New York

Jörg Immendorff

Michael Werner | New York

In the early ’80s, when German neo-Expressionism surged through American galleries and museums, the venemous attack mounted against the new painting (most notably by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh) alternately took exception to the young painters’ lack of authenticity, and to their decadent style and regressive politics. The unfortunate side effect was a cementing of already stratified perceptions of postwar German art: the “good” German was the benevolent Professor Joseph Beuys, whose blending of mythology, mysticism, and social idealism atoned for past nationalistic sins; the “bad” Germans were the renegade expressionist imitators, garishly flexing their painterly muscle. Expressionism’s Pyrrhic victory in this esthetic cold war skirmish did more than collapse the politics of praxis into a stylistic argument; it contributed to an intellectual isolationism by foreclosing on a vital chapter of the contemporary history of art—the ’60s in Germany—in which, ironically, neo-Expressionism is rooted.

The miniretrospective of selected works from the ’60s by Jörg Immendorff, whose reputation in this country virtually begins and ends with the “Café Deutschland” series, drives this message home. It includes: paintings made during and subsequent to his enrollment in Beuys’ class at the Düsseldorf academy; love and peace relics in the form of painted wooden baby faces and flowers from the height of his anti–Vietnam War performances; and documentation of his LIDL activities. The handful of paintings on exhibit have the conceptual clarity, political adroitness, and casual flippancy that characterize the Capitalist Realist works of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, and thus they suggest that Immendorff intended to dismantle the entire tradition of painting, theme by theme. Rennendes Pferd—Wiese—hauender Adler (Running horse—meadow—hunting eagle, 1966) parodies romantic 19th-century painting by representing the dramatic components of landscape and figuration in black text against a flat, pastel-hued background. A small Color Field–style painting of horizontal bands of black, red, and yellow, Passport (deutsche Farben) (Passport [German colors], 1965), trifles with abstraction and German nationalism (a perennially troubled coupling and one under much attack in the late ’50s and early ’60s).

The mission of the young Immendorff, who appeared at his professor’s classes dressed as a knight of the order of Beuys and caricatured his mentor’s cult hero status in Beuysland, 1965, was never solely an esthetic one. Art, or more precisely, “antiart,” was a means toward social and political ends, and painting a path that soon led to rebellious anti-institutional actions and performances in which Beuys, as well as the Fluxus artists Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, and others participated. Early in 1966, Immendorff adopted new iconographical elements—babies and flowers. Part Oriental, part African, part Anglo, and as comical as it is horrific in appearance, with exaggerated puffed cheeks and jowls, his infant motif was brought to life in numerous performances in which Immendorff donned scant pink panties and a baby mask to distribute painted wooden flowers to “all the gentle people of the world,” as he termed the members of his audience.

Unorthodox as either Vietnam War protests or as manifestations of serious art, Immendorff’s baby performances exuded a playful innocence; yet the same cannot be said of his LIDL activities. A phonetic imitation of baby talk, LIDL was conceived as a cooperative effort to unite artists and workers and to expand the frame of art to include everyday life. LIDL-block, 1967, painted in the national colors of black, red, and yellow, bears the word and the distinction of being the first LIDL object. Actually, there were two such blocks. Walking back and forth in front of the parliament building in Bonn for some thirty minutes, dragging the block, which was strapped to his leg, on the ground, Immendorff attracted the attention of the police, who confiscated it on grounds of flag desecration. (He had another with him, however, and repeated the action after the police left.)

Chalk drawings on blackboards, cardboard and wooden props, sketches on paper, numerous photographs and other documentary mementoes are all that remain today of the zany and inspired enthusiasm of LIDL’s flowering. Perhaps its most important chapter, however, was its own institutionalization as an academy in 1968 and its relocation to Immendorff’s alma mater, the Düsseldorf academy—a move that literally brought the house down. Unable to evict the LIDL squatters who plastered the halls with posters, planted their flag on the rooftop, and took over classrooms, the patriarchs of the Düsseldorf academy could find no other effective means of getting rid of them than to close the entire academy for “cleaning” purposes and to expel the one whom they saw as the real culprit—Herr Joseph Beuys. He had eventually, if reluctantly, become a supporter of Immendorf’s band of LIDL perpetrators. Immendorff carried on in the service of LIDL through the mid ’70s, becoming more involved in social issues such as tenant rights before retiring to the morass of neo-Expressionist painting and a “legitimate” academic teaching post. Meanwhile, Beuys’ peripatetic pedagogical style, his conception of the ideal academy, his performances, and even many of his iconographical motifs (the honey, the blackboard drawings) were heavily funded by Immendorff’s grass-roots efforts, providing LIDL (whose name and notoriety ceased to exist) the legitimacy it never sought.

Jan Avgikos