Features » Art


The artist and his doctor

Jan Brandt visits artist Jörg Immendorff - who keeps painting despite being unable to move his hands - and his doctor, ALS specialist Thomas Meyer

The painter's hands have grown clumsy and heavy, too heavy to hold a brush. They lie placidly on his thighs, two tools that broke one after the other. But the artist Jörg Immendorff still paints on, working on several paintings at a time. He paints on without his hands, as if the illness that paralyses his muscles could not harm him. He paints for his life, against time, the time he has left.

Jörg Immendorff, Solo, 1988. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

Jörg Immendorff – born in 1945 in Blekede near Lüneburg, son of a soldier and a secretary, student of Joseph Beuys, boxer, art rebel and coke-head, secondary school teacher, professor and father of a five-year-old daughter – is a man with white hair and a white beard. A plastic tube protrudes from his throat for the respirator to which he is attached when he lies in his bed at night and in the afternoons. But now he is sitting in his studio, a high, bright room on the second floor of a disused thread factory, not far from Düsseldorf railway station. His wheelchair is like a mobile command chair, from which he directs seven assistants, giving them instructions about how the drawings they create together on the computer screen are to be transferred to the canvases. Seven pairs of hands to carry out his will, and because they have a will of their own he has to tame them with words.

Gyntiana: Birth/Onion Man, 1992. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

It almost seems as if he had premonitions about how things would turn out, or as if this way of painting was the logical consequence of his self-critical art. At the beginning of his career, in 1966, he wrote the title "Stop Painting" across a picture. And almost 20 years later, in the mid-1980s, black apes suddenly appear in his works as doppelgängers, alien beings changing and overpainting everything – and now populating his studio. "The positive thing is that my personal sensibilities don't play a role any more," he says, before an assistant puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it, before be breathes in and out again, exhales the smoke and continues speaking in that subdued, monotonous voice: "If I get better, which is a possibility, although a remote one, I certainly wouldn't want to change the method. But it's a fact that I'm sick. That's nothing sensational. You have to deal with it. And that means fighting it, that's clear too. There are certain independent things I simply don't have any more, like taking a shower, walking round the block, which I miss terribly."

Door to The Sun, 1994. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

It was in summer 1998, during a holiday on Fuerteventura with his wife Oda Jaune – 34 years his junior – he felt for the first time that something was wrong. Again and again he lost hold of the pencil while drawing sketches for new sculptures and paintings with his left hand. Back in Germany he went to his GP, then to a neurologist in Neuss, who said it was a rare, fatal condition called ALS, and gave him two years to live and some pills that didn't really help, and sent him away again without ever examining him properly.

ALS is the abbreviation for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the unstoppable partial degeneration of the central nervous system. The cells in the brain and spinal cord that control the muscles decay. Nobody knows why. The unusual thing about ALS is that thinking is not impaired and the effects do not show up tomographically – unlike most of the other neurological conditions. Depending on the type of ALS and the course it takes, the arm and leg muscles, the tongue, the larynx and the diaphragm atrophy at some point.

Society of Deficiency, 1990. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

The body falls into a deep sleep. But the intellect remains sharp as ever.

As in the case of the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, the Russian composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, the Polish professional footballer Krzysztof Nowak, the physicist Stephen Hawking. As in 600,000 cases across the world, 6,000 of them in Germany alone. Not enough to obtain financial backing for a proper scientific investigation, whether from the big pharmaceuticals corporations, the German research council or the Ministry of Education and Research.

Jörg Immendorff has no time to wait until some institution or other comes to his aid. That is why he went to a miracle healer in the Brazilian jungle. That is why he had cells from aborted foetuses injected into his brain in Beijing. And that is why he travelled in autumn 2002 to Berlin to visit Thomas Meyer, one of the few German ALS experts, and in January 2004 founded together with Meyer a foundation for research into ALS at Berlin's Charité teaching hospital. As well as Meyer's expertise, Immendorf values his "radical openness" and "plain-spoken manner". He says he trusts him unconditionally.

All's Well That Ends Well, 1983. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

It was Thomas Meyer who was able to verify the initial diagnosis that Jörg Immendorff had ALS. It was Meyer who advised him on 23 November 2005 to go onto artificial respiration – after he had been taken to hospital suffering from acute breathing difficulties. It is he who Immendorf will ask to switch off the machine when he's had enough.

Thomas Meyer, born in 1967 in East Berlin, son of a phoneticist and a translator, is poet and neurologist, head of the ALS clinic, head doctor in ward 7 B at the Charité hospital, father of an eight-year-old daughter. His office with the number 0.1194 is plain: two chairs, a couch, a filing cabinet, a desk at which he sits in his white coat, bending forward, a microphone in his hand, dictating: "No sensibility disorder, no autonomous disorder." His mobile phone rings. The door opens. His secretary needs a signature, a colleague wants some advice. So the day goes by. On call for the emergency room, visit to wards 7 B and C, special clinic for ALS patients.

A knock on the door. A 40-year-old man comes in, supported on a crutch. He was once a dancer, world champion in formation dancing. He removes a support from his right leg, takes off shirt and trousers, lies down on the couch. He wants to know how long he will still be able to use the arms and hands that Meyer is feeling, tapping with a reflex hammer. "A good while," says Meyer, "more than three years. But the disease will progress."

Cafe Deutschland (Lift/Tremble/Back), 1984. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery

Twenty minutes later a woman pushes her 53-year-old husband into the room in a wheelchair. A year ago he was still working as a pharmacist. Now he is completely paralysed, apart from his eyes.

"If you are not satisfied with this state of affairs," Thomas Meyer tells him, "you have the right to have the respirator switched off."

"We're planning years ahead," says the wife quickly, as if she were unable to bear hearing this thought spoken aloud.

"You should know that there are no legal consequences for passive euthanasia. I'm not proposing anything, but it is my duty to tell you that."

In Germany there are only seven doctors who work on ALS as intensely as Meyer. And he is the final instance when it comes to the right diagnosis, the right therapy, studies and experiments. Since he was a student he has been looking for the cause of ALS and trying to fight the illness. But a drug trial costs three million euros. And it takes a long time for him to raise the money from sponsors and donors like Jörg Immendorff. So far no pill has resulted, just a few hypotheses – and the astonishing fact that his patients include a conspicuous number of academics, sportsmen and women, and artists, gifted, high-earning, restless people, driven by their visions and fears, unable to take a break. "These are active people who use their motor system non-stop," says Thomas Meyer. "People who have more drive than others."

Untitled, 2006. © Jörg Immendorff, courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Köln & New York

Maybe too much. What is it like? How does it feel to be imprisoned in your own body? Unable to move? Slowly becoming paralysed? As if freezing to death while remaining fully conscious?

In 1998 a small Berlin publishing house brought out Thomas Meyer's volume of poetry, "deutsche am pol" (Germans at the Pole), 21 shockingly tight poems about his time doing military service in the East German army, and about dying. Short, chilly texts in which the "coldheart grows" and a land and its people are taken unawares, word at a time, by snow and ice, until everything comes to a standstill. With hindsight some of the lines seem like fitting images for the medically inexplicable: "the engines expire first. The column of breath hisses over the Germans, who solidify before they understand."

It is his only literary book publication to date, and will probably remain so. He does not have the time, the distance from the everyday hustle and bustle, needed for poetry to come. He has chosen medicine – not rejected art - even if he no longer appears as a poet himself. Now he uses contact with artists for spectacular events to draw attention to ALS and help promote research.

Untitled, 2006. © Jörg Immendorff, courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Köln & New York

In Christoph Schlingensief's play "Kunst und Gemüse, A. Hipler" (Art and Vegetables, A. Hipler) a paralysed patient of Meyer's projected messages onto the wall of the Berliner Volksbühne theatre using her eyes to control a computer. He advised the actress Veronica Ferres when she played an ALS patient in the ZDF TV film "Sterne leuchten auch am Tag" (Stars also shine by day). And he was there when Immendorf staged a private auction in his studio, raising 520,000 euros by selling pictures of his own and works by Yoko Ono, Jonathan Meese and Katharina Sieverding.

Every four or five weeks he flies to Düsseldorf. He sees Jörg Immendorff more often than any other patient, because as well as speaking about ALS they also discuss plans, projects, new initiatives.

Here in the studio, far from the hospital, among paintings and sculptures, Thomas Meyer wears a black shirt and a grey jacket. He seems like a friend visiting a friend, asking how things are going, why Immendorff was unable to go in person on October 7 to collect the Goslar Kaiser Ring – one of the biggest international art prizes.

Untitled, 2006. © Jörg Immendorff, courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Köln & New York

"I had the early stages of pneumonia and had to get better properly. I spent two weeks in bed. I didn't want to expose myself to any additional risks."

"Otherwise you would have taken part?"

"I don't know. Because I have to travel with a whole entourage, with the artificial respirator team, because now there's the suction business on top of that and the whole toilet procedure. Those are mundane things that don't exactly add to the fun of a trip like that, so I'm not really so keen to go."

They speak about life and death, about the new discovery of a protein, TDP-43, that is involved in causing ALS, and about how it could be decades before a cure is found.

And then, around midday, when the light refracts through the windows, they come to speak of future plans.

"There will be a benefit concert in November," says Thomas Meyer. "An internationally renowned string quartet will play in Wiesbaden Museum to raise money for us, and now I thought maybe we could ask Veronica Ferres to come along too. The question is whether that makes sense from your perspective?"

Immendorff sits there unmoving, listens, turns his head to the right for an assistant to put a cigarette in his mouth. He takes a drag, blows the smoke out, answers: "Veronica Ferres is one of my most loyal friends, I don't want to ask too much of her." It sounds like he wants to put off further questions, as if he has already talked enough, especially about his illness, as if he has to get on with the important things, with painting. Thomas Meyer says "OK", gets up and takes his leave. And the assistant pushes Jörg Immendorff back to the desk, to the as yet invisible pictures.


See our feature "The art of the ape" on Immendorff's recent exhibition in Berlin.

The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on November 13, 2006.

Jan Brandt is a freelance author and journalist.

Translation: Meredith Dale. - let's talk european