Positionenheutiger Kunst”; “Stationen Der Moderne

Nationalgalerie; Berlinische Galerie

The sense of being at the end of a century provokes various cultural undertakings. On the one hand, we see a “revision of modernity,” an attempt to transcend Modernist concepts and launch a discourse characterized by the buzzword “post-Modernism.” On the other hand, we find large-scale efforts to sum up and record the quintessential achievements of this century. At the end of a year promoting Berlin as the “Culture City of Europe,” two events here constituted exemplary models of both kinds of endeavors.

One such event was the Nationalgalerie’s exhibition “Positionen Heutiger Kunst” (Positions of present-day art). The curators presented the work of artists whose status is virtually undisputed, such as Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Nam June Paik, Frank Stella, Jannis Kounellis, and Mario Merz. The presentation of these artists became an inventory that, rather than promoting up-to-date discussions on art, supplied a picture of the “major positions” produced by art of the recent past.

The exhibition included only living artists, and so omitted Joseph Beuys. Anselm Kiefer refused to join in, since he no longer wishes to be involved in group exhibitions. Thus the show became a selective overview, celebrating work from the arte povera movement, and chose Twombly and Stella to represent two strains within contemporary art. Twombly’s work transmits subjectivity in an almost European manner; Stella’s reliefs show the dazzle of uninhibited superficiality. Paik, with his TV robot family, drafted a nostalgic ensemble combining a fascination with technology and a regressive delight in play. His piece was thus the clearest demonstration of the retrospective aspect of the survey.

Stationen der Mederne” (Stations of Modernism) reconstructed aspects of 20 shows that took place in Germany between 1910 and 1969. They ran the gamut from the first exhibition of Die Brücke artists to the presentation of Gerry Schum’s video art. German art and culture from the first half of this century and all their social cross-connections were made visible in this show. The aggressive emergence of a new generation in Berlin prior to World War I could be experienced in the meticulous reconstruction of the First International Dada Fair. Works and documents from the barbaric Nazi campaign against Modernism were shown in the reconstruction of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. And the German link to international art after World War II was demonstrated by a lavishly installed section on Documenta II of 1959.

The exhibition—with more than 1000 items and the work of 360 artists—was both monumental and somewhat overwhelming. The living quality of certain artistic ideas was lost in the wealth of material. In its basic plan, the venture remained stuck on the level of art historical positivism. It was almost painful to see work from movements that were intended to create a living connection between art and society, such as Dada and Fluxus, unable to escape becoming museum pieces. The antimuseum impulse, one of the strongest in art of the 20th century, is absorbed by the power of the museum and stripped of any consequence. The museum’s necessarily one-sided fixation on works adulterates essential aspects in the development of art. Artworks become anxiously tended possessions, largely robbed of their transformational energy by being integrated into archives. A true living museum is yet to come. So long as it has not been developed we will have to live with museums, and exhibitions like “Stationen der Moderne,” as beautiful burial chambers.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.