PRINT December 1984


KNOWLEDGE OF HOW TENSION is created, how curiosity is stimulated to the point of impatience, how actual needs can be strategically exploited, is something for which executives in the fields of business, politics, and product fairs need a sure instinct. In Düsseldorf this ability was used to stylize an art event so highly that, even before it started, it had to be anticipated in Europe as the biggest of the year 1984. Opening day in Hall 13 of the Düsseldorf fairgrounds provided proof that good advertising strategy pays off. The art world in Germany and from abroad rendezvoused for an exhibition that the organizer and curator Kasper König provided with the pretentious and puzzling title “Von Hier Aus” (From Here Out), and the somewhat sober subtitle “Zwei Monate neue deutsche Kunst in Düsseldorf” (Two Months of recent German Art in Düsseldorf). The phrase “Von Hier Aus” comes from Joseph Beuys, who emblazoned it in green neon letters on the entrance to the hall. This “sign” makes sense for Beuys’ conception of art. He conceives of art as creative capital for a new and humane society which bursts the boundaries of East-West and North-South, a society in which nature and industry would be reconciled for man. For the exhibition, however, it became an arbitrary, decorative suggestion.

The historical background of this event, touted as a spectacle, is very simple. Until recently, the site of the International Art Fair alternated between Düsseldorf and Cologne. Cologne, approximately thirty miles from Düsseldorf, has now put the former artistic citadel in the shade. The move by artists and art dealers to Cologne, followed by its being made permanent host to the International Art Fair, so stirred the political, business, and cultural leaders of Düsseldorf that they decided to act. In other words, without the usual delay that occurs when the question of money for culture is concerned, funds were made available for holding an art exhibition beyond compare. It seemed appropriate to make a commitment to a phenomenon that the German art scene has been observing since the start of the ’80s with amazement and fitting joy.

For the first time in postwar history, German art, or at least the work of individual German artists, has achieved notable attention and even success in the international arena and in the New York art market. But the plan was not only to include successful artists. The praiseworthy intention here was to present “recent German art” in all its diversity.

The generally superficial way that artists have eagerly been snapped up outside the borders of the country—mainly works by Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, A.R. Penck; Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke as “loners” among the older generation; Walter Dahn, Jiři Georg Dokoupil, Salomé, Rainer Fetting, and Helmut Middendorf as representatives of the younger generation—nourishes the worry among many critical observers that the individual positions as well as the different positions in Germany have hardly been registered. These individual positions are flattened if one looks at Baselitz, say, merely in relation to Penck, Kiefer, Immendorff, or Lüpertz, and their quite antithetical positions are misunderstood. So it seems necessary to open the superficial context created by special strategies of the art market and to see less the outside than the inside implications of individual artistic positions. As has been said, and examined in exhibitions, it makes more sense to see Baselitz in relation to Richter, or Immendorff in relation to Hanne Darboven, or perhaps Kiefer in relation to the Dutch artist Armando. This would be helpful in understanding the artwork and not just having set images of German art. It would open up the possibility of a discussion on the widespread creativity in Germany. These artists are in fact some of the outstanding creative individuals. But it is high time to underline the quite individual positions which distinguish, for example, Baselitz from Kiefer, or Immendorff from Polke, or Beuys from Penck. There is, for example, more of a relation between Baselitz and Gerhard Richter—both are concerned with the analysis of painting today—than a superficially observed relation between Baselitz and Immendorff. Immendorff’s concern is with a developed position of realistic painting in a special situation of cultural and human destruction, in the eastern and western parts, not of the German country per se, but of Germany as representative of the development of the world.

It is certainly true, in Germany as in other regions of the world, that each artist is rooted in a special context. Thus it can be said that German history, with all its idealistic and also sentimental positions which have been exploited by a fascistic system, is fundamental to Kiefer’s intellectual as well as emotional analysis of the possibility of painting today. But these special German subjects should be seen in relation to an international discussion on culture. Without trying to follow the individual positions of the best-known artists in Germany, and far from contesting their important contribution to art not only in Germany, but elsewhere as well, it is time to recognize that their importance is not that they have discovered a special wildness that can be recognized as “German,” but that they have quite different positions in regard to thinking about art and its meaning in a more international implication of art and civilization. One suspects that instead the art is understood merely as confirmation of the German image: a potpourri consisting of a creativity that is a combination of roughness, power, and alleged expressionism, or, alternatively, an emotionally wild and bombastic sentimentality. The German image is of dangerously arousing manifestations of primitive attitudes, of an archaic community of kindred souls—a collective of rough, insane dream-dancers, dangerous for political stability, stinging monsters in art.

Many people in and out of Germany have tried to destroy this dangerous image—for example, Johannes Cladders, who has twice served as the commissioner for the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. There he presented Gotthard Graubner, Darboven, and Wolfgang Laib in 1982 and Penck and Lothar Baumgarten in 1984, providing clear signs of the existence of a contemplative, poetic-analytic position in German art. König, in Düsseldorf, also wanted to try to destroy one-sided ways of seeing German art, but it can be stated bluntly that he completely forfeited the opportunity. And he did so by means of the most expensive and unnecessary extra outlay imaginable: the architecture of the exhibition. Hall 13 of the Düsseldorf fair facility offers 14,000 square meters of exhibition space. A sum of 3 million Deutschmarks (nearly $1 million), not including additional amounts contributed by sponsors, was provided by the budget. That is a lot of money and a lot of space. The exhibition hall resembles a container that must be provided with a structure in order to create viewing conditions for the art other than those of a fair for the sale of art. For this kind of staging, the money was needed, but its use here lost sight of the actual reason for the staging, which was the art.

With the help of the Austrian architect Hermann Czech, König succeeded in turning relationships completely upside down, and in doing so sacrificed an important intention—namely, the presentation of relevant German art in its full diversity—to facade architecture that is both pompous and bourgeois. In its most simplistic and misunderstood forms, “postmodernity” celebrates, for a lot of money, cheery primitive conditions. Department stores show more skill in using facade kitsch to recall earlier styles in order to tout their wares. The hall was treated in such a manner that there was only one vantage point from which it was possible to have an overview of what “Von Hier Aus” was actually concerned with. From a gallery reached by climbing an outside ramp, one looked into an artificial cityscape comprised of temples, cube structures, spaces, and passageways resembling streets. One suspects that what might have been at issue was a kind of network of artistic positions. The subjunctive is appropriate, because, with the exception of some entries that protruded simply because of their volume, the works tended to resemble postage stamps from that viewing point, if indeed they were visible at all. Anyone who, after descending a wooden staircase into the valley to set forth on the route through the art city, expected to come closer to the art, was bound to be disappointed.

The realization that Czech had failed in his attempt to create an architecture that “services” art, i.e., shows it in the best possible presentation, is not difficult. The most striking adornment of the architecture was not the art, but instead consisted of park benches—nostalgic examples of a leisurely former civilization—and shrubbery in tubs of the kind that now disfigure pedestrian zones in the center of town. Ostensibly the public would delight in the architectural Disneyland rather than in the art, which would be understood just as it always is when it’s shown this way: as superfluous decoration that must be spectacularly packaged in order to be presented to the people. But König is serious about the subject of art in Germany. Because his position was by no means that of a self-seeking impresario, the ideas behind and the realization of the exhibition deserve analysis.

With only a few exceptions there were no discoveries to be made by informed viewers. The art scene of the Rhineland has such a profusion of mediating institutions that there is no lack of such information. Let us assume that a novelty ride for the local public was not the plan and that what the maker of the exhibition had in mind was an international audience. Let us also assume that the entire sponsoring team, especially the corporation owning the fair site, had more in mind than a mass audience, which as a rule cannot be attracted to art. Let us mainly assume, then, that the concern was to present contemporary German art in confrontation and exchange; i.e., its individual positions within the context of an exhibition, simultaneously in one place and not, as is usually the case, in chronological sequence and at scattered sites. It was to be an opportunity for viewing examinable experience within a context of reflection. Such a goal was justified not only because of the one-sided success of German art abroad; it was justified by more basic considerations. In physics, and in medicine, conventions are held for the purpose of exchanging ideas. This exchange in art requires its viewing by means of exhibitions, even large exhibitions, irrespective of issues regarding individual choices.

König chose approximately 60 artists—a handsome number for an exhibition, although slight in terms of the quantity of artists in Germany who qualitatively must be taken seriously. It is impossible to do battle against such decisions. In keeping with the subject, the artists are practically all from Germany, but the exhibition also included a few international artists who have been influential in Germany—George Brecht, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Filliou, Per Kirkeby, Nam June Paik. The precision necessary for providing viewing opportunities can hardly be achieved with an excess of offerings. Less useful, as a rule in criticism, is the enumeration of those artists who unjustly are represented and those who unjustly are not represented. Subjectivity will still influence any choice, hence will influence any criticism. Nonetheless it is possible to ask whether, despite all the inevitable subjectivity, the choice is capable of revealing a faintly accurate picture of “recent German art.” If an attempt was made to view the offering together and to overlook its packaging—something which ultimately could be achieved only in the mind because of the staging already referred to—then the exhibition actually did reveal a diversity of artistic positions and questions.

There were outstanding choices of artists who have been working for a significant amount of time, presented in individual exhibitions: Richter painting the relationship of “reality” to the picture, reflecting on the perception of what has been created, and painting the reflection of the perception; Polke, the painting wizard of deceptive pictorial clichés of all levels ranging from the divine to the trivial, the maker and unmasker of pictures in the witch’s cauldron of the thought-killing profusion of images (in view of the still-running exhibitions of Polke this year, not particularly well represented); not far away, Lüpertz, with two monstrously powerful pictures from the second half of the ’60s (in addition to one self-portrait from 1983) which exemplify the monumental claim on the dignity of painting pursued through the alibi of color-composition landscape. And in contrast, Kiefer, likewise monumental, but penetrating incomparably deeper into the dilemma of art, which, with unmastered myths, history, and the present state of its own existence, becomes laden in relationship to reality. In his furrowed landscapes, cult and civilization, ideas, emotions, and visions are buried, evidence of the unending battle between life and death, evil and greatness. While Kiefer shows himself free of any staged suffering, Baselitz compels the viewer into an attitude of respectful, cultic distance before a repellantly triumphant sculpture made of painted limewood. It is a rawly emphatic, primordial form of man. Baselitz’s painterly dispute with the tradition of German Expressionism changes terms, vanishing into distant heights and withdrawing from close observation to become a new form of solemnity, removed in the temple from the “praying people.” Immendorff, the tersest representative of a realistic position rooted in many shadings of German experience, presents his aggressive-brilliant, mannered pictures naked and bare. So do Kiefer and Richter. They show that realism must be artificial, not deceptive mimesis. It must liberate naked force in the crass battle between colors, between night and neon light, between an ice age and the force of hope; it must free the spoiled symbols of human utopias from ruin.

Ulrich Rückriem, an outstanding representative of German sculpture, indicating with minimal intervention the ambivalence of the two worlds of nature and art, between the organic and the artificial, between the spontaneous and the planned, was represented by imposing granite reliefs. But these were so gruesomely and bombastically overstaged that here the suspicion arose most clearly that there was a lack of trust in the persuasive power of the works themselves. This impression predominated in the atmosphere of the entire exhibition.

Aside from these individual exhibitions, Penck, Beuys, Darboven, and Reiner Ruthenbeck emerged into the open arena of the artificial cityscape at the center of the exhibition hall. Darboven’s exciting dispute with the experience of the present, referring to Rainer W. Fassbinder’s now emblematic death, was in an extremely alienating juxtaposition with the truly lapidary spray pictures of Dahn. This artist now desires a saloon atmosphere for his work, but instead the architect housed it in a kind of garden pergola, in which Dahn’s critical dispute with the current zeitgeist and the trivial extension of his helpless images were flattened out to pure spectacle. Penck, on the other hand, with a fascinating painting-sign picture between archaic conjuration and intellectual clarity about the end of sociocultural existence (Quo vadis Germania, 1984), engaged with the coarse tectonics of his younger sculptor colleague Olaf Metzel. At one site, iron components removed from functional use were joined together with concrete by Metzel into an unsuitable, anarchically “free” sculptural form. Juxtaposed with this powerful sign language were the meditative “conceptions” of the suspension of material weight in the spatiotemporal weightlessness of spiritual energies by Ruthenbeck, the works of Imi Knoebel, and Rebecca Horn’s poetic-painful Installation Körper-Raum-Reflexe (Installation body-space-reflexes, 1984).

Not without reason, Beuys occupied the center with a reconstruction of his installation “Wirtschaftswerte” (Economic values), presented in 1980 at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent. Basic foodstuffs from East Germany, including a great number of items on a shelf, were included, along with a massive slab made of plaster and fat, surrounded by pictures of the revolutionary ’20s, all in a small, dense space. Outside, in the “free field,” was Beuys’ Fond VII/2, 1967–84, a massively layered sculpture environment made of felt and copper sheets—a conductor of energy currents, and of strengths of form. These works are a manifestation of the emblematic use of creative potential for the fostering of a society “from here out,” in which social and creative forces would determine the humane flow of business. Beuys’ idea of art as social energy has had a decisive artistic influence in Germany—not in the formalistic sense, but in the mental sense. It has been just as influential as Polke’s alchemical rebellion against narrow-mindedness and against the stupidity of confusing picture and reality. Richter and other artists have campaigned against this same fallacy by painting in a radically analytic manner, creating perfidiously beautiful and confusingly painterly works.

In order to represent the range of art in Germany even approximately, the exhibition’s organizers should have included Gotthard Graubner and Franz Erhard Walther—Graubner as the meditating painter, the spiritual, emblematic creator of color-space cosmoses; Walther as a sculptor thinking about human-sculptural activity in space. Both are representatives of an utterly contemplative conception of art in relation to the human being. The fact that both were absent from this exhibition is regrettable not simply in regard to their own work, but also because they exemplify a decisive contribution to German art, which extends into very recent art. As a consequence, the expressive and realistic factors in German art which are directed toward the social and picture-making element predominated in the exhibition.

This impression was not corrected by the postconceptual set of questions that were present in insistent examples. The following may be mentioned as a thoroughly gripping trio of artists involved in reflection about picture-making today: Thomas Huber, with a spatial installation on the aspect of seeming and the appearance of pictures—cheery, a mixture of philosophical and ludicrous; Gerhard Merz, represented by monochromatic pictures and silkscreens of found images that reflect on the seduction and falsehood of beauty; and Axel Kasseböhmer, who, simply out of love for beauty, unites into a painted frieze the high points of art history from Botticelli to Picasso. It cannot be discounted that language, exploiting and reinterpreting a realistic tradition and referring to pressures from the system and to the helpless illusionism of pictures in relation to reality, has just as striking representatives in recent German art as does the dispute with expressive traditions. Holger Bunk, Werner Büttner, Albert Oehlen, the Gruppe Normal, and Martin Kippenberger (represented only in the catalogue) use realism by permeating their works with deliberately banal references to cultural traditions, like jugglers playing with the falsehood and triviality of the pictures.

Mannerism and a conceptual insistence on arbitrariness and falsehood, like arrows aimed against claims to greatness, predominated in this section of the exhibition, although they were not able to break up its main currents. The actually expressive artists here were less those who are usually considered to have that quality than such rebels as Felix Droese. Protesting against the destruction of human life, his dramatically reduced glass object resembled a conjuring altarpiece. Astrid Klein was represented by a monumental photo that suggests a lethal threat; Christa Näher, by nocturnal scenarios of the menacing and menaced wanderings of an animal and of encounters between animal and human. And Peter Mell showed charcoal-and-crayon drawings from whose blacknesses emerges a battle against death.

But connections of this kind could not be made in the exhibition itself. What actually occurred in “Von Hier Aus” was regrettable. Not only was there no attempt to lead the well-known diversity of artistic positions in Germany into an eventful exchange or even to establish creative contradictions within the arena; no, it looked as though art itself, and especially the works by the artists selected, were not at all trusted. Either the presentation was overstaged to such an extent that the ambience was registered more than the art; or, through kitschy and misleading add-ons from the architect, the art was so played down that any other product could equally well be imagined in the setting. Where no staging at all occurred, there were successful individual exhibitions—as, for example, with the featured “greats.” These instances, however, did not permit examination of “historical effectualness,” which König allusively notes in the catalogue as his criterion for selecting the artists. Immendorff, Polke, and Richter come to mind, for example. Or else the works were so unfortunately placed that, as with an important sculptor of the older generation, Antonius Höckelmann, the viewer hardly wanted to consider his creative contribution.

Just what misery art can be put through was shown in those places—namely, the surfaces used for hanging—where the designers considered the use of paint necessary. Salomé, that expressive “performance” painter of homosexual passion, was unable to defend himself against the pink (flesh-colored) wall originally allotted to him. Norbert Tadeusz’ “landscapes,” paintings that use reality as the stimulus of painterly thought about painting, should, according to the reductive logic followed by the exhibition architects, be shown against sky-blue walls. And so they were—but this, too, should have been stopped. Was horror vacui at work? If something was meant to be cheerful, it turned into its exact opposite, because the backdrop was not right and killed the art. What König in all earnestness must surely have wanted to portray, vital diversity, appeared instead as lethal coincidence and lousy pluralism. Art in Germany is really not as it was made to appear in Düsseldorf. It is neither coincidental nor lousy.

The cheerily overflowing talents—a prime example being Michael Buthe—were noticeably absent as was the witty-ironic factor, undeniably a conspicuous element, particularly in the western part of Germany. “From Here Out” should have been changed into “From Me Out,”1 encapsulating all the failings of the exhibition in the briefest possible slogan. As far as I am concerned, it may have been (some) German art that was presented, but it was all packaged as Disneyland pseudo-post-Modern arbitrariness. Such presentations strip German art, and all other contemporary art, of its importance for spiritual culture, which our era desperately needs.

Annelie Pohlen is a critic and curator who lives in Bonn. She is organizing an exhibition of work by Jiři Georg Dokoupil which will be shown in Essen, Lucerne, and Lyons.

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.



1. Translator’s note: the variation on the title, “From Me Out,” does not work well in English. The phrase in German is an accepted popular idiom meaning “as far as I am concerned,” or “it’s OK by me.”