“International Art Since 1939”


Some call it the apotheosis of American painting; others call it the formation of the art of the present, purged of all new media; still others call it a manipulation and falsification of history. Splendid mounting, fantastic show of rarities of post-war art, say those who like their art already approved. International kinships and “regional” peculiarities, as well as the changing spirit in urban centers were revealed through justified, subjective curatorial decisions, and were excellent aspects of the exhibition. However, large theme shows have inherent deficiencies, and so did this one.

This exhibition attempted to document “continuity and contradiction” in international Western art since 1939 in a manner that was and was not traditional. No one can dispute that art since 1939 belongs to our present but history does not end abruptly in 1972 and then pick up again with a snapshot of just any “today,” as at “Westkunst.”

Art since 1968, according to Laszlo Glozer, who authored the catalogue, is where the emphasis rests in this exhibition. The year 1968, an important one in the development of art, is less important chronologically and factually than it is symbolically; it has come to represent the pivotal emergence of the artworld’s consciousness of art’s role in, and relationship to, society. But, in “Westkunst,” the protagonists of 1968 are now nothing more than founders of a concept that serves their fathers.

The choice of the year 1939 as the starting point was a conspicuous factor in the exhibition because it contradicted conventional art history rationales, shifting the focus of art toward an expression of the artist’s involvement in political events. Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, 1938, and Oskar Kokoschka’s The Red Egg, 1939, Pablo Picasso’s Cat and Bird, 1939, and Paul Klee’s Zerstoertes Labyrinth, 1939, are all paintings which, as Glozer verifies for the Picasso and Klee, show that modern art was “unprepared for the encounter with disaster . . .” The avant-garde artists of the ’30s reacted, but did not become involved. Kandinsky remained as untouched by his “encounter” with history as Mondrian, who renounced Purism during his New York exile. The late work of the pre-war avant-gardists—Klee, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Ernst, Magritte—testifies to their openness to antiquated trappings, referring to the failure of existentialism in the face of history and painting’s attempt to overcome this failure. Max Beckmann’s triptych 1941–42, stood out as the image of art’s horror of being inconsequential.

The European situation was broadly portrayed at “Westkunst” up until the section devoted to the “Temptation of St. Anthony,” a Hollywood-sponsored competition, 1947, in which a number of less well-known or unknown artists—in particular Paul Delvaux, Salvador Dali, and the “winner” Max Ernst—participated. This section was a key to the European situation in that it documented the postulate that Surrealism was followed by Action Painting in Europe and by Abstract Expressionism on the other side of the Atlantic. The organizers of the exhibition, Glozer, Kaspar Koenig, and Karl Ruhrberg, certainly saw and made the connections here, but they did not deny the tangled fusion of strands leading into the 50s.

The Europeans provided the impulses while the American artists were unencumbered in their ability to develop them. Similar attitudes were indicated by the Paris Exhibition of 1948, where the Americans Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko appeared along with Hans Hartung, Wolfgang Schulze Wols, François Stahly, Georges Mathieu, and others, and where the differences were revealed. Abstract art emerged as an international language, rather than as something simply other than realism. At the same time, the successors of Abstract Creation were challenging the expressive abstractionists. As we know so well from history, and as the exhibition showed, the quarrel between generations was vigorous.

While “Westkunst” dynamically emphasized Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and Jean Tinguely, it dramatically pointed toward America: Barnett Newman’s large paintings from 1951–52, works by Clyfford Still, and Pollock’s Number 32 from 1950 dominated. The installation of the entire exhibition was strategically planned in accordance with the curatorial question mark: where did painting stop? Where could the seam between painting and action be established? The open realms between “Nouveau Realisme,” Zero, Pop, Fluxus, and Happenings were all glowingly illuminated in the exhibition through these questions, challenging already-established points of view. Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg were seminal; Allan Kaprow’s pieces seemed antiquated oddities. “Zero” in a junk room was not necessary. Their paintings, though not their ideas, have subsequently been used up. The revolutionary entrance into reality during the ’60s—Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Kaprow, and Stella—was stimulatingly presented as part of the examinable present, but it was definitely isolated from the other commemorations of history. That was the end of serious examination of the present. From there the show deteriorated into pure arbitrariness. The unacceptable excuse for not showing much of the recent past was that it is not “exhibitable.” Hanne Darboven’s record of time was the only aggressive, liberating bomb. The work of the Arte Povera artists who thrive on the free space between the objects as material energy-conductors was squashed into small spaces; the reconstruction of Joseph Beuys’ first exhibit was arbitrary in this context. It was only logical for an exhibition that was mounted with such preconceptions to proceed by excluding any ’70s art that carries the slightest trace of ideas developed in, the ’60s.

“Westkunst” shoved art since 1939 onto a track of built-in limitations which were not accurate. “Open end” should have meant the illustration of continuity and contradiction in today’s art from the vantage point of the generation of 1968 and the generation immediately following. Thus, the “Heute” section (see Artforum, September 1981), financed partly by the gallery owners, was without perceptible explanation, unless it was a wish to declare the “new painting” to be the logical consequence of the art presented earlier on in “Westkunst.”

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.

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