1980s neo-expressionism A Look Back at the New Wild Ones

An exhibition at Frankfurt's Städel Museum looks back at artists who produced paintings in the 1980s that were uncouth and uninhibited, showing what has endured and what hasn’t.
Rainer Fetting captured various aspects of Berlin life in the 1980s.

Every 30 to 40 years, tastes in art passes through a retro-phase. The look back at art movements once popular but washed over by a new zeitgeist encourages rediscovery, provides fodder for market strategies and stimulates the business of exhibitions. This can be seen with the re-evaluation by museums, the art trade and auctions of Art Informel, Arte Povera and Zero Art.

Now the Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s are in the spotlight. Frankfurt's Städel Art Museum is showcasing 90 artworks by protagonists of the West German form. Among the lenders is a core of collectors, galleries and former dealers who have remained true to their figureheads to this day.

The exhibit, “The 80s: Figurative Painting in West Germany,” was curated by Martin Engler. It presents works “that, on the one hand, are part of our collective visual memory, and on the other, can be re-assessed and seen again in their pictorial power and conceptual complexity,” said Max Hollein, the musem's director.

The exhibition presents works that are part of our collective visual memory and can be re-assessed and seen again in their pictorial power and conceptual complexity. Max Hollein,, Städel Museum Director

In May 1982, the German news magazine Der Spiegel titled an article about the irreverent paintings a “Storm Flood of Pictures” and conjured up “a no-longer containable flood of pictures, pictures, pictures.” Eight months earlier, Stern magazine celebrated the new painting rage of the young people as “witty, rude, sensuous and uninhibitedly subjective.”

A new period in art history seemed to be emerging.

But when “New Figuration: German Painting 1960 to 1988” opened in 1989 in Düsseldorf, the exhibition became the swan song of an era. The exhibit subsequently traveled to Frankfurt and to New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The show’s 41 artists included Georg Baselitz, Karl Horst Hödicke, Jörg Immendorff, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

The founders of the Galerie am Moritzplatz in Berlin, Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé and Bernd Zimmer were represented with major works. In addition, the leading exponents of the Cologne “Mülheimer Freiheit” (Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil) and Hamburg artists Werner Büttner and brothers Albert and Markus Oehlen also had a strong presence. Even then, there were gap-fillers included that nobody talks about today.

The multitalented Martin Kippenberger, who today with a record price of $16 million, or €14 million, is one of the most expensive German artists, was represented in the 1989 traveling exhibition. In the current Frankfurt exhibition, Albert Oehlen was given center stage with his oversized self-portrait with palette and skull  from 1984, which alludes to Corinth but is, in its gloomy, gray-yellowish colors and stiff lines, a symbol of that played-out painting rage and coarse brush strokes that typified the generation’s style. It was labeled, among other things, as “Bad Painting,” “Obsessive Painting” and art of the “New Wild Ones.”

"Berlin Nite" from Luciano Castelli.


Much more than his brother Markus, Albert Oehlen has remained a permanent seller on the art market, although, or particularly because, his work has been dominated since the end of the 1980s by a post-abstraction and he has experimentally expanded himself. At the latest Art Basel, an abstract diptych by Mr. Oehlen, dated 1992, was sold by the Gallery Skarstedt, with offices in New York and London, for $1 million.

The painters of the Mülheimer Freiheit group are all represented in Frankfurt, including Gerhard Naschberger. The artist was missing from the leading exhibitions of the 1980s and didn't resurface until 2003 in the “Obsessive Painting” show in Karlsruhe. Like many others in the current show in Frankfurt, the two works by Mr. Naschberger are from the Bischofberger Collection in Zurich, which was shown in epic proportions in Bielefeld in 2010-11 under the title “The 80s Revisited.”

Other pictures are on loan from the galleries Michael Haas in Berlin and Zurich, Pfefferle in Munich, Raab in Berlin, Max Hetzler in Berlin and Thomas Ammann in Zurich. There is no lack of desire for a revival of the art movement, but now the pictures must again prove their charisma. After years of stagnation, “Bad Painting” could again become marketable painting, if the knightly accolade by Frankfurt succeeds and that remains to be seen.

A taste of the asking prices was provided in advance by a Walter Dahn exhibition in 2014 at Sprüth/Magers in Berlin and rated the paintings of the period 1980 to 1983 from €75,000 to €120,000, while such pictures in German auctions of recent years achieved only up to €22,000. The Dahn self-portrait as a double woodblock split by an axe exhibited in Frankfurt came into the Neues Museum Weimar by way of the Paul Maenz collection.

"I see no swastika by any strech of the imagination" from Martin Kippenberger.


The fundamental attitude of the artists in the Frankfurt exhibition was to forget as soon as possible what they learned in art academies. That led to a banal Post-Pop figuration, to gray-in-gray pictures, to harsh contrasts in form and form combinations. The Mülheimer Freiheit group stands for this attitude, the snotty questioning of one’s own existence and that of the intended target figures. A painter like Peter Bömmels, who graphically designs his surreal visions in a rich play of colors, can be rediscovered in the exhibition.

Other artists, like the Berlin Moritzplatz quartet, have never disappeared from view.

Except that their best work, created up into the mid-1980s, has long been in firm hands. Mr. Fetting’s monumental picture, “Grosse Dusche (Big Shower),” which paraphrases Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Soldatenbad (Artillerymen in the Shower),” comes to Frankfurt from the Bischofberger collection, and Städel itself owns his 1977-dated “Erstes Mauerbild (First Painting of the Wall),” which was, as his other city paintings, inspired by K.H. Hödicke’s Berlin cityscapes of the 1970s. Mr. Hödicke, as the more elder contemporary and stimulus for the “New Wild Ones,” is completely missing from the exhibition.

The Frankfurt exhibition is also presenting artists whose works are not able to match the visual imagery of the main protagonists.

The Fetting prices reached up to €80,000 in a summer show by the Galerie Raab in Berlin. In recent German auctions, none of his works fetched more than €40,000. The €105,000 paid in May 2008 in the Villa Grisebach for the Berlin painting “Mauer am Südstern (The Wall at Südstern)” from 1988, is an isolated top price. Mr. Fetting’s painting has preserved its characteristic expressionist style to this day.

The auction prices for Salomé usually top out at €15,000. That was how much the two-part painting “Die Artisten betreten die Manege (The Artists enter the Circus Ring)” realized in 2013 in the Villa Grisebach. Individual works from the extensive Schwimmer series are constantly coming on the market, but seldom bring in more than €10,000.

Some of the good early work is still undervalued. Dominating in Frankfurt are the homoerotic themes of the years 1978 to 1982, which are counted among Salomé’s strongest creations. Included in this group of existential works is the four-meter-wide “Babylon” diptych, on loan from Galerie Raab, which bought it from the artist 20 years ago for 100,000 deutsche marks and was now handed over to a museum for €100,000.

Helmut Middendorf, one of Salomé’s partners in founding the Gallery am Moritzplatz, is represented in the exhibition with one of his major “Sänger (Singer)” pictures; an earlier copy recently brought in €32,000 in the Villa Grisebach.

"The Birth of the Mülheimer Freedom" from Walter Dahn.


The Frankfurt exhibition is also presenting artists whose works are not able to match the visual imagery of the main protagonists. Thomas Wachweger, Ina Barfuss, Bettina Semmer and Peter Angermann stand out from a painting-obsessed decade more like hangers-on than co-movers.

On the other hand, important loners of the period are missing, such as Antonius Höckelmann, Bernd Koberling, and Thomas Lange.

In its best work, the art of the 10 to 12 top artists in Städel Museum represents painting as a vital principle, as an anarchistic revolt. It is a painting that lives from the surprise attack effect, from physical lust, aggression and pathos, always dominated by the absolute determination to be “different.” The “Hunger for Pictures” trumpeted by W. M. Faust and Gerd de Vries in 1982 has had no lasting effect.

Many of the painters of this insubordinate generation quickly reached their limits in the excessive exploitation of their own thematic resources. A few, like Mr. Fetting, Albert Oehlen or even Martin Kippenberger, have been able to maintain themselves over time in the exhibition and market business.

Little remains of the former hype. The pictures collected in Frankfurt are from a period of upheaval in which the artists painted away in vain against the new media and against the intellectualizing of art, and gave in to all their private obsessions with all the painterly consequences. It was no turning point in painting, only an emotional flickering.

Video: A trailer for the Frankfurt show.


Christian Herschenröder covers the art market for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]