Dieter Appelt

Where has Dieter Appelt been? We’ve heard of Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the Mühlheimer Freiheit and the Neue Wilden and, of course, Joseph Beuys, the father of them all. Since the “New Spirit in Painting” exhibition opened in London and Berlin in 1980, we’ve seen myriad German artists, including photographers like Appelt; but until now Appelt himself has been missing from the Deutsche Welle. As an apparent anticlimax, his sudden appearance in New York, in a recent retrospective at the SoHo Guggenheim, suggests that that wave has run its course. If not exactly spent, the new German art is no longer new.

It has made its point, though; it has won its bet. The new German painters of the late ’70s and ’80s satisfied a repressed longing for the figure, and released the pent-up emotions associated with it. At the same time, they remained true to Modernism (however subliminally): their techniques were those of abstract art. If abstraction rendered the figure freshly haunting and moving, the figure made abstraction emotional and visceral again, saving it from becoming vacuous, self-indulgent art-for-art’s-sake. In the hands of the best German artists, abstraction renewed its role as art’s expressive unconscious—the supportive, connotative role it had for the old masters. The cause, of course, was different. “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters,” W. H. Auden famously wrote, but the Germans were interested in another kind of pain: it is mass rather than individual suffering that is at stake for them, the suffering inflicted by history rather than a more or less private matter.

Now, though, the big-name German artists seem to be playing an endgame. One detects a compulsive repetition in their work, as if it were simultaneously conserving itself and in en tropic seizure. So why does Appelt suddenly seem to make sense? A number of factors conspired against his earlier recognition, from his late blooming (age 44 when he realized his interest in photography) in an art world of aggressive Wunderkinder to the very fact that he was a photographer, in a period of celebrity painters. Despite the intellectual attention and respect photography had picked up along the way, and despite its growing importance as an art medium in the early ’80s, there were still a lot of people then who thought it less of a medium for self-expression than painting was—and self-expression, ostensibly for the good of a repressed society, was the rage. To neo-Expressionist artists and their audiences, photography may have been too dependent on the external world to be sensitive to the internal world.

That Appelt was East German may not have been a handicap; many of the German artists who were successful came from the East. It probably mattered more that he was not a student or devotee of the very influential Beuys, although he did engage in morbidly personal, hopefully redemptive performances. Perhaps most important, though, was the mood of his work: at a moment when it was timely to be an explosive, presumptuous expressionist, Appelt, perhaps in deliberate reaction, became progressively more coolly scientific, detached, and impersonal, indeed self-effacing to the point of inscrutability. Never much good at Sturm und Drang (he himself allowed that his work was static compared to that of his more dynamic compatriots), he became less assertive than ever, hiding himself behind his technique, all but invisible in the camera’s eye.

Why, then, has recognition come upon him now? It is perhaps because his career constitutes an ironic summary of the issue of German identity, an issue that haunts virtually all the German art that has received such wide if sometimes queasy attention here. In its preoccupation with German identity, all the recent German art, whether from Berlin, Hamburg, or Cologne, shows a morbid self-love; Appelt’s photographs suggest how that kind of self-love ironically leads to self-loss. They show that self-defeat has been the basic theme of the new German figuration, which is why, I think, that work has been so celebrated abroad: it reassures us that, despite its renewed political weight, Germany, once such a threat to the world, has indeed been defeated—and by itself, no less. Not only the Allies but Germany’s hubris—its ambitious, ruthless overreaching—destroyed it.

Appelt’s figures stand humiliated. He is said to be “vehemently opposed to any psychoanalytic reading of his work,”l but we don’t need much psychoanalytic understanding to see the narcissistic basis of his photographs, and to see that they reek of the death instinct, like all good German art. Narcissism is partly about death, we may recall: Narcissus was so in love with himself, so unable to see beyond himself, that he drowned in his own image, reflected in a pool. Until the ’80s, Appelt made image after image of himself, and his presence endures in his recent work, though more subliminally—the format of his self-presentation has changed. (By his own testimony, the swirling water of Das Feld [The field], 1991, represents a regression to a childhood scene.2) In his best-known photograph, Der Fleck auf dem Spiegel, den der Atemhauch schafft (The mark on the mirror breathing makes), 1977, he in effect dissolves himself by breathing on his mirror image, ingeniously completing an unwittingly vicious narcissistic circle. And in his 1979 performance Black Box, he lay immobile, as though dead, in shallow water made milky by marble powder—another ironically deadly pool (immortality, traditionally symbolized by marble, being part of the narcissistic self-delusion).

Image after image shows Appelt or parts of him (face, hands) isolated, often naked, often caked with dirt, as though he had been buried (alive?). He clearly remains buried in himself, his own victim. The ingenious living death and infantilism of narcissism, perfectly symbolized by the fetal position the naked Appelt takes in one photograph, is often replaced by the literal death embodied in the skull that Appelt has performed with and photographed—a kind of absolute form and content in one, a remarkable presence-absence he clearly identifies with. In mood as well as situation, Spiegelfächerobjekt III (Mirror fan object III), 1994, in which the artist stands facing a fanlike arrangement of mirrors, seems a long way from Schneeloch (Hole in the snow), 1977–79, in which he lies naked—eyes closed, as though dead—on wintry ground within a coffinlike space cut from the snow. But the self-involvement of both is clear, even if the presentation of self is peculiarly affectless and ritualized.

With unusual explicitness and rigor, all Appelt’s works articulate the narcissism that pervades the new German figuration, whatever the stylistic differences among the artists. By making narcissism bleak and catastrophic, Appelt transforms it into a kind of emotional realism. It is this directness that finally makes him timely, justifying his exhibition at the SoHo Guggenheim, as a foil to Georg Baselitz’s recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum uptown. The artists are almost the same age, but where Baselitz’s work extended the narcissistic theme that would become a German specialty (in a sense, Baselitz transferred Beuys’ pseudoheroic narcissism into self-allegorical painting), Appelt represents its last conceptual gasp. Indeed, in Appelt’s work narcissism ironically exhausts itself in another German specialty: quasi-scientific photography. And that is the real point of his timeliness.

Acknowledging a debt to Italian Futurism and to its English spin-off, Vorticism, Appelt has made many studies of matter in motion, or in an appearance of motion caused by changing light and twisting shape. He had always made films, and his cinematic curiosity has now become a full-fledged sensibility. His studies clearly involve personal symbolism, as well as a familiar German metaphysical pretentiousness-a projection of psychosomatic states into seventh intellectual heaven. The still-life tableaux of Die Schatten errinern an nichts II (The shadows are reminiscent of nothing II, 1991), six oddly lit photographs of ambiguously identifiable rectangular and globular forms, seem a long way from more emotionally and socially charged early works like Führerbunker, 1959–60, a photograph of a chair in Hitler’s ruined bunker itself, in effect showing us the rotten, bankrupt throne—corpse—of German authority and power, and from the 1981 images in which Appelt identifies with Ezra Pound (a more unwitting allusion to fascism, whatever the artist’s claimed interest in the fluidity and “allover” character of Pound’s poetry). But in emotional fact Appelt has not gone far: however different his relatively utopian time-and-motion studies seem from his earlier, brutally realistic self-portraiture, they too present a sense of abandonment, futility, and isolation.

There is a sense, however, in which these photographs are more oblique and abstract, less direct, than the earlier work: from showing how German history digs its teeth into his body, Appelt has regressed to what amounts to a prelapsarian celebration of the German technological genius. He demonstrates, in the medium of photography, the technical prowess—and of course the Germans were inventors of the advanced modern camera—that gave Germany such sharp teeth, and made its victory in World War II seem inevitable: it seemed to be marching in step with time and 20th-century technology. In this sense Appelt’s quasi-filmic studies remain as narcissistically German as his earlier studies of his face and body. He seems to be insisting that the destructive German past is behind him, that he is objective, not stuck in the old subjective quagmire, that he has transcended his abused body, that his feelings no longer press for visceral expression—that he has gone beyond Germany’s ruin and his own suffering. In fact, though, his retreat to intellect and technique insidiously symbolizes his and Germany’s narcissism.

Indeed Appelt has unwittingly completed the narcissistic circle of self-love and self-loss. Though his work has a shamanistic content, it loses healing force by being intellectualized, formalized, and stylized, to the point where it becomes oddly absurd and abstract. Intellectualism is a common way to evade emotional reality, but in Appelt’s case its apparent selflessness ironically confirms the last stage of narcissistic pathology: it is the pristine form taken by the narcissist’s death. The busy self-mirroring in Appelt’s time-and-motion studies evokes, or addresses, a lack of a sense of self—it is as if he hoped to get one from the mirror. It also compensates for that lack by constantly rerunning the mirror image in an infinitely slow contemplation, a clinging to what little sense of self the mirror provides.

Appelt’s generation of German artists sacrificed itself to an obsolete German narcissism, the narcissism of an earlier nationalism one hopes the country has abandoned. Suggesting a futile effort to solve that problem, Appelt’s late photography implicitly only confirms its intractable deep-rootedness. The work may reflect an attempt to master a feeling of injury and deprivation by reconceiving it as a deliberate act of renunciation (Otto Rank thinks this effect the ultimate emotional triumph of art), but Appelt refines narcissism more than he triumphs over it. His scientific investigations and technical innovations (his renowned fussiness with the camera, as though to show it in action were his only concern) come to a dead end in an involuted and convoluted reflection of and on the self, the morbid turn inward, the chewing on the cud of the unconscious that invariably follows defeat. Where have I gone wrong? What mistakes did I make? Suggesting an attempt to deal with these questions on an intellectual rather than an emotional level, Appelt’s work ends up formally reifying a content that used to be explicit in his work: death. He never stops honoring death. One awaits a younger generation of postnarcissistic, less fatalistic German artists.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. His next book will be called Idiosyncratic Identities: Art at the End of the Avant-Garde, to be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

This exhibition will travel to the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, in December, and to Rencontrer Internationale de la Photographie, Arles, in March.


1. Sylvia Wolf, Dieter Appelt, exhibition catalogue, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Berlin: Ars Nicolai, 1994.

2. Dieter Appelt, quoted in ibid.