Manfred Kuttner, Pair-Impair, 1963, tempera, fluorescent paint on decorative fabric, 71 x 45 1/4".

Manfred Kuttner, Pair-Impair, 1963, tempera, fluorescent paint on decorative fabric, 71 x 45 1/4".

Manfred Kuttner

Villa Merkel

Manfred Kuttner, Pair-Impair, 1963, tempera, fluorescent paint on decorative fabric, 71 x 45 1/4".

Though Manfred Kuttner’s blend of Pop art and abstraction still feels relevant today, it is a fifty-year-old product of the German economic miracle. After studying in Dresden in the 1950s, Kuttner fled the GDR for Düsseldorf, where he enrolled at the city’s Kunstakademie in 1960. Thereafter, in a career lasting just three years, 1962–65, he used newly marketed fluorescent paints to fashion two major bodies of work. The first—and larger—of these is a group of patterned abstract paintings, whose checkered and striated surfaces explore effects of virtual movement. Influenced most notably by the Düsseldorf-based Group Zero, the retina-sapping imagery of these works is wont to spiral, torque, and flicker before one’s eyes, buckling and ballooning in accordance with the nature of their patterning.

Kuttner’s other works, which owe a stronger debt to Nouveau Réalisme and perhaps to Konrad Klapheck’s paintings of mechanical devices, comprise a group of found objects on which he painted. Consisting mainly of the innards of household items, including a typewriter, a mattress, and a piano, these objects were first primed in white tempera, then selectively repainted in high-contrast colors. This patterning gives rise to strange optical effects not unlike those of his canvases, though instead of adding depth to flat surfaces, as is frequently the case with his paintings, Kuttner’s alterations to his objects tend to undercut their three-dimensionality. So strident are their clashing neon hues that, regardless of their actual respective locations, they seem to float together on the same virtual foreground plane. Complementing these two groups of works in the Villa Merkel’s Kuttner retrospective, now on view at the Langen Foundation, Neuss, Germany, was an untitled photographic series from 1963, depicting a nude woman whose body has been painted with a diamond pattern; A–Z, 1963, an 8-mm film—showing scenes from Düsseldorf—whose rapid-fire rhythms tax the eye in much the same manner as Kuttner’s paintings; and a single silk-screen print, Das Fell (Orange) (The Fur [Orange]), 1964.

This exhibition affirmed that the artist’s work in all its forms was rooted in his responses to capitalism. The changing attitudes of Kuttner, who perceived West German life as a spectacle of captivating surfaces, toward his new milieu are writ large across the surfaces of his art. While entertainment-themed paintings such as Hasard (Wager), 1963, and Achterbahn (Roller Coaster), 1964, evince mixed feelings of mistrust and fascination—their joyously unsteady patterning modeling the giddy yet risk-prone character of capitalist existence—the hot-pink Heiliger Stuhl (Holy Chair), 1962, is less equivocal. The ludicrously bright exterior of this work, which consists of a repainted Thonet chair, seems to mock the capitalist penchant for repackaging, a form of pseudo-innovation in no way linked to the functional improvement of commodities. In this way, both its title, which intimates that shopping, in Kuttner’s eyes, had become a new religion in the West, and its shrill, attention-grabbing makeover suggest a wariness on the artist’s part toward consumption, the chief locus of capitalism’s surface seductions. His other objects, however, evince no such critical potency. Strictly ornamental in appearance, they feel wholly affirmative, as do his photographs, which if anything intensify the lure of capitalism’s surfaces: Commencing with a tableau of seductive female flesh, Kuttner then applied a layer of cosmetic paint to his model’s body, amplifying her erotic charge. That he eventually stopped making art in favor of a career as a designer suggests that, in the end, he preferred to fabricate rather than resist such surface solicitations. And understandably so, in light of his socialist upbringing, for as he rightly remarked toward the end of his life (Kuttner died in 2007), the gaudy neon exteriors of his capitalist images were a lot easier to love than the dirty brown oil paintings of his Dresden years.

Luke Smythe