By Thane Peterson
Even measured in simple financial terms, the boom in German art has been astonishing. Take fortysomething German photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff. Prices for their photos have soared 10-fold in the last four years. A huge color print from Gursky broke the all-time record price for a contemporary photo when it fetched $611,909 at a Christie's auction in London on Feb. 6.
Even more striking: Already pricey works of some established German artists have soared just as fast. The prime example is 70-year-old Gerhard Richter, whose works now fetch more money than any other living artist's. His paintings have had a huge influence on the German photographers.
And if you're going to be in New York between now and May 21, you can get a great sense of where the Germans are coming from by checking out a big Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I just took it all in, and the show is worth the effort. Richter is sometimes labeled a "pop" artist, and some of his paintings are reminiscent of Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits. But he's far more than that.
Colorado-based collector Kent Logan recalls that back in 1997, he paid $770,000 at a London auction for a Richter painting, a record at the time. Similar Richter works now command up to $5 million at auction. And the record was shattered late last year, when a German collector privately sold a Richter painting for more than $9 million to François Pinault, the French industrialist and art collector who owns Christie's. Several other Richters also have recently sold privately in Germany in the $5 million-plus range, according to Andreas Rumbler, managing director of Christie's in Germany.
Just as important is the creative energy building up in the German art scene. Cologne (where Richter lives) and nearby Dusseldorf (where Gursky, Struth, and Ruff studied together) have been vibrant artistic centers for years. Now, an astonishingly lively scene is also developing in Berlin, as artists from all over Europe and the former Soviet bloc flock there to live and work.
"In three or four years, the critics will be swarming all over Berlin," predicts Logan, a retired investment banker who has been buying a lot of German art in recent years. "In a few years, ARTnews, Art Forum, and all the other magazines will be filled with articles about the young Berlin artists." Adds Gerard Goodrow, Christie's London-based director of contemporary art: "Berlin is the place where things are happening."
Of course, it's always possible that Germany's artistic resurgence will peter out. But the trend has a lot of momentum. It's partly fueled by the country's reunification and the German government's move from Bonn to Berlin. The old capital is closer at the geographic center of Europe, especially now that the former Soviet bloc countries are becoming integrated into Western Europe.
So if united Europe is ever to have a cultural center, it's probably going to be this storied German city. Plus, barely more than a decade after the Wall came down, the art scene in Berlin is already far more energetic than Paris', which seems provincial by comparison.
And Germany's art boom is less glitzy and trendy than the one that seems to be winding down in London. The Young British Artist movement, led by prototype Damien Hirst, 36, first became famous for gaudy works such as one where he sawed a cow in half, pickled it in formaldehyde, and displayed it in a Plexiglas case. More recently, Hirst made headlines when a janitor swept up one the artist's installations at a London gallery last year after mistaking it for garbage.
"The British media are still trying to [pump up] the Young British Artists, but London feels tired," says Victoria Miro, owner of one of London's top contemporary galleries. By contrast, she says, "Berlin is very lively at the moment."
A lot less grandstanding is going on in the German art world. Rather, artists like Richter and Gursky are known for the technical fastidiousness and detached coolness of their work. Richter's works are often done entirely in shades of gray and white, and they're painted, rather than silk-screened like Warhol's.
Plus, Richter's subject matter is usually more political and challenging than Warhol's. An example is Richter's portrait of his uncle Rudi, smiling and proud in his Nazi uniform during World War II. Typically, it's painted to resemble a much-enlarged black-and-white snapshot that you might find in any family album.
Then there's Eight Student Nurses -- a black-and-white newspaper-style headshot painting of eight student nurses murdered in Chicago in the mid-1960s. In New York, you'll find Richter's famous studies of the corpses of members of the Baader-Meinhof group, Marxist terrorists who died in a German prison under mysterious circumstances.
The Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York also shows Richter's amazing versatility. Artistic influences evident in the paintings range from Warhol to the German Romantic movement to Baroque naturalists, such as Georges de la Tour, to classic Italian high artists like Titian. And, unlike most contemporary painters, Richter has always done abstract paintings at the same time he does his representational works. At the MoMA show, check the roomful of huge, gorgeous abstracts from the St. Louis Museum of Modern Art. They look as if the paint was slathered on and then worked over with a paint scraper.
Richter has influenced just about every contemporary German artist -- and the art photographers are no exception. Gursky, Struth, and their compatriots have essentially invented a new genre of photography in which they "paint" huge color prints by digitally altering the colors and subject matter. Like Richter, their style is usually cool and ironic.
Gursky, the most successful of the group, got a big boost last year when New York's MoMA put on a major show of his work. His renderings of, say, an office building in Shanghai or the crammed store shelves of a supermarket in 99 Cents look like photos. But you're never quite sure how much and in what ways they've been altered. You just know that the office building seems to have an impossible number of absolutely uniform floors, and that the supermarket's shelves seem too long and crammed with goods to be real.
THE SECRET IS OUT.
A lot of younger German artists also are building international reps. For instance, back in December, 1999, you probably could have gotten one of then 35-year-old Thomas Demand's photos for less than $10,000. Now many are going for more than $100,000. Another young Berlin artist to watch is Franz Ackermann, 38, who paints colorful "mental maps" of places he has visited. "I hate to even mention his name," Logan says. "You can still get one of his paintings for $15,000 or $20,000, and that's not going to last if more people hear about him."
Among the non-German artists who have migrated to Berlin, here are three worth keeping an eye on: Toronto-born Angela Bulloch, 35, who moved over from London; Luxemborg-born Michel Majerus, 35; and Iceland-born Olafur Eliasson, 34.
In fact, if you go to the Richter exhibit, check out a video installation by Eliasson in MoMA's lobby. It's a sign of the times that a young Icelandic artist getting big play in one of the premier museums in the U.S. now lives and works in Berlin.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht