Let’s talk: Salomé & Martin Engler on Performance and figurative painting

With the Deutsche Bank as partner, the Städel Museum is looking back in its exhibition “The 80s. Figurative Painting in West Germany” on a tremendously exciting era in postwar German art. Salomé was one of its protagonists, and Martin Engler is curator of the show. Here, they talk about politics, performance, and why Marina Abramović might be the midwife for the new figurative painting.
Martin Engler: I’m often asked: Why do a show on figurative painting from the eighties? Is it back in fashion? But just because there have been no new star painters for the last two years, it would be short-sighted to proclaim that “Painting is dead!” Your generation especially, Salomé, never stopped painting when the big hype died down in the late eighties. That’s why we wanted to take a fresh, unbiased look back at this period from a distance of three decades and the point of view of a different generation. What we noticed is that fascinating and relevant pictures are being produced again today.

Salomé: At the moment, the art-world discourse has landed back in the seventies. There are mostly minimalist works, or pieces that can perhaps best be described under the general term “l’art pour l’art,” which deal with structures and materials and do not make any real political statement. Art goes through cycles. Now maybe it’s the younger generation’s turn to rediscover figurative painting. The attempts are still very tentative, because they tend to be sidelined by critics who stamp them as “old-fashioned.” What’s popular right now is a technique we might call “Tachisme.” Artists fling a lot of paint at the canvas and it all looks decorative and beautiful. I walk into law firms and medical practices and see these Tachisme paintings from 2014 hanging everywhere, because they are not disruptive. There are no motifs that might be disturbing, and you don’t necessarily have to look at a picture and wonder why it was painted. You just think: “It’s nice and colorful and fits in well.” But I think something will eventually develop again in the direction of figurative painting.

Salomé co-founded 1977 the Galerie am Moritzplatz in Berlin, which quickly became a focal point of the city’s art scene. In 1987, he achieved his international breakthrough by taking part in documenta 7. Alongside Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, and Bernd Zimmer, Salomé is one of the most important proponents of Heftige Malerei. He has long been connected with the Deutsche Bank Collection. The bank has purchased works by the artist since 1983.

Martin Engler
has been Head of Contemporary Art at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main since 2008. An exhibition curated by him entitled The 80s. Figurative Painting in West-Germany opens in July. With works by Ina Ina Barfuss, Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Salomé, and many others the show sheds light on the unbridled vehemence and intransigence with which this generation of artists rediscovered painting in the early 1980s.

ME: Yes, but the paintings exhibited in the Galerie am Moritzplatz were created in an environment where music, film, and other factors also played a role.

S: That’s true. We had a special attitude toward life back then. And my figurative work evolved out of that. Out of the political struggle, the will toward emancipation, and the will to evoke male sexuality in a different form. This subject had never before been expressed so assertively in painting. My pictures were a form of resistance against the dominant sexual norm. Everything different was regarded back then as odd or indecent; you could hear people saying things like “Gas them!” and other slurs. Paintings like Der Henker und sein Opfer (The Executioner and His Victim), which I painted at the time, are very pointedly about physical violence against gays.

ME: The performances by your punk band Geile Tiere (Horny Animals) also broke taboos. They would still make a splash today. The band is legendary in the punk scene.

S: We performed as the Geile Tiere in the early eighties in Bordeaux and at Centre Pompidou in Paris, among other places. Centre Pompidou was packed—5,000 people came to hear us. But there was only room for 500 in the auditorium. So we broadcast the concert outside, through the whole building. And Bordeaux was also totally crazy. Punks came from all over to see us. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna flew in with Bruno Bischofberger to see the performance. That was the high point, with another one at the Théâtre Le Palace in Paris.

ME: Your performances played a much bigger role in your work, especially at the beginning, than people realize today, is that right?

S: I did my first performance for the opening of the Moritzplatz gallery, calling it Auf dem Rosenbett (On the Bed of Roses). I installed a huge bed in the room, with pink silk sheets covered in roses. And I did a movement performance on the bed, almost naked, wearing only garters. My second performance, at the end of 1977, was called Für meine Schwestern in Österreich (For My Sisters in Austria), in reaction to a draft law in Austria calling for gays to be committed to psychiatric clinics. I did the next one in New York: Body Works, outside what would later become the Mary Boone Gallery. I laid out a white cloth on the ground, and I was wearing makeup, a feather boa, and white pants, and performed these beautiful movement studies in slow motion. All I remember is that I only made one dollar. In Soho! Soho was already frequented back then by art tourists who spent thousands of dollars in galleries. But when they saw art on the street, they were too cheap to pay even a dollar.

ME: Which performance artists did you know about when you started out? Did you have any role models?

S: There were a few, for example the glam-rock band New York Dolls. I really thought Abramović / Ulay were great at first, because they did such hardcore performances. I saw my first one at the documenta, where they threw themselves against concrete walls until they bled. I found that very interesting, this going to extremes. But you can’t imitate it—that wouldn’t work at all. You have to invent a different image for yourself. My performance in the late seventies where I sat in the window of Galerie Petersen in Berlin for twelve hours, changing my position only once an hour, went in that direction. That’s a test of endurance you can only do if you meditate—holding a position for an entire hour, that was really insane.

The 80ies
Figurative Painting in West-Germany

Städel Museum, Frankfurt