“Bilderstreit” at the Rheinhallen, Cologne

The Rheinhallen

The profane and very intense fight unleashed by “Bilderstreit” (Picture fight) has focused not so much on the chosen artworks as on the market dynamics and power positions in the current art business, with even a majority of Cologne art dealers actually signing a joint declaration protesting what they called a “market-politics selection” of artists and works in the show. Furthermore, several artists objected more or less sharply—Anselm Kiefer and Donald Judd indeed very vehemently—to the inclusion of their pieces. And finally, with very few exceptions, almost every West German art critic has written off the exhibit as a failure and fiasco.

In the fallout, one faction of the artworld has been exploiting the very nasty polemics against “Bilderstreit” to drive one of its curators, Siegfried Gohr, from his position as director of Cologne’s Museum Ludwig; while the indignation of another faction is being heaped upon the Werner/Boone dealer team, because their artists figure very prominently in the show. Still others are using this exhibition as a welcome opportunity to polarize further the cities of Cologne and Frankfurt, which are currently wrangling for the position of West Germany’s leading “culture metropolis.”

As a result, there has been very little mention of the artworks themselves. Yet perhaps there is some justification to this. If, as it seems, “Bilderstreit” represents for so many the straw of commercialization and banalization that breaks the camel’s back, perhaps the exhibition and the furor around it also offer the opportunity to examine the current nature of the camel itself.

One of the major elements of the exhibition that came under attack was its emphatically unsystematic layout. Gohr and his fellow combatants—the Swiss publisher and curator Johannes Gachnang (who, at times, has also worked as an artist and an architect) and the designer of the exhibition, Walter Nikkels—did not arrange “Bilderstreit” according to an immediately scrutable plan. Instead, they seemed to have simply rolled out the art of the last thirty years in a labyrinthine sequence of rooms and corridors, ignoring all principles of chronological or stylistic order. We traveled through a framework that, in a sense, had no start or finish. “Bilderstreit” unfolded as a continuous dialogue or dispute in an anarchic contrast of pictures, sketching a view of recent art history without pinning it down programmatically. The outcome was a portion of recent art history, served up as an “essay” in pictures, in which, the curators asserted, the “temporal adjacency of the most diverse forms of pictorial expression prevents any shallow systemization.” Thus Gohr and Gachnang did not advocate any truly defensible theoretical concept; rather, they essentially justified their exhibition with their own memories and with their assurances of love and respect for art. Their argument, with its almost confessional tone, certainly served to emotionalize the matter. A provocative intimacy entered the scene, which, while it may have cast its spell on the visitors, may also have plunged them into a muddle of conflicting feelings.

Complicating matters further, the show had three separate but equal entrances, each of which served as the starting point for three different routes for each viewer through the exhibition, presumably yielding an antidogmatic approach to the art. Although regarded by many as an arrogant and unreasonable imposition, the complex layout struck me as the most outstanding feature of the exhibit, offering a rare freedom in dealing with artworks, a freedom that naturally can make us a bit shaky. Yet I would argue that by placing demands on the public, and at times, certainly, overexacting demands, “Bilderstreit” polemically collided with the increasingly popular international exhibitions à thèse, in which art is fast becoming more of an excuse for a spectacle than its own justification.

But it is precisely on this point that a good portion of its own polemics turned back against “Bilderstreit”; for this exhibition too “salon,” featuring some 1,000 pieces by roughly 125 artists from around the world in an area measuring over 100,000 square feet—so large, in fact, that it was forced to speculate on a large number of visitors lest it fail financially. However, the vast size and advance publicity hoopla undermined the avowed aims to promote an intense, personal focus on the individuality of the artist and the work in order to establish the basis for a more in-depth probing of the intellectual conflicts between various artists and their works. Given the wealth of the offerings and the highly original mise-enscène, this ultimate intention could be achieved only if visitors went through the exhibit several times. Paradoxically, once this challenge was taken up—by traveling several times via different routes through the maze of tiny rooms packed with works—one discovered what actually underlay this unorthodox assemblage and design. Rather than offering a highly flexible, and therefore independent, encounter with the art on view, “Bilderstreit,” in every square inch, reflected primarily the character of Gachnang’s particular vision.

Now we cannot really object to a survey of recent art from the viewpoint of a committed contemporary. And in Gachnang’s case, in particular, such an approach certainly promises a far fresher and more interesting experience than any dutiful recourse to the bland notion of historical objectivity. Yet this highly subjective view—especially since it was not unambiguously declared as such—was privileged far too heavily within the framework of this huge prestige exhibition, thus making it more than a convenient target for critical rhetoric. And this is not surprising, given Gachnang’s magisterial conduct and his well-known resolute and combative spirit.

Still, having said this, we can agree that if “Bilderstreit” did not provide the valid image of art during the past thirty years, it did supply one of many possible forms of presentation—and one that, in many ways, went radically and obstinately against the grain. The idiosyncratic nature of the choices was, in fact, illuminated by Gachnang’s “Biographical Chronology of the Exhibition,” included in the catalogue. This chronology traced Gachnang’s persona route through the art of the past thirty years embodying instructions, so to speak, for deciphering “Bilderstreit” accordingly. And perhaps this was the real thorn of the exhibition: the fact that it quite manifestly opposed the post-Modern zeitgeist; that it was fundamentally imbued with a highly committed individual value system. Here, Bild (picture, image, painting) was a word applied not only to paintings (as in its normal German usage) but also to objects and sculptures, and became the vehicle for the articulation of an esthetic defined by the terms of the artist’s engagement in the fight that was the theme here—the superficial, 20th-century “fight” between abstract and figurative painting, between conceptual and expressive styles, between American and European art, and among European artists themselves. To demonstrate this, individual artists appeared in smaller or larger retrospectives—either in virtually self-contained one-person shows within the total exhibition, or popping up in radically different and unusual contexts throughout. On these terms, for example, we found a Sol LeWitt wall drawing (No. 46, 1970), paintings by Robert Ryman, and Judd’s six-part Plywood Piece, 1984, serving to articulate, by their close proximity, a conceptual alliance with Georg Baselitz’s “expressionistic” upside-down figures. And next to this, in the same room, a number of A. R. Penck paintings looked almost naive—though certainly this evaluation was not intended. Similarly, with this approach, breaks as well as continuities became visible within a single artist’s oeuvre, breaks that often served to signify a challenge to or a surprising elaboration on that artist’s earlier positions. This explains what might be considered numerous blind spots and the frustrating lack of emphasis on obvious and powerful trends in the art world over the last thirty years, as well as the curators’ repeated proclivity for the selection of atypical pieces. For instance, both Piet Mondrian and Ellsworth Kelly cropped up not with their well-known abstract works, but with representational flower and leaf studies; and Jackson Pollock was shown at a point when his action painting was moving back toward the figurative. Everything was a wee bit different than expected, and every nook and cranny of the exhibition yielded peculiar constellations whose deeper meanings, given the curators’ evasion in explicitly declaring their strategy, were close to inscrutable.

If “Bilderstreit” sought to challenge a traditional integration of artistic positions, it also implicitly took on a further issue, namely the conflict between existential and conceptual positions (demonstrated so impressively in On Kawara and Niele Toroni) and traditional stylistic developments (as in Baselitz). Yet in the process, personal preferences slipping in the back door—as evinced, quite pointedly, for example, by the ubiquitous presence of Toroni, as opposed to the rare appearance of Daniel Buren (granted only three works—and incorrectly hung, to boot)—came to read as strong hierarchical evaluations. And quality, we were being instructed with every step we took in this exhibition, is not a formal but an existential category. This thesis was articulated almost didactically in the Alberto Giacometti room, where such diverse pictorial worlds as those of the late André Derain, Balthus, Pierre Klossowski, and Francis Gruber came together—merely because they were highly esteemed friends of Giacometti.

Here we come to the historical side of the exhibition, which, through selected digressions on Edvard Munch, Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia, hoped to trigger not only a discussion on the history of influences, but also a debate on the significanceof the late, and sometimes undervalued, works of these early “pioneers.” Similarly, the incorporation of outsiders or extreme loners—like Louis Soutter and Gaston Chaissac or Meret Oppenheim and Louise Bourgeois—repeatedly questioned the validity of the mainstream canon.

Ultimately, the subtitle of the “Bilderstreit” exhibition, “Widerspruch, Einheit and Fragment in der Kunst seit 1960” (Contradiction, unity, and fragment in art since 1960), hits the nail right on the head. For wherever you may have entered “Bilderstreit” you bumped into a contradiction, or a troubling correspondence, only to have the given problem then stated differently in the very next room. A demanding but tottering intellectual edifice temporarily materialized here: an imaginary museum, whose cultivated atmosphere initially simulated a hale image of the fine arts, but, when examined more closely, revealed any number of cracks. Certainly one can say that the things that were shown divulged the things that were missing—the entire realms of performance and video installation, for example. But the questions that were raised here cannot be swept under the rug by a blanket put-down of the exhibition. Between the conflicts posited in the confrontation of say, Jörg Immendorff’s Hört auf zu malen, 1966 (an emphatically expressive and painterly painting that contradicts its own title, “Stop painting”), and Sigmar Polke’s Höhere Wesen befahlen, 1969 (a painting that challenges its own irrational, constructed character by its title, “Higher beings commanded”), there is plenty of room to keep thinking.

Max Wechsler is a writer who lives in Lucerne. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.

“Bilderstreit: Widerspruch, Einheit and Fragmem in der kunst seit 1960” (Picture fight: contradiction, unity, and fragment in art since 1960), sponsored by the Museum Ludwig, was held at the Cologne Rheinhallen from April 8 through June 29.