PRINT April 2014


THE NAME SAID IT ALL: Capitalist Realism was a moniker, a label. It limned the very stuff of capital, which is to say its commodity forms as well as its techniques—its words, images, and experiences. From a strange display of wares in a Berlin butcher shop in 1963 to the famous “Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism” exhibition at a furniture store later that fall, Kapitalistischer Realismus took on the false promise of West Germany’s postwar “economic miracle,” both its lure and its lack.
But the artists most closely associated with the would-be movement—Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Manfred Kuttner—would soon abandon its imprimatur. In the end, as scholars Rachel Jans, Susanne Rennert, and others have shown, it was the dealer and curator RENÉ BLOCK who pushed the implications of the term furthest and longest. In a number of signal exhibitions at his gallery from 1964 to 1971, Block launched Capitalist Realism as a global marketing strategy, a mode of publicity with which to stamp streams of products and information. He pioneered the serial production of prints and multiples as new channels of circulation, revealing the commodity to be not only a discrete object but part of a flow, a network. He coaxed forth an art whose realism was not a simple mimesis, a semblance, but a kind of dissemblance—one that troubled any simple understanding of culture and economy. Here, Block grants Artforum a rare interview, looking back at that singular, and prescient, moment.

Berges furniture store, site of “Leben mit Pop. Eine Demonstration für Kapitalistischen Realismus” (Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism), Flingerstraße 11, Düsseldorf, October 1963. Photo: Reiner Ruthenbeck.

MICHELLE KUO: How did you understand your first shows of Capitalist Realism? Did you aim to change the format of the traditional exhibition, perhaps in relation to new strategies of performance and display, such as the Happening or the event score? Were you interested in pursuing branding and marketing in the same way that the artists were engaging advertising imagery?

RENÉ BLOCK: The intention of the first show I mounted using the term Kapitalistischer Realismus, or Capitalist Realism [in 1964], was one of cultural policy. Keep in mind the political and geographic situation of West Berlin at that time, which was surrounded by the art of socialist realism. The term reflected and confronted this division between East and West, the promises of material abundance on the one hand and agitprop on the other. (The fact that Gerhard Richter studied socialist realism at the academy in Dresden, in East Germany, gave it another ironic note.) At the same time, the term distinguished itself from Anglo-American Pop art.

Kapitalistischer Realismus was first used by Richter and Konrad Lueg in 1963 for their “Leben mit Pop” [Living with Pop] performance in Düsseldorf, and the term very precisely defined the work of these artists as well as that of Sigmar Polke and K. P. Brehmer. It was a mirror of petit bourgeois behavior, but more as a kind of persiflage than an attack. Later, for example, Brehmer would prefer the term Trivialgrafik for his work. The artist mirrored the triviality of a self-satisfied and apolitical society. So for me, Kapitalistischer Realismus was quite simply a brand, not a style—not an ideology.

MK: If Fluxus was supposedly antimarket, Capitalist Realism was all about the market—and yet they both deployed multiples and serial reproduction and aimed at mass distribution and publicity. In hindsight, what do you think of the relationship between Fluxus and Capitalist Realism?

RB: In my experience, there was no relation at all, except that artists like Richter, Polke, Lueg, and Brehmer visited Fluxus performances. The free and antiacademic spirit of the early Fluxus concerts supported these artists’ search for a new mode of expression. Fluxus artists at that time were focused on music and did not produce works in the field of visual art. They did not have knowledge about, nor did they take interest in, the work of the young visual artists. The only exceptions in this case were Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell, as their backgrounds were in art and not music (unlike Nam June Paik or John Cage). In fact, looking back after fifty years, I think the only place where Fluxus and Kapitalistischer Realismus actually found a common home was at my gallery, in the years 1964–68. During that period, my program seemed to represent two very divergent artistic lines. I saw Fluxus as a new form of music and Kapitalistischer Realismus as a new antiacademic art. But both could be considered as a provocation to so-called good taste.

MK: You pioneered the use of multiples, prints, and new and larger networks of distribution for art. On the one hand, multiples were the very form of the serially produced capitalist commodity; on the other, they held the promise of the democratization of art objects and their distribution and circulation. How did you understand the impact of the multiple? How did you see Richter, Polke, Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner using the multiple, versus Beuys, Vostell, or George Maciunas, for example?

RB: We were not interested in the rules of the art market, but in a form of democratization of the market. The production of prints by Richter or Polke at that time was not market-oriented. On the contrary, they made editions for art institutions—to support the local kunstvereins, and so on. Printmaking was not their priority. Brehmer was the one artist who did focus on the medium—who produced only prints and who revolutionized printmaking in terms of concept and technique.

Beuys, as a sculptor, was not interested in the production of prints but in three-dimensional editions, in multiples. His first, Evervess II 1, was produced in 1968, and in 1969 his Sled was released for the Cologne Art Fair. But a large distribution network was always an illusion. Maciunas’s idea of unlimited Fluxus editions with prices fit for a small pocketbook ultimately ended up in a very small production run, fewer than twenty-five for some of the works. No market, no distribution.

MK: Your gallery supported artists working with innovative and technically sophisticated printing techniques as well as traditional modes such as engraving and photolithography; you also produced a seminal series of vinyl records later on. At the time of the Capitalist Realism shows, were you interested in another technological medium: television?

RB: Vostell worked with television. In our first exhibition in 1964, he presented a work [Mad Special and 2 TV, 1962] that combined décollage/painting with video. The canvas had a slash in it, which allowed you to see a part of a live TV program. This was nearly contemporaneous with the moment when Paik began his experiments with video. I was interested, but there was no way to show these experiments at that time. In fact, Richter, Polke, Brehmer, K. H. Hödicke, and others were still working with the medium of film, and they produced fascinating works with this developed medium. The gallery often showed their films in cooperation with Arsenal Cinema, the Berlin equivalent to Anthology Film Archives in New York.

K. P. Brehmer, Das Gefühl zwischen Fingerkuppen (The Feeling Between Fingertips), 1967, screenprint on cardboard, folded 23 5/8 x 14 1/8 x 4". From the portfolio “Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus,” 1967.

MK: What did you think of the highly skilled craft of traditional printmaking versus the deliberate crudeness of Polke’s drawings, for instance, or the use of cheap materials and mass reproduction circa 1964?

RB: Artists always choose the techniques that allow them to mirror their ideas in the best and most authentic way. Polke’s concept of printmaking is closer to that of Dieter Roth than to that of Richard Hamilton, for example: For Polke, printing was a medium of reproduction, not necessarily a medium for production. Especially in his later prints, he shows a completely different attitude from, for instance, Brehmer, who was brilliant in all the classic techniques and rarely used offset lithography before the ’70s.

I should also emphasize the actual quantity of their early prints. Up to 1968, when the use of the term Kapitalistischer Realismus had become passé, Richter had produced no more than eight prints; Polke had made only two, and one together with Richter in 1968; and Lueg had made four; but Brehmer had created about 110. While Polke, Richter, and Lueg used offset or silk-screen printing in commercial print shops, Brehmer printed each piece himself, including later works that were printed in editions of a thousand or more by printing machines.

MK: How did you view Lueg and his activities as an artist and then as a dealer—as Konrad Fischer?

RB: Konrad was an excellent artist. And he was an excellent gallery director. He was able to transfer his artistic creativity into another medium, into a gallery. For me, he continued to be an artist the entire time.

MK: In the preface to your 1971 portfolio of editions, Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus, you described Capitalist Realism as explicitly political, a form of social intervention, and expressed disappointment in the participating artists later “fleeing” to the fine arts. Do you still hold this perspective?

RB: When I published Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus [which was preceded by a portfolio of the same title in 1967], we already had some distance from this term. It was a concept of the mid-’60s, after the Berlin Wall had been erected. Nevertheless, it was important for me to have a section in the book in which images of works of the West German artists of Kapitalistischer Realismus were juxtaposed with works from East German artists who worked in the style of Socialist Realism. This was a very interesting confrontation, done for the first time. And it demonstrated that Capitalist Realism was also a kind of political statement. So yes, I expressed disappointment that the artists from the West by then seemed to have fled to the fine arts, seemed to have given up their inimitable position. That this worry was without reason, however, became evident in the later works from the ’80s and ’90s of Brehmer and Polke, and most certainly in Richter’s Baader-Meinhof cycle, October 18, 1977, in 1988.

“Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism,” a survey exhibition with a section focusing on Galerie René Block, was on view at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in summer 2013 and travels to Artists Space, New York, June 8–Aug. 17.