Exhibition catalogue essay for “Der Menschen Klee,” curated by Cornelius Quabeck

“Students are torn between incompatible worlds, whether they realize it or not, and sometimes this schizophrenic condition can be a good place to be. We live in an asynchronic moment when the old academy, the modernist model, and the deconstructive afterimages live side by side in a world increasingly driven by market interests.”

 – Daniel Birnbaum, ‘Teaching Art: Adorno and the Devil,’ in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) ed. Steven Henry Madoff

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Paul McDevitt
Wild freaks of Merriment, (part of) Triptychon, 2010/2011; Eva Berendes Untitled I und Untitled II, 2009

             The present exhibition, Der Menschen Klee, aims to reexamine cultural tensions and exchange between the British and German art worlds in the late 1990s. It was during this period that the show’s co-curator, artist Cornelius Quabeck, left Dusseldorf to study in London, where seismic shifts in the art world were taking place. Those changes were reverberations of an international art market captivated by Young British Artists and the contagious opportunism transmitted by their success. For the first time in history, it was not only possible but common for thirty-something artists to live off their work—a promise that echoed loudly in studios and lecture halls of art colleges as far as Dusseldorf. It was in this halcyon climate that Quabeck arrived at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. There emerged a dialogue among his peers that lay the foundation for this show.

            Today it is taken for granted that Germany and Britain stand together as pillars of contemporary European art, but this is a recent phenomenon. Artists who studied in these countries only a decade or two ago—just prior to the total homogenization of the art world—experienced relatively little cross-exposure. Discourse hurried along with technology, but rhetoric remained divergent between the countries. Competing ideologies about the artist’s status in society, for example, could co-exist because there was no meta-myth with which to compete. That was before Damien Hirst.

            The German and British artists in this exhibition developed their practices amidst these paradigm shifts. There is no conspicuous visual denomination that groups them together—rather, time and place are their common threads. The social and historical matrix from which they emerged begins with the London art explosion and continues to challenge art pedagogy today. All attended London art colleges during the accelerated 1990s, with several studying in both Germany and the UK. Anna Barriball, Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt were classmates of Quabeck’s at the Chelsea College of Art and Design between 1999 and 2000. They were the disciples of earlier generations of London art students that include Brian Chalkley, Richard Clegg and Martin Westwood. Like Quabeck, artists Tim Stoner, Neal Tait, Eva Berendes, Markus Vater and Sophie von Hellermann received parts of their education in both Britain and Germany.

            Some were present during each other’s formative art-making years and others met later, in group shows or elsewhere, inevitably crossing paths as artists with common histories do. It just so happened that the time they shared was a decade or so that produced a new kind of artist that birthed a new kind of art student. How they processed these cultural shifts and at what proximity is where this conversation gets interesting.

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            To fully engage in this discussion requires some backpedalling. The UK, it must be remembered, was basking in a kind of cultural renaissance in the 1990s. Drunk on Tony Blair’s victory and swaying to its Brit Pop anthems, the country’s collective mood set the stage for an exportable national art movement spearheaded by the young. The YBAs, or Young British Artists, were this decade’s Bright Young Things, ushering in a new era of excess and provoking middle class values to the delight of an eager press. Acting as their benefactor was an insatiable international art market dictated by advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi. His financial support rendered several artists overnight stars. Not only the market, but major institutions began marching in step with Saatchi’s bias for young artists. The Tate’s annual Turner Prize became the badge of this success story, awarding mostly YBAs for an entire decade.

            One year prior to Quackbeck’s arrival in London, in 1998, painter Chris Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize at the tender age of 30. Ofili was not the first young artist to win Britain’s most prestigious art prize—in fact, the novelty was teetering toward status quo. What made Ofili’s win notable was that he was a painter in an era saturated by pop conceptualism. His achievement might have signaled an emerging tension, but London’s art establishment was far from ready to imagine the good times coming to an end. The following year witnessed a second tipping point for the YBA movement, however, this time marking its demise. Tracey Emin was nominated in 1999 for the Turner Prize and in response, her ex-boyfriend, painter Billy Childish, co-founded the Stuckism movement. This movement rallied backlash against the brand of sensationalist ‘idea art’ that the award typically recognized—and that had made Emin one of Britain’s preeminent YBAs.

            One of the Stuckists’ chief ideological aims was to resuscitate figurative painting. Doing so, the group oddly calculated, required submitting to the same type of media stunts and shock tactics that shot Emin and her peer group to fame. Dressed up in clown costumes, the Stuckists staged annual interventions outside the Tate Britain as the Turner Prize was being announced. The merits of painting and conceptualism thus afforded no more gravity than sound bytes in the Evening Standard. But the British art world of 1999 was unquestionably gripped by anxiety. Its domestic megalomania was nearing end.

            It was at this moment that several of the artists in this exhibition arrived in London, when predominant aesthetic values were in flux. The title of this show, Der Menschen Klee, eludes to a similar critical juncture: the name is a phonetic translation of  ‘The Human Clay,’ a group show curated by R.B. Kitaj in 1976 at London’s Hayward gallery, remembered for championing figurative art in an era dominated by abstraction. This stance, like the stance of the Stuckists, was a indicator of what was to come.

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            Even as the YBA movement waned, pressure to churn out future Turner Prize winners weighed heavily on British art colleges. Some, consequently, earned reputations for pushing a market-driven agenda in their classrooms. At best they were criticized for equipping students with curatorial jargon and network savvy, at worst for favoring conceptual work over other practices. While the general trend of professionalization was by no means a uniquely British phenomenon, the dangling carrot of early success or an ‘instant career’ was prevalent in the discourse at London art schools at the time. The youngest of British artists brushed shoulders with warm-blooded gallerists and collectors at their degree shows, some selling work and even signing on with galleries before graduation. A new entrepreneurial breed of art student was being manufactured, along with an unprecedented set of expectations for the future. And the rest of Europe was catching on.

            This depiction of British art school is, of course, a construction and the experience of the artists here far more nuanced. Some site the omnipresence of verbal exchange, for example, as an invaluable and often under-acknowledged feature of the British style of teaching art. Frequent critiques by staff, visiting artists, curators and between students were a defining feature of their experience. Students were expected to regularly defend their work—even if with poorly employed theoretical jargon—preparing them for an art world that increasingly demands curatorial justification. But learning how to articulate one’s work has the power to change the work, to make it better. Conversation serves as support and a means for interrogation. It need not be limited to small-talk at a gallery opening or sound bytes in a newspaper. The work of the artists here is fundamentally communicative in that their practices reflect this dialectical tradition—they are manifestly aware of each other, sharing vocabulary and exchanging references without hesitation.

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            Quabeck and his peers left an institutional milieu in Germany that, in contrast, took a sober if not cynical standpoint on the prospects of aspiring artists. At the Kunstacademie Dusseldorf, rhetoric mandated that the work—not sheer will or economic happenstance—determined the success of an art career. Fruition in one’s twenties was generally unthinkable and thereafter remained quite dim. Time, it seemed, was the young artist’s enemy. But settling into a kind of sober pragmatism had its advantages: it afforded seemingly infinite space to negotiate one’s practice, make necessary but forgettable errors and let the work mature over time. Perhaps to its benefit (and only time will tell), Germany was not experiencing a piqued interest in young German artists, but rather old German painters. The monumental legacies of Baselitz, Immendorff, Richter and Polke dominated Quabeck’s experience in Dusseldorf, and he was certainly not alone in his humility.

            The age gap between German art students and their professors was another factor that led to the marginalized status of young artists in the industry. There were fewer role models writ large and thus fewer opportunities to project career fantasies. But all that was about to change—and like most things, change in tandem with the market. A younger generation of established German artists, who came to rise in the 1980s, became the beneficiaries of the late ‘90s global art boom. Specifically, those with the geographical advantage of working in Cologne: home to the first international art fair, Art Cologne. While the fair had been in existence since the late 1960s, its ascendancy occurred only in the past two decades, during which zealous collectors and gallerists required and conditioned a new ilk of German art stars. Several of these artists—including Albert Oehlen, Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold and Hubert Kiecol—would later be hired to teach at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. The internationalization of the art school, like the art world generally, had begun.

            Cross-pollination between Germany and the UK became more frequent around this time. The Saatchi-backed Sensation exhibition, which cemented the YBA movement in the canon of art history, traveled to Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in 1998 before heading to New York. British artists, including Damien Hirst in 1994 and Douglas Gordon in 1998, received residencies through DAAD’s cultural exchange program. The art market in general was becoming increasingly hegemonic; borders opened, rendering the possibility of an intra-national art career more plausible. Artists based in the UK, such as painters Peter Doig and  Tomma Abts, came to Germany, also to teach at Dusseldorf. Abts—who is one of the few foreign-born winners of the Turner Prize (German artist Wolgang Tillmans was the first)—was followed by other award grantees taking up professorships in Germany. Douglas Gordon and fellow Brit Simon Starling now teach at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, for example. What these movements suggest is a concerted effort on the part of German institutions to connect with the British art world and cultivate a new kind of art student—one that is cosmopolitan first and German second. Britain’s expansion of the Turner Prize to include non-British artists who live and work in England parallels this shift. A ‘national’ art prize is necessarily bound by arbitrary limitations that benefit neither the market nor a country’s cultural image worldwide. Globalization had officially penetrated the art world—no opening, gallery or institution was more than an EasyJet flight away.

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 Historical and terrestrial contours frame Der Menschen Klee but also serve as a prop—they act as segues to more exigent questions. Questions that endure regardless of time and place. What is an artist’s relationship to time, their work to history? What are the ideal circumstances under which to develop one’s practice? How does context inform the work and how necessary is its articulation? How close or distant should one be from one’s desires? What several artists here will admit is that time and place make very little difference. Those who crisscrossed the cultural bridge between Germany and the UK may be most aware of how arbitrary these difference and transformations have been. On the other hand, maybe everything is time and place and repressing that fact is inherent to endorsing one’s practice. These questions remain open here, just as the narrative presented in this essay invites competing claims. The spirit of this exhibition is dialogic, ephemeral and open for revision. It is only as British, German, pre- or post-millennial as the viewer wishes to see it.

This essay was featured in the exhibition catalogue for “Der Menschen Klee,” curated by Cornelius Quabeck and Gertrud Peters, at the Kunst Im Tunnel at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Germany.