The chances are you will have heard of Andy Warhol, the American pop artist whose bleached-out face became as iconic as his art. But Thomas Bayrle?
A German colleague of mine hadn’t heard of him and wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his name.
But at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art they have given over two floors to a survey of his life’s work and made him the subject of their major winter exhibition, All-in-One.
Intrigued, I went to see the exhibition and meet the man.
Comparisons with Warhol seem valid the minute you walk into Baltic’s huge Level 4 gallery. There you will see a neat pile of cans arranged in a circle to look like one big red and white can not dissimilar to one of Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup cans.
The piece is emblazoned with the name Glücksklee-Dose, which is the name of the sculpture and of the brand of condensed milk it references.
It stands on the floor in front of a large screen papered with images – row upon row of them – of a laughing cow. This vast silkscreen print is titled La vache qui rit (The Laughing Cow), recalling a French brand of processed cheese products. These works both date from the late 1960s and speak volumes about an exciting post-war world of plenty in which memories of rationing and utility drabness were fading fast.
Thomas Bayrle is elderly, balding and wearing thick-framed glasses. He is introduced to me by Devrim Bayar, the Belgian curator of the exhibition which comes to us from her gallery in Brussels.
Devrim is young, enthusiastic and chatty. “Even though it can be critical of mass production and society, Thomas’s work is also playful and joyful,” she says. The artist lets her speak but there’s a twinkle in his eye and the ghost of a smile on his lips.
The pair suggest we go up to the fifth floor viewing gallery to see the new piece of work created exclusively for this exhibition.
No jolly laughing cows here. Stadt Wallpaper shows – as the German name suggests – an urban streetscape, all concrete flyovers and office blocks. The grid-like image is repeated over and over again like some dystopian nightmare. And this from an artist who, I’m told by Devrim, calls himself “a country boy”.
Thomas Bayrle was born in in Berlin in 1937 but his family left the city not long afterwards to escape the war. He began his working life in 1956 as an apprentice weaver in a textile factory and this experience, it seems, is key to all that he has subsequently produced as an artist.
“I wanted to stay in weaving,” he tells me. “I wanted to be a weaving engineer until I found out that it was a very technical thing and I was more interested in design. I wanted to make designs myself.
“I went to a graphic design school but I never forgot what I learned in the factory and I never forgot about typesetting. I was always interested in manual techniques for image-making.”
It is interesting to see so much work (more than 200 items) made by an artist who grew up in Germany after the war. It was a difficult time. So many must have been burdened by guilt or despair just when it was vital for the country to get back on its feet.
Back on Level 4 Thomas tells me about one of the little kinetic machines he made in the 1960s, brightly coloured and full of moving parts. They are switched on periodically during the exhibition because they are now very fragile. But they are fun to look at even when stationary and you can only marvel at the work that went into making them.
This particular one is called Ajax and it’s in the shape of a bottle of the famous cleaning product. There are rows of little housewives wearing aprons and wielding mops and they will all get to work when the thing’s switched on.
“It is very funny,” says Thomas, going on to explain that it refers to Nazi ethnic cleansing and to the subsequent efforts of many people to wash away the memory of the horrors they had been implicated in.
“Everyone was cleaning day and night and it was grotesque,” he says, casting his mind back to the early 1960s when Ajax first appeared.
“In Germany they were not so happy with it because they just thought, ah, he’s always criticising and things like that. They were lacking in humour at that time but I suppose there wasn’t much to smile about when you looked at the recent history.”
Like a lot of this work, it is not so much funny as mischievously satirical.
One thing Devrim stresses over and over again is that Thomas is a hands-on artist. He just loves to make things. He tells me he doesn’t think less of artists who have armies of helpers to act on their designs but it isn’t his way.
It all goes back to his weaving days, he says, the need to create.
That early apprenticeship also instilled a fascination with sequences. Much of his work over the years has depended for its impact on repetition, not on one image but on its proliferation.
He shows me a piece, beautiful to look at, which was inspired by the deadly sars virus. This large image is a compound of thousands of identical smaller ones, replicated time and again.
These days viral outbreaks refer as often to computer technology as to physical health and Thomas was a pioneer in applying its properties to art. He experimented with digital technology for the first time in 1988.
A pair of works in the exhibition, Canon Meets Utamaro and Canon Meets Sharaku, are portraits of two 18th Century Japanese printmakers made up of distorted images of a Canon camera. In one, the effect was achieved manually through deforming a piece of printed rubber; in the other, the same effect was created using an Atari computer.
Together the pictures neatly represent the history of print-making. They also represent a bridge between old and new technologies and show how Thomas Bayrle’s early days working with the looms, primed to make patterns through repetition, prepared him for a digital age whose products also depend on the accretion of tiny elements.
Now well into his 70s, the ‘country boy’ from Berlin has a home in Frankfurt and a studio in an old railway station which he rescued and converted.
This exhibition, visually exhilarating but with some sober underlying messages, invites a range of responses. Subtle allusions to Nazi atrocities, disease and urban sprawl contrast with the laughing cows and the exuberant and sexy imagery contained in a special room at the back of the gallery (inspired, I am told, by the increasingly explicit imagery which started to abound in the 1970s).
On Level 1 the artist’s delight at explaining his brilliantly tongue-in-cheek praying machines is infectious. Made from engines, the whirring creations are designed to pray for us in various versions of the Christian liturgy. “Art without religion is impossible,” he says. “Religion is part of our culture, I think any culture.” And these machines help to shoulder the burden of round-the-clock devotion.
I ask him if he is an optimist or a pessimist. “I’m both,” he replies. “I’m in the middle, 50%.”
He is, he suggests, like a bird flying just above the surface of the sea, always seemingly in danger of falling in but somehow staying airborne.
Germany’s inventive answer to Andy Warhol has his art to keep him going and it is well worth seeing and getting to know.
Thomas Bayrle: All-in-One is at Baltic until February 23, 2014. Admission free. Details www.balticmill.com