By Nadja Sayej
Photos by Marina Arbenz
Paul Vogeler talks painting like a mafia hit man, hair slicked back, spitting bullets in his second-floor studio in chilly East Berlin.
He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and showed at the Lyons Wier Gallery in New York before making the heave-ho to Berlin to show with Styx Projects in 2010. He just started a movement here called the ‘New Berlin Painters,’ and is having a group show this June alongside Moritz Hoffman and Andrea Magenheimer at StattBerlin.
Never have I met a man so vicious in his convictions about the art of the landscape. He and his group of painters have framed their ideas into the New Berlin Painters Manifesto (2012) which explains, in brief, that painting isn’t dead – but it is hot-headed and pissed off.
“We are angry. We seek not to be clever. Ideas are cheap. Conceptual Art is dead,” he writes.
The manifesto continues to diss the system of the way the art world works: “We believe that today, the task for a painter is much harder, in an era where all is art, everyone is an artist, and biennials and institutions continually propagate ephemeral, banal work that recycles tired notions of the past fifty years of art—from artists who remain far too content with the status quo.”
And don’t even get them going on the clusterfuck of art theory: “We seek to eradicate and erase an artistic idealism stuck in the 1960s encouraged by the Boom Generation who maintains dominate control over contemporary Theory and Critique in Artistic Institutions, as well as members of this generation who fail to recognize is expiry, and encourage it through curatorial and exhibition programs.”
And yet – they’re painters. Old school painters of expressionistic portraits, serene still waters and birch trees which glisten in the wind (sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?). But things aren’t as they seem.
To quote Travis Jeppesen, who wrote the catalogue essay of Vogeler’s 2010 show Our Modern Age at Styx Projects: “When looking at Paul Vogeler’s haunted landscapes of birch forests and renderings of tiny solitary birds, it can be difficult to understand the artist’s assertion that these paintings’ main subject is war.”
Vogeler’s recent paintings paid homage to the First World War in content and inspiration, but here, his manifesto takes it the next step further – the art world is his battlefield, the gallery becomes the trenches and his brush becomes the bullets that spit, soar or suck in what we once knew as contemporary art. Just like that. Revolting against the syndrome of the artist being the soldier when they should be the commander.
Vogeler sits down with Whitehot in his Berlin studio to talk about the ‘shock and awe’ of bullshit art, a portrait of Jerry Saltz he painted as a bird and life after New York City.
Nadja Sayej: Let’s be honest, we met on Craigslist.
Paul Vogeler: Yeah. Under the ‘man searching woman’ section. (Laughs).
Sayej: No! I was looking for a job as a DJ even though I had no experience but… that didn’t work out. We ended up keeping in touch.
Vogeler: Thank God.
Sayej: Anyway, I wanted to ask what New Berlin Painters is all about. A lot of painters come to Berlin but you have seemed to separate yourself from the rest. What’s that all about?
Vogeler: The idea started two years ago with German painter Moritz Hoffmann and I. We started hanging out, drinking heavily and talking about the art world.
Sayej: Do a lot of painters drink heavily?
Vogeler: I think we all do.
Sayej: That’s what the New Berlin Painters is about, right?
Vogeler: That’s the thing about New York and Berlin – they’re all alcoholics, but anyway…Hoffmann and I were talking and realized we have the same issues with the art world. We both went to the School of Visual Arts in New York – we share the same love of painting. We both got sick of New York. Moritz is German, so after studying he came back to his home in Berlin, but I left New York. We met here at my first solo show with Michael Rade and Styx Projects and started these conversations about the art world, entrepreneurial artists, art as a product. People like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who make bullshit in their factories, Andy Warhol-style. We’re sick of this focus on installation, performance, this sort of sensationalist art, ‘shock and awe’ as we say. In the fashion world they say ‘smoke and mirrors.’ It seems ‘shock and awe’ to me in the art world. We started to talk about what it means to be a painter today and what we’re about. For us, we take painting very seriously; we’re old school about it. It’s not about ‘what can I deconstruct about a painting? ’ or “what can also be a painting?” Fuck that shit! We all know what a painting is and what to deconstruct – anything can be art, anyone can be an artist. This conversation is long since expired, it’s boring. We, Moritz and I, focus on what a painting is, maybe even supposed to be. We use traditional canvas and oil paint, oil sticks, linen, wooden stretcher bars, traditional materials, to say painting is a very valid and alive medium to express and contemplate what is going on in the world today and what is going on within ourselves.
Sayej: You were in New York for how long?
Vogeler: Five years.
Sayej: So, if a contemporary artist with an expensive education is a carton of milk, is there an expiration date of five years for living in that city?
Vogeler: I have no idea. New York is just not a good place to live if you’re making art. There are so many kids who come from so much money and whose parents can pay to get their nice little hot and sexy Ivy League degree and they can pay for them to do their master’s and they can go travel to Berlin or wherever and hang out here for a little bit and maybe go back to NYC and …
Sayej: Go to the Hamptons and shop at the Gap?
Vogeler: Yeah! I can’t compete with that shit because there I was working as a bartender, working to get my degree and to get my studio and it’s just not worth it. I moved here to get away from that. I mean it’s a more level playing field in Berlin. It’s more democratic and gives everyone more of a fair chance. But there’s also a lot of bad work here.
Sayej: I agree. Just because there are more artists does not mean there is more quality work being made. Why Berlin?
Vogeler: One of my favourite artists Ruprecht von Kaufmann, Neo Rauch, Sigmar Polke.
Sayej: What quality is it that you identify with these painters?
Vogeler: It is quality. They’re really paintings and very serious paintings, they have more of a serious respect for painting. When I show in NYC I see a lot of pop art, fashion, sensationalist painting, collage painting, the NYC kids still trying to do the formalist Peter Halley stripe thing or the David Hockney colour thing, which has been done forever, or you have the super-realists with this flashy, academic thing going on, while here in Germany, the rebirth of figurative with the Leipzig School, painterly figurative. If there’s any good painting going on its going on in this country, Germany, there’s more respect for the medium than in America.
Sayej: What do you have to say to people who think that landscape painting is dead?
Vogeler: I think that’s bullshit. Am I going out to the park with my easel to paint some trees?
Sayej: You do paint a lot of trees.
Vogeler: Whoop de fucking doo. A landscape can become a meditation or become a spiritual, religious thing. It can become an exploration of self and the world even though it’s put into the iconography of a landscape. It gives you a lot more psychological insight. You can look at Rembrandt’s Portraits for that, too. It’s a thriving medium; we can use landscape to express how we feel about the world around us. You can paint the trees the way they look or you can paint the trees the way you feel that they look.
Sayej: You mainly are an intuitive painter.
Vogeler: I would say so. But what does that mean?
Sayej: You say in the New Berlin Painters manifesto that you think conceptual art is dead, meanwhile some people think that maybe painting is dead. You said you go by what your feelings are.
Vogeler: Yes, you have to go by what your feelings are. One of my profs in art school, Frank Roth, said: ‘You have to go by your intuition Paul, it’s all that you have.’ You have to follow your intuition. Conceptual art – it’s clever. But it’s fucking boring. There’s some conceptual sculpture in Berlin… I don’t even know what to call it…
Sayej: I think you call it ‘tree leaning against tree with piece of garbage and piss splattered on it.’
Paul Vogeler’s girlfriend: Rubbish?
Vogeler: There’s a tree leaning against a pole and there’s a picture on the wall and it’s very clean.
Sayej: Don’t forget the spray paint!
Vogeler: Yeah, the spray paint and there’s a piece of fabric that’s exactly 10 cm long. It’s just boring. I don’t want to read about why it’s amazing, I want to feel it. And when you see a good painting, you feel it. When you first see the Sistine Chapel, you feel it. You don’t need this explanation or from someone who has a graduate degree from Yale to give you a reason why a fucking cigarette in an ashtray is a work of art – it’s fucking bullshit and everyone knows it. Everyone goes along with it. It’s a child reaction that is important, it shouldn’t be so conflated and esoteric and bullshit, and that’s what we’re going for with the New Berlin Painters. We make work that comes from our gut, our feeling, ourselves and that’s the emotion we want people to get out of it. It’s not ‘look at my painting and then read the novel about why my painting is amazing by the curators and collectors who think my painting is amazing.’ No. It’s like ‘fuck you, look at the painting, get something from it from your gut, don’t think about it just feel it.’ I really think for us it’s a move back to emotion over rationalism. It’s a visceral reaction first.
Sayej: A lot of your paintings are really made out of grey and black. Berlin in winter. Melancholic inner world. Why?
Vogeler: Berlin is fucking cold eight months out of the year and it is grey the rest of the time. I was inspired by the way the light is here and the way the light shines through the park. The palette I choose is trying to convey a feeling. That feeling is melancholy. People ask how I can sell them. But if I can’t make these, I’ll go crazy. I don’t see them as sad, I see them as landscapes to convey a feeling or a shared sense of place. I think we all have a relationship to birch trees. I keep painting birch trees for years and years. I can’t get them right. Everyone can relate to these paintings in some way on an emotional level.
Sayej: Is each painting a poem or a prayer?
Vogeler: Good question. I think they’re both. A good painting is like poetry but they’re also prayers as well.
Sayej: What are you praying for?
Vogeler: To sell one? With every artist, it’s a gamble. For Moritz and I, it’s a gamble. We’re gambling our lives, we don’t really have a backup plan. It has to work, we have to make it work because there’s nothing left to do. I don’t think many people realize the risk you take. You could go to business school or law school, you get a nice cushy job. But when you go to art school, you’re faced with the fact of how you keep making your work and how am I gonna live? I could spend 10 years working in a business or I could spend 20 years making paintings and never make a dollar. It is a gamble. The art world is fascinating because you have these people with a lot of money who go to these schools and do this hoity toity fashion thing but they don’t have risk. They like to look at the art and like to think they know what it’s like to be an artist but they really don’t. To be an artist, you have to risk everything. For us, it’s a matter of life and death.
Sayej: What is the biggest mistake you made? They say you learn the most from your mistakes.
Vogeler: Probably becoming a painter. Why couldn’t I just choose business or be a doctor or a dentist? A lawyer? Something easy? I could be sitting in a leather chair in an office getting a fucking blow job drinking a Red Bull. But I didn’t choose that. I believe in God. I believe that everything happens for a reason. You choose to be an artist as much as it chooses you. I started painting when I was 8-years-old copying Monet. All through high school, I kept wishing I was a painter until I stopped fighting it and became a painter at 23-years-old. I made up my mind this was going to be the rest of my life, whether I make it or don’t this is what I do.
Sayej: Alongside painting trees, you also paint birds. One of the birds is an interpretation of New York art critic Jerry Saltz. Did you paint him just to get his attention? Or is there a deeper meaning?
Vogeler: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Jerry Saltz. I like some of his ideas but I don’t get why he likes Cindy Sherman? I love what Jerry has to say but I also disagree with a lot of what he has to say. He is kind of like a bird. He likes to sing. Maybe some people listen, others don’t. Either way, he is going to keep chirping to himself, so I painted him as a song sparrow. The portrait of him is a song sparrow on a branch in the darkness and he is singing to himself. I hope Jerry gets to see it one day, maybe one day he’ll get to hang it on his wall.
Sayej: What words do you want engraved on your grave when you die?
Vogeler: He came, he saw, he painted.
New Berlin Painters Manifesto, Berlin 2012.
1. We are exiles. We share a feeling of disillusionment, isolation, and exile in our contemporary era—not only as citizens, but as painters working amongst the hegemonic onslaught of esoteric, multimedia, and “subversive” art.
2. We are angry. We seek not to be clever. Ideas are cheap. Conceptual Art is dead.
3. We live in an era of religious fanaticism, right moving “democracies”, endless war and bloodshed, ignorant masses, genocide, and sociopathic corporations. And although America and the West maintain moral authority with military might, their democratic hands join the leaders of every country in the timeless epic melee of the “haves and have not’s.” The rich continually grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and the middle class no longer exists.
4. We believe late capitalism has infected every aspect of society globally from political power brokers to fine artists, from institutions of learning to institutions of art. Higher Education is not a right, but a privilege for the few.
5. We do not support any unjust war.
6. We pledge allegiance to no Nation State. We pledge allegiance only to humanity and the religious and spiritual process of Artistic Creation.
7. We are conservative only in that we choose a medium continually criticized for being outdated. A medium that is as timeless as writing and language itself, has integral artistic and spiritual qualities, and demands more from the viewer, above all patience, than New Media Art, Installation, and Performance.
8. We believe that today, the task for a painter is much harder, in an era where all is art, everyone is an artist, and biennials and institutions continually propagate ephemeral, banal work that recycles tired notions of the past fifty years of art—from artists who remain far too content with the status quo.
9. We seek to eradicate and erase an artistic idealism stuck in the 1960s encouraged by the Boom Generation who maintains dominate control over contemporary Theory and Critique in Artistic Institutions, as well as members of this generation who fail to recognize is expiry, and encourage it through curatorial and exhibition programs.
10. We reject wholeheartedly the Warholian notion of the entrepreneurial art factory, where art is produced on assembly line as a product, and the man who calls himself an “artist” no longer has a part in the actual hands on process of creation—one who acts more like a businessman or careerist than an artist. An artist is more than just a “producer.”
11. We believe painting is cataclysmically silent. We search and research, but feel the painter upholds a greater ideal: sublimity; to try and fully comprehend the human condition, perhaps fail, and to do so in a beautifully expressive way. We seek truth.
12. We believe the object must triumph over the idea first and foremost, and be created from start to finish by the artist’s own hands.
13. We celebrate emotion over the mind and the irrational over the rational. For that is what makes us human.
14. We believe in a visceral reaction over an intellectual one, an emotional outburst instead of esoteric antics disguised as artistic research, of passion over cold rationalism.
15. We have fled our original homes in search of something else. We are citizens and travelers of the world.
16. We seek a haunting, grotesque beauty, one that expresses inner turmoil in a tumultuous world, a brief existence, and an unfettered need to create meaning amidst apparent uncontrollable chaos: chaos both in nature and politics as well as the chaotic particles making up our irrational beings, manifested through the transcendent power of a true work of art.
We are the New Berlin Painters.
Paul Vogeler, Moritz Hoffmann
view all articles from this author
Nadja Sayej is a Canadian journalist, broadcaster and internationally-acclaimed art critic who is best known as the leader of the new art criticism with her web-TV show, ArtStars*. In her balls-out, snappy Gonzo approach to demystify the inner workings of success in the art world, she has interviewed top-notch art world celebrities like Gilbert & George, John Waters, Peaches, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Crumb, among others, with unmatchable wit and style. Dubbed the “Perez Hilton of Neukölln,” “Borat of the Berlin art scene,” Nadja is represented by 1A Management in Berlin. She reports on visual art and architecture for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @ArtStars.