Robert Grunenberg
Rainer Fetting
By Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
Hardly any movement in post-war Germany’s history of painting has been both as fiercely celebrated and as ferociously ostracized, as the so-called „Heftige Malerei“ („Fierce Painting“) that emerged in West Berlin’s art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All this in spite of, or perhaps precisely because, its protagonists – first and foremost Salomé and Rainer Fetting – being crucial characters in the advancement of “queer” discourses around gender, identity, the individual, and power, which did not only shape the younger generations of a globalized art world, but also still impact mainstream debates today. Fetting’s latest works are facing an increasingly polarized socio-political climate whose core issue revolves around “political correctness”, a term which is problematized mostly by reactionary forces. #metoo, transgender restrooms and gay marriage are sought out as alleged restrictions of individual freedom, insults to cultural and religious traditions, or are deemed downright perverse. At the same time, members of the political left are themselves critical towards demands of absolute moral authority and the at times arbitrary-seeming demarcation lines of identity politics.

All images © Rainer Fetting

Part of this very debate is a claim towards “artistic correctness”, having led to a climate in which paintings are removed from exhibitions, sculptures are destroyed and film industry careers are obliterated if a breach of political or sexual norms is suspected. Interestingly enough, already since the early days of his career, Rainer Fetting is preoccupied with precisely these unresolved territories in painting that can never provide clear answers or certainties, but instead pose a multitude of questions, create conflicts and uncertainties. Here, one can certify Fetting a conscious and – certainly in its early stages – politically motivated “artistic uncorrectness”. Free B. Spirit – the exhibition title already indicates Fetting’s attitude of going against the grain, of opposing rules and a certain zeitgeist. How much he does this indeed, perhaps only becomes clear with the historic distance of looking back at an artistic career spanning more than fourty years. Free B. Spirit is a condensation of motives, topics, strategies, and styles which the artist has been preoccupied with for decades.
In order to understand the provenance of Fetting’s work, that is in order to be able to contextualize the surfers, skaters, musicians, monsters, and fancy American rides that appear in his recent paintings, one has to go back to the mid-1970s and the general situation at the inception of his career: The still-active “Paragraph 175” in the German Criminal Code outlaws male homosexuality, while activists squat buildings in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district and the gay rights movement – first and foremost the HAW (Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin) – revolts against the status quo. Dusseldorf and Cologne are the centers of the West German art world. Post-minimal, post-pop, conceptual art, and Joseph Beuys’ “expanded concept of art” become its major influences. In contrast, the impoverished and run-down Berlin – its condition being eponymous for the rock band Ton Steine Scherben (Clay Stone Shards) – is a wasteland of sorts, ruled by Johannes Grützke’s ironic realism and the “Schule der Neuen Prächtigkeit” (“School of the New Splendor”). At the same time, Berlin is far more politicized, leftist, precarious, than the more stolid Rhineland. Rainer Fetting, a student of the abstract painter Hans Jaenisch at the Hochschule der Künste, West Berlin’s art school, begins his career as a realist painter. “[The painter Reinhard] Pods and I joined forces because both of us were producing realistic paintings, and so we painted in the streets of Neukölln, a working-class neighborhood. That was quite important, given our political background…”, Fetting recalls in an interview with the curator Heinz Stahlhut in 2009. In spite of his assertion, one can sense a certain decadence when looking at photographs from these painting sessions.

Left: Rainer Fetting im Künstlerhaus Betanken Berlin beim Entstehen der Zeitgeist-Bilder, 1982
Right: Rainer Fetting mit Willi Brand Skulpturen, 1996
Fetting had the demeanor of a classical plein air-painter – someone resembling Cezanne or van Gogh, finding themselves amidst the open fields of the Provence as opposed to standing in front of the Karstadt warehouse on Neukölln’s bustling Hermannplatz. In this period, Fetting creates lascivious paintings of his lover and colleague Salomé, self-portraits in drag, portraits of fag-friends. He portrays himself as the controversial actor Gustaf Gründgens. Repeatedly, Fetting paints men in various constellations and stagings and develops a painting style, which – just like its subjects – is “in drag”, that is costumed, staged; it is a style setting a scene, playing with a precise set of gestures, poses, connotations. His paintings are full of contentual as well as formal references to subculture, art history, the social situation. Its colors and rhythm are greatly influenced by the music that Fetting is listening to while painting – mostly The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
While Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz bulldoze their way through Germany’s Nazi past and the country’s subsequent division by painting heroic images, symbolic oak, ears, and eagles, and in doing so ooze pathos and machismo, Fetting develops a much more subtle, almost quotidian access to the genre of historical painting. He eroticizes the male body as much as entire cities (Berlin and New York) and the fraught history of Germany as a whole. In his paintings of the Berlin Wall, the so-called Mauerbilder, he generates an abstract, colorful flatness, reminiscent of Mark Rothko, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or the set designs of expressionist films. In Fetting’s works, the city appears as ever-nightly and dead, characterized by its contrast between gloom and vibrant colors. Indeed, at night, the area around Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg, where Fetting, Salomé and the so-called “Moritzboys” had opened their gallery in 1977, remains pitch-black. Only a handful of the crumbling buildings in the neighborhood are inhabited, the streets are deserted come nighttime. That is, until the legendary punk-club SO36 – co-owned by Martin Kippenberger – opens its doors around the corner on Oranienstraße, in 1978.
At the same time as he portrays punk-bands, Fetting paints his famous Dusch-Bilder-series (Shower-Paintings) – paintings of naked, showering men – in which gay sexuality meets allusions of concentration camps and latent violence. Fetting’s work manages to communicate both a reference to the historical past and its transformation in contemporary culture. The late 1970s in West Germany are characterized by the “Deutscher Herbst” (the “German Autumn”), the grappling with the terror of the Red Army Fraction as well as a simultaneously provocative and creative dealing with the country’s National Socialist past. Alexander Kluge and Hans-Jürgen Syderberg produce films which approach these difficult topics in essayistic and associative ways. In his 1977 book “Männerphantasien” (“Male Fantasies”), the sociologist Klaus Theweleit examines fascist consciousness and a martial image of the self for 1the first time from a psychoanalytical perspective. At the same time, the Wave- and Punk-movement in Berlin – hardened by the squatting scene’s real-estate quarrels and street rioting – deliberately rebels against “political correctness” and unashamedly plays with fascist aesthetics as well as the myth of the hopelessly hedonistic Berlin of the 1920s.
Fetting’s “expressive” portraits and cityscapes manage to capture those psycho-social energies which reveal themselves in every painterly decision. On one and the same canvas dry strokes, jotted down in a seemingly careless fashion, violently collide with islands, clumps of pastose paint or dark patches, reminiscent of the old masters. However, at no point does Fetting’s work become overloaded with symbols, nor does it ever resort to irony. Perpetually moving along the lines of abstraction, it remains surprisingly open-ended within the confines of its composition. It remains uncertain – in the best possible sense of the word. In a conversation with the gallerist Robert Grunenberg, Fetting remarks in 2019: “Basically, you can always continue to work on a painting – it’s just like everything that is perpetually changing in real life, too: the sky, atmospheric conditions, the weather. All of this is subject to permanent flux.”
Recurring themes of his paintings are power, the reciprocal relationship between painter and muse, the individual versus collective norms, desire, objectification, submission, and the liberation of the body. Fetting depicts men with a gaze that typically, only the female muse as the object of desire is subjected to. In later works, he will return to this fetishized gaze of the painter towards his model in a way that is anything but politically correct – for instance in his Polizei-Uniform-Bilder (Police-Uniform-Paintings), such as Cop relaxing (Sebastian) from 2004. In 1983, just before he paints Westnacht (1984), Fetting travels to New York and is met with great success, which almost instantly catapults him to international art world stardom. But the terms used to characterize his work, such as the slogan “Hunger nach Bildern” (“hunger for images”), coined by the art historian Wolfgang Max Faust, which project a new German expressivity that manages to unite Kirchner with New Wave, distort a clear view towards the complexity of Fetting’s painting practice. Part of the commercial exploitation of German Neo-Expressionists in the United States is the narrative that their painting “comes from the gut”, that is the conception of the artist banning his fleeting impressions onto the canvas intuitively and in the heat of passion. Following years of formalist debate surrounding Minimal, the sudden notion of an expressive, visceral painting is certainly a sexy one. It coincides with a clandestine desire of the artists burning out eventually, like rock stars or the Expressionists prior to World War I. There is talk about a painting of excess and pure hedonism – a perfect match for the Reagan-era’s Yuppie-culture, just before the AIDS-crisis hits.
In Westnacht, Fetting plays on this cliché. Nonetheless, this work manages to demonstrate the constructedness of his painting. Not only does it depict a group of naked bodies gathering around a bonfire at the Piers along the Hudson River, the Meat Packing District’s gay cruising area. Fetting also attaches two wooden slats to the canvas and paints over them. He had collected the boards from the dilapidated warehouses along the river during one of his nightly forays. The boards become a device through which the painting is erotically charged – they expose its theatricality and its resemblance to a stage-setting, while at the same time referring to a vanishing space, a vanishing gay culture.
In Fetting’s paintings, not only people, but also places appear in drag. In his recent work, it is not quite clear whether the Surfers and Bathing Girls hit the beaches in Miami or on the island of Sylt, whether the American dream cars that appear in paintings like Jackson got a vision (2018) float through the American Midwest or rather through the plains of Schleswig-Holstein. The drivers, too, are masked with grotesque grimaces. The cars seem to be horror flick-mutations of the bright yellow New York City-taxicabs which Fetting had painted in the early 1990s. “Regarding the street-, landscape- and car paintings in the show, I had the idea to populate a soothing landscape with horror-characters”, Fetting explains in his conversation with Robert Grunenberg. “I am sure this has to do with our times. With the weird characters popping up in global politics, with the shift of global powers and thus with the world order as we know it, which is about to collapse. That’s what the restlessness in these paintings is all about.”
At this point, it becomes clear how much every single one of Fetting’s paintings is an allegory of cultural experience. Just as Walter Benjamin coined the term of the urban “flaneur”, Fetting may be a “cruiser” – a chronicler of the late 20th and the dawning 21st century. His portraits of people can always also be regarded as images or captured moments of a city. Vice versa, his city paintings unfailingly become some kind of psychogram, self-portraits, the taking of an inventory. Of course, Fetting remains a precise observer of his own life as much as of his environment, in both his Berlin- and his New York-paintings. But he does not as much record specific people and specific places, as he captures the cultural attitudes and current events that make them. In his CNN-Series from 1991, Fetting depicts fighter jets darting towards a candy-colored sunset over Manhattan – ten years before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The paranoid scenario depicted here was triggered by television reports about the war in Iraq. His romantic-melancholic Sunset Skater from 2018 is also inspired by a photograph from these days – a time in which the old, free and broken New York City is slowly replaced by a more cleaned-up version, courtesy of its mid-1990s mayor Rudy Giuliani. As blue movie theaters, sex-clubs and saunas are forced to close, highly exclusive apartment buildings and luxury hotels shoot up into the skies.
In his paintings, Fetting captures this change, as well as the nervous energy of a reunified Berlin, where he returns to in the 1990s. His work adapts to the energy of a place: His paintings moves away from sharp contrasts and become softer, almost post-impressionist. His bronze-sculptures, which he begins to work on after he is commissioned to produce a sculpture of Willy Brandt for the social democratic-party’s Berlin headquarters, have a paradoxically soft quality about them, as well. With their furrowed surfaces, they connect with the existentialist physicality of post-war sculpture and thus are somewhat reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti’s or Germaine Richier’s aesthetics. But their twists and turns, their weightless tumble, their being thrown into the world also evoke sculptors of the late Renaissance and Mannerism, such as Michelangelo or Giambologna.

Rainer Fetting in his atelier, 2019, photo by Liza Arbeiter
In both sculpture and painting, it is difficult to locate Rainer Fetting within a specific frame of reference. Looking at the portraits present in the exhibition, one can mark a variety of connections. Ilko (2016), as well as the mask depicted in geprüft – gute Malerei (2017), suggest a certain parallel to Francis Bacon, but they may as well be read as a reference to early self-portraits of Rembrandt. The most fascinating aspect of Fetting’s art is its becoming of a projection screen for narrative and art historical classification. Just like good drag, his painting always concedes that it is but a claim, a construct, “entirely fabricated”. This fact has been overlooked too many times in Rainer Fetting’s oeuvre. Too often, the “content”, the motive, homosexuality, hedonism were made the focus of his work instead of its painterly strategies. While Jörg Immendorff’s fairly didactic Cafe Deutschland (1978) still serves as an epitome of the updated historical painting, Fetting’s more subtle and more progressive Dusch-Bilder fell victim to being reduced to homoeroticism. In contrast to Immendorff, who communicates history by means of “content” – that is historical characters, swastikas, events – Fetting communicates by means of form and painterly gesture, which is always simultaneously “in drag”, yet authentic. After the course of four decades, it is worth to take a new, a more undogmatic look at Rainer Fetting’s oeuvre – a look, not at the act, but at the drag instead.