Hans-Peter Feldmann

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s rigorous conceptual oeuvre constitutes one of the most important efforts of the ’60s and ’70s. Hence, it is strange that his output has remained unknown or at best local. During the decade and a half (1968 to 1980) in which he was active, Feldmann produced a varied but ultimately coherent body of work that included the small-format notebooks of trivial subjects, reproduced in simple black and white, as well as the late colorations of found toys, pictures, newspaper pages, and kitschy plaster figures of ancient statues.

Producing few originals, rarely signing his pieces, and often making large editions to be sold at bargain-basement prices, Feldmann long eluded the art market. In 1980, however, under the pressure of these mechanisms, he decided to withdraw from the art world completely, abruptly terminating his production and destroying most of the pieces still in his possession.

All of the work Feldmann did during his brief career is presented in this retrospective: letters, toys, picture pads, photos, books, and various appropriated objects. The vast array clearly affirms Feldmann’s status as both an important representative of the German conceptual photography of the ’60s and 70s and a harbinger of the Appropriation Art celebrated in the late ’80s. While Feldmann’s motifs are both banal and charming, his motives rely on the concept of plagiarism, the myth of dispossessed authorship, and the creative copying effect as much as on the idea of a reauthorization of the pictures and objects brought to the surface by the artist’s archaeology of everyday life. Feldmann takes over the images of wishful thinking—the kitsch-soaked views of snowy Alps—conveyed to us by illustrated magazines. They were public property, the orphans of a society living in an affluence of images, and Feldmann offers them anew as posters, postcards, or booklets. His style is perfectly unspectacular, simple, and modest.

Feldmann rigorously seduces us with mass-produced bric-a-brac: romantic peace doves, and sentimental swans; photos of half-naked girls and leather-clad racing-car drivers; lots of bare busts and occasional full bottoms; and gaudy department store knickknacks at which the art connoisseur turns up his nose. By shrewdly reproducing things that are eternally reproduced, as a playback critical of art and culture, the artist deprives reproduced images of their representational character in order to deliver them up to a new level of reproduction without representation. For everything loses its content,becomes stale, tastes like the second infusion of a teabag.

This theme conceals the artist’s realization that the world of mass-produced imagery is inevitably linked to processes of appropriation and dispossesion. The artist’s monopoly with regard to image production is lost, the claim to originality is forfeited, the unique can be copied ad infinitum.

In Feldmann’s work, original and reproduction are so thoroughly interchangeable that the production of artistic images per se is defined as a doubling or multiplying of images that are not original anyway, so that any theory sounds long-winded. Any subject of Feldmann’s artwork loses its canonizable cultural value in favor of a new exhibition.

And thus we walk through this exhibition as if reading an excellent essay on a specific theme, written in a very specific time and about a very specific time. For Feldmann’s images are images of a particular moment; they show now powerless politicians, terrorists who are now safely in custody, lost townscapes, clothing that is no longer worn, haircuts that are no longer popular, and toys that can no longer be bought new. We feel the acuteness of the skepticism about the innocuousness of mass-produced images, mass-produced cultural values, and mass-produced feelings on the whole.

The artist subverts not only solid bourgeois complacency, but also the middle-class notion of art. He deprives the artwork of its glamour and introspection; as a result, nostalgia, melancholy, sentimentality, and an immaterial sense of art history gain new ground.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neurgroschel.