New York

Jörg Immendorff

Sonnabend Gallery

Of all the German painters arriving on these shores, Jörg Immendorff is perhaps the most difficult for Americans to comprehend. The German cultural references are unfamiliar and certainly less pressing to us than to a German audience, the handling seems relatively klutzy after our tutelage in the slicknesses of high abstraction and photo-generated or formalistic realism, and the imagery and figuration are executed with a playful, childlike, almost whimsical casualness which is altogether alien to our expectation of media-derived, rhetorically transparent imagery. Also, for us, political art is not only a major no-no genre, but when it does exist it usually becomes a form of sniping rather than of confrontation, consisting as it most often does of messages on walls, familiar images tampered with to make a nasty comment, criticality tempered by funniness (Leon Golub and Nancy Spero are the major exceptions). But Immendorff’s series of “Café Deutschland” works are full-blown history paintings, offering us what Siegfried Gohr calls the “power of thing-symbols” to deal with the extended yet daily experienced crisis of Germany’s division. This mutilation is vivid in the tense atmosphere of the Café, which is a kind of Inferno into which one descends. The artist, indeed, often appears in these pictures, like Dante on a grand tour of a sordid, monstrous reality, wondering about the efficacy and place of his art there.

What I like about Immendorff is that he presents the relationship of art to reality as problematic; art offers neither a self-evident, formalistic idealization of reality nor a capitulation to its content, but rather a critical, political struggle for power over it and for influence over human existence. It is from this problematic realism that the strategies of clumsy cartooning, partially surreal allegory, and gargoylelike figural presences follow, for they all indicate the haphazard, contingent character of one’s relation to—and participation in—social reality. At the same time, the Café world is decisively trarned and structured, and in its peculiar: indefinite-spaciousness acquires a sacramental aura. It is a place where personal satisfaction is ritualistically pursued (it displays the public eroticism of the disco milieu) and political dissatisfaction is routinely announced (particularly through the image of the ice block, suggesting the Cold War). The Café in general shows a disruptive, apocalyptic atmosphere, which for me finds its strongest objective correlative in the precarious positioning of the roof, always about to collapse on the visual Babylon (and Babel) it covers.

Seeing the cycle of the “Café Deutschland” series one realizes that the paintings range in tone and intensity from cool to hot. usually with some perverse mingling of the two, which is what throws one off. Also, there is a kitsch overlay on the high art, color-field ground—another unnerving factor. Finally, the relationships articulated by the imagery, e.g., that between Immendorff and A.R. Penck (the one from West, the other originally from East Germany), are presented ambivalently. The pictures function at once publicly and privately, are simultaneously publicly cool and privately hot. Immendorff is trying at once to communicate in the way a poster does and to show us an inhabited, hungry world, an all-too-human world of people half driven out of their minds, demented and distracted, by incomprehension at where they find themselves. A sense of the grotesque monstrousness of it all is pervasive. It may be that the only real effectiveness of political art is in demonstrating this monstrousness vehemently, in showing the “distorting” effect of political realities on particular existences. It is as though political reality forms the stream of consciousness in which Immendorff’s figures exist like so many floating islands. If literary art—a truly narrative art—is back (and I don’t think it really was, in American realism), then it is appropriate that it be political in thrust, since the story of power is the true story of life.

Donald Kuspit