TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1984

OBSESSIVE PICTURES OR OPPOSITION TO THE NORM: NOTEWORTHY ASPECTS OF THE ENGAGED IMAGINATION IN NEW GERMAN ART

THE HUNGER FOR IMAGES1 is international. Far too many people are concerned with channeling the various national forms this imagery assumes into handy categories. In the wake of a falling internationalism which exhausts itself in formalistic, neutral vocabulary, the regions and nations are celebrating. From the land of Nietzsche and Wagner, those misused fathers of German nationalism, a couple of packages have been bundled up—the so-called “Neo-Expressionists” and the so-called “Wild Ones”—and thus carelessly labeled have been sent off on an international success tour. Uncritically and without regard for the serious differences among them, both packages are being treated as standard German fare from the kitchen of the raw, the mythic, the brutal, the sentimental. They are being devoured as the true German cuisine—the German variation on the international intoxication with images, or the joyride beyond (and unconcerned with) the previously acknowledged connections between art and current social contexts.

According to this stereotyped view, anything lacking—at least on the surface—an irrational, mythic, anarchic, violent, sentimental cast cannot be German. But many a once passionate epicure of this myth no longer accepts this as the only way one can imagine the “true German soul.” Happily, the full production of new German art is not at all obedient to this flabby “dictate.” Instead, much new art leaves behind the withdrawal from social contexts associated with image-intoxication; it rejects the identification of the feast of anarchic, unconcerned, masturbatory painterly excesses with German creativity per se as so much hot air.

Without pursuing this vehement diversity of creative directions in depth, I will present here by way of example a number of artists who are equally representative of contemporary artistic production in Germany today. All are artists who, like the so-called “Wild Ones,” are seeking new directions in art by returning to the arsenal of cultural history and who, again like them, use their imaginations less in an analytic than in an intuitive, signifying way. My point is by no means to play the one off against the other, but instead to break down the walls of art writing that have arisen so rapidly and one-sidedly, distorting, even paralyzing our vision, and to overturn the prejudices that surround recent German art.

Wherever and however art arises in the cultural hemisphere of the West, no one disputes the role of the much acclaimed “zeitgeist” in inspiring and succoring creativity. What is disputable, however, is the narrow focus on a single “significant” artistic “answer.” Further, it can hardly be doubted that the early optimism that promised to explode a social context experienced as unsatisfying and life-threatening by infiltrating it with creative ideas has lost momentum among the younger generation. But there is much room to maneuver between a skeptically optimistic commitment to more or less clearly defined spiritual utopias and a complete retreat from social responsibility.

Even if an internationalism of innovation focused on formalisms has given way to a recollection of national and regional identities, it must be noted that the worldwide experience of similar threats and of kindred hopes has had comparable influence on these regionally differentiated dialects. This by no means obscures the observation that significant differences characterize the currently dominant European art scenes—those of Italy and Germany. The roots of these distinguishing characteristics lie, in part, in the ever latent differences between North and South, which certainly leave their marks on the mentalities, and thereby on the art, of these regions. Increasingly, however, the source of these differences can be found in the different sociocultural developments in the two countries. Italy has, right through the present, an unbroken cultural tradition. In Germany, this continuity has been broken, in the realm of ideas and of materials alike.

On the subject of Germany one ought not and cannot overlook the degree to which the cultural reflections of the times since the ’60s have been determined by the Nazi past—which still today remains largely unconfronted—and by the hectic material reconstruction and neglected spiritual renewal that followed. (The primary impulse behind this process was a mindless attempt at self-definition as distinct from the “other” German state, the socialist East.) There is undoubtedly a connection between the current “nationalistic” mood and the simultaneous craving for a German “Expressionism.” But from some German perspectives, this willful mixture of confusion and the craving for affirmation is hardly acceptable.

Not just the present but the whole history of German art in this century arises from a complex potential of energy that exists between the poles of expressive figuration and analytical to contemplative/meditative abstraction—between biting realism and poetic idealism. Not only Expressionism but also the Bauhaus, smithy of international Modernism, is German. Which of these is more in tune with the German soul?

Isn’t it possible that it was precisely the experience of ideological dictates in the Hitler period and the subsequent rigidification of humane socialism into a doctrinaire system in the eastern part of Germany that promoted the decisive, truly creative pluralism of the young and of the newest German art? Neither directions nor trends have been of any real influence, but rather intensely individualistic people like Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, or Jörg Immendorff, to mention but a few of the most outstanding.

If one wished to find a common denominator among the influences on young German artists one could discern at most a shared attitude: an intuitive opposition to the overly organized, dehumanizing tendency of a technocratic civilization which has achieved a truly symptomatic perfection in the Federal Republic of Germany. This opposition, which swings uneasily between retreat from and engagement with social responsibility, is informed to different degrees by contemplative/poetic, ironic/mythic, and expressive/ aggressive, as well as critical/analytical, tendencies.

The focus here will be on a few representative young German artists who share not a format “stylistic” affinity but a conceptual one, in their artistic transformations of the contradiction between human yearnings and social reality. Furthermore, each in his or her own medium accepts the continued existence of socially committed art, and views the response of the creative subject to human utopia—a different response than in the ’70s—from that vantage point.

“One has mixed feelings standing before the figurative works of the artist Felix Droese, works that repeatedly highlight with the greatest simplicity the lack of anything authentic. These images clearly reveal the fact that they come from a time that is still marked largely by consumerism. The signs of wear are unmistakable. And yet the artist lets us know that it’s not yet the end of all days. Life—this is what comes through in these pictures—seems now to insist it can get along without Lebensraum. For single, individual things are holding their own without taking up any space. While still falling, things and human beings are making parachutes out of the energy that caused their fall. Now and then, even trust builds itself a nest here, though the preconditions for such idyllic events remain obscure. In these images of minimal happiness, hope outgrows its otherwise so uncertain ground and lends new steadiness to the ever hesitant hand in dealing with things that have long since lost their simplicity.” (Gerhard Storck on Droese’s drawings.2) “When one knows how easily a superficial consensus can be produced, the only possibility that remains is to dish up paradoxes, create secrets that are subliminally present as ideas.” (Ulla Frohne on Astrid Klein’s large-format photographs.3) “Starting from the conviction that intellectually complicating things could not be the right strategy for raising consciousness through art, Charly Banana reduces complex problems to the simplest of situations and images, employing traditional genres such as wit, parody, travesty, humor, the grotesque, caricature, ornament, and emblem.” (Text by a collaborative group on the artist Charly Banana/Ralf Johannes.4) These three quotations from different points of view on three artists exemplify some possibilities for artistic survival.

Jean-François Lyotard has said that “it’s time people clearly understood that it is not our place to deliver reality but to discover ways of alluding to a reality that cannot be represented.”5 Isn’t this in the last analysis really the age-old search for life (and for death)? The possibilities of fulfilling this monumental ambition lie in the imagination, which remains free only so long as it refrains from concretizing itself in the picture as some sort of claim about reality. What connects the artists beyond all their external differences is the elusive realm of the in-between. Imagination creates, in the image, a nonreality that explodes factual reality and destroys the omnipotence of its facade with irony or crude attack, with a direct question or subtle subversion. The point of view is a radically subjective one.

The clearest, albeit equivocal, indication of this subjectivity can only be seen when the artist-subject introduces him- or herself into the picture as representative of those affected. Christa Näher depicts herself in a threatening, erptic duel and courtship with the animal. Klaus vom Bruch and Marcel Odenbach bob up and down on the videoscreen and in photos as the resisting but overpowered phantoms of human action potential in the stream of worldwide political absurdities and everyday tristesse. Droese is the addressee of the administrative machinery, the traces of which, appearing on envelopes and wrapping paper, become part of his work.

It is of course a platitude nowadays to say that the subject is the point of departure and coordinate system of the created image-world. What is new is the radicalization of a subjective viewpoint depicted in a jungle of reality that is neither comprehensible nor easily subdued. This subjectively experienced reality, imagined in the picture, makes the signs of wear appear monumental and shows the facade to be full of cracks. There, in the gaps and cracks, is where the energy of resistance nests, and with it perhaps the happiness of which Storck’s text speaks.

Like nonidentical twins, Klaus Mettig (born 1950) and Charly Banana/Ralf Johannes (born 1953), for instance, register reality as they find it, driven by an unshakable obsession with an almost archival completeness. The painter Banana/Johannes lets the trivialities of the seductive world of consumer goods pass before our eyes by using paradigms belonging to that world. Mettig registers, in his photographs taken from the TV screen, the paradigmatic world of media reality lodged, in both East and West, somewhere between politics and entertainment show. As if in competition with the constitutional strategists and official overseers of culture, these artists record and overwhelm their public with familiar images: Banana/Johannes with floods of painted, col laged, drawn, or invented image-fetish collections and trivial stories; Mettig, with his media-derived system of conveyor belt consumer production of information and entertainment in wall-sized photo panels. The dimensions—especially of Mettig’s work—are seductive, celebratory, monumental, and threatening, all at the same time. The recognition effect becomes a trap of identification, followed immediately by irritation. By a subjective assimilation of media realities and their deceptive flood of images, the subject dethrones the system that produces the deception. The strategies dispense with moralizing posturing, but they do not deny the reality of the needs for truth, enjoyment, documentation, and entertainment that are condensed in the world of images. Furthermore, the mania expressed in these subjectively ordered works dispenses with all manner of promises for a better, saner world. If hope does creep into the cracks, it is as an avowal of subjective reality against the dictates of any and. all systems, whether they be called ideology or consumerism, desire or destruction.

This is also true, again from a different subjective, experiential perspective, of the video and photographic work of Marcel Odenbach. In his videotapes Odenbach (born 1953) pushes to painful extremes the unbridgeable distance between the subject and a world that increasingly creates violence through violence. Images from the everyday world of politics, larded with ideological slogans from right and left, endless passages of nostalgic struggles for personal liberation—even if they are no more than a ride in the country—ricochet off the immobility, the numbness of the artist as a representative human subject.

The vision of Klaus vom Bruch (born 1952) is more aggressive, in a very literal sense. In his montage of political documentation and self-portraits, for instance, reality, or more precisely a particular perspective on reality, turns into turbulences, accelerations, and explosions which—precisely because of their technically subtle, pregnant simplicity—appear to be tensed to a point of immanent rupture.

Nothing points to the ultimate conclusion of this duel between subject and outer reality: much points to the explosion. Who the survivor will be is not yet clear. The questioning gaze of vom Bruch as artist-subject is of an irritating obstinacy in the madhouse of rotating machinery. In his video art the potentials of the computer to manipulate imagery win a significant role in the confrontation between subject and an outer reality that is more and more becoming a manipulated, mediated reality. To outwit it with its own tricks, to break through the system that is as automatic as it is hostile to humanity, the artist-subject develops antibodies from the poison diet served by the system.

The well-oiled workings of day-to-day living—familiar reality, or what we’re accustomed to calling reality—provide the fuel for artistic infringements. “It functions smoothly, it works automatically, without any human input,” is Ursula Peter’s description of the everyday reality upon which the sculptor Bogomir Ecker (born 1950) infringes with his unpretentious outdoor objects and his indoor installations.6 Ecker and, in a similar vein, Thomas Virnich (born 1957) upset the technologized, automated world of utilitarian objects with their playful, ironic, and archaic ritual “strategies.” “My works are useless: they don’t move, or make noise, or fly,” says Virnich. “Still, the distance between my objects and ones that work allows me to take a stand and gives me freedom in my life.”7 In his work the world of utilitarian goods is defunctionalized, and consists of fetish-relics that have been turned into playthings unencumbered by functionality—instruments of freedom from automated control. Ecker’s horse—a sign of an automated, ever increasing acceleration—lurks as a recollection of the idea of speed in the service of human freedom. In his objects that distantly recall a speaker’s podium or a drafting table, the imagination condenses around the idea of human communicative power as a freedom that has been lost and must be regained: nothing tangible, at most signs that liberate images and feelings. His objects are archaic in their raw, handmade quality and in their reduction to the simplest, most lapidary arsenal of signs and forms, situated somewhere between fragments of deceased culture and fictions of another world.

Despite their playful appropriation of reality, Virnich’s objects still betray something of the ambiguity between freedom and danger that is attached to progress-oriented achievements, and that more and more shapes the world of childhood experience as well. It is no accident that it is tanks, airplanes, automobiles, and garages that find entry into the non-utilitarian planet of the artist. Behind the playful lightheartedness lurks danger; the fragility of the sculptures, which can be disassembled and altered, and which are made of cratelike materials, tends to heighten the sense of threat rather than to mitigate it. The paths through the thicket of cheerful and menacing feelings are intertwined. Danger reveals itself to be play, and play, danger. But through this play, the creative person resists the omnipotence of functionalism.

The experience of the contemporary world is obsessively condensed in the works of Christa Näher, Astrid Klein, and Felix Droese; we may describe this experience as a manic-excessive duel between life and death energies, against the backdrop of a world crippled by pragmatic reason. The image worlds of Näher (born 1947) churn—to the boiling point—energies exerted in an erotic battle between the beast, with its mythical, primal power, and man, who helplessly courts and at the same time threatens this very power. Exploitation and wooing become hopelessly entangled on Näher’s expressive canvases. These are unreal images of a reality that arouses fear and fascination and the craving to regain life. Energy is constrained within the elemental, vehement application of color, in magiclike gradations of light and dark. It flows into the stamping rhythm of the motion, into the compressed eroticism that combats extermination, letting us glimpse revenge. There are no verifiable references to actual social confrontations here, but in these raging, possessed paintings the power of subjective opposition pulses to the threat to life—an age-old threat, to be sure, but one that today is mounting rapidly to crisis point.

The impulse in the large-format photographs by Klein (born 1951) is similar to Näher’s, while the staging of the revolt of the imagination against the death decree is different, and determined in part by the medium. Because of her use of photography, the traumatic character of Klein’s cosmos, combining figurative, symbolic, and ornamental elements, appears at first to be cooler, more distant. As in a nightmare/dream a veil of paradox and ambiguity lies over the unreal movements of silhouettes between life and death. The frozen movements of these human schemata suggest the same conditions as when dreams suddenly break off without revealing their sense or non-sense. Much here speaks of a lethal blow. But precisely in this dissolution into silhouette is hidden the possibility of escaping the deadly arrows. Klein uses her own and found photos, exploiting them by various kinds of technical manipulation to the point where the photograph, which has been assembled out of the movable set pieces of found, outer reality, turns into pure imagination, located between traumatic paralysis and poetry in revolt.

Arrows as deadly weapons or as directional signs; stars as heavenly bodies or registration points in the computer world; animals as the executioners of the exploiters or as symbols of life—these are just a few image indices of the ambiguous, false-bottomed cosmos in which life rears up against slinking death, against the omnipotence of the “closed system” of the overly organized. It is certainly this which Storck perceives in Droese’s work as “making parachutes out of the energy that caused their fall.” The work of Droese (born 1950)—drawings, objects, paper cuts, woodcuts (both prints and the blocks themselves are exhibited)—is excessive and explosive in its enigmatic figuration, as well as in its choice and use of materials and mediums. Like almost no other representative of the younger art scene, Droese has made expressivity the cutting edge of artistic imagination, Looking at a ship made of broken glass, you feel pain adhering to the object, along with its poetic suggestion, and you feel pain when looking at other works. The woodcuts and paper cuts connect with older traditions, but they are less techniques than a content—expressions of a world that cuts up and slashes human beings to pieces. Droese accentuates the “traditional” techniques, exaggerates them in rawness and monumentality, to the point where those small indices of hope alluded to in Storck’s text can be glimpsed amidst the mad visions of the slaughterhouse or graveyard of humanity. Occasionally they crystallize in the simplest poetical signs, in flowers, ships, gentle intimations of erotic passion; signs of opposition to political falsehood and social violence, signs of defiance of all demonstrations of brute force. Droese is brilliant in his use of the quiet sign language of poets and dreamers in these raw, fragmented images; where he works on a monumental scale, the intelligent humor of resistance, like that of David confronting Goliath, smuggles its way in from time to time. Despite the dream of a better world, he never lets us forget the keen insights of an intelligent observer of contemporary life.

These then are a few examples from among the younger German artists who reveal beneath different modes of expression a common attitude which until now has been too often ignored. It is true that attention has been paid to all of these artists, even by certain important art institutions; however, despite recognition of their creative strength, their appearance in public has not led to a correction of the superficial judgments on recent art in general and on German art in particular. The so-called “wild” painting, actually more calculated than spontaneous, certainly represents a remarkable potential within new German an, but among them only a few can be said to offer a serious artistic contribution. The flood of “savage pictures” has less to do with a specifically German mode of creativity than with the epigonism familiar throughout the world, which is often obsessed only with what has been successful. Expressivity, intuition, and radically subjective imagination are of course not the exclusive terrain of these young artists. Nor do they imply a carefree dance on the edge of the volcano.

The artists represented in this abbreviated selection exemplify another tendency especially symptomatic of the German art scene, the tendency to reject trends and labels. This individualism is not a shell but a creative response to the experience of ideological straitjacketing in the past as well as in the on-going confrontation with the socialist ideology of the “other” German state. Those who would see in this a state of confusion can be accused of yearning for a harmony that is simply not attainable, given the disorder of the world. A creative dialogue with the intellectual and spiritual past (as in the work of Kiefer) is intimately bound up with opposition to the latent threats of the present. The retrenchment of German art into an expressive, irrational myth beyond all clarity is a fiction. Myth, realism, and science fiction tease out the survival instinct of human utopias, take root in the contents of the imagination as much as in formal transformations. Idealistic ambitions, the deliberately lapidary and at times trivial mode of the formal transformations, the intrusion of the triviality of everyday life upon the mythic stature of art: these characterize the obsessive tension between utopian impulses and sharpened insight into the artful seductiveness of power, as well as the danger of blindness in high art. The obsessive imagination that finds form in the works discussed here is not the expression of a German sentimentality in the mythic sphere, but an expression of intellectual incisiveness and emotional power in opposition to the omnipotent norm—in art, too.

Anneile Pohlen is a regular contributor to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.

—————————

NOTES

1. Wolfgang Max Faust and Gerd de Vries used this phrase as the title of their book Hunger Nach Bildern—Deutsche Malerei der Gegenwan (Hunger for images—contemporary German painters), Cologne: DuMont, 1982.

2. Gerhard Storck catalogue essay “Mangelmutanten überleben Kapitahsmus”(Deficiency-mutants survive capitalism). Krefeld: Museum Haus Lange, 1984.

3. Ulla Frohne catalogue essay “Astrid Klein: Suggestive Bilder 1975–1983” (Astrid Klein: Suggestive pictures 1975–1983), Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK), 1983.

4. Catalogue essay, “Charly Banana/Ralf Johannes,” Berlin: NGBK, 1983.

5. Quoted in catalogue for “Astrid Klein: Suggestive Bilder 1975–1983.”

6. Ursula Peter, catalogue essay. “DIE LAUF-BAHN” (The career), Wuppertal: Von-der-Heiydt Museum, 1984.

7. Artist’s statement, “Kunststudenten stellen aus” (Art students exhibit), Bonn Wissenschaftzentrum, 1983–84.