The “cultural landslide” let loose by the unorthodox art of the “Jungen Wilden” (the “Young Wild Ones”) on accepted views of the avant-garde has aroused greater public interest in Germany than any previous art movement, even Pop. Reports in Stern magazine on the professional doings of these 30-year-olds, and appearances on popular TV shows, have contributed to the widespread interest. But a certain nervousness remains about these artists, which is of course in line with the intentions of many of them. “Zwischenbilanz: Neue deutsche Malerei” (Interim report: the new German painting), which the usually risk-shy German Foreign Office commissioned Klaus Honnef to organize at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, to which it traveled this summer, was meant to shed some light on this work, which some dismiss and others greatly admire.

Out of the horde of artists who were considered at the start of the selection process, three years ago, only 15 made it to the final stage: Hans-Peter Adamski, Elvira Bach, Ina Barfuss, Peter Bömmels, Werner Büttner, Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Rainer Fetting, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Middendorf, Albert and Markus Oehlen, Stefan Szczesny, Volker Tannert, and Thomas Wachweger. The elimination of Andreas Schulze and Salome is odd, given these other choices. Yet what sort of clarification can one expect from an “interim” show, organized too late to define the field and too early to dispense a final judgment on it? While each artist was represented by several works, the show essentially ignored the current desire on the part of both public and artists for distinction between them rather than representation of them as a group. The halftime score, then, amounts to not much more than another recap of what is already clear.

This first generation of TV-suckled artists has incorporated the chaos and arbitrariness of the daily onslaught of media images, and tramples on all the traditional rules of painting and its iconography. The proliferation of skulls, for instance, signifies not an interest in historical themes, or the moral position implied by a memento mori, but the artists’ desire to discover their own personal visions through an alienating, macabre subject matter. Their primary concern is still to introduce their own viewpoints, to investigate the possibilities of individual imagination amid the contemporary flood of preformulated images. For some, painting is a serious genre in its own right; for others, it is a vehicle for a particular set of strategies which revolve around making bad paintings well. Although Adamski, Bach, Börnmels, and Szczesny show something like individual styles, identifiability is not the decisive element of their work; individuality is no longer understood as the imperative of identity, but as a kind of field to be traversed, a multiple “I” into whose different roles one slips in a process both playful and reflective.

Dokoupil is the intelligent buffoon of this role-playing adventure. He is concerned not so much with the individual piece in the sense of the existentially unique achievement, as with the attitude that comes across in the work as a whole. It remains to be seen whether or not this love of the new and spontaneous, the quick response to artistic context, won’t in the long run become a kind of straitjacket for Dokoupil, and not just for him alone. Constant role changes and the need for an endless flow of new ideas are as exhausting as are the irony and sarcastic refusal to take an unequivocal position practiced by Büttner, Kippenberger, and the Oehlens. But so far there have been no signs of fatigue among these great-grandchildren of Dada, who disarm more through affirmation than through aggression. The often rather flat expressionism of the Die Brücke descendants Bach, Fetting, and Middendorf, on the other hand, seems more endangered. Here, few pictures really leave a mark. The end of “puberty,” as the Surrealists came to call their Dada past, is not yet in sight for the “Jungen Wilden.”

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.