New York

“Photography In Contemporary German Art: 1960 To The Present”

Guggenheim Soho

In post––World War II Germany, the green shoots of an “invisible college” of photographically inspired practices appear to have sprouted largely around three personalities associated with the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie: Joseph Beuys, and Bernd and Huila Becher. Or at least this is the logical conclusion to be drawn from this survey exhibition. Gary Garrels, Senior Curator of the Walker Art Center, where this show originated, has undoubtedly organized an impressive exhibition. As Garrels correctly points out in his introductory essay, “The photographic medium came to be recognized as having enormous physical and conceptual capacities that could touch on and expand the potential of other media as well.” That statement, while undeniably true, is something of a commonplace. And there is precious little, either in the succeeding catalogue entries or the museum installation itself, to oppose the myriad self-descriptions of the significance of the artists’ works. For the viewer there are few opportunities to imagine how photography as a medium of high art might be problematic, used not merely for its own image-making sake, but as a tool to foreground what has been called its “vernacular expediency.” When this latter quality is suggested, the works are generally positioned in an area of socio-cultural critique or are coded as participating in the “emptying-out” of subjectivity. How photography, for German artists, has compromised, alienated, even defeated, the so-called traditional practices of paint-ing-not to mention painting’s specific genres—is a question this exhibition sometimes alludes to, but mostly marginalizes and ignores. Thus, the conceptual issues relative to photographic and photographically based practices of representation in Germany are generally buried beneath a different set of problems.

One problem favored by the curator is the relationship between German and U.S. art during the Cold War ’60s. The picture we see emphasized in the work of Peter Roehr, Martin Kippenberger, and certainly figuring in the practices of Sigmar Polke and early Gerhard Richter, is one of accommodation to and esthetic appropriation of the images and icons associated with Pop art. But the specific relationship each artist has to what is taken to be “American culture” is never foregrounded. Another theme—a “reckoning with German history, specifically with the Nazi period and the circumstances surrounding World War II”—is supposedly articulated in some of these works. (How long, one wonders, will the work of Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer be promoted as an adequate response to this history?) Are these two themes stressed because they are arguably part of the theoretical foundations of postwar German photographic practice, or is it simply because they are the issues deemed most glamorous and publicly accessible?

With the use of relatively unknown and perhaps minor German figures to accommodate a parallel history of development akin to American Pop, Garrels could have announced, in a rather sophisticated way, the contours of a transatlantic cultural struggle. This never seems to gain much headway; consequently, relatively unknown or marginalized German artists remain adrift, while most of German art is conceptualized as falling within two options: either play the American game or be more German. Neither of these are necessarily self-evidently ideological or representative of cultural resistance.

Michael Corns