What Saatchi did next

In a public/private debate that has made him Europe’s most celebrated collector, Charles Saatchi has been disputing the case of contemporary art with Tate for some two decades. With his Sensation exhibition, he won the first round definitively. His Indian and Chinese art shows achieved a greater depth and breadth than Tate has yet managed. This season, he boldly pitches a survey of youngish German painting and sculpture against Tate’s Gerhard Richter – a personal, eclectic exhibition versus a weighty, full-scale museum retrospective.

The differences make clear that there are some things the private sector still cannot aspire to do but equally that, in moving fast and confidently to display the latest trends, an individual collector of Saatchi’s scale and commitment also has a public role.

Defying globalising and homogenising trends, German art just cannot stop being German. The titles – Tate’s Panorama, Saatchi’s Gesamtkunstwerk – indicate the ambition and intellectual earnestness at stake.

Richter, born 1932, pessimistically and brilliantly questions truth, authority, aesthetic possibilities, within a framework that remains constructive – building a new sort of history painting. Saatchi’s artists, born 1947-80, are mostly deconstructors. Their subject is also the collapse of meaning, many of them, too, are nihilists shaped by Nazi catastrophe and the ensuing morally fatherless generation, but they make work that is messy, formless, about postmodern vacuity as well as modernist ruin. Saatchi’s show is beautifully installed – the more to emphasise that incoherence and chaos are its subjects.

With a wheelchair swathed in hologram foil and her “Kinder Filmen”, tall mirrors stuck with adhesive tape, ripped magazine pages and spray paint to suggest overloaded urban façades, the presiding spirit at Saatchi’s King’s Road space is the morbidly unstable Isa Genzken, Richter’s second wife. The earliest examples of her work here are from the series “MLR”, lacquered paintings of gymnasts’ rings frozen in mid-air from 1992, the year she and Richter separated. The theme is presumably letting go, although I couldn’t get allusions to hanging ropes and nooses out of my head.

At the heart of the show are Genzken’s junk towers – absurdist pillars such as “Urlaub” (Holiday), wrapped in photographs and topped with a sun hat, outsize wine glass and tennis racket, “Bouquet”, studded with plastic flowers, and “Mutter Mit Kind” (Mother with Child), featuring a battered doll, lopsided chair and reproduction of Leonardo’s “La Belle Ferronière”. Subverting sculpture’s plinths and classicism’s columns, these interrogate form with an end-of-empire twin-towers mournfulness: even the joky “Urlaub” unsettles by including a medieval image of Christ crowned by thorns. But Genzken parodies superabundance too – civilisation on auto-destruct through our compulsion to manufacture and consume unlimited, unnecessary objects.

I have never warmed to Genzken’s crazed, downbeat aesthetic but this is the most graceful, persuasive account of her work I have seen. Saatchi also shows the long, unfortunate reach of her influence, especially among younger women artists: Alexandra Bircken’s rags suspended on twigs in “Drape”, Ida Ekblad’s emphatically vertical steel cut-out hung with a dirty towel, “Tennessee Hills”, and concrete plinth embedded with metal fragments, “Figurine with Horns”, Josephine Meckseper’s shoe cascade “Ubi Pedes Ibi Patria” and vitrines of mannequins and toys. All quote Genzken directly, heavily, and without originality.

Isa Genzken’s ‘Geschwister’ (2004)

But Saatchi is nothing if not pluralistic. Against the school of Genzken, he shows the garish stick-figures of Georg Herold, which have an anarchic spirit recalling Herold’s rebel-friend Martin Kippenberger, and the tactile, fantastical world of multimedia artist Markus Selg. What makes Selg riveting are his carvings, reminiscent of Kirchner’s sculptures: intense, contorted, elongated wood, jute and straw figures at affecting half- or three-quarter life-size: “Anima”, “Eva”, “Abgrund” (Abyss), “Betender” (Prayer), “Trauernde” (Mourner), which lack facial features and achieve emotional resonance through gesture and physical expressiveness alone. What makes Selg fashionable is the Gesamtkunstwerk installations in which he displays these – monumental digital photographs, printed on fabric, of landscapes and primitivist mannequins composed by compressing sci-fi and classical images on a computer screen.

A press release explains that the Gesamtkunstwerk of Saatchi’s title refers to “the baggage of postwar German visual culture” weighing on younger artists. Saatchi has always had a penchant for big, loud, chaotic figurative paintings, so it is no surprise that dominating here are retro German painters – André Butzer, Felix Gmelin, Thomas Helbig – overburdened by expressionism’s legacies.

The best paintings here are Stefan Kürten’s singular, intricate modernist interiors overgrown with plants turned savage, monstrous: the Bauhaus jungle of “Silence”, dizzying spatial patterns of brick, ironwork, greenery in “The Handsome Family”. In the 1980s, Kürten studied at Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, then the stronghold of conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their hallmarks – rigorous formality, insistence on detail yet detachment, concern for architectural subjects, nostalgia – evident in the oeuvres of star photography alumni such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth or Candida Höfer, also shape Kürten’s coolly ornamental paintings; his motifs of modernist decay, meanwhile, link him to Genzken.

His Mitteleuropa clash between painterly precision and fairy-tale mood, on the other hand, echo in the work of the wild cards here, Romanian twins Gert and Uwe Tobias. They make enormous coloured woodcuts – one is 12 metres long – of ghoulish or carnivalesque figures, referencing all at once east European folk art, early 20th-century German avant-gardes, contemporary high camp horror, and the Dracula myth of Transylvania, where the twins grew up before moving to Cologne.

Who among these weird, wonderful or wearisome artists will we recognise in 10 years or remember in 50? Does it matter? Writing in the excellent History of the Saatchi Gallery (Booth-Clibborn Editions), Norman Rosenthal notes that Roger Fry’s post-impressionist exhibition included many irrelevancies, and in an 1870 Parisian census 70,000 people declared themselves artists – of whom today we know 40 at most. Thus, says Rosenthal “the reality, and cruelty, of art, and the importance of its mediators and presenters”. That is the wider context for appreciating this most eclectic exhibition yet at this gallery – and why it remains worth watching what Saatchi does next.

‘Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art from Germany’, Saatchi Gallery, London, to April 30. www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

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