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The City Paints for Me – New York and Jürgen Schmiedekampf

‘“You’re like New York. An island“. Being like an island and thus revolving around oneself is how Woody Allen highlighted a characteristic of his city in the film Annie Hall, something most residents and visitors of this city feel to be extremely contradictory yet at the same time very intriguing. In his portraits of the city, Jürgen Schmiedekampf, a European in New York, tries to lend an adequate and reflected expression to its all-absorbing movement, portraits which one might also think of as recorded notes with lyrical sparks.

The pictures mirror a reciprocal process, not only as a series of works but also in themselves. Scanning the city with his camera, the artist makes a record, mainly at eye-level, of places at a certain point in time in their situational movement. The distanced yet committed viewpoint of the artist seeks what is uniquely imaginative-and finds it in an unusual way. Jürgen Schmiedekampf has discovered that “the city paints for him“ . He is not a detached observer hovering “above it all“; distance is removed or not even established in the first place. The street life resembles a play with rapid changes of scenes, situations fluctuate at lighting speed, creating a certain sense of positional uncertainty.

For Schmiedekampf, photos-even more so than in earlier years-are only raw material. Time and space, the aesthetic diversity of billboards and “asphalt paintings“ can only be captured by the paintbrush. It proceeds in an agitated and expressive manner, pointillistic and informal, but at the same time producing distinct contours. Each work, regardless of the format, is established as a continuum of space. Backward and forward movement flows, the colors are vivid but do not restrict the viewer’s attention to any particular motif.

The manner of composition and painting is surprisingly convincing in showing that “the city does the painting“ and that observers are in synch with real and fictive occasions. It is not the cuts of photographic perception but rather autonomous painting which highlights the two qualities of speed and the supertemporal.

Jürgen Schmiedekampf has not hesitated in the least to face the almost overpowering competition of the pictures that “New York paints“. The view of skyscrapers from airy heights or from a “frog’s-eye view“ possess the same poetical intensity captured so well by the camera work in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days. New York’s aggressive world of lights have been given an almost lyrical interpretation by Allen and Schmiedekampf; the immense mass of stone, steel and glass leaves an impression which is not only imposing but also fragile. The destruction of the World Trade Center has oppressively confirmed this vulnerability.
The journey through New York, which is how one can also view the series of Schmiedekampf’s paintings, is narrated from a point of view comparable to Jim Jarmusch in his episodic movie Night on Earth. Jarmusch shows the chance meeting of people of various races, classes, nations and lifestyles and how they take on an individual character. In New York, the Afro-American taxi driver Jojo from Brooklyn chauffeurs Helmut from Dresden (Armin Müller-Stahl), an itinerant clown who knows no English and is hopelessly baffled by the city’s geography, but who is also impressed by the urban scenery as viewed from the taxi, seeing everything with the wide eyes of a child at Christmas.

It is not only the yellow cab which plays such a highly visual role in Jarmusch’s film and in Schmiedekampf’s pictures, creating a link between the directing style of the two artists. Their motifs, lighting, and focus on the fascinating and uncertain are determined each time by the “city which does the painting“, with Jarmusch introducing a (naive) observer whom Schmiedekampf consciously omits. In addition, the film is marked by the very different points of view between the native Brooklyner, whose favorite expression is “fuck you“, and the German from Dresden, who feels as if he has been set down an alien world.
  Both the filmmaker and the artist emphasize the transient, fleeting and random qualities of big city life. Even the casual stroller who in the works of the French poet Charles Baudelaire walked the streets of Paris, “the capital of the 19th century“ (Walter Benjamin), noted the difference and indifference largely experienced by people in their encounters with each other as being a characteristic feature of the modern age. New York is today just another name for the city as such. “It arouses the power of imagination because it is the place of diversity par excellence, a city which has gathered its residents from the entire world.“ (Richard Sennett).

Jürgen Schmiedekampf had no intention of letting a sociogram of New York enter into the artistic conception of his paintings. But all the same, he has let his aesthetic considerations be directly influenced by the culture of difference, by a lifestyle which consciously celebrates diversity over uniformity.

Even when he attempts to capture and group together the flamboyant and boisterous, the sense of fractured time as well as the fragments of cultures existing side by side, his pictures still suggest the permanent egocentric rotation which can be felt everywhere in this city. In today’s New York, the principle of dynamism, which ever since the days of Italian futurism has been seen as being necessarily constructive and destructive, is both a post-modern attitude and a state of being. Those who have followed the art of Jürgen Schmiedekampf over the last three decades will discover that it has “come to its senses“, so to speak, in that an existing artistic principle has met a life principle, with the artist correctly stating that the city painted his works there.

The painting of Jürgen Schmiedekampf achieves an “identity of art and life“ because for the artist no distance to his themes has been created and that instead he enters into them, letting the rhythm of the complex and multicolored city guide his brush. He has made, and continues to make, the “Manhattan Transfer“, a process described in the 1925 novel of the same name by John Dos Passos, whereby artistic form and its subject, New York as the scene of modern life itself, try to match each other.

The overpowering impression which cities such as Paris and New York have attained as places where inner life and outer life converge and where the usual role play reaches a totally new intensity has provided art in the past 150 years with new and sometimes radical impulses. This applies to impressionism and futurism, but also to almost all phases of the crossover action art of the 20th century.

In his most famous work, Passages, Walter Benjamin formulated most vividly the completely new dimension of public life, which became a model for the relationship between art and the city: “Streets are the home of the collective. The collective is an eternally wakeful, eternally turbulent being which experiences, senses, perceives and contrives as much as much as individuals in the safety of their own four walls. For this collective the shiny enameled company signs are as good, or even better, a wall decoration as an oil painting in the burgher’s salon, walls with the “défense d’affiche“ are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronzes, benches its bedroom furniture and the café terrace the oriel from which it surveys its homestead“.


Prof. Dr. Hans-Joachim Manske
Director of Städtische Galerie Bremen
Professor of architectual theorie, public Art and history of art