PRINT April 2001


Lately I feel nostalgic for the art-historical roads not taken, a retro yen for rebels, troublemakers, and long shots. The atmosphere today is still, the forecast unchanged. We’re in the dollar doldrums. It’s all too peaceful—too decorative or decorous, too in tune with the boom. Watching Attila on cable I drift into a reverie: A barbarian horde rides into Chelsea and crashes the gates, or at least graffitis the pristine white walls.

What’s most interesting to me now are those other “Pop” artists: Ray Johnson, Joe Brainard, and the German Wolf Vostell—category escapists, fame and fortune refuseniks, historical footnotes now kicking all the right canonical butts. I still love Andy Warhol, but his followers pale in his neon aura. Now’s the time to take another look at the Anti Warhols, the Pop practitioners who did for mass culture’s dark sideshows what. Drella did for celebritydom’s pop pantheon. Two of them, Johnson and Brainard, have recently received substantial shows. Vostell, who was associated with Fluxus from the beginning and with the wild bohemian NO! artists (especially NO!art cofounder Boris Lurie) and their Happenings, is currently the subject of a small survey at Janos Gat Gallery in New York (April 10–May 12). Together these three artists show the drift of another Pop stream—not counter, but parallel. Vostell’s reemergence in particular seems a timely antidote to today’s smug, uptight scene. Warhol said “Pop art is about liking things.” Vostell was more about hating things, hating them generously and spectacularly, out of love and out of necessity. He did it beautifully, serenely, even transcendentally.

Wolf Vostell was born near Cologne, in Leverkusen, Germany, in 1932 (he died in 1998) but his family managed to escape the most cataclysmic effects of the war—and the Holocaust (Vostell’s mother was Sephardic)—by moving to Czechoslovakia, where they lived from 1939 to 1945. While at school the future Fluxus provocateur experienced the war directly. Later, Vostell remarked that his first Happening was an air raid: “Each child was told to hide under a different tree. From my tree I watched an aerial battle and saw the bombs fall from the sky to the ground, like great flocks of birds.” At the war’s end, the thirteen-year-old Vostell traveled with his mother and sister to Cologne on foot (the trip took the family three months), witnessing the wholesale devastation of his country.

Like Warhol, Vostell came up through commercial art. At eighteen he went to art school in Cologne; in hs early twenties he attended L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, while serving as the assistant to the great poster artist and lithographer A.M. Cassandre (the inventor of the art deco supergraphic and the serial poster, designed to catch the eye from a moving vehicle). With him Vostell refined his pop graphic sense and would apply the techniques used to sell Ricard, Cinzano, and Gitane to the politics of confrontation, while studying the Talmud, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, and Jung.

At this time in Paris, Vostell began developing an artistic process he called “décoll/age,” and although the French décollagistes (Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé, et al.) had been working in this vein from as early as 1949, Vostell—who innovatively applied the concept to live performance—would later claim to have coined the term, on September 6,1954, after reading an account of a plane crash in Le Figaro: “Shortly after take off (décollage) a Superconstellation fell from the sky, plunging into the river Shannon.” “I ran to the dictionary and found that the strict meanings of the term were ‘to detach’ and ‘to die,’” Vostell recalled. “That news story unleashed in me a fascination for reality, for the complex phenomena of the age. . . . I felt an urgent need to include directly in my art everything that I saw and heard, felt and learned, taking as my starting point the literal meaning of the word dé-coll/age—to apply that concept to the frank, distorted forms of mobile fragments of reality—that is, to happenings.” Décollage literally describes the technique of Vostell’s early work, deconstructing the poster—“a productive principle which employs destruction . . . stands in absolute contrast to collage, which generally juxtaposes materials and objects that are not destroyed.” In fact, décollage is not so different from collage in technique as in intent, presenting a vision not so much of random, ironic juxtaposition, but of the erosion of layers, corrosion, attrition, entropy. Vostell also painted, made sculpture and environments, and in 1958 staged his first large-scale Happening (perhaps the first in Europe), Das Theater ist auf der Strasse (Theater happens on the street), though its second act, which was to involve disruptively re-placing the fragmented wreckage of car crashes on the street where the accidents had occurred, was never performed.

That same year Vostell began incorporating televisions in his paintings and assemblages. Transmigration, 1958, is thought to represent the first time that a painting included a working television set-an inevitable gesture for which Vostell was perfectly suited. The television would remain an element in his work for the rest of his life, along with the automobile (Mercedes-Benz!), the jet aircraft, and the missile. In the early ’60s Vostell began making Pop art, independently of Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, et al., although he was never considered a Pop artist-not even by close peers like Lurie. Vostell’s techniques, his palette, and even his subject matter are often strikingly reminiscent of Rauschenberg—one of the more overtly political American Pop artists-and of Warhol. At times the resonance is uncanny. Vostell painted Marilyn in 1963, a year after Warhol did. His Lenin, 1962, combined paint, pages from a magazine, and six lightbulbs. And one of Vostell’s most resonant images from the '60s was the iconic photo of a suspected Viet Cong being shot point-blank in the head (Nur die I [Only the I], 1968, among others). Vostell conjured this global ghost over traffic jams and cityscapes, in Doppler shift living colors, haunting the ether of the East. At times, as in LBJ, 1967, his palette is an apotheosis of psychedelic Day-Glo.

Vostell, George Maciunas, and Nam June Paik, inspired by John Cage, organized the first Fluxus festival, in Wiesbaden, in 1962. Perhaps more than any other Fluxus artist, Vostell exemplified the meaning of the word: flow. Work simply flowed from him, as an automatic consequence of his existence. He made art in a heroic if dizzying profusion of styles and media. His body of work is so prodigious that there is no Vostell signature—there are many.

Vostell’s life was perhaps his greatest work, as he made himself a living transformation of the German spirit. Whether or not he was actually a Jew, Vostell took on a rabbinical appearance in his later years, complete with beard, sidelocks, and a Hasidic wardrobe—an act of solidarity and provocation in a Germany that had exiled or murdered nearly every Jew within its borders.

His cross was the airplane. It is probably his most common and most striking image, from the (crashed) Superconstellation that inspired dé-coll/age to the Starfighter, the Iron Cross—emblazoned NATO fighters of Germany’s “self-defense force,” to the bomb’s-away American B-52, frozen like a Warhol “disaster” over Vietnam. Vostell’s disasters lacked the cool vacuum of Warhol’s. They glowed with a sinister radioactivity. They were less generic, focusing on specific overexposed media images—naked napalmed children, My Lai, etc. Vostell décollaged these horrors—he made them “take off,” then corroded them with an acid palette, not so much deconstructing as detuning. His manipulation of a common media image was like a bebop rendition of a pop standard, taking the utterly familiar and rearranging it until it was transfigured. Vostell, like Joseph Beuys, practiced magic; he too was a mystical figure, a shaman of mass civilization. But unlike Beuys, he didn’t amplify abstraction and ambiguity, he distilled and exorcised them.

Although he never lived in New York and his work was less visible and influential here than in Europe, Vostell was actively allied with New York’s Fluxus and Happenings artists in the ’60s, and he staged a series of important Happenings in the city, including You, 1964, and Dogs and Chinese Not Allowed, 1966. He admired—and in some cases collaborated with—such irreverent provocateurs as Paik, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Alison Knowles, Geoff Hendricks, Kim Jones, and Al Hansen, and he had close ties, through Lurie, with the spectacularly negative NO!art movement.

A new and improved leftist, Vostell was angry and pessimistic. He believed that technological progress was regression, robbing man of his ability to reason and create. But Vostell was enchanted with the redemptive spirit of human love and beauty, and charged by the emotions of a nonviolent warrior. He believed that the artist, who thrives in a continual state of becoming, had the power to transform our shitty, burned-out, fucked-up, meshuga society. Vostell was above all else a humanist; he said, “All human beings are works of art.” He believed that making oneself an artist was the sole act that had the potential to re-create humanity. “Beauty,” he said, “is a moral act.” While Vostell’s work would often be considered ugly by the public, much of it “pops” with a sheer, luminous beauty that radiates from the oddest subject matter—a buried television, a white compact car covered in blood, a block of concrete crudely suggesting the shape of an automobile parked on the street. His work has aura. And his transformation of the mundane or even the horrible (as in his silk screen of naked women lined up at a concentration camp, Treblinka, 1967) into the inexplicably beautiful is proof of the artist's humanist credo. In my nostalgic hankering for this sort of unashamed “protest work,” I keep returning to Vostell’s 1979 dictum “Peace is the most important work of art.”

Vostell could be obvious, didactic, cranky, and contrary, but he was at the same time heroically monumental. In the Happening 9-Nein-dé-coll/agen, 1963, spectators were held captive in a bus that transported them to nine points in the city of Wuppertal, where they witnessed various events, including the collision of a locomotive traveling at eighty miles per hour with a Mercedes parked on the tracks. Heuschrecken (Grasshoppers), 1969–70, consisted of a wall of photographs of two women making love, blending into a street battle between students and Russian tanks, over a base of twenty televisions. Why did the trial of Jesus before Pilate take only two minutes?, 1996, one of Vostell’s last large-scale works, is a totem-pole crucifix made of a delta-wing aircraft, ballistic missile, automobile, televisions, and pianos.

Speaking with Boris Lurie, Vostell’s close friend and collaborator, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t consider Vostell’s work humorous or satirical. Lurie sees seriousness and humor as antithetical, but I believe that the merging of these antitheses was precisely the source of Vostell’s magic. He understood the intimate link of humor and horror. Vostell made a number of works that incorporated Mercedes-Benzes (those symbols of German power that happened to share his Spanish de’s first name) and many that comprised televisions, and quite a few that used both, such as his monumental Die Winde (The winds), 1981, a Mercedes limo with twenty-one TV sets mounted in its roof, hood, trunk, grille, and so on, hooked to a camera and ready to roll. Lately I keep returning to one Vostell work, his Auto-TV-Hoch-Zeit (Auto-TV-wedding), 1991, consisting of the gnarled, blasted wreckage 0f.a black Mercedes-Benz sedan festooned with small TVs and wineglasses. It’s an eerie prefiguring of the Lady Di auto-da-fé. Vostell was, of course, a psychic, and I have no doubt that the study of his oeuvre may lead to a far better grip on whatever future we may have in store than would poking around in Nostradamus. As I said, he was a magician. He knew what made beauty tick and he knew the autobahn to your heart.