It's a crisp, sunny morning in Leipzig, and I'm on my way to Plagwitz, the heart of Leipzig's emerging art scene. As my taxi heads west from the Zentrum (city center), Gothic bell towers and Renaissance spires speed past my window and are soon replaced by classic prewar apartment buildings and empty Soviet-era housing blocks with peeling paint, broken windows, and graffiti-covered walls—all remnants of the city's darker days under Communism. My destination, the Spinnerei, is a soot-covered complex of turn-of-the-19th-century brick cotton mills that now houses artists' studios, galleries, and cafés. A small crowd of hip twentysomethings sits outside the building's entrance, sipping cappuccinos in the pale sunlight.
Welcome to the new Leipzig. Like London during the reign of the YBA's (Young British Artists) in the 1990's and Cologne in the 1980's, this stately Saxon city in the former East Germany is the center of an important artistic movement: the Leipzig School of neorealist painters and photographers trained at the city's esteemed Academy of Visual Art. The work of artists such as Tim Eitel, Martin Eder, Ulf Puder, Tilo Baumgärtel, Martin Kobe, and Neo Rauch, the group's éminence grise, has been called the first bona fide artistic phenomenon of the 21st century. It hasn't taken long for art-savvy travelers to put Leipzig—a city of just half a million—on their itineraries. During a big opening weekend last spring, flashy convertibles with license plates from Italy and the Czech Republic lined the Spinnerei parking lot—as collectors from Korea and the United States arrived at the Leipzig-Halle Airport in private jets.
Though the neorealists are receiving most of the buzz, not all of Leipzig's artists toe that particular aesthetic line. Leipzig-born Christiane Baumgartner, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London, is garnering praise for her large-scale woodblock prints, made from photographs and video stills. Uwe Kowski, who trained at the Leipzig Academy in the eighties, creates messy, textured abstractions. And the stark, hypnotic color prints of photographer Frank Mädler, another Academy grad, are worlds apart from Rauch's unsettling and graphic canvases.
Still, it's the neorealist superstars who have put the city on the art world's radar screen. Rauch's paintings hang in the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in the Centre Pompidou in Paris; big-shot collectors Michael Ovitz, Eli Broad, and Mera and Don Rubell buy his work. "Neo single-handedly brought a lot of attention to Leipzig," says New York gallery owner David Zwirner, who represents Rauch. Rauch also shows in Berlin and, of course, Leipzig, at Galerie Eigen + Art, the influential gallery founded by Gerd Harry Lybke.
"Leipzig is younger, more outside the mainstream than Berlin," says Lybke, a talkative, charismatic character who goes by the nickname Judy. (As a boy, he resembled Jody, the red-headed twin on the sixties American television show Family Affair; Leipzigers mistakenly pronounced the name "Judy.") Lybke founded Eigen + Art in his apartment in 1983, during the waning years of the German Democratic Republic, and is now the undisputed leader of the local art scene; other gallerists want to be where he is. So when he moved Eigen + Art to its new space in Spinnerei, in April 2004, others followed. The complex currently has nine commercial galleries; two nonprofit spaces; Halle 14, a venue for experimental, site-specific installations; and roughly 80 studios where architects, ad agencies, glassblowers, and artists, including Kowski, Johannes Tiepelmann, and Rauch, have set up shop. The latest addition to the Spinnerei scene is an unlikely one: a satellite of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based Pierogi gallery. Owner Joe Amrhein, himself an artist, found it cheaper to open a gallery here and commute from New York to Leipzig every two months than to pay upward of $20,000 a month for a space in Manhattan's Chelsea.
Leipzig's evolution is a familiar tale of art and real estate. Artists flock to where they can find cheap apartments and studios, energize the neighborhood, and eventually get priced out as rents soar. It has happened in New York's SoHo, London's East End, even Williamsburg. But in Leipzig's case, it's an entire city attracting a creative class—and so far the city is still affordable. After Germany's reunification in 1990, many easterners headed west in search of higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, investors from West Germany came east to Leipzig in search of business opportunities, as cheap rents and the world-class art school drew the artists, including Eitel, David Schnell, and Mattias Weischer. "Once, artists would come here to study, then move to Berlin. But now they stay, because it's so much more affordable. And you can be in Berlin in less than two hours," says Mädler. "In London, New York, or even Berlin, you can be rich and still not find spaces like this," Lybke says, gesturing at the lofty environs beyond the brick walls of his gallery. "There is more room here, literally and metaphorically, for creating art."