German artist Hans-Jörg Mayer's first survey exhibition at Martos Gallery in New York
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German artist Hans-Jörg Mayer's first survey exhibition at Martos Gallery in New York
Hans-Jörg Mayer, Chimäre, 2007. Oil on linen, 98 3/8 x 66 7/8 in, 250 x 170 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist and Martos Gallery.

NEW YORK, NY.- Martos Gallery opened in November the first survey exhibition of German artist Hans-Jörg Mayer in New York, organized in collaboration with Galerie Nagel Draxler. Featuring paintings spanning three decades, the exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2024.

Hans-Jörg Mayer has continually conceived of art history in his own terms, working through its contents using his own tools. He maintains the romanticism of old masters, while repeating the benefits of modernism. For Mayer, god is Andy Warhol, goddess Isa Genzken. Edvard Munch also maintains a seat at the table.

In keeping with a Pop Art edict, Mayer’s content is largely plucked from cultural objects such as magazines, photographs, cinema, pop songs, advertisements, and the internet. The artist, however, largely elides any static, genre-based authoritarianism. His arsenal of forms and gestures is alternatively mediated by an inner register bent toward expressive brushwork and an earnest disposition, resistant as he is to external directives. Mayer consequently operates between flow state and a lucid awareness of his medium and application.

In a painting like Hänsel und Gretel, he conjures the energies of El Greco; Todos los Santos bears the residues of Max Beckmann’s discomfiting portraiture; The sinuous lines and supine bodies of Dreamers encroach upon Egon Schiele’s aesthetic territory. Christian iconography is also manifest in Mistral, with Bruce Willis at the fore, clutching a fish whose simplistic delineation resembles that of the ichthys. Mayer has been cast as the dramaturg of these peopled scenes. These other worlds that he’s built have direct tethers to our material one, with recognizable objects and conditions cavorting through bewitched landscapes.

The passage of time for Mayer means less information laid out on canvas, and his newer images see the painter challenging perspective by way of white backgrounds, which inevitably complicate space. He often doubles down on a theme, producing series revolving around butterflies, disco balls, clowns, and spiderwebs. Notably, Mayer’s floral paintings contain his knowledge without its overt revelation. These paintings aren’t about history, instead they implicate it naturally as its weight is undeniable within the medium.

In speaking of his renderings of tulips, he briefly mentions the bulbs’ price spike in seventeenth century Holland, though admits that this is merely a sideline concern of his. This motif truthfully emerged during a Berlin winter, when the artist’s disgust toward painting was dashed by a chance encounter with small green blossoming flowers printed in a newspaper. He was moved to visit a local florist who, at that moment, only carried tulips. While he was originally unimpressed by this particular genus, he came to appreciate the tulips’ presence in his home. While recognizing their quotidian nature, Mayer nonetheless submitted to the subject.

Just as his tulips bleed, Mayer’s sunflowers slowly lose their vibrancy. These flora operate as memento mori, despite their initial affirmations of life. Likewise, Mayer’s desire to paint sympathetic zombies recapitulates this friction between death and non-death.


Hans-Jörg Mayer, born in 1955 alongside Southern Germany’s Lake Constance, grew up in a small village without the cultural influence of a nearby metropolis. Instead, the young boy habitually sat perched in front of the television, attuned to imported American series, ones that boasted cowboys and gun-slingers, secret agents and animated comic book heroes. His parents were members of a book club that offered its members a new text every month. For Hans-Jörg, this meant an influx of new material to pour over. One book, however, stood out and came to define his adolescent interests. Lucy Lippard’s Pop Art (World of Art), with its original cover bearing the word “POP” repeated all over in a chic 1970s typeface, initiated a thread that has carried through the artist’s practice. His fixation on the tome was first attributable to its images and, later on, its theoretical conceits.

Flash forward to Hans-Jörg Mayer, the art school student. His time at The Academy of Fine Art, Munich was marked by a strong sense of freedom, taking advantage of studio space rather than lectures. Mayer’s institutional experience was infiltrated by memories from childhood, haunted as he was by days spent in front of the television set. During this time he built his initial aesthetic framework via square format text paintings, leaning into the weight and non-weight of words.

Mayer felt a natural pull to abandon ship after seven years in Munich, aware of its drawbacks and inspired by the promise of Cologne’s burgeoning scene - as well as his soon-to-be dealer there. Daniel Buchholz discovered Mayer’s works while the artist attended university and came to represent him in 1986. As the youngest dealer in Cologne at the time, Buchholz alighted in the milieu and introduced his new artist to its participants, acting as his tour guide for some time.

If Mayer’s Munich was characterized by its youth and music subcultures, his Cologne was entrenched in a new professionalism that the artist recognized as confrontational. By the time he arrived, Die Neue Wilden (The New Wild Ones) were the “town heroes.” Evenings were spent drinking, shouting, and fighting, and artistic self-interest ran amok in the community. While Mayer worked within the neighborhood of this zeitgeist, he didn’t succumb to such fashions. At first, Mayer continued on with the square text paintings, though he eventually developed new bodies of work that were anchored in images of targets and weapon-clad women.

When speaking of his early memories of Mayer, Christian Nagel notes their overlap in Munich, and the artist’s strange attachment to wearing his blue glasses at nightclubs. Though largely rooted in conceptualism, Nagel’s program has always reflected the dealer’s soft spot for painting. Having participated in what was referred to as the “transatlantic love affair” between Germany and New York, he indulged in the former’s stateside corollaries. Mayer and Nagel’s relationship blossomed over time, and the artist eventually moved over to the dealer’s gallery, where he remains nearly four decades later.

After the bubble of painterly energy burst in the late 1980s, the German scene was infected by conceptualism. The shifting tides coincided with Cologne’s increasingly exorbitant cost of living and Mayer’s desire to move on. After meeting Giti Nourbakhsh, he defected to the gallerist’s hub in Berlin. Despite his arrival in 1999, Mayer reveled in the inventive spirit that was sparked earlier in the decade. The ongoing promise and romance was further boosted by the openness between artists and their collaborations. From his new headquarters, Mayer established a revamped painterly vocabulary. He bumped up his compositional scale, despite the smaller size of his apartment. For Mayer, the early aughts saw densely packed vignettes replete with fashion models, images of violence, and languorous figures, marrying forces of beauty and decline.

In recent years, Mayer has pivoted to less defined subjects and their repeatability. Surfers, insects, and flowers are amongst the motifs that the artist explores in an effort to explore his own limits within the medium; Content inevitably liberates form.

Mayer’s works can be found in collections of the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, mumok, Vienna, Museum Brandhorst, Munich, Salon Dahlmann Collection, Berlin, Sammlung Grässlin, St. Georgen, diethARdT Collection, Graz, and Vergez Collection, Buenos Aires.

Solo exhibitions include Hans-Jörg Mayer, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin (2023), Ibiza Rising, Provinz - Editionen (2022), Bochum, and Sweet Distance - Bittere Maronen, nationalmuseum, Berlin (2018). His works have been featured in numerous institutional exhibitions, including Painting 2.0: Expression In the Information Age (2015/16) at MuMoK in Vienna and the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, Captain Pamphile - A Picture Novel In Pieces (2011) at the Falckenberg Collection, Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Make Your Own Life: Artists In & Out of Cologne (2007) at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Miami, and Made In Berlin (2004) at Art Forum Berlin, Berlin.

Martos Gallery
Hans-Jörg Mayer
November 2nd, 2023 - January 6th, 2024

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