Thomas Bayrle The Atom Smasher

When looking at the art scene in Germany, Frankfurt artist, Thomas Bayrle, is in many respects really quite the exception. Even today the 75-year-old’s large-format murals, sculptures and film animations still manage to impress the general art public. It was back in the 1960s when he first became well known for his graphic tableaux that were made up of thousands of small individual images. This is a kaleidoscopic view of his life and work so far.

Thomas Bayrle Thomas Bayrle | © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/Burkhard Maus Thomas Bayrle was born in Berlin in 1937 and after training to become a weaver, he studied graphic art at the Werkkunstschule (School of Applied Art) in Offenbach. In the meantime he has moved to Frankfurt and has been living there for quite a few decades, where he has devoted himself with relentless effort to the subject of “mass”. He is fascinated by so-called “superforms” that can only be perceived from a bird’s-eye perspective - like those huge images formed by the spectators in Chinese sports stadiums. It was this fascination that enabled him get his career off the ground by transposing this formal principle onto other media. Sometimes the focus is on the idea of the collective, at others it is all about criticism of Western consumerism.

Thomas Bayrle, Duck (Made of Shoes), 1967; Courtesy Monsoon Collection London; Thomas Bayrle, Duck (Made of Shoes), 1967; Courtesy Monsoon Collection London; | © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2013 Between the years 1964 to 1967 the material he used most in his work was wood. Plywood panels were cut with a jigsaw and painted by hand; they were then assembled in a series to form a wall-mounted object that, thanks to a mechanism, was able to move all the object’s individual elements to then form a second image. In the case of Mao (1966) lots of little figures form a stereotype portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung; if you press the button, a red star then appears instead of Mao’s face.

Later Bayrle moved from wood to the technique of silkscreen printing. His much-cited affinity to American Pop-Art can also be ascribed to this predilection for this printing process, to the related image contents and the aesthetics of the “serial”. But he also managed to make an equally important name for himself as a politically thinking and active artist - in 1968 he responded, along with his colleagues, to the attack on student movement spokesman, Rudi Dutschke, by producing a poster called Die Revolution stirbt nicht an Bleivergiftung.(The revolution does not die from lead poisoning)

Serial Superforms

Thomas Bayrle, Post Woman Christel, 1979; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Thomas Bayrle, Post Woman Christel, 1979; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; | © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2013 With the aid of silkscreen printing Bayrle developed a grid made of duplicated and differently coloured pictograms which could, so to speak, be pixelated into larger images. The portrait of a woman, Die Christel von der Post(Post Woman Christel) (1970) is made up, for example, of thousands of little telephones. Alongside pictorial art he uses the same method to develop sculptural objects.

In this case the “superform” often resembles the original individual element from which it has been formed, like Tassentasse (Cup of Cups) (1969/96) - a sculpture of a coffee cup that has been made from many small coffee cups.

Bayrle’s creations of oxen, shoes and tulip patterns extend well beyond the realm of art, having also been used to decorate articles of daily use like wallpaper, wrapping paper and, in the 1970s, even a collection of coats - any concerns on the artist’s part about applied design were non-existent. There are however some basic issues lurking beneath the decorative surface of his collages - of course, on the aesthetics of the ornamental, but also on the relationship between the individual and the mass(-es).

It is also typical of Bayrle to adopt the attitude of the involved critic. In an interview about his participation in the Documenta 13 exhibition he commented on his work, Flugzeug (Aeroplane) (1982) - a work consisting of 14 million small planes that came about amidst all the controversy of the building of the western runway at Frankfurt Airport. “Back then it was important for me to point out that, although we all complain about all the terrible aircraft noise, we all still travel in the planes. All my works are fifty-fifty. I criticise, but I am also a member of this society and do not want to be left standing on the outside.”
Interview: Thomas Bayrle at the Documenta 13

The Frankfurt balancing act

Thomas Bayrle, Tassen/Tassen, 1968-2008; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Thomas Bayrle, Tassen/Tassen, 1968–2008; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; | © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2013 In 1975 Thomas Bayrle was appointed professor at the Städel School in Frankfurt. He lectured there until 2002, helping to shape the ideas of generations of students, among them such names as Marko Lehanka, Martin Liebscher and Tobias Rehberger. His students appreciated him, without copying his approach to aesthetics. Right from the start it was above all his attitude as an artist that was considered to be most influential.

In contrast to many colleagues who neglect their own work in favour of teaching, Bayrle succeeded in being both a dedicated teacher, as well as in remaining an interested artist. Despite his fame and fortune even today he is still considered to be one of the main movers and shakers on the Frankfurt art scene; this, too, can also be regarded as an example of him successfully maintaining the balance between his local career and his international one.

Productive freewheeling

Moments of movement were already prevalent in Bayrle’s early wooden tableaux. There is also a kind of movement inherent even in the contortions and bulges of his screen prints that were done after 1969 - the three-dimensional effect created emphasises their spatial perception. Furthermore the stringing together of the motifs, which have only been marginally altered, is reminiscent of the animation found in the frames of a loop of film.

Thomas Bayrle, One Pils, Please, 1972; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Thomas Bayrle, One Pils, Please, 1972; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; | © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2013 In the middle of the 1970s a new type of image was added to his oeuvre - that of the urban and highway landscape. The focus in this case was now on the traffic flow of the masses rather than on images compiled from individual elements. With the help of toys, cardboard and various objects found along the way the artist developed a series of modules like roads, railway lines, car parks, skyscrapers and pedestrians that he subsequently reassembled over and over again.

The characteristic thing about this set of works is the fact that the various roads and thoroughfares merge with and overlap each other, sometimes they even form a kind of interlocking parquet pattern, only later then to lead nowhere and end in the void. The video works, too, that Bayrle has been producing on his computer with the help of his students since the 1990s, are above all devoted to the idea of futile, aimless movement.

In the years 1964, 1977 and 2012 Thomas Bayrle took part in the Documenta exhibition in Kassel. The last time the curators placed the whole of the ground floor of the Documenta Hall at his disposal. The installation he set up there showed eight wondrous machines all in full operation.

Thomas Bayrle, Autostrada, 2003; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Thomas Bayrle, Autostrada, 2003; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; | © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2013 Although there was a rhythmic interlocking of cogs and bolts, nothing was actually produced - except for a slight humming sound. This sound was then merged with recordings of the Rosary being recited in Cologne cathedral - an impressive allegory of a self-sustaining activity that comes to nothing - created by an indefatigable and demonstratively consistent artist.