PRINT Summer 2009


EXACTLY SIXTY YEARS AFTER the founding of the West German Federal Republic and the East German Democratic Republic, and exactly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Western world rejoiced in mass schadenfreude at the collapse of the Communist German state (and the Communist system at large), “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” a major exhibition organized by Stephanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provided an occasion to reconsider the postwar history of the two belated and beleaguered democracies on various German soils. (The title of the exhibition itself signals the scandal of a presumably impossible multiplication of nation-state identity: Could we even imagine a show called “Art of Two Frances”?)

“Two Germanys” recounted the parallel—and mostly opposite—formations of cultural practices in the two halves of the divided Germany from 1945 to 1989, and it attempted heroically (if sometimes foolishly) to present a balanced account. Balance just might be the most difficult of all approaches when it comes to the task of tracing the history of catastrophes and tragedies. Barron, LACMA’s senior curator of modern art, has a splendid record of doing precisely that: The current exhibition completes a trilogy that she initiated with “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” (1991), an extraordinary reconstruction of the 1937 “Entartete Kunst” exhibition in Munich, followed by her equally if not more important show “Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler” (1997), both at the Los Angeles County Museum and both accompanied—as is the present exhibition—by exhaustive and tremendously helpful catalogues (the most recent one in collaboration with Sabine Eckmann, director of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in Saint Louis) that have become standard reference works for anybody working in the field.

In 1997, Gillen’s “Deutschlandbilder: Kunst aus einem geteilten Land” (Images of Germany: Art from a Divided Country), at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, attempted to explore much of the same ground as the present exhibition. At the time, the collapse of authoritarian state socialism, of the Soviet empire and its supporting satellites (of which the GDR, resembling Albania and Romania more than West Germany, was one of the staunchest), was still vivid in everybody’s mind. All the more so in the recently reunified city that had served as the capital of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945 and had subsequently been divided into two parts (actually, four sectors); the city where—after the Germans had been liberated from their own fascism by the Allies— one half (de jure, the Soviet sector) had served as the capital of the newly founded Communist German state, while the other half had languished in, or relished, tripartite division between the American, British, and French sectors. A similar exhibition, twelve years later in Los Angeles, capital of the global monopolies of the culture industry, made us look at the fateful histories of the two Germanys from an altogether different vantage point—that of witnesses to a near-total collapse of the capitalist economy as traditionally defined, and with rapidly expanding awareness of turbocapitalism’s global ecological destruction (this time without schadenfreude).

From this perspective, and with the recognition that conventional conceptions of nation-state culture are increasingly irrelevant, the contemplation of the postwar experiences of that particular nation-state which gave the twentieth century two world wars and the Holocaust no longer holds the same historical appeal—except as an urgent reminder that culture in the twentieth century seems to be perpetually defined as a bare escape from totalizing ideological, political, and socioeconomic barbarisms.

“Art of Two Germanys” confronted its spectators, however, not only with the famous dialectic that all documents of culture serve at the same time as documents of barbarity, but also with a fundamental contradiction that has bedeviled art historians and their methodologies at least since the rise of social and contextualist art history: Is the work of art primarily an object of history (i.e., a document) or primarily an object of the relative autonomy of artistic production and reception—and what laws, if any, does it follow first and last? For the curatorial team of “Two Germanys,” this methodological conflict does not seem to have been an issue. Given the benefit of our doubts, we assume that the principle of a didactic polarization of works of art as documents must have been the curators’ deliberate modus operandi. Would anybody think of organizing an exhibition of French art of the 1930s and ’40s by displaying dozens of works by Dufy, Vlaminck, Kisling, Fougeron, Maillol, and Despiau in order to give an accurate historical cross section of the artistic documents of that time and mixing in an occasional work by Picasso, Matisse, or Giacometti? Presumably, in the case of the dysfunctional Germanys, the particular pathologies of the “cultures” of these countries necessitated such an approach.

The team decided to give equal weight and presence to all types of articulations, regardless of their merit, regardless of the criteria of artistic relevance. Thus one would encounter, in the second gallery of the exhibition, the frail sculptural oeuvre of Hermann Glöckner—an extraordinary rediscovery already made in Gillen’s first foray into the secret culture of Stalinist East Germany—displayed against a massive backdrop of the vile banality of East German socialist-realist painting (e.g., Willi Sitte, Heinrich Witz, Heinz Drache, Heinz Löffler). Or one would encounter a small yet extraordinary work by Hanne Darboven in a remote area after having traversed an endless accumulation of gigantic second- and third-rate paintings. These ranged from bombastic canvases by Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, and Georg Baselitz all the way down to works by the more recently arrived bottom-feeders of so-called German memory culture like Lutz Dammbeck, who considers it clever to combine pictures of the Baader-Meinhof group with head shots of Arno Breker sculptures, apparently aspiring to take the mantle from Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer simultaneously.

When works of art are reduced to the status of documents, that reduction is only intensified in a highly compressed installation such as this, where hardly any object received enough wall space to stand or fall on its own terms. (It was particularly painful to leave the cramped quarters of German history and perambulate freely upstairs in the spatial amplitude of LACMA’s Koons collection. Evidently, the museum’s administration knows who and what deserves adequate space.) With such a crowding together of documents—and this was an issue for the Los Angeles exhibition even more than for its 1997 prequel in Berlin—all objects fall according to the law of the lowest common denominator, and there were quite a few of those.

Most problematically, the failure (or refusal) of aesthetic judgment turned into ethical injustice, since an artist such as Glöckner, who undoubtedly risked (and lost) everything to pursue his work, now reappeared in the company of opportunists who gained everything by flattering a repressive state apparatus. The worst case among the provincial party hacks, precisely because he was artistically “more accomplished,” is of course Sitte, one of the official standard-bearers of German state-socialist culture. Under the pretext of moral outrage about the Lidice massacre (sloppily supplanting the Star of David on the victims’ armbands with pentagrams), Sitte painted the most appalling Picasso paraphrases (Massaker II, 1959) with few prospects of getting caught in the pilfering act, as Picasso’s work of the ’30s and ’40s, such as Guernica, 1937, and The Charnel House, 1944–45, would have been known within the GDR to at best only the very few privileged figures in the sphere of state culture who controlled the influx of Western images. For Sitte, as for many other artists in this exhibition, the recesses of provincial ignorance became the wellspring of artistic abominations.

The fatal condition both postwar Germanys suffered in common was the population’s collective repression of its fascist history and disavowal of the Holocaust (a phenomenon even more pronounced in the Communist East, which, falsely, claimed a pure antifascist pedigree). This condition formed and ruled not only the collective sociopolitical psyche of the Germanys until 1968 but also—perhaps less harmfully yet still with immense consequences—the cultural apparatuses and apparatchiks on both sides of the barbed-wire-and-concrete wall. Whether it was Will Grohmann, Arnold Bode, or Werner Haftmann in the West attempting to construct a lineage of uncontaminated German culture from Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism of 1912 to the hysterical West German adulation of American Abstract Expressionism in 1959, or whether it was the East Berlin taskmasters of a Zhdanovian socialist realism (particularly insidious in the cases of Wolfgang Mattheuer, Sitte, and Werner Tübke) claiming to carry on the great legacy of German realist painting from Altdorfer to Cranach or the lesser but more deeply engraved populist tradition from Wilhelm Leibl to Wilhelm Trübner, the first ten years after the founding of the dual republics were marked by deep deceptions.

Under the pall of the West German reconstruction of history, the figures and practices that had been of truly extraordinary importance in Weimar Germany would remain unknown to the eager citizens who visited Documenta 1 (1955) and Documenta 2 (1959) in hopes of reconnecting with modernism. At that time, the strategy spared them the recollection—and us, the Nachgeborenen, the insight—that it was the Germans themselves who had driven the greatest figures of Weimar culture out of their own country. Ignored by (if not intentionally excluded from) the new art-historical dispensation, and a fortiori by Documenta, was the fact that Weimar Germany, along with the Soviet avant-garde and the French Surrealists, had given rise to one of the greatest photographic cultures of the twentieth century (Gisèle Freund, Lotte Jacobi, Germaine Krull, to name but a few). So was the fact that Weimar had produced the most extraordinary redefinition of the Cubist collage in its invention of photomontage aesthetics (Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield). And the fact that the starchy and stodgy conception of visual culture as being grounded in some male subject’s painterly “expressions” had long ago been dispensed with in the wake of the Bauhaus and its projects (Josef and Anni Albers, László Moholy-Nagy) and the singular achievement of Kurt Schwitters.

The perpetuation of this misconception that painting remained the central art of Germany after 1919 and that it was reborn after 1949 was as painfully evident in Gillen’s “Deutschlandbilder” (which omitted all Weimar-era photographic practices except for Heartfield’s) as it was in Barron’s “Exiles and Emigrés” (where not one of the Weimar photographers was even mentioned). And to cite just one breathtaking omission from “Two Germanys,” Heartfield’s postwar work was excluded from that show as well, when many prewar painters’ postwar works (e.g., canvases by the dreary myth-mongers Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay) were represented. Incomprehensibly, Bruno Goller, a truly eminent painter of pre- and postwar Germany, as well as Konrad Klapheck’s and Blinky Palermo’s first teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, was nowhere to be seen. Regardless of such reservations, we are only too pleased to admit that the first room of the exhibition constructed a moving moment of recollection: from a canvas memorializing the victims of the concentration camps by the Socialist painter Hans Grundig, who had recently returned from Sachsenhausen and would later teach Richter at the Dresden Art Academy, to the first shock-numbed postwar steps of Werner Heldt, to the astonishing mystical abstract watercolors of Fritz Winter, a former Bauhaus student who would in time become Hans Haacke’s teacher in postwar Kassel. No less amazing was the singularly surprising abstract melancholia of Jeanne Mammen’s Tür zum Nichts (Door to Nothingness), ca. 1945. All were true highlights of the exhibition. In spite of the presence, in that same first room, of haunting documentary photographs by Richard Peter of the bombing of Dresden, it was clear from the start that the misconception of the continuing centrality of painting in postwar culture operated at the core of “Two Germanys.” This led not only to the disproportionate number of indiscriminately vast painted surfaces in the rooms to follow (at times it seemed as though anybody who had painted a distorted swastika automatically qualified for inclusion) but to a precarious falsification of the actual differentiation and complexity of postwar German art.

A further consequence of the exhibition’s “documentary” approach was that the real artistic and political conflicts that had defined the production of specific works of art were effaced for the sake of the document’s mythical neutrality. The end result of this leveling of all aesthetic criteria and the concomitant erasure of specificity was that infamous condition of a night in which all cats seem gray. Not only did the curators juggle and jumble Eastern and Western pedigrees across the Berlin Wall and across the former boundaries between socialist and capitalist realisms, they also deployed the documentary principle with the same indifferent violence in constructing naive equivalences between West German artists of the greatest historical significance and those of comparatively little. Truly extraordinary works by Dieter Roth, such as his Literaturwurst (Martin Walser: “Halbzeit”) (Literature Sausage [Martin Walser: “Halftime”]), 1968, and his Schokoladenlöwenturm (Chocolate Lion Tower), 1969/1993, had to share crowded space with Heinz Mack’s Relief Wand (Relief Wall), ca. 1960, a huge installation of Op-art gadgets. It has been known since the ’60s that the aesthetic agenda of Düsseldorf’s Zero Group was both derivative and disingenuous. Their only claim to historical authenticity was their equation of Germany’s presumed new beginnings in the “Zero Hour” with their own zero degree of critical reflection and commemoration of recent German history. While clearly lacking the radicality of either Lucio Fontana or Yves Klein, let alone that of Piero Manzoni (the Franco-Italian predecessors whom the Zero artists turned to for parental guidance when the fatherland had failed them), the Zero Group offered their flashing kinesthetics of repression to the new gadget collectors and potential sponsors of techno-spectacle among the West German captains of industry in Düsseldorf and the broader Rhine-Ruhr industrial district.

Just preceding that room, the presence of a few great paintings—here seemingly thrown in as if by accident with a jumble of rather forgettable objects—saved the spectator from the mindless horrors of the early years of the German “economic miracle”: two canvases from the late ’50s by Düsseldorf painter Konrad Klapheck, an artist long overdue for rediscovery. While the Zero Group constructed their shimmer and glitter machines and performed their festivals to signal the arrival of spectacle even on the provincial shores of the Rhine, Klapheck painted machines of a fundamentally different kind: memory machines spelling out the uncanny transition and perpetual transfer from everyday banality to its normalization as anonymous evil at the collective level of the state.

Joseph Beuys performed the contemplation of the fatherland’s failure and the commemorative reflection on the consequences of those failures for its victims, and for the nation-state and its subjects at large, in an ever-expanding and, in hindsight, monumental project. Beuys was represented in the exhibition, of course. But his three midsize and totally unrelated works, more or less haphazardly installed in a corridor-type space, could not even begin to communicate his status as the first post-Holocaust artist of Europe. And nobody not already familiar with the work of Beuys’s most significant disciple would gain insight from two randomly chosen cloth paintings into the breakthroughs Blinky Palermo made, and the breakdowns he suffered, in the course of his heroic efforts at reconstructing a legacy of abstraction in the Germanys.

The early work of former East Germans gone West—Richter and Sigmar Polke, in particular—might have sparked lightning shocks of understanding of the productive aesthetic disorders of the two Germanys, but once again the simultaneous lack of exhibition space and overwhelming abundance of mediocre objects relativized the encounter. Richter’s by now iconic Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, instates the photographically mediated memory work initiated by this artist, which would soon be taken up by an entire generation of students coming of age during that decade. A small, gray, seemingly innocuous painting, it is in fact a work that triggered an epistemological shift in postwar German art. Slipping it into a line of loudmouthed and colorful neo-expressionist varia on one wall, the curators assured its illegibility. By the same token, Polke’s Objekt Kartoffelhaus (Potato House Object), 1967, clearly demarcates the inevitable transition in German disavowal from tragedy to farce, and the sculpture deserves a place between the climactic moments of Arte Povera and the best works of American post-Minimal sculpture. But here it was abused, forced into close quarters (next to the somewhat questionable reconstruction of Richter’s 1966 Volker Bradke installation) to illustrate a presumably plausible German capitalist realism. Rather than appearing as a manifestation of sublime Romantic irony growing once again from German soil (even if, for the time being, only in the form of potatoes), the work here looked like yet another leftover prop. To rediscover Immendorff’s Lidl-Block, 1967, in the same room only confirmed that the sightings of such great moments in West German art were possible only before the streamlining of subversion by success, a truth that is particularly painful in the case of this formerly astonishing artist, before the Rhenish retour à l’ordre of painting became the order of the day in the ’80s and after.

Works by Immendorff, A. R. Penck, Kiefer, Lüpertz, and Baselitz were an overwhelming presence in the show, permeating almost every other room and seemingly reappearing in every possible topical configuration. That all these artists are (or, in Kiefer’s case, were) represented by the same commercial gallery should raise a few eyebrows, and one begins to suspect that their ubiquity here was intended to buttress the ailing hegemony of painters whose prestige peaked some twenty years ago and whose work—with the exception of the early Baselitz and the rare materializations of Eugen Schönebeck’s genius—is just not aging all that well. This imbalance, perhaps in deference to Michael Werner, a major lender to the show, created—wittingly or not—an unacceptable historical falsification and ultimately lowered the exhibition’s accomplishments on several accounts, in terms not only of historical accuracy but also of relative artistic achievement. After all, an infinitely more complex and differentiated field of aesthetic practices had developed in postwar West Germany than encounters with the Werner stable alone would suggest, and these artists’ utter dominance in “Two Germanys” could only lead an innocent and ignorant audience of new spectators to a distorted understanding.

The most scandalous injustice among many was the scant representation of the work of Hanne Darboven, clearly one of the most important figures to have emerged in West Germany since the ’60s. She was accorded just one work, Das Jahr 1983 (The Year 1983), installed almost invisibly on a side wall in a room with Hans Haacke’s admittedly monumental but also by now slightly fatigued Ölgemälde, Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers (Oil Painting, Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 1982. Haacke’s work was also given short shrift. The single piece on view, clearly chosen for its iconographic topicality, could hardly convey any sense of the extraordinary complexity and radicality of Haacke’s continual provocations over the past forty years, nor of the implacability of his confrontations with German disavowal and American dissimulation, which he has realized with the analytic clarity of Enlightenment culture—a foundation, after all, not merely of science and technology but of German cultural traditions as well. A third and similarly unconscionable distortion was the shoddy presentation of the work of Hilla Becher and her late husband, Bernd. The contribution of the Bechers, not just as teachers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf but also as crucial participants in the international formation of Conceptual art in the late 1960s—as, for that matter, were Darboven and Haacke—is by now universally acclaimed if only inadequately understood. By shoehorning a small group of the Bechers’ photographs (Gas Tanks, 1970) into a severely limited patch of wall space (next to an even shoddier and more negligent presentation of the work of their students Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer), the curators effaced the centrality of the Bechers’ practice for German reconstruction culture. After all, the couple not only reintroduced postwar Germany to the photographic culture of Weimar but also were central in laying the foundations for an authentic set of post-painterly German and European Conceptualist practices.

There are more urgent reasons than mere nostalgia to evoke the radical internationalism of Conceptual art when confronted with its absence or deficient representation in “Art of Two Germanys.” (That said, I personally would rather be reminded of the communication and friendship between Robert Smithson and the Bechers than of the staged mobilization of chauvinist bonds between Penck and Immendorff across the Berlin Wall before 1989.) If history is in fact the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, then it is the identitarian politics of the nation-state—as this exhibition on the cultural consequences of the worst nightmare of the twentieth century reminds us acutely—that are invariably ascendant whenever and wherever the state’s deluded energies spin out of control. Whether these identitarian agendas rally around ethnic, religious, or ideological concepts, and we see this happening once again in the present, they all claim as their political cover the discriminatory divisions enforced by the nation-state. But to conceive of cultural practices in similar identitarian terms, as this exhibition does (as opposed to, say, focusing on the simultaneous development of specific cultural practices in different geopolitical contexts), is a different yet nonetheless fraught operation. For one thing, it makes the failure of the nation-state concept in cultural production fully evident, though we may doubt that this was the curatorial team’s intention. But it also teaches us—even if only by implication—that the radical internationalism of the avant-gardes (from Dada and Constructivism to Fluxus and Conceptualism), with their attempts to construct models of posttraditional and postnational identity, is by now a thing of the past. Instead we are confronted with a globalized art production operating in tandem with a unified spectacle culture whose primary ambition is the systematic dedifferentiation and dismantling of all forms of the subject’s specificity and of any articulation that reflects the formal conventions of a historically formed cultural production as its mnemonic grounds.

“Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Jan. 25– Apr. 19), is currently on view at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany, through Sept. 6; the exhibition travels to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Oct. 3, 2009–Jan. 10, 2010.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University.