Critics’ Picks

KP Brehmer, Korrektur der Nationalfarben, Gemessen an der Vermögensverteilung (Version I) (Correction of the National Colors, Measured by Distribution of Wealth [Version I]), 1970, textile, metal rings, 163 x 80".


KP Brehmer

Hamburger Kunsthalle
March 29–June 23, 2019

Three flags wave in front of Hamburger Kunsthalle. Their colors correspond to those of the German flag but do not quite match in proportion. Instead, these flags function as a diagram depicting the country’s wealth distribution: The barely visible red line represents the property holdings of those in the lowest-income brackets; the thin black stripe, the holdings of the middle class; and the fat yellow block, those of the big finance classes. This work, Korrektur der Nationalfarben (Correction of the National Colors), 1970, launches KP Brehmer’s extensive exhibition. According to a recent study conducted by the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the distribution of wealth in German society remains especially unequal.

From the early 1960s until his death in 1997, Brehmer developed a politico-enlightenment practice that involved investigating the economic and psychosocial relations of the Western capitalist welfare state. He appropriated the modes of statistical measurement and representational forms of diagrams, charts, and graphs, collapsing them into the visual language of Constructivism or Pop art. In the series “Seele und Gefühl eines Arbeiters” (The Soul and Feeling of a Worker), 1978–81, he takes on a 1932 sociological study by Rexford B. Hersey that recorded the psychological state of workers laboring on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 1900s. Brehmer translated this data into a compositional grid, oriented by time on its horizontal axis and by the workers’ psychological states on the vertical. From there, he developed diagrams and musical compositions that transposed the emotional life of workers into what resembles Constructivist images and experimental music.

Before Mark Fisher titled his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? to describe the normalization of neoliberal imperatives, Brehmer, together with Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Konrad Lueg, chose Kapitalistischen Realismus as the name for their predominantly performative collaborations in West Berlin from 1963 to 1966. Brehmer’s prophetic critiques of everyday life in postwar West Germany are all too timely today, when the capitalist machinery continues to teeter dangerously and threaten everything in its path.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.