East German expressionism

The Leipzig school of painting has become a phenomenon by eschewing art trends.

In the old Saxon city of Leipzig, art rivals soccer in excitement. Aficionados swoop down in their private jets for gallery openings. Collectors, critics, curators, and tourists on buses make regular stops at what is fast becoming a mecca in the art world. At the heart of the fuss: the Leipzig Art Academy in the former East Germany.

Academic art used to mean staid and stuffy. Now it means hot and hip, at least when it comes to works by graduates from the Academy. A traveling exhibition, "Life after Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection" – on display at the Katzen Arts Center of American University in Washington, D.C., until Oct. 29 – showcases work by seven artists. What's being called "the Leipzig School of Painting" is "the first bona fide art phenomenon of the 21st century," says Laura Heon, the exhibition's co-curator.

Going against the grain of art world trends for photography and video art, the Leipzigers tell compelling stories in paint – but with a twist. Their moody landscapes, urban scenes, and interiors with an unsettling, film-noir sensibility – executed with consummate craftsmanship – distort realism into a twilight zone of millennial angst.

The attention sparked by this show and a 2005 exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art ignited "absolutely insane" demand for these works, says Ms. Heon.

Both the Cleveland and Washington shows focus on six German painters in their early 30s: Tilo Baumgärtel, Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell, and Matthias Weischer, as well as epic works by their mentor, Neo Rauch. What unites these painters is their rigorous training in the age-old craft of painting at the venerable Leipzig Academy and the fact that, after graduating, they chose to work in Leipzig, hardly the center of the art world.

A mecca for art pilgrims

Leipzig's status is changing. Collectors Don and Mera Rubell of Miami, and Michael Ovitz of Los Angeles (whose Ovitz Family Collection loaned works for Cleveland's show) bought works by these painters around 2003, followed more recently by Charles Saatchi of London.

Since these high-profile collectors are considered bellwethers of buzz in contemporary art, their interest jump-started a "ridiculous buying frenzy," according to Mark Coetzee, director of the Rubell Family Collection and co-curator of the traveling show. Leipzig became a destination for art lovers. Tourists and buyers visit a former cotton-spinning factory, the Spinnerai, an abandoned ruin in 1992 but now home to 80 professional artists' studios and a dozen galleries, according to Torsten Reiter, director of the Maerzgalerie there.

The scene wasn't always hopping. When the young painters chose to study in Leipzig about a dozen years ago, they bucked a stream of traffic surging the other way. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, about a third of Leipzig's population decamped. Factories closed, unemployment soared, and workers' subsidized apartment units were shuttered. It resembled a ghost town, but amid the desolation was opportunity. Artists could afford huge studios where they could work without distraction and survive on next to nothing.

The Leipzig painters also swam against the current of fashion. Under the Communist regime, the state required painters to produce uplifting, socialist-realist art glorifying the "workers' paradise." Leipzig ignored Western trends such as new media work, conceptual art, and installations. At the Academy, students took seven years of studio-based courses, while many Western art schools turned away from teaching traditional skills.

"Leipzig has long been a holy place of figurative art, a fortress against abstract art," says Berlin critic Tom Mustroph.

Aris Kalaizis, a strikingly original figurative painter who was born in Leipzig, where he studied and lives, recalls, "When I began to study painting in the early 1990s, it was considered strange. No one was interested in painting." Classmates derided the representational painters as boringly retro. For those who stuck to their guns, eschewing video and photo-based art, then the rage, they were so "derrière-garde," they became avant-garde.

Bidding wars before the paint is dry

The Academy inculcated a strict work ethic, and these painters still plug away in their studios every day. Even with such discipline, demand for their work far outstrips production. Neo Rauch completes 20 paintings a year, according to his charismatic Leipzig dealer Gerd Harry Lybke, founder of the Leipzig gallery EIGEN+ART. "I have 40 museums," Mr. Lybke says, "and 600-700 people who want to buy a Rauch painting." (A Rauch painting sold for a record price of $844,444 at Sotheby's in 2006.)

Opinion is divided as to whether the painters should be considered a school.

The group "definitely has an aesthetic that's consistent," says the artist/dealer Joe Amrhein, who opened a branch of his alternative Brooklyn gallery, Pierogi, in Leipzig because he was so smitten by the "do-it-yourself, anything-is-possible atmosphere" there.

Jeffrey Grove, contemporary art curator at Atlanta's High Museum, who curated the Cleveland show, says, "Absolutely they think of themselves as a group." He points out a commonality: "They obviously come from a figurative tradition, which they've reinvigorated."

There's wide agreement on why Leipzig art is so sought after: virtuosic painting.

"People have returned to beauty," says Zach Miner, contemporary art expert at Christie's. He admits the Leipzig painters' vision is "not warm and fuzzy," but he's convinced that "people turn to aesthetics to deal with a world that's become destabilized."

Dystopian artworks

The paintings from Leipzig, a city where the old certainties and sense of purpose were ripped away, vibrate with absence, dislocation, and a psychological state of anomie. They imply weird narratives – undecipherable as a David Lynch film – fraught with ambiguity.

Rauch's paintings suggest "living in a failed utopia," says Charles Haxthausen, professor of art history at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. An enigmatic Rauch image "is not about a message. It's about a feeling."

This feeling comes through in Weischer's empty rooms – the walls scarred with layers of history, and Eitel's almost photo-realist watercolors, where people fail to make eye contact and seem existentially alone.

"They're asking quite interesting societal questions, trying for a largeness of vision," says Gregory Volk, associate professor of art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

He admits to being skeptical of the hype surrounding this latest art-world craze, yet he concludes, "There might be a speculative bubble in their prices, but this is not a scam. These are serious young artists developing their voices and their own approaches in painting."

Like modern Rumpelstiltskins, artists who work and exhibit in the old cotton-spinning mill are spinning threads of linen canvas into gold.

Paintings from the Rubell Collection will be at Seattle's Frye Art Museum Feb. 17 to June 3, 2007, and at the Salt Lake Art Center, June 23 to Sept. 29, 2007.

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