From Brooklyn to Berlin New York Artists Escape to Germany

Leonard Cohen famously sang "First we'll take Manhattan, then we'll take Berlin." Now many New York artists are doing just that, turning their backs on excessive rents and the stifling conservativism of the post-9/11 city to carve out a niche for themselves in the thriving Berlin art scene.
Von Damaso Reyes

When David Krepfle left his small hometown in Iowa and moved to New York in 1989, he had $100 in his pocket and dreams of becoming an artist. He found a loft in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"). Back then, it was the kind of area where nobody cared if he used a chainsaw to make his art -- even if he did often get chased by thieves on the way home from the subway.

But over the years, as the neighborhood became the hippest place to live in New York, Krepfle's rent grew and it became a struggle to keep his home. Then he visited Berlin in 2001 -- and was so impressed that he joined the ranks of the New York artists making the exodus to the German capital.

"It felt like New York 20 years ago," he says, recalling his first visit to the city. "It had the same energy, the same kind of freakiness and underbelly, as New York had then."

Krepfle, who has now lived in Berlin for a year, is one of an increasing number of American artists who are leaving New York to set up a permanent base in Germany. More than 10,000 Americans now live in the German capital -- a number which has grown steadily over the past decade.

New York-based artists are inspired to make the move through a combination of rising rents, diminishing opportunities and a growing sense that the city's centrality to the art world has passed its peak. Gone are the days when up-and-coming painters such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg could rent a huge loft in Manhattan for just a few hundred dollars a month. Today those same lofts rent for upwards of $5,000 and sell for millions, forcing artists out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs. But even in Brooklyn, spaces that rented for hundreds just a decade ago now cost up to 10 times as much.

Krepfle now pays €500 ($695) a month in rent for a studio in the up-and-coming eastern Berlin district of Friedrichshain. The boyish 46-year-old shakes his head and marvels at how much his storefront studio on a quiet, tree-lined street differs from his DUMBO loft, where he lived directly under the Manhattan Bridge and had to put up with a constant industrial rumble.

"This is the first opportunity that I've ever had in my life to make solid art where I don't have to worry so much about paying a big electric bill or a lot of rent," he says. "It gives me the opportunity to really focus on the art."

It has now been a year since Krepfle sold all of his belongings to come to Berlin. In that time he has found both a home and inspiration. The walls of his studio are lined with the work that he has created here: colorful, cereal box-sized images of contemporary news events interpreted through his unique lens. World figures like North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein are juxtaposed with images dealing with globalization, consumerism and the rise of radical fundamentalism of all flavors.

And it's perhaps not entirely coincidental that there's a political element to Krepfle's art. It's not just cheap rents which are enticing artists to come to Berlin -- many New York artists are leaving because they feel the place they fell in love with has fundamentally changed.

"I'm not crazy about living in America while George W. Bush is president," says David Henry Brown Jr., a painter and performance artist who recently had a one-man show at a Berlin gallery. The intellectual atmosphere of Berlin is "really open," he says. "I feel like I have taken off the handcuffs that were developing in New York."

For many artists, the event that alienated them from the United States was the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and their aftermath. While the attacks seemed to bring the nation together, for many on the left it heralded the start of a reactionary period in American history which made them feel less and less welcome in their own country. "You have a transition, especially catalyzed by 9/11, where New York becomes a corporate puppet," Brown says, filled with resentment.

Alaskan-born artist and experimental filmmaker Reynold Reynolds agrees. He feels the 9/11 attacks "made the city much more conservative, much less tolerant, much more a place of paranoia." He lived in New York for 11 years -- including during 9/11 and its aftermath -- before coming to Berlin in 2004 for a fellowship at the American Academy. "Some of the things that I did in New York would now be completely impossible," he adds, noting that throwing dummies off bridges would likely lead to arrest rather than a review in the New York Times. "Berlin is a much more inspiring place to be an artist," he says -- so much so that he recently signed a five-year lease.

Theorist and environmental architect Peter Fend, who had a studio in the World Trade Center, is another whose decision to leave New York was influenced by 9/11. "My reaction to the whole event was one of immediate anger about US foreign policy," he says. Fend first came to Germany in 1984, and his view of Europe and Berlin, where he has lived for the past two years, is perhaps more pragmatic than most.

"I go where I am welcome," Fend says, voicing his frustration with the New York art world's obsession with making what he mockingly calls "happy art" in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "There's no love for Germany," he says. "There's some appreciation for where we are at but I can't say that I'm loving it. It's just a place to do exile."

But with New York rents rising inexorably, and a growing dissatisfaction both with the current administration and the increasing commercialization of the art world, it seems likely that more and more artists will decide to make the move to Berlin.

And for some at least, the German city has an attraction of its own. "My fantasy growing up was always New York and then Berlin," says Krepfle, a smile spreading across his face.

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