New Leipzig School Provides a Study in Hype

Martin Kobe's take on groovy '60s architecture: It's standard fare today.
Martin Kobe's take on groovy '60s architecture: It's standard fare today. (Rubell Family Collection)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The New Leipzig School of painting is being billed as just about the biggest thing in art since oil paint began to come in tubes.

Ever since the movement's "discovery" in 2003, when Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell went on a shopping spree in the former East German city, the New Leipzig School has been the talk of the art town.

Prices have soared. Where the Rubells buy, others are sure to follow. A painting by Neo Rauch, the senior member of the school, recently sold at auction for close to a million dollars. (You could get a Renaissance altarpiece for a tenth that money.)

"Life After Death," a touring show of the Rubells' Leipzig holdings, is on view at American University's museum at the Katzen Arts Center. Washingtonians now have a chance to see what this New Leipzig School's about.

They're likely to discover that it doesn't quite exist.

The New Leipzig School is not much of a school. There isn't any shared agenda among its artists or even much in common other than an education at the conservative Leipzig Art Academy. (One thing they do have in common is their male sex. The only Leipzig women on view at the Katzen are in the paintings. They're often nude.)

The Leipzigers work in media as varied as acrylics, charcoal and oil paint. Some favor a dry, crisp style, with perfectly smooth surfaces. Others shove thick paint around. Some like to show off the banal figurative skills they got by studying at an academy that once promoted socialist realism. Others seem to push back against those skills. One picture can have a big dose of surrealism, while its mate across the gallery goes for a moody, pregnant realism in a kind of updated Edward Hopper mode. Though all these artists make more-or-less figurative work -- as most other painters do today -- you wouldn't be surprised to find they'd come from all around the globe.

That "New" is a big problem, too. Sometimes they're not that far from paintings of the 1980s, the last time Germany produced a crop of market-pleasing, supposedly rebellious figurative painters. None of them would have looked much out of place over the past five or 10 years in any high-end New York gallery. The bright colors, aggressive brushwork and childlike distortions in a number of the Katzen pictures have analogues, for instance, in the canvases of Dana Schutz, a best-selling young star on the New York scene who had a painting in the last Corcoran Biennial. The generic anomie and surrealism lite that are in vogue among the Leipzigers is standard art-school fare. How many young artists don't feel that they're somehow out of sync with modern life and that they've spotted its melting clocks?

Even when the Leipzig paintings speak about the way that modernism failed to deliver the utopia it promised -- the common thread among them, if there is one -- it feels like one more cliche of contemporary art.

Matthias Weischer shows us a tidy working-class interior decorated in modern 1960s styles -- the Jetsons meet "The Honeymooners" -- and then uses messy paint to make it read as tawdry and pathetic. Instead of representing peeling wallpaper, it's Weischer's paint itself that's falling apart. His imagery must have particular resonance for an audience caught up in the aftermath of East Germany's spectacularly failed utopia. But modernism has had so many failures everywhere that noting them has become a standard device of postmodern art.

Leipziger Martin Kobe begins with what could be artists' renderings of the grooviest of 1960s architecture -- an office lobby, say, from "Austin Powers" or "The Avengers." He then pulls those slick renderings apart, so that walls don't meet with floors and beams seem suspended in midair. The art that results tips its hat to the current taste for midcentury design -- any Kobe would look great over a vintage Eames sofa -- while conveniently protesting that it's about the collapse of that same style. This, too, is a standard move in today's most fashionable painting: the combination of surrender to a stylish past and a superficial opposition to it.

There's certainly nothing especially wrong with any of these made-in-Leipzig paintings, and some bits are undoubtedly good. (I'm especially fond of how Weischer's paintings of interiors begin with blank walls, which he renders in an almost random smear of paint, then uses a crisper style to depict other pictures hanging on them -- a naked photographic centerfold, say, or a banal canvas of a Gothic church. It's as though, for Weischer, the world comes into sharpest focus when it's seen in a picture, at one remove.) But none of these Leipzig works are of such special note that they deserve to be shown or bought or talked about as some novel phenomenon.

And here's something really strange about the buzz around the New Leipzig School. For all the art world's constant Leipzig talk, more of it seems to be outing the movement as hype than spotlighting it as a genuine Next Thing. The interest feels more like it has been manufactured by a few powerful players than like something coming up from the grass roots -- grass roots now griping that they're being sold a bill of goods. Hackles are raised even higher when the show that is supposed to represent the new movement is drawn entirely from one powerful private collection, which stands to profit from the institutional exposure and imprimatur. (To avoid this conflict, major museums try to show only private collections that are on the way to joining the museums' own holdings; as part of an academic institution, a gallery such as the AU Museum might want to aim for this higher standard of independence.)

The holy grail of the art market -- and of many buyers and viewers of contemporary art -- is a new movement in painting that would, once and for all, disprove the rumors of the death of paint at the hands of photography and video and installation art. Painting is still the medium that sells, and there's a huge nostalgia out there for an era when it was clearly on top -- for a time when you could hang a hand-painted object on the wall and still be sure of being resolutely up to date. Hence "Life After Death" as the title of this show.

I'm convinced that there are too many smart painters out there for some fresh paradigm in painting not to spring up somewhere, someday. But Leipzig, now, hasn't turned out to be the place and time.

Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings From the Rubell Family Collection runs through Oct. 29 at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 202-885-1300 or visit .

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