New York

“BERLINART 1961–1987”

“BERLINART 1961–1987” was intended to celebrate this city as one of the great art capitals—a magnet for artists from all over Europe and the United States as well as Germany itself. Many of these foreign artists were invited by the Berlin Artists Program of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). As this exhibition is named for Berlin, one might expect it to illuminate something of the nature of the narrative spaces constructed by the city, the psychosocial dynamics involved, and their intersection with a context beyond the concerns of art history. For the most part, however, such signs can only be excavated as imaginary fragments.

For many of us, “Berlin” occupies the space of an ambivalent fantasy fueled by the romance of history and screen versions of the literary fictions of Christopher Isherwood and John Le Carré: ’30s vice juxtaposed with cold war political intrigue. The city was brought into our own cultural time by the rock music of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and ’70s punk—lured perhaps by the spectacle of illicit freedom and decadent fantasies in the politically divided psyche of no-man’s-land.

Dead by day, it appears to come to life in the nocturnal artifice of the cabaret, and with the economic transfusion that sustains its cultural activities. “Berlin” is a spectacle—zoo, cabaret, peepshow, Wall, ruins of history and social utopias: a vacant space that attracts performers and spectators. Perhaps the most telling work is that which, using the signs or debris of its abandoned buildings and daily life, recognizes the city as an archaeological or museum site, or as a place under surveillance.

The vitrine is one of the more appropriate metaphors contained in the exhibition, collecting together the casual remnants of Berlin’s important Fluxus presence. Josef Beuys used one to memorialize the street refuse of the 1972 May Day parade, in Ausfegen (Sweep up, 1972); and in Olaf Metzel’s Eichenlaubstudien (Oak leaf studies, 1986), two of them display the scarred plaster busts of past cultural luminaries, suggesting an impatience with the nostalgia lingering in the residues of Germany’s imperial history.

The British artist Victor Burgin, who was in Berlin as a DAAD artist briefly during the late ’70s, focused directly on the city as spectacle. His diptych Zoo IV, 1978, refers to the panopticon, juxtaposing a framed reproduction of a view of the Brandenburg Gate with an image of a peep-show in which a woman performs with apparent indifference or blindness to the unseen voyeurs who surround her.

It is unfortunate that Fluxus and the more recent Berlin groups, Büro Berlin and 1/61, who tried to deal directly with Berlin as both physical and conceptual space, have been less well known than the flashy “expressionist” painters. One wonders how the humanistic tradition of painting can compete with the affective surface of the Wall. In the face of this, the attempt to recuperate an art of spontaneous emotional response seems a pathetic esthetic gesture that denies Berlin’s role as witness to the death of humanism.

The work, nonetheless, begs the question of what constitutes the sociosexual economy of the city. It would seem that “Berlin” is a city of intimate strangers, from the transvestite performers of Salomé’s Für Luciano (For Luciano, 1979) and Luciano Castelli’s double portrait of himself and Rainer Fetting, Indianer 1 (Indians l, 1982), to Martin Rosz’s odd couples in conversation among a tangle of memories, cut flowers, and homey bric-a-brac in Arachne, 1975–76. Some take root there and flourish, almost irresponsibly, like Paul-Armand Gette’s foreign trees beside wined facades in A Walk in Berlin from Grosser Stern to Askanischer Platz: Exotic as Banality, 1980. Others pass through; and it is Daniel Spoerri’s assemblage of the residues of café encounters, Fragment of Interior of Paris-Bar, Berlin, ca. 1979, that eloquently suggests the ephemeralness of social relations.

One might imagine from this selection, given the absence of a “feminine” perspective (only three women artists figure among the more than 50 participants) and the prominence accorded to Helmut Middendorf’s phallic night bomber (Flugzeugtraum [Airplane dream, 19821) and Georg Baselitz’s castrated members (P.D. Füsse [P.D. Feet, 1963]), that “Berlin” is a city without women, dominated by a gnophobic narcissism. Of course, it may be, as Burgin suggests, that this city—fantasy, spectacle, prison, zoo, tomb, and artificial womb—fetishized and estranged from itself, occupies the place of the feminine.

Jean Fisher