Transgressing Borders in the Lives of Others

Colmar Schulte-Goltz

Norbert Bauer works with motifs that seem familiar. It is as if one has already seen the images many times; they develop a special appeal. The paintings with the clearly arranged pictorial spaces are captivating, and there is “something about” them—media society’s “real lies.”

With all of his proximity to reality, the artist represents measured realism and avoids an all too realistic look. By forgoing inner differentiation and precise details, his style has more of an all-over graphic character. All of his works are marked by an aesthetic that has both a familiar and natural as well as a disruptive and peculiar effect on the viewer. The pictures are frequently smoothly cool. In his paintings, Bauer distances himself from the actual motif of his source material by means of alienated coloration and reserved orchestration. Nothing detracts from the essential character of his depictions, which have a strangely objective effect. In contemporary painting in Germany, the artist has become a distinguished representative of a matter-of-fact view of reality and its conveyance in the media.

Norbert Bauer develops his artistic work out of an intense examination of themes from contemporary history. There are numerous thematic groups in his oeuvre that make reference to the immediate present. The word “reference” has special meaning in his creative work. After all, the artist does not depict a specific occasion in the sense of classic history painting, rather he works with images of situations which have been communicated and reproduced by the media and are frequently associated with a precarious issue. Bauer is not a chronicler who strives toward rendering objectivity and truth; he creates pictures according to his own laws. In contrast to traditional history painting, which was for the most part commissioned to arouse sympathy for a special way of viewing an issue or whose dynamic or dramatic accounts were meant to tempt one to feel sympathetic toward protagonists and empathetic toward victims, Bauer’s paintings maintain their distance from anything sensual. They are at once crystal clear and puzzling and avoid any affable familiarity. All subjectivity and sentimentality has been eliminated from his pictures.

For a good decade now, Norbert Bauer has been creating an oeuvre in which he devotes himself to individual groups of motifs produced in series and with almost scientific consistency. He initially made predominantly small-format, almost miniature paintings, finally arriving at his preferred medium format the size of old cabinet paintings. The artist has recently been producing more and more panorama-like works that take up entire walls. His oeuvre includes the entire spectrum of painting genres—from landscapes, still lifes, and portraits to group and event paintings. The foundation of these different subjects is Norbert Bauer’s interest for the individual and his or her potential in society. He traces the lives and destinies of people he does not personally know. His attention is called to them by images he sees in the print media, on television, and in the Internet.1 The artist poses questions in his works: How true can a picture be? What political, social, or historical circumstances is it related to? In doing so, he thematizes the options and conditions of the visual arts in the media age. Although he uses the most modern media in the selection and genesis of his motifs, Norbert Bauer’s paintings are exclusively hand-crafted in acrylic on linen or nettle canvas with real brushes.

The artist uses his keen intuition to discover images in the media that turn out to be stereotypes of, for instance, background studies and thus time and again uphold a cliché much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has created an archive of images over the years in which questions are asked about societies and cultures, about social networks or global problems. The painter seems to be fascinated by images. During his research, Bauer encounters some more frequently than others, as they are constantly passed down from one report to the next. Some motifs appear to be unaffected by the details of a specific context. On the one hand, this is attested to by the force, the lasting impression, or the apparent truth of the image used, but this also destroys belief in the authentic association of a picture with a concrete issue. What becomes apparent behind the image as such is its function as an illustration meant to create a certain mood.

Pictures of crime scenes, perpetrators, and victims predominate in the media. What is particularly striking and absurdly monstrous are the self-portrayals by adolescent rampage killers. For some years now, pictures, shot using self-timers, of assassins about to randomly kill as many fellow students as possible are in all the media. The source material for an impressive pair of paintings falls within this context. The protagonist in the pictures Spectre 1 and Spectre 2 (2007) is the Korean student Cho Seung-Hui. In the first, he gazes out of the painting (Spectre 1), and in the second, his eyes are lowered (Spectre 2). Cho Seung-Hui has become part of our collective memory. Not because of an outstanding academic career or due to his respectable name. He will forever be “the Korean student at a technical university in the United States,” where he seemingly abruptly went on a rampage, killing thirty-three people. His self-portrayal transported the genre of high-school killers to the college campus. There has rarely been so much talk worldwide about the media side of spree killers. This newsgroup or peer group has developed its own style with aesthetic features that serve as a role model for persons planning their own horrific acts. Ensuing killings have taken up certain forms of the criminal’s portrayal. Some of the patterns were repeated during the massacre in Winnenden, Baden-Württemberg, in March 2009. In the meantime, assassinations are announced on the Internet. And have they not been, someone else makes up for it and perfects the crime in keeping with the media pattern.2 Comparing oneself with a murderer is therefore not only to be found in the milieu of creative people, such as Helmut Newton, who used to recommend himself as a “gun for hire,” or Karl Lagerfeld, who likes to describe himself as a serial killer because revenge gives him emotional pleasure.3

Both of the paintings on Cho Seung-Hui seem to be afterimages of the incredible act. Norbert Bauer certainly does not want to only reproduce the assassin in his works, he wants to record images. A simple reproduction would be too lurid for him. By means of tone separation and a limited color palette, in his pair of paintings Bauer distances himself from the actual image and original. He highlights and exaggerates his version, clearly paraphrasing it. The artist produces his typically mysterious style be means of this differentiated approach. The originator knows more than he betrays. The painter and the viewer know the facts. Yet as a painter, Norbert Bauer always asks himself whether in their ominous quality the two paintings would also be effective on their own. Thus he is essentially concerned with how the assassin becomes a painting.

Norbert Bauer’s paintings are inscribed with misgivings about ubiquitous overstimulation and its accompanying trivializing and dulling consequences. Thus his theme is the boundaries of personal latitude and the transgression of borders. A theme, by the way, that he stages time and again in his adaptations of found images. It is the look into the lives of others, into their territory. It is not only a country’s sovereign territory. On closer examination, this concept, which the artist has chosen for his presentation at the Stadtmuseum Hattingen, becomes increasingly diverse. The title of the exhibition also establishes relationships to national, geographic, or mental spaces, all of whose boundaries have not been laid down indefinitely, but are subject to constant change. Bauer: “The last territory is the territory of observing, inquiring, forging links, remembering, reinventing, etc. The last sovereign place one’s own version of reality can develop. Therefore an area to be newly discovered as well, a realm of possibilities.”

The analysis of the individual paintings in this catalogue will show how Norbert Bauer in an indirect way establishes a relationship between his works and the concept of “territory.” He thematizes the sovereign border of an area on several occasions, rarely as unequivocally as in his work Grenze, which shows a forest. In Wald (Nacht IV), one scene features an unofficial border crossing by people smugglers or refugees. Hopes for a new life in a new country with different political and economic conditions are carried over to Sea of Gold. In Guantanamo Beach, the precious concept of territory is expanded to include a sovereign territory outside a country’s national jurisdiction.

Territory as the terrain of intellectual property is extended all the way to the moon in the work Projektion (Aufschlagstelle Luna 2). The title of the exhibition, Territorium, can also be used to make reference to Norbert Bauer’s very own mindscape; the exhibition itself is the artist’s territory, which is being lastingly documented in this catalogue.

In their inimitable way, Norbert Bauer’s works shed light on the reflection on pictures: they are paintings about images, and that without purporting a clear reflective attitude of the found motif toward his own painting.

Bauer’s interest for situations observed by others is particularly noticeable in the large-format work Im Wald (Nacht IV) from 2008. One can diffusely identify a dynamic event: three people can be made out; one of them seems to be carrying a backpack. The source material is a journalistic image with explosive content. Charged by its contextualization, above all the location becomes the theme. Why is this scene taking place in a forest? The forest, which in fairytales is already fateful, is a place in which civilization moves beyond reach. There is something very mysterious about a forest, in particular at night. Perhaps this section is a prominent place—a border, for example. The scene could be showing an illegal border crossing. The ominous atmosphere reproduces an aesthetic we associate with surveillance cameras. The magical twilight is reminiscent of the magnificent nature photographs by Thomas Struth, which in 2002 Ingo Hartmann characterized as both archaic and utopian.4 The forest is the epitome of the extralegal sphere. And it is particularly interchangeable—in principle, it could be anywhere in the world. Forests and depictions of forests always have a familiar effect.5

The border is the very explicit theme and motif in the large-format work Grenze (2008). The conifers prompt one to associate it with wooded areas in Germany. The motif nearly fills the entire painting. The composition is quite unconventional and clearly sets itself apart from traditional portrayals of wooded landscapes. Instead of darker, detailed depictions in the foreground and a color perspective that is responsible for the suggestive potential of depth by means of the development of light and dark, this forest works with the phenomenon of the all-over. The painting arouses associations; it resembles the view from a helicopter out over a wooded area, for example when a missing person is being searched for. Only on the left side can a somewhat blue sky be made out above the treetops. In this painting, the forest is shown with a matter of course that largely dispenses with sociological references and in its wealth of detail above all communicates stillness.

Unusual in terms of composition is the white strip at the lower edge of the painting. It points toward the profane origin of the mysterious picture. It stems from a personal home page with pictures of a father’s day excursion to the frontier area between the Bayrischer Wald and the Bohemian Forest.6 As is the case in Bauer’s other paintings, the source material for this picture was also extensively edited on a computer. The motif has become relatively dull due to the color variation, the contrasts strengthened. The color and light values have been assembled out of a variety of different situations and source images. This is why the ground is so oddly luminous; the lights have been overexpanded. Here, Bauer’s painting revolves around the manifestation of a motif and its aesthetic mediation. The white strip thematizes the border between the painting and the support, the image and the screen. Just where is the border of the respective picture? How close can one get to an image? Here, the artist seems to touch on one of the principle questions with respect to the reception of pictures, which in art history was above all posed in relationship with Jasper Johns’ flag painting: “Is it a flag or is it a painting?” Johns, too, did not want to produce a depiction. Like Johns’ paintings at the time, this picture of a forest is also no longer a window—neither to the inside nor the outside—but is the theme itself: it shows what it is, it is what it shows. No less and no more.7 Thus Jasper Johns anticipated a factor in Pop Art that for Andy Warhol ultimately ended with one being able to create a picture—and thus a product—out of anything.8 Norbert Bauer’s interest in borders as a motif is also an important theme in other sectors of contemporary art production.9

In the large-format painting UUSSAA (2008), two figures are sitting on a long bench at some distance from a campfire. The motif falls in line with the paintings of borders and forests and is based on an account by a friend who, after a trip to South America, was stranded in Mexico at the border to Panama. When the border control facilities close, a wide variety of people hoping to cross the border the following day assemble in no man’s land. Time apparently stands still at the campfire. The small-format painting Das Blaue Licht (2009) with the depiction of a campfire in green and blue figures plays in much the same way with the business in crossing borders and appears to be the afterimage or print of a story.

Sea of Gold (2008) is a particularly succinct work. Ten refugees are crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat from Africa in the direction of Italy. In contrast to the numerous oppressed and exhausted refugees who address our compassion in the media, these ten people seem to be adventurers who want to attentively and proudly discover unchartered terrain. Unlike most of the other motifs, here Norbert Bauer has only slightly intervened aesthetically in the found source material. His interventions are primarily restricted to the sea, which he portrays as being much darker. In addition, the water’s surface is ordered into parallel-running stripes like those generated by an inkjet printer.

This picture deals with a painted state of emergency. Escape from a country marked by war or economic hopelessness into another are major themes. The most famous portrayal of a castaway at sea stems from Jean Louis Théodore Géricault. His Raft of the Medusa from 1819 features the extremes of people left to their own resources on a raft, which end in cannibalism. At the time, the painting by the French master was unique in terms of its drastic account of a contemporary event and kept the memory of this tragedy alive. Today, the large number of media reports from throughout the world about humanitarian catastrophes is hardly comprehensible. In view of our media culture, which is saturated with devastating news, Norbert Bauer’s painting is a statement that not in dramatic overglorification, but in its objective form invites us participate in a discourse on the political, historical, sociological, and philosophical dimensions of flight and its causes.10

The small-format work Nacht I (2006) seems to portray a different state of emergency. Two hands wearing a pair of hygienic, blue rubber gloves is presenting an array of packaged portions of cocaine, like those prepared to smuggle inside one’s body. These are the very occurrences that deserve the attention of all those involved in Norbert Bauer’s so frequently thematized borders. The rubber gloves make reference to sterile laboratory environments, both in the drug industry as well as in drug investigation. Both of these are a part of progress in the spirit of Walter Benjamin: “The concept of progress is to be based on the idea of catastrophe. . . . The catastrophe is not what lies ahead, it is our life in the here and now.”11

Sterile conditions are also the features of the working environment of eight diligent women wearing pink smocks, caps, and green masks. The product of their work cannot be more closely defined. In the painting Nacht II, the women are completely absorbed in their work. Visibly only a detail out of a larger number of female workers, they are attentively working along. Their working surface is practically mystically illuminated, while their entire surroundings are immersed in darkness.

Special, downright magical lighting also defines another important painting. Die Stadt (2003) shows Belgrade during a NATO air raid. Norbert Bauer again discovered an image source, extensively altered it, and in doing so turned it into a painting. He transformed a view of the town into a nighttime image. He uniformly colored the sky, which was full of plumes of smoke, red. By removing the Coca-Cola lettering from a building, there is a more general look about the city’s silhouette. It is not clear what is happening.

Humor or wit are not noticeable in Norbert Bauer’s paintings at first glance. One example of this is the—logically almost miniature-like—work You better not believe every word you hear (2009). It shows an icon of American culture, a Texan. However, this version is a travesty—it is a woman with a moustache and wearing sunglasses. The painting’s title requires attentiveness and a critical examination of acoustic and visual information.

Proper still lifes can rarely be found in Norbert Bauer’s oeuvre. Particularly suggestive is a depiction of a pair of flip-flops, a stack of white sheets, and plastic bottles. The orange overalls are the first disruptive element in this apparent still life with irrelevant beach utensils. The title, Guantanamo Beach (2003), ultimately brings what is being depicted together with the historical context—these items are what new prisoners receive upon their incarceration in Guantanamo, the notorious camp for terror suspects on Cuba.

The combination in Flick Knife (2004) also has an ambiguous character. A red dispenser, shaver, and a comb. The knife broadens the view to the possible use of the objects in the same way as the buttons scattered on the shelf. The greater part of the picture is uniformly light blue and contributes nothing to understanding situation. This is a particularly good example for the ominous effect of Bauer’s works.

Of all the artist’s works, Park (2004) triggers a chain of associations like no other. The doors of this large, almost format-filling Mercedes limousine are open. The picture is devoid of people. Together with the sheets of paper on the ground, the absence of people and the abandonment of the car seem threatening. This scene elicits further images associated with the assassinations of prominent personalities in the Federal Republic by the Red Army Faction.

Norbert Bauer likes to work with pairs of paintings. In contrast to classic companion pieces, which as counterparts belonging to the same genre depict two aspects of a motif, Bauer’s pairs frequently share only a similar format. The two paintings Die Allee (2008) and Die Zelle (2008) could not be more antithetical. Behind a centrally placed treetop, the landscape painting of the avenue features the merging tops of several trees standing side by side that to the left perspectively become shorter. The atmosphere is dimly dark. Due to the distorted perspective, the viewer—despite the familiar, grounded motif—is somewhat disoriented. Die Zelle features a sparse interior. The light gray inner edge could indicate both a separating pane of glass or a monitor screen. Two prisoners can vaguely be made out; they could have dark complexions. The one is lying stretched out on his stomach on a bed and turns toward the one who is standing, who is gesticulating with his outstretched arm. Except for the cropped contours of a second bed and a tabletop, the white room is entirely empty.

What connects these pictures? The avenue could be either the view from the cell or the photograph of a place that is linked with the prisoners’ personal destiny. Bauer transformed the image of a blossoming cherry tree from a daylight situation into a negative and aesthetically into a nighttime situation with surreal light. The reduced coloration corresponds with the cell with the two people.

The packed atmosphere in the cell and the precarious mood of the situation arouse the viewer’s sympathy for deportees. Their right to privacy seems to be very restricted; here, the individual is no longer entitled to his natural freedom. Norbert Bauer’s painting allows a multitude of ways of reflecting on the occurrences in this “territory.” In addition to all of the legal or sociological questions, since Jean Jacques Rousseau and his discourses on the constitutional freedom of the individual and self-preservation, the philosophical concept of freedom has been open to discussion.13 The ownership and creatorship of freedom seem to be the real theme of the picture. The perspective in the cell scene and our participation in the conversation between the two inmates also compel the viewer to reflect on the surveillance of prisoners by means of camera systems as well as on the exchange of information among prisoners.14

Norbert Bauer found these two images, removed them from their narrative context, and placed them into a new one. His interest in politically and socially relevant current issues may lead to the two paintings described above, yet the artist does not consider these works to be definitely political.

Certainly one of the most unusual works is the painting Projektion, Aufschlagstelle Luna 2 (2008).It is based on a slide the painter found in the “Vitales Archiv,” a project by the artist Sandra Kuhne. Bauer discovered this memorable motif in the category “Great Moments of Cosmonautics.” Among other things, the Soviet Union had sent probes to the moon. While Luna 1 only orbited the moon, Luna 2, an unmanned probe, struck it in 1967. It is not known whether it continued to transmit data. Bauer has his knowledge of this noteworthy event from the slide. He has marked a small arrow on the view of the moon where the probe was supposed to have hit the moon’s surface. When the small image was mounted into a slide frame, two adhesive strips to the left and to the right covered the edges of the smaller motif, much like the white strip in Norbert Bauer’s painting Grenze. However, viewers often do not recognize the moon and believe to see Earth in his depiction. The moon, which has traditionally played a large role in art, is a prevailing motif in contemporary art.15

In its objectivity and universality, the matter-of-fact view that Norbert Bauer’s works communicate is frequently reminiscent of stances in contemporary photography. Of the photographers, it is certainly Stephen Shore whose sober view of life’s scenes in America bear a great proximity to Norbert Bauer’s works.16 Unlike him, however, Bauer prefers to show locations that in principle could be anywhere. Instead of a particularly “German eye,” Bauer’s view has more of an international character, which accommodates the media age and globalization.

Beyond that, Norbert Bauer has developed a painterly quality in the technical execution of his realistic motifs that closely ties in with the manifestation of the photographic communication of reality. The artist has recently modified the strict realism in favor of more of an abstract effect. Bauer consistently rejects the hand-made effect in his works. Even on closer inspection, his works do not seem to be “painted” in the actual sense, because the artist avoids any specific characteristic style and visible brushstrokes. His works at once do not seem to have “made by human hands” and yet they exhibit maximum individuality and authentic properties. What all of the artist’s paintings share is a suggestive and almost uncanny presence, which guarantees Norbert Bauer lasting impact in the contemporary art business.



Colmar Schulte-Goltz is the founder of the gallery kunst-raum schulte-goltz+noelte in Essen and active as a curator at the Stadtmuseum Hattingen. The art historian is the author of numerous essays and monographs on contemporary art.



1 Im Medium Fotografie ist besonders Thomas Demand mit seiner Verwertung von Medienbildern einer der international bekanntesten Künstler, vgl. den Katalog Thomas Demand, Museum of Modern Art New York 2005.

2 Die medialen Muster finden sich bereits seit 2002 im Computerprogramm der Firma Sierra Entertainment, mit dem der Amokläufer von Erfurt trainiert hat, wie damals die FAZ berichtete, vgl. FAZ, 28.April 2002, Nr.17, S.21.

3 Ingeborg Harms: Karl Lagerfeld, S. 14-17, in: Stilikonen Nr. 1, 2009, hier S. 15.

4 Thomas Struths Aufnahmen seiner „Paradiese“ entstanden in den letzten Jahren in China, Japan, Australien, Brasilien – und Deutschland, besonders im Bayrischen Wald, wo auch Norbert Bauer fündig wurde, vgl. Ausst.-Kat. Thomas Struth. New Pictures from Paradise, Universität von Salamanca, 2002 und Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden 2002, München 2002, Text von Ingo Hartmann o. P.. vgl. die Abbildungen Cat 7851 Paradise 19 Bayrischer Wald (Near Zwiesel) / Germany1999 und Cat. 7911 Paradise 25 Yudquehy Brazil, 2001.

5 Diesen Eindruck teilt auch Hans Rudolf Reust im Zusammenhang seiner Reflexionen über die Waldbilder der Serie Paradiese von Thomas Struth, wenn er feststellt, „dass sich zu den Waldpartien aus allen Ländern eine überraschende Nähe und Vertrautheit einstellt.“ Vgl. Hans Rudolf Reust: Das Paradies der Dschungel, In: Ausst.-Kat. Thomas Struth. München 2002, o.P.

6 Vgl. dazu die Aufnahme von Thomas Struth, Cat 7851 Paradise 19, Bayrischer Wald (Near Zwiesel) / Germany 1999 aus dem besprochenen Katalog.

7 Jasper Johns revoltierte gegen den damals die aktuelle Malerei bestimmenden abstrakten Expressionismus. Seine Arbeiten gelten heute als entscheidender Einschnitt der Kunstgeschichte, die auch häufig als frühes Popart-Emblem gesehen wird. Seine "Zielscheibe" von 1955 ist genauso auf den Sehsinn bezogen. Johns wesentliche Botschaft berührt das Wesen des Bildes, dessen Materialität er besonders betont. Max Imdahl: Gesammelte Schriften herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Angeli Jahnsen-Vukicevic, Frankfurt 1996, Bd. 1. Zur Kunst der Moderne, S. 147-159, hierv S.148.

8 Mark Francis: Der späte Warhol, In: Ausst.-Kat. Andy Warhol The Late Work, Bd. Texte, museum kunst palast Düsseldorf 2004, S.8-9, hier S.9.

9 Unter anderem in den Videoarbeiten von Lonnie van Brummelen in ihrer Arbeit Großraum Hebnree, Ceuta, Nicosia 2004-05, einem 35 mm Film mit begleitender Publikation. The Formal Trajectory 35‘00“ ist eine aktuelle Auseinandersetzung über die Vorgänge an Grenzen während des Tages, vgl. Ausst.-Kat. Number One: Destroy She said. Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf, 2007, Ostfildern 2007, S. 129.

10 Die Arbeit regt an zum Diskurs über den Begriff des Ausnahmezustands, der schon bei Friedrich Nietzsche erscheint. Kulturphilosophen wie Yana Milev beschäftigen sich ganz aktuell mit dem Ausnahmezustand und der Begriffsgenese seit Hobbes und Hegel bis zu Foucault und Gamben. Yna Milev: Emergency Empire – Souveränität. Transformationen des Ausnahmezustands, Wien und New York 2009.

11 Walter Benjamin: Zentralpark, Frankfurt a. M. 1955, S. 246.

12 Der Berliner Publizist Stephan Speicher hat die Arbeit zur Illustration seines Artikels verwendet. Stephan Speicher: Ein Volk listenreicher Klugscheißer. Die Deutschen haben der Schwarmgeisterei entsagt und sind stolz auf ihre solide Skepsis. Doch die hat auch ziemlich hässliche Seiten. Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 26.02.2006, Nr. 8, Ansichten S. 11.

13 Jean Jacques Rousseau: Staat und Gesellschaft, Contract Social, Grundlegende Gedanken zu einer neuen Gesellschaftsordnung, München: Wilhelm Goldmann 1959, S. 94.

14 Vgl. Yna Milev: a. a. O., Nachrichtenbeschaffung, S.107-110, hier S. 107.

15 Um nur ein Beispiel zu nennen, sei auf die Arbeit der Videokünstlerin Heike Baranowsky und ihre Videoinstallation „Mondfahrt“ 2001 verwiesen. Vgl. Ausst.-Kat. Number One: Destroy She said. Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf, 2007, Ostfildern 2007, S.93.

16 Garry Badger: Die Kunst, die sich verbirgt, Anmerkungen zum stillen Wesen der Fotografie. Vgl. Ausst.-Kat. How you look at it. Fotografien des 20. Jahrhunderts, Sprengel-Museum Hannover, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt a. M., S.76.