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"For artists, life experience is an island they can always return to"
A visit with Thomas Bayrle

With a lot of patience Thomas Bayrle became one of Germany's best art professors. Today he says: "I've learned as much from my colleagues as they have from me." Daniel Völzke talked with the very busy emeritus, who is represented with numerous works in the Deutsche Bank Collection.

Thomas Bayrle
Photo: Wolfgang Günzel
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

Does he miss teaching? Perhaps. But he actually has enough to do, says Thomas Bayrle. Six years ago the artist went into retirement, yet when he was a faculty member he seldom had more work than he does today. Teenagers walk by his studio - some smoking, some not, some pensive, some perky. In between it's quiet, albeit only briefly. Here in the charming old building in Frankfurt-Eschersheim that they live in, the Bayrles are virtually surrounded by youth. A kindergarten and a school on the street ensure there are bursts of life in the neighborhood. But life used to be merrier here, says, Helke Bayrle, the artist's wife. In the old days there were no fences between the plots of land. Thomas would dress up as a witch, she says, and run through people's yards and frighten kids.

Thomas Bayrle, Lindwurm, 1970, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Thomas Bayrle is sitting in his studio, surrounded by prototypes and models for upcoming exhibitions, as well as by works of former students. Starting in 1975 he taught at the Frankfurter Hochschule für Bildende Künste, the Städelschule art academy. At that time, he already knew how to run a kinderladen, or antiauthoritarian children's nursery; he and his wife had founded one they directed themselves. He saw a continuation of the kinderladen principle in the orientation class of the Städel School that he now taught: first let the kids do what they want to, give them suggestions, talk. Above all the latter: talk. The artist, who himself studied at the rather strict Werkkunstschule Offenbach, first had to discover his teaching talent. He was very skeptical about whether he was cut out for the job, says the professor emeritus today.

Thomas Bayrle, Kennedy in Berlin, 1964, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Over thirty years later, Thomas Bayrle is in demand as an artist more than ever before. At some point the art world became curious about the man who taught so many of their favorites - stars like Tobias Rehberger, Sergej Jensen, and Thomas Zipp. He owes his success in part to his students, the 71-year-old says repeatedly during our talk. They always supported him, while people of his generation no longer believed in him and didn't understand his work.

Thomas Bayrle, Christel von der Post, 1970, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

It's as though the times have finally caught up with the progressive artist. At large-scale retrospectives of his work, such as the one mounted at the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst in 2006, you could get an idea of just how far out front Thomas Bayrle was. Together with his friend Peter Roehr, he worked on a German variant of Pop Art, responding to mass culture with serially produced graphic works picturing everyday products redundantly arranged into patterns. Bayrle printed coats and wallpapers, and was one of the first in Germany to deal with the language of advertising, even working in an ad agency himself. Also astonishing in retrospect are his automatic reliefs that through digital data processing simulate socialist mass processions and the pixilization of the world that spread only much later. In the seventies, the Frankfurt artist worked with computer-generated prints, then with graphics animations. The stubborn rumor that the pictorial revolutionary and advertising strategist designed the logo of the Red Army Faction was in keeping with his pioneer spirit. Given how curious he is about new things, it comes as no surprise when he says about his time as a professor: "In the end I learned just as much from my young colleagues as they did from me."

Thomas Bayrle, (b)alt 1997, computer animation, still: sleep, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Class is an exchange. A class is composed of all kinds of people, whose experiences and ways of looking at the world become interwoven. You export your problems and import the others' problems. "A garbage collection point" is what Thomas Bayrle calls the art academy as institution and compares art class with the process of weaving. In his youth, before he attended the Werkkunstschule, he did an apprenticeship as a draftsman for textile design, as a dyer and weaver in Göppingen. "Back then it had already dawned on me that weaving is also a metaphor," says Bayrle. In his prints, in his dynamic motor-driven reliefs, in his collages, films, wallpapers and textiles, the reciprocal penetration is omnipresent, as though consisting of warp and woof. Smaller elements combine to create something bigger; tiny figures move as though in a crowd of people and miniature highways telescope into a texture.

Thomas Bayrle, Der Tiger übt, 1969, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

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