PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Jörg Immendorff

PAMELA KORT: What were the signal moments in the ’80s for you?

JÖRG IMMENDORFF: In 1982 I had my first large museum show in Germany at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, where my “Café Deutschland” [1978–82] paintings were featured. Shortly thereafter I participated for the second time in Documenta, and just a few months later “Zeitgeist” opened at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

This period was also important to me because of the interaction between the older generation of artists and much younger ones, like Walter Dahn and Georg Jiří Dokoupil, two of the Cologne artists grouped around the Mülheimer Freiheit. They had just been featured in a show at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, “Zehn junge Künstler aus Deutschland.” A few months later their work was also showcased at Documenta 7. It is seldom that an older and younger generation come to public attention at the same time. Then there were books and catalogues published like Hunger nach Bildern and La transavanguardia tedesca. Suddenly all Europe was reacting to the German art scene, not just France and England but also Italy, where painters such as Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia were working. A big part of the response centered on the debate around so-called figurative painting. And of course it was also at this time that David Salle and Julian Schnabel, who were shown as well at “Zeitgeist,” began to exhibit in Europe.

PK: How important was Düsseldorf during the ’80s? You had lived there for more than fifteen years by then.

JI: At least for me, Düsseldorf and Cologne were the centers of the German art scene. But it was Joseph Beuys who was able to open up the situation in Germany so that what was initially a regional scene could become an international one in the ’80s. One should not forget that Beuys rejected painting as an art form. It was this attitude that inspired my 1966 painting Hört auf zu malen (Stop painting). That painting was born out of hard criticism. It is just as important for an understanding of my work as the “Café Deutschland” paintings. Like that later series, two things came together in the painting: the negation of past modes of painting and the affirmation of a new and completely different manner of working in paint. The emergence of a new style of German paintings in the 1980s could not have taken place without Beuys’s example. And it had taken at least ten years for the seeds that he sowed to bear fruit.

During the late ’60s and mid-’70s I officially abandoned painting and made my so-called agitprop works. Although Michael Werner showed the latter at his gallery in Cologne, I continued painting privately, encouraged by his continual purchases of my canvases. Beuys was also in the 1982 Documenta, and he was still the main figure. His 7,000 Eichen (7,000 oaks, 1982) was on the field in front of the Fridericianum. And my Brandenburger Tor—Weltfrage (Brandenburg Gate—World question) sculpture was on the street just in front of that. It wasn’t my first Documenta, but it was the first time work by younger painters such as myself was widely acclaimed.

PK: Where did the impulse to paint come from then? The Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Beuys was teaching?

JI: Yes, the academy, but also the studios. At the academy there were artists like Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke, but of course it wasn’t just a matter of everybody suddenly starting to paint. The field was prepared the decade before without an audience, without press coverage, without a huge scene.

Still, every artist recognized precisely what every other artist was doing. Open discussions took place regularly but not formally, in our free time—in pubs, for instance, like the Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf. After A.R. Penck crossed over from the former East Germany in 1980, the Ratinger Hof was where we met along with other artists. He was intensely involved with music, and that too became part of our daily lives; it was a kind of punk-rock scene. It was a very lively moment. I see it as a wave, which after cresting becomes a quiet sea. That is the way it is in the art world: There are peaks and valleys. It is a kind of dialectical process.

The difference between the ’80s and today is that then we were much more deeply informed about one another’s art. Today relationships among artists are not so intense. Sadly, they seem like strangers to one another.

PK: Would you characterize the painting that developed in Germany in the ’80s as “neo-expressionist”?

JI: The term neo-expressionism is just as misleading as Neue Wilde. We were neither expressionists nor wild young artists. We have to try and get at the philosophy behind the paintings. I am as hungry for the meaning of painting as ever. What does art mean? What is the role of the artist in society? I still want to bring into focus the last two vibrant decades of the twentieth century and all they meant. But that will take time, because, in the end, the life force of art knows nothing of normal time. It makes itself known irregularly, affecting both our understanding of the past and our ability to cope with the future. What we really need is another concept of time in order to grasp the essentials of art.

This is the problem with a term like zeitgeist. It was appropriate back in the early ’80s, but today it has absolutely no meaning. The difference is that we now recognize that if art is too close to the zeitgeist it becomes mere design. It is almost impossible to recapture the utopian spirit of the ’80s today, not only because there are no cultural dialogues, but because there is less possibility today of reconciling religious, racial, and moral differences. In my eyes, everyone in the world—including, of course, the artists—should put the questions on the table again just as they did in the ’80s: “What’s the reason I paint? What is the purpose of the work I carry out every day?” Only by seriously asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing can we make more meaningful paintings.

PK: Wasn’t it during the ’80s that you became acknowledged internationally as an artist?

JI: Yes, that decade was decisive. To begin with, I had an exhibition in New York. Ileana Sonnabend gave me a one-man show in 1982 and another in 1983. It was absolutely clear to her that an artist’s work or style is not a matter of nationalism. She was very special partly because she had had a gallery in Paris: When she came to America, she brought a European sensibility with her. She seemed extraordinary in her ability to mix together European cultural history and an American way of life and thinking. For me she was the bridge between America and Europe.

PK: When you came to America in the early ’80s, did you have the feeling that people looked at you and your art as German?

JI: I am not interested in that and really didn’t notice such an attitude if it indeed existed. Art is universal. That may sound like a cliché, but art is more than something material; it has to do with the spirit. During the ’80s there were so many different styles and talents—Polke, Richter, Albert Oehlen, Schnabel, Clemente—but you cannot fix art at a special time or location. Of course, when one looks at a Max Beckmann painting, it can be better understood if you know the events of his private and professional life.

PK: Nevertheless, your paintings make specific references to German history. Take for example, Folgen (Follow), from 1983, in which smoke seethes from a giant burning swastika.

JI: In my paintings, symbols associated with National Socialist Germany function as kinds of clichés insofar as they stand for universal evils. Hitler was not the first destructive man, and he won’t be the last. The factors that led to his rise to power and the destruction he subsequently wrought remain permanent dangers. That is one of the reasons I painted the smoking swastika: Such images must be painted. To make them taboo would be regressive. The smoking swastika indicates that the matter is far from closed, be it in Germany or—from the perspective of 2003—the malicious terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Evil takes root and flourishes when art and freedom of expression are censored, whether in National Socialist Germany or in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

PK: You began your “Café Deutschland” paintings in 1978 and stopped working on the cycle around 1982. Is it a pure coincidence that this was the very year you first came to America?

JI: I’ve always been interested in a new kind of imagemaking dealing with history that has more symbolic power than a mimetic depiction of actual events. The “Café Deutschland” paintings have nothing to do with my traveling to America. Rather, once I got down in paint a certain reality that characterized not just Germany but our entire age, I had accomplished what I wanted to achieve in those pictures. You might compare “Café Deutschland” to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. That painting is permeated by a certain melancholy and isolation inherent in a big city like New York. My “Café Deutschland” works addressed the situation of a divided Germany, but they are similar to the Hopper in that they are also about alienation. They represent my attempt to break through a wall—and not merely the one that separated the former East and West Germanies. How odd it is that, despite the many ways we have of communicating with one another, we seem to be building up walls between ourselves rather than dismantling them. So the “Café Deutschland” paintings stand just as much for a then externally divided Germany as for the condition of an internally split man, who struggles to communicate not only with himself but also with his colleagues and lovers.

PK: How did your visits to America affect you as an artist?

JI: There is no question that the status of artists in America really held my attention. It’s a very different situation for artists in Germany. Take Jasper Johns, for example, who represents a thoroughly positive and innovative place in relation to society. In Germany the artist is generally considered suspect. But in the ’80s the situation changed a bit, for a while anyway. German artists were invited to participate in televised debates, for instance. It was a small thing, but for a short time artists were special figures in Germany.

PK: Is there a relationship between the art you are making right now and the themes you were exploring in the ’80s?

JI: The real question is, Can we still gain from what we did? At the moment I am painting in a completely different manner. But just as “Lidl” [1968–70] is still in me, so too is “Café Deutschland,” as are the stage sets and costumes for The Rake’s Progess in Salzburg in the early ’90s, which you and I worked on together. These are experiences that are not only unforgettable but that engender new works of art.

One could ask whether or not a sixty-five- or seventy-year-old artist is still an avant-garde artist. Maybe an artist can discover another, even more profound way of making avant-garde work. This would, of course, be very different from the paintings made at the beginning of an angry young artist’s career. With the experience of thirty or forty years of making art, you go more quietly to a painting. Even though your time seems to be running out, you have more patience for painting. This means you have the chance of creating something that has perhaps an even greater intensity than what you did when you were younger. At twenty-five, you may produce good work, even sensational paintings, but you are not ripe enough to go philosophically deeper.

This is one answer to your question. But there is also the fact that, though the art I am making now looks extremely different from what I was doing in the late ’70s and ’80s, it is not all that different from my work of the ’60s.

PK: You just described the ’80s as a decade in which artists’ studios were more open, as opposed to these days when you feel a greater sense of isolation. Would you say that this is essentially the defining difference between your world in 2003 and the ’80s?

JI: Every time has a special gift for you, and you must try hard to win that bequest. Today we have to answer questions other than those we asked in the ’80s. I think working against the grain is important, in order to surprise yourself. Art has nothing to do with normal time. The artist has to keep in mind all these elements so that he can attain a more relaxed relationship with life itself and use this to make even better paintings.

I tell my students, “Take your time. Breathe for twenty years or so. Try and make a portrait of yourself that depicts who you will be thirty years from now.” This is an interesting problem for a painter.

Pamela Kort is a New York–based art historian and associate curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.