s characteristic style, which slams together surrealist and Social Realist elements to capture the emotional essence of urban life in modern Germany. In “Suche,” a giant brown creature, half kiwi bird and half slug, creeps down a Technicolor city street, rendered with bold streaks of orange and yellow. The creature holds a sandwich board printed with the word suche, and confronts two men seated outside of a café, who offer it strange green crystals. Meanwhile, a woman dressed like a Renaissance serving wench lurks beneath the café’s brightly lit, beetle-emblazoned turquoise sign, holding a tray of something indefinable. The narrative implied by all of this is equally indefinable and subconscious, a hallmark of Rauch’s work—and proof that the artist’s recent commercial success hasn’t dulled the inventiveness that made him so popular in the first place.

The bottom line: If Rauch and the other New Leipzig painters can continue to take their newfound fame with a pinch of salt, works like those on display here may someday occupy an Early 21st Century Painting wing at MoMA. Get ’em while they’re hot.

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