Collector Box

#2 Thomas Bayrle

In the mass, like in nature, no two things are ever alike.


“In Nature, no two things are alike. The same is true for mass’. Each thing has a life of its own. Individuality and mass do not stand in contradiction. Nature produces both mass and individuality. And we are part of Nature.“ Thomas Bayrle, 2015

Thomas Bayrle is a German artist. His pictures, graphic works, sculptures and objects, closely related to Pop Art, have brought him international recognition. His work also includes room installations, digital media and video films.

Thomas Bayrle. Working method and understanding of art

“I tried to come up with a naïve image of the mechanics behind the masses” ( Thomas Bayrle, 1999)

Prior to his studies in art, Thomas Bayrle trained as a weaver. Looking now at his artistic work, we cannot fail to recognise the links. After training as a Jacquard weaver (1957-1959), he no longer worked  directly at the loom, but transferred the technical and creative modus operandi of weaving on to his artistic concept and method.

Thus associations from weaving, such as warp and weft and the relation to surface, to horizontal reality, are important in his work – in contrast to verticality, which, as he says, means little to him. Through Jacquard weaving, he very soon understood the programming of machines; this was to become extremely important for his artistic work, and is evident in many of his fabric collages and objects.

Accordingly, since 1966 he has used the resources of artistic collage to weave individual images into an overall picture, into what he terms a superform. Hundreds of tiny aeroplanes make up one gigantic aeroplane picture; hundreds of individual flowers form a dancer; and a collage of many tiny beer glasses reveals one large beer glass.

His collages are often based on  images and icons from industrial mass production and the brand world. He uses clear, almost garish colours, with cheerful or humorous motifs, so that at first glance the works appear to focus on formal and aesthetic appeal. For this reason, his works are often classified as Pop Art, which in the 1960s – as a counter-movement to Existential Expressionism – became  one of the decisive forms of expression. Here, too, motifs from advertising, everyday culture, the consumer world and the mass media are used, so that Bayrle – together with Sigmar Polke – is regarded by many as a pioneer of German and European Pop Art.

Within his œuvre, the consistent development of his collages – initially with simple rubber stamps, later using computer programs – reveals a contentual dimension of which Pop Art, seen as apolitical, would not have been considered capable. He is not commenting on society, but simply using his artistic resources.

His major topic is society, its manifestations and the principles by which it functions, its repetitions and variations, the individual and people in the mass – and the wide variety of possible relationships. To return to the weaving image, one could see the textile as an analogy to society in all its broad horizontality and interrelationships. As Bayrle sees it, nature and its concomitant society produce both – mass and individual. But within this there is nothing identical, whether in the mass of society or in the mass production of nature. Each thing is unique, with a life of its own. Thus his interest in mass production, mass consumption and mass communication differs from that of most ideological or economic concepts of mass, where the value of a living being is often determined by its rarity or its capacity for reproduction.

Using simple, direct artistic resources, Bayrle manages to open up new perspectives on social developments and structures, without himself having to react politically. Not without reason has the attention of the art world once again focused on his work in recent years, as the effects of globalised society become increasingly evident. He provides us with metaphors for social and cultural developments and conditions which – without being subject to any propaganda – enable us to reflect on them for ourselves. Thus he fulfils an important social mission for art.

If we consider the almost 50-year period of Bayrle’s artistic work, his œuvre includes far more than the superform collages that made him famous. His early work shows painted machine sculptures that addressed the mass movements of National Socialism, communism, capitalism, and the role of the individual. Later, he made series of sculptures out of woven Autobahnen [motorways; Bahn = length (of fabric)] as symbols of mass transport, with automatically praying machines, engines and car tyres. In his latest group of works, Gerani/Pavesi, the icons of mass transport are linked with religious motifs.

In his works, he deliberately uses techniques and aesthetic approaches taken from production processes in industry and the media, and he was one of the first artists to use digital media for image design – which explains why we find these works so familiar and accessible. Moreover, he sees himself as a participant in the social system, not as an impartial observer. This involvement, perceptible in his works, brings them close to us.

Thomas Bayrle and La Vache qui Rit

“Besides fantastic French design like the Citroën DS 19 or the Michelin Man made of white tyres, even in 1963 I was really taken with the Laughing Cow as a very positive design. Over the years, I’ve always taken it as a symbol of strength, humour and joie de vivre, and used it as a basic element in grids and images, on raincoats and in wallpaper and fabrics.”

Very early on, from 1967, Thomas Bayrle used the brand logo of La Vache qui Rit for his art-works. He found the laughing cow with its cheese-box earrings an original artistic design and, as a popular trademark, sufficiently effective as a basis for some of his first superform collages. One of his best-known works with the laughing cow is the Blaue Kuhtapete / Blue Cow Wallpaper, a wry homage to Andy Warhol’s famous Cow Wallpaper installation. This work, now in the collection of the Groupe Bel, is to be shown at a Pop Art exhibition at the Tate Modern in London in October 2015. From 1967 onwards he used the famous cow design for several portraits and figurines, as well as for a series of raincoats printed with the logo, for everyday use.

The Laughing Cow, wearing round cheese boxes for earrings, in front of stylised mountains. In 1967, this splendid trade-mark suited my artistic intention perfectly: the interest in mass production – mass consumption – mass communication – although of course everything on this earth is unique.“ Thomas Bayrle, 2015

One of his first rubber-stamp motifs was Mädchen / Girl (1967), a little girl’s laughing face, consisting of some 150 cow logos. Interestingly, here Bayrle used the last logo designed by the great illustrator  Benjamin Rabier. This design was also the basis of the motif of Collector’s Box (2015) – rather brighter, in red and blue, but deliberately keeping to the 1960s aesthetics, with a wide red grid giving the peasant girl in the picture a rosy complexion. The mass of cows – a whole herd – is, however, far more individual than it might seem at first glance; some are blue, some red, some spotted. Then this face appears – it is not a drawing, but the eye can make it out. Some people will see the cows first, others the face, and we can alternate between the two views, in an amusing game of perceptions.

Over the course of an almost century-long production history, the logo of La Vache qui Rit, designed by Benjamin Rabier in 1921, has naturally been further developed. Today’s cow is extremely appealing. But the original cow, with its pointed horns and hilarious laugh, was also quite a character. It started out as an ironic Wal-ky-rie, so with the peasant girl on the box and the labels inside, designed like church windows, Bayrle bridges the gap between the long-standing cultural tradition of the Fromageries Bel and the development of the brand over decades, right up to contemporary art. It’s just a question of having the knack.

Bayrle (b.1937 in Berlin) initially trained as an industrial weaver, before studying commercial art, and later graphic reproduction, at the Offenbach School of Arts and Crafts (1958 -1961).  Since the 1960s he has created a comprehensive œuvre comprising objects, graphic works, drawings, collages and films. His works have been exhibited in many international museums and institutions, including Portikus, Frankfurt/Main (1990, 1994); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/Main (2002, 2006); Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2008); Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona and Musée d’art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva (2009). He has also participated in numerous group exhibitions, including three times at documenta, Kassel (1964,1977, 2012), and he has exhibited at many art biennials, including Venice (2003, 2009), Guangzhou (2005), Berlin (2006), Gwangju (2006, 2010), Tbilisi (2007), Sydney (2008) and Busan (2012). The retrospective Thomas Bayrle All-in-One was shown in 2013/14 at four different venues: Wiels, Brussels; MADRE-Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Naples; Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead and Institut d’art contemporain, Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes.

He has received many prizes and awards for his work. 1975 – 2005  he taught at the Frankfurt Städelschule (Academy of Fine Arts), influencing several generations of young artists.  Guest professorships from 1978 onwards have included Tokyo, Osaka, Yamagata, Vienna and Oslo.

By Michael Staab curator of the project The Collector Box