Sophie von Hellermann
Born in 1975, in Munich, Germany. Education: Studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1993-98; earned graduate fine-arts degree from the Royal College of Art, London, 2001.
Addresses: Agent —c/o Greene Naftali Gallery, 526 West 26th St., New York, NY 10001.
Co-founder of Hobbypop artists' collective, in Düsseldorf, Germany, c. 1998; first solo exhibition at the Charles Saatchi Gallery, London, England, 2001; works first shown in the United States at the Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2001.
Sophie von Hellermann emerged as one of the art world's newest stars not long after she finished her graduate degree at London's Royal College of Art in 2001. Since a highly publicized solo exhibition of her paintings at art collector Charles Saatchi's London gallery, von Hellermann has won seemingly equal amounts acclaim and disdain from critics. Of one of her shows, the Independent 's Sue Hubbard claimed von Hellermann's "paintings look like the work of an enthusiastic ten-year-old let loose with a big brush." Hubbard asserted, "Depending on your point of view, they are either invigoratingly immediate and fresh, or merely shallow and incompetent."
Von Hellermann was born in Munich, Germany, in 1975. Her father was a nuclear physicist, and her mother an art historian. The family relocated to the British university town of Oxford when von Heller-mann was nine. She entered the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1993, and in 1999 went on to London's prestigious Royal College of Art for a graduate fine-arts degree. The earliest exhibits of her work came during her college years, including a group show in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1999, and another at the Taylor Gallery in London a year later.
During her time in Düsseldorf, von Hellermann fell in with a group of similarly young, iconoclastic German painters and musicians, and they began working collaboratively under the name "Hobbypop." They began staging multimedia art installations that drew heavily from ironic references to contemporary culture. One of their most press-worthy events was a fake exhibition of paintings signed with the names "Ulrike" and "Andreas." The works were done by von Hellermann and fellow Hobbypop artist Markus Vater, under the pretense that a pair of infamous German terrorists—Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, who carried out a left-wing, anti-capitalism campaign against West German institutions before their deaths in custody in the mid-1970s—survived into middle age and took up painting. "Everyone played at being terrorists when I was young," von Hellermann explained to Alison M. Gingeras in an Artforum article about the group's fascination with the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Von Hellermann graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2001. The school's student show was reviewed by Adrian Searle for the Guardian, who offered some of the first positive comments on her style. "I like Sophie von Hellermann's very northern European paintings: their dryness, controlled looseness, and tart palette put me in mind of Edvard Munch," Searle asserted. Later that year von Hellermann generated a fair amount of art-world buzz when a gallery owned by Charles Saatchi mounted a solo show of her new paintings. Saatchi had made his fortune in advertising, and used it to acquire one of the world's best collection of modern and contemporary art in private hands. He was also known for his generous support of emerging young British artists, like Damien Hirst, whose works reenergized the London art scene in the 1990s.
Von Hellermann had two other shows in 2001, one in Cologne, Germany, and the other at the Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles. In 2002, she took part in the much-discussed group show at Paris's Centre Pompidou, Cher Peintre ("Dear Painter"). Included in the figurative painting exhibition were works by Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke, and John Currin, among many other already-established names. An Artforum review by writer Kate Bush called her work "breathlessly brushy," and the critic went on to remark, "while it is relatively easy to forge an offbeat style, it's another thing to come up with one that is conceptually dense."
A fair amount of critical derision has dogged von Hellermann's work since that Saatchi Gallery event. She paints on untreated canvases, using acrylics and large brushes, using a stain technique that requires a certain amount of speed. Her subjects often draw upon pop-culture references, such as the one-name German chanteuse Nico, who sang with the Velvet Underground and appeared in Andy Warhol's underground movies of the 1960s. After retreating into substance abuse, Nico died in 1988 in questionable circumstances on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. Von Hellermann painted a number of works that paid homage to the iconic singer, which were shown at the Vilma Gold Gallery in London in 2004 in a show titled On the Ground.
In the spring of 2005, von Hellermann had her first solo show in the United States art-world epicenter of New York City, at the Greene-Naftali Gallery. The paintings from Goddess in the Doorway, as the exhibit was titled, honored the centenary of Albert Einstein's breakthrough theory of relativity in 1905. "I was reading about how Einstein was thinking about particles in space moving, bumping off each other," von Hellermann explained to New York magazine writer Karen Rosenberg, but she also said she became deeply interested in the scientist's personal life when reading a collection of letters between him and his wife. She imagined a muse of sorts for Einstein, and many of the canvases in the show feature a comely blonde figure.
Once again, critical assessment was mixed. Writing in the New York Times, Ken Johnson called her latest group of paintings both "beguiling and irritating," remarking they "look sketchy and underfinished, or to a sympathetic eye, fresh and spontaneous." Von Hellermann refrains from entering into a dialogue with critics over the merits of her work. When Vogue writer Dodie Kazanjian asked what sends her into her studio every day, she replied that "I'm always hoping that one day I'll paint the painting that's completely fresh." Kazanjian chose von Hellermann as one of several artists whose specifically commissioned works would be installed in a new gallery at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2006.
Saatchi Gallery Presents Sophie von Hellermann, London, 2001.
Vusering Hites, Vilma Gold, London, 2001.
Sophie von Hellermann, Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles, 2001.
Sophie von Hellermann, Linn Lühn Gallery, Cologne, Germany, 2001, 2003.
On the Ground, Vilma Gold, London, 2004.
A Perfect Spy, Vacío 9 Gallery, Madrid, Spain, 2004.
Goddess in the Doorway, Greene-Naftali Gallery, New York City, 2005.
Die Serie, Galerie 102, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1998.
What You Buy is Your Problem, Fons Welters, Amsterdam, 1999.
Trouble Spot Painting, MUHKA/NICC, Antwerp, Belgium, 1999.
Spiel des Lebens, Ehemaliges Hauptpostgebaeude, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1999.
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, 2000.
Furore, hobbypopMUSEUM at Vilma Gold, London, 2000.
Painting Gives Me Pleasure, hobbypopMUSEUM at Artagents, Hamburg, 2000.
Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys on the Life of the People, Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London, 2001.
Cher Peintre, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2002.
Art and Mountains, The Alpine Club, London, 2003.
Mothers, Oh!, Art, London, 2004.
POSTmoDERN, Greene Naftali Gallery, New York City, 2005.
Artforum, October 2002; March 2004.
Guardian (London, England), July 10, 2001; January 17, 2004, p. 37.
Independent (London, England), January 27, 2004, p. 15.
Independent Sunday (London, England), October 21, 2001, p. 9.
New York, May 23, 2005.
New York Times, December 7, 2003; June 10, 2005, p. E44.
Vogue, April 2005, p. 224.
— Carol Brennan