This exhibition on both floors of Marlborough’s Mayfair gallery space encompasses new works made over the last two years together with a rich selection of paintings from the 1980s when Büttner first came to worldwide attention as part of a new generation of German artists. Their often brutal imagery and paint handling announced their caustic view of contemporary society, politics, and art itself. Imbued with a dark humour, Büttner’s work has for nearly four decades pursued one essential underlying theme: the pursuit of lucidity as a tool for survival in a sordid world. Or as the artist himself once put it: “to stay as clean as possible. And to stay as awake as possible” — two things that are hard to do at the same time.
Until his previous show with Marlborough in 2015, Büttner had not had a major exhibition in London since his much lauded 1986 show at the ICA, London with Georg Herold and Albert Oehlen. For this reason, the works from 1981 -1989—now instantly recognizable as corrosive classics absolutely emblematic of their time — will nonetheless seem as fresh as the new paintings that will be exhibited alongside them. Continuities as well as differences will be evident: Then and now, Büttner is above all an inventor of images, a painter always looking for new ways to convey a response to the world. And he’s just as free and inventive in his conjuring of visual metaphors today as he was in his days as one of the “Junge Wilde” thirty-five years ago in Hamburg.
What has changed is the expansion of his painterly means of expression, evident for instance, in the far more multifarious—but always carefully controlled—use of colour in the recent work. In the painting from which this exhibition takes its title, Viel Raum für allerlei Glück (Plenty of Room for All Sorts of Happiness), for instance, the vast expanse of clear blue sky—evoked with a transparency Büttner might not have envisioned in the ‘80s—suggests the vacuity of the happy life of the vacationing family who appear as tiny (but overweight) figures frolicking in the sea below. Büttner is one of the rare artists of his generation who has managed to stay both clean and awake over four decades of painting.
Werner Büttner was born in Jena, then part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1954. In 1961 his mother took him to the West, just before the construction of the Berlin Wall. He studied Law at the Freie Universität Berlin, before becoming a social worker at the Berlin-Tegel Prison. In 1979 he took part in the renowned group exhibition Elend at Kippenberger’s Büro, a loft space founded by Martin Kippenberger as a German take on Warhol’s Factory. In 1982 he was part of the exhibition Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, which was considered a definitive survey of painting at that time. He has been Professor of Painting at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg since 1989. Among his many students were the artists Daniel Richter and Jonathan Meese.
In 2013 Büttner was the subject of a major retrospective, Werner Büttner: Gemeine Wahrheiten (Common Truths), at ZKM, Karlsruhe, which travelled to the Weserburg Museum of Contemporary Art, Bremen in 2014. Hatje Cantz published a major monograph in conjunction with the exhibition. In 2016 Marlborough Contemporary, in collaboration with Black Dog Publishing, issued the first substantial books on his practice in English rather than German: My Looting Eye and Coincidence in Splendour.
This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an interview with Werner Büttner by Hans Ulrich Obrist and an essay by the American art critic and poet Barry Schwabsky.