Christine Mehring

  • FRANZ WEST

    For decades, Franz West’s garish biomorphic sculptures, profane furniture­-cum-art, and irreverent participatory displays have been ubiquitous on the global contemporary art circuit. Following the Austrian artist’s death six years ago, and subsequent legal disputes over his estate, this retrospective promises to pause and take stock, to look at West’s art closely and assess it from an art-­historical distance. The curatorial duo taking on the task is poised to deliver: Christine Macel programmatically placed artistic practice back at the center of the

  • CAR CULTURE: WOLF VOSTELL’S CONCRETE TRAFFIC

    I’VE NEVER FELT such a rush of excitement as when I first saw Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic, 1970, one summer day in 2011. There it was: a vintage Cadillac encased in a massive shell of concrete, sitting in an industrial wasteland on Chicago’s West Side, ceding its precarious nature as art even further to dirt and moss built up along the passenger and driver sides, patches obtrusively mismatched and I-beam crutches crudely pushed underneath its chassis—irredeemable, one imagines, even to the entropic vision of Robert Smithson. And yet this was unquestionably a twin of the German Fluxus

  • “Call to Action: Franz Erhard Walther”

    Despite Walther’s studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s, a hotbed of European artistic talent that bred classmates such as Gerhard Richter; despite his subsequent four-year immersion in New York City, similar to stays that propelled fellow Germans such as Hanne Darboven to statewide institutional recognition; and despite his participation in seminal shows, including the Museum of Modern Art’s “Spaces” in 1969 and Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972, North America has still been slow to recognize Walther’s significance for the expansion of painting,

  • SHOCK VALUE: SIGMAR POLKE’S 1976 RETROSPECTIVE IN DÜSSELDORF

    PAINTINGS STILL WRAPPED in shipping materials and photographs strewn across the floor; a gate blocking access to key works; an exhibition design revolving around an outrageous invocation of the Holocaust: It is unlikely that such provocations could ever take place in a museum today. Yet each of these elements was sardonically deployed by Sigmar Polke in a midcareer survey, or antisurvey, of his work at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1976. Curated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh but with an installation entirely designed by Polke, the Düsseldorf exhibition subjected the legendary artist’s own history and that of Germany to entropic unravelings and protean reconfigurations. Four years after Polke’s death and on the eve of the long-awaited, major monographic show “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” which opens April 19 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, art historian Christine Mehring reconsiders this little-known episode, illuminating some of the most confounding aspects of a prodigious, labile body of work that both invites and defies the retrospective impulse.

    SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1970S, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh approached Sigmar Polke about curating the German artist’s first retrospective. He was firmly rebuffed. To the thirtysomething Polke, a retrospective was tantamount to a “gravestone,”1 not so much marking accomplishment as signaling the end of an artist’s prime. But Polke eventually agreed to present a Werkauswahl (selection of works) on the condition that he be involved in choosing the objects and be in charge of the hanging. Buchloh therefore did not think twice when the artist requested a carpenter to assist him with the final

  • the Judd Foundation’s 101 Spring Street

    CHRISTINE MEHRING

    SOME TWENTY YEARS after purchasing 101 Spring Street in November 1968, Donald Judd recalled thinking at the time that “the building should be repaired and basically not changed. It is a nineteenth-century building.” This attitude marked Judd as a collector of architecture, as it were, for he acquired buildings not only to use them but also to draw attention to their historical value and preserve their material and spatial qualities. Whether authored designs (such as 101 Spring Street, which was completed by architect Nicholas Whyte in 1870) or vernacular structures (such as the

  • “For the Time Being”

    The Lascaux caves prove wall painting to be civilization’s most durable art form. But in the modern era, which freed art from its ritual context and made it into a circulating commodity, wall painting became an ephemeral medium, as the title of these joint exhibitions suggests. Complicating that premise, the two shows will include newly commissioned temporary wall works by such artists as Arturo Herrera and Karin Sander as well as reconstructions by key practitioners of the medium, such as Lawrence Weiner and Blinky Palermo. The hosting institutions promise both

  • “Franz West: Wo ist mein Achter?”

    “Few artists have as radically collapsed the presentation of their art with its making and meaning as Franz West.”

    Few artists have as radically collapsed the presentation of their art with its making and meaning as Franz West. His installations, which combine furniture, designed wall segments, or complete rooms with “artworks” proper (his own or those of historical figures or contemporaries), insist on the inseparability (the shared formal vocabulary and shared contexts) of art, design, and their display. Centered on these so-called Kombi-Werke, this exhibition, “Where is my Eight,” which was conceived with the artist before his passing this summer and is cocurated

  • “Wols: Die Retrospektive”

    “The discrepancy between Wols’s reputation in Europe and stateside is hard to overestimate.”

    The discrepancy between Wols’s reputation in Europe and stateside is hard to overestimate. A household name there, the French-German Informel artist Wolfgang Schulze (1913–1951) long stood as proof that New York had not stolen the idea of modern art. In the United States, he at best remained obscure, at worst was belittled by the likes of Donald Judd, who issued this jab: “Most Americans, critics and painters alike, are not even sufficiently impressed by Wols’s threat to Pollock’s position to be interested in the argument.” With his first comprehensive

  • “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”

    “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925” will be—surprisingly—the first large-scale survey of its kind at MoMA (the very bastion of modernism) since Alfred Barr’s “Cubism and Abstract Art” in 1936.

    It’s been one hundred years since Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian abandoned the depiction of objects in the world. With due fanfare, the Museum of Modern Art will reexamine the beginnings of abstraction, at once marking the centennial of that watershed moment and inadvertently reminding us of the subsequent backlash, as “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925” will be—surprisingly—the first large-scale survey of its kind at MoMA (the very bastion of modernism) since Alfred Barr’s “Cubism and Abstract Art” in 1936. Marshaling four hundred works, both

  • “Histories in Conflict: Haus der Kunst and the Ideological Uses of Art, 1937–1955”

    These days, most young artists from Germany have shed the “German artist” label that for decades confined their art to an Adornian working through of the past. Perhaps no institution better embodies the con- straints of German memory culture than Munich’s Haus der Kunst, completed in 1937 as a leading example of National Socialist architecture and a showcase for yearly Great German Art Exhibitions. What can possibly, responsibly, relevantly be shown in its halls today? Reflecting Okwui Enwezor’s recent appointment as director, the upcoming exhibition “

  • Hans-Peter Feldmann

    In 1972, as Hans-Peter Feldmann’s work first garnered international attention at Documenta 5, Avalanche asked the German artist a series of questions.

    In 1972, as Hans-Peter Feldmann’s work first garnered international attention at Documenta 5, Avalanche asked the German artist a series of questions.

    In response, the magazine received nothing but photographs. For example, in reply to “What do you consider one of the most important aspects of your work?” they received a picture of a weary, dreary ’50s crowd passing a billboard beauty. The interview was never published in Avalanche, but such refusal of the verbal evidences the uncompromising commitment to the

  • Blinky Palermo and “If you lived here, you’d be home by now

    BLINKY PALERMO’S LOVE for America has long gone unrequited. The German painter’s art was inaccessible for decades on this side of the Atlantic, save for small commercial-gallery surveys and the Dia Art Foundation’s holdings of certain significant works. This despite Palermo’s embrace of American culture, from Thelonious Monk to Barnett Newman, and his resulting move to New York in 1973; despite his legendary status among painters who have come of age in the US since then, from David Reed to Julian Schnabel to Wade Guyton; and, most shockingly, despite Palermo’s momentous gifts to these American

  • PUBLIC OPTIONS: THE ART OF CHARLOTTE POSENENSKE

    CHARLOTTE POSENENSKE IS A MIRROR TO OUR BAD CONSCIENCE. In May 1968—as the revolutionary ambitions of the ’60s reached their pinnacle—the thirty-seven-year-old West German artist expressed her struggle to reconcile her artistic practice with her political convictions: “I find it difficult to accept that art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems,” she wrote in the Switzerland-based Art International.¹ A year and a half later, she issued a less equivocal statement, tartly declining to submit a proposal for an art project in a public-housing development in Bielefeld, West

  • Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1943-1977

    Artists and critics wax rhapsodic about
    Blinky Palermo, but a deep understanding of his work is only beginning to emerge.

    Artists and critics wax rhapsodic about

    Blinky Palermo, but a deep understanding of his work is only beginning to emerge. His no fewer than six posthumous European surveys, excepting a resolute and spectacular 2007 retrospective in Düsseldorf, have not done Palermo any favors, confining him to the dubious role of distinctly German quasi-Expressionist. Dia’s stunning holdings of the late Metal Pictures Palermo made in New York City, together with catalogue contributions by curator Lynne Cooke, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Suzanne Hudson, and others, promise an American perspective

  • Thomas Bayrle

    After mounting retrospectives of the work of Lothar Baumgarten, Öyvind Fahlström, Robert Filliou, Blinky Palermo, and Antoni Tàpies, MACBA now gives Thomas Bayrle a turn.

    Few museums have done as much to put Europe on the map of postwar art as MACBA. After mounting retrospectives of the work of Lothar Baumgarten, Öyvind Fahlström, Robert Filliou, Blinky Palermo, and Antoni Tàpies, MACBA now gives Thomas Bayrle a turn. Since the early 1960s, the Frankfurt-based artist has been obsessed with the notion of “the mass”—a discrete unit repeated numerous times in a work. The informal continuity of his oeuvre’s relentless repetitions makes pointedly disconcerting equivalents of disparate iconographic sources—whether drawn from consumerist or

  • TOOLS OF ENGAGEMENT: THE ART OF FRANZ WEST

    OVER THE PAST two decades, FRANZ WEST has gained renown for his boundary-blurring installations of sculpture, furniture, and their perplexing mongrel offspring. Less well known, however, are the Austrian artist’s formative efforts within the fervent Viennese cultural scene of the late 1960s and early ’70s, where he forged the participatory aesthetic and unassuming political tactics that have made him a touchstone for future generations. On the occasion of West’s first US retrospective, opening this month at the Baltimore Museum of Art, art historian CHRISTINE MEHRING unearths these roots and explores their relevance to West’s ongoing polymorphous production.

    ON JUNE 7, 1968, the crowd in Lecture Hall 1 of the University of Vienna’s New Institute Building was treated to an evening of “Art and Revolution,” consisting of writer Oswald Wiener’s lecture on the relationship between language and thought, as well as less decorous displays of onstage nudity, vomiting, and urination. These stunts, courtesy of Wiener’s Viennese Actionist pals, later led an outraged public to dub the legendary event the Uni-Ferkelei (campus mess or ribaldry), while the authorities charged participant Günter Brus with defecating and masturbating during a rendition of the national

  • “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective”

    Martin Kippenberger’s first retrospective in the United States provides a much-needed opportunity for a truly art-historical assessment. What in his work goes beyond mere irony, and what aesthetic or conceptual substance remains at a temporal, cultural, and personal distance from its fervent emergence?

    Few postwar artists have proved as fiercely contested yet captivatingly elusive as the German Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997). The myth that has grown around his life and art operates at the intersection between the artist’s provocative persona, nomadic restlessness, and addictive habits, on the one hand, and, on the other, a seemingly bottomless oeuvre that encompasses not only “works” in every conceivable medium but also his activities as a curator, collector, organizer, and scenester. In recent years this myth has threatened to eclipse—or become—the art itself, as a

  • EMERGING MARKET: THE BIRTH OF THE CONTEMPORARY ART FAIR

    WITH THEIR RELENTLESS EMPHASIS on the new and the now, it is perhaps fitting that the origin of today’s rapidly multiplying contemporary art fairs has, at least on this side of the Atlantic, disappeared into the dustbin of history. When and where, even, was the first contemporary art fair of the kind, for better or worse, so familiar to us all? It was held not in Miami, or in New York, or even in Basel, but in Cologne. And from the moment KUNSTMARKT 67 opened its doors on September 13, 1967, it inaugurated a model that remains surprisingly close to its current successors, which so often trumpet

  • MASS APPEALS: THE ART OF THOMAS BAYRLE

    ON THE NIGHT of April 11, 1968, Thomas Bayrle and two friends, Bernhard Jäger and Uve Schmidt, were busy in a basement print shop in Frankfurt, producing a poster of German student leader Rudi Dutschke. Earlier that afternoon, Dutschke, the prime mover behind the West German Extraparliamentary Opposition, known by the acronym APO, had been shot by a presumed right-wing extremist. The poster responded directly to the three bullets that were fired: the revolution does not die from lead poisoning! At that moment, however, it was not clear that Dutschke would live. (He did, although complications

  • THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

    ELEVEN SCHOLARS, CRITICS, AND ARTISTS CHOOSE THE YEAR’S OUTSTANDING TITLES.

    JOHN BALDESSARI

    Kierkegaard once said that his goal in writing was to make life difficult for people. I read Edward Said’s On Late Style (Pantheon) because its title suggested that it might offer insights into my life’s pursuit of trying to understand art. The subtitle of the book is Music and Literature Against the Grain. The photo of Said on the back cover shows his shirt collar slightly askew, which I chose to understand as an unintended message.

    There are no artists (in the narrow sense) discussed, but the book contains