Postwar German Art at the Dallas Museum of Art
The following is an essay by former DMA Contemporary Art curator Charles Wylie entitled "A German Persistence," included in the 2007 publication, Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art.
The Dallas Museum of Art possesses a survey of a purposely selective and relatively small number of major German artists. Tracing a broadly defined lineage from Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Sigmar Polke, and their roles in Düsseldorf at the Düsseldorf Academy and in neighboring Cologne, to younger German artists working within this tradition and breaking away from it, the Dallas holdings of contemporary German art reveal the extraordinary ability of art itself to rebound from even the most devastating of catastrophes that is one of the most extraordinary chapters in recent art history.
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) produced some of the most recognizable works of German art in the postwar years_ - such as - _Sled and Felt Suit. Behind their everyday, utilitarian guise, Beuys loaded ideas of protection, rescue, and salvation into these seemingly mundane objects by a subtle yet deeply considered use of materials and forms. These humanist concerns accorded with Beuys's notion that the culture at the moment needed a shamanistic force that would reintroduce ideas of the spiritual and the subjective into a materially obsessed society badly in need of potentially liberating introspection and self-reflection. By legitimizing the idea that art can indeed contain within it forces thought banished by a highly analytic and, to some minds, overly formal modernism, the influence of Beuys on German and contemporary art has been a foregone conclusion. When Beuys began his lecture and performance activities outside the world of the academy, he introduced to a fascinated, primarily European, audience the concept of social sculpture, the idea that the world one makes for one's self can be considered a work of art and that, therefore, everyone has the potential to be an artist. His notion of social sculpture emphasized the healing power of art to bring about social change through a secular, deeply committed ethos of social engagement.
Such idealist activism through the channels of the art establishment (Beuys conducted numerous performances around social and political themes wholly of their time in venues both within and outside the museum structure) was one response to the situation that German artists found themselves in after the annihilation of humanist culture in the wake of the cataclysmic disaster that was World War II. German and Germanic culture of centuries previous did nothing to stop the rise of the Nazis, and faith in the enterprise of the more recent efforts of modernism to change the world was fundamentally shaken. The challenge of making art in such a milieu was formidable, and it is one of the great achievements of German artists of the post-World War II era, not only to have created an authentic and far-reaching body of work in the face of such odds, but also to have demonstrated art's continuing relevance to contemporary thought and life, something that was hardly a given in 1950s Germany.
In contrast to Beuys's overt actions across the literal span of the globe, the art of Gerhard Richter represents a relentlessly focused response to the particular German art-making challenge. In his first mature works, Richter made gray paintings based on found media images that he chose for their random nature and seeming lack of meaning. In fact, as we see from decades of retrospection, these images are packed with meaning. Running parallel to American pop art but possibly more closely aligned with Jasper Johns's use of familiar images and objects such as maps and numbers, Richter's art signaled a distant remove. Perhaps such a remove was needed to consider how images formed what one knew and felt about events and people that occupied the often bewilderingly dense culture of Western industrialist growth and entrenchment.
Richter's investigation has extended into all areas of image making, not just media ads and family snapshots, by recreating at a distance the look of abstract expressionist brushstrokes and iconic spiritual symbols such as candles. This broad range of images and ideas both aesthetic and conceptual is easily seen, in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection, in the vast array of the artist's nearly 150 editioned works spanning virtually his entire career and including the media of painting, printmaking, photography, and sculpture. Richter imparted this far-reaching ambition to his Düsseldorf Academy student Thomas Struth, an artist whose work with photographs represents a similarly broad expanse of ideas within a single medium. Struth first studied painting with Richter but switched, at Richter's suggestion, to working under the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Photography, it seemed to Richter, offered Struth the means by which he could explore his interest in a type of social analysis through imagery of the contemporary world.
Working under the Bechers, whose own serially taken and grouped photographs revealed the sculptural form of industrial structures of bygone days, Struth took to the street of his hometown of Düsseldorf and registered the architecture thrown up in the 1950s to replace buildings that had been bombed. As the Bechers had done in revealing the way in which overlooked architecture can mark history, Struth expanded his view to a larger set of subjects, from portraits to landscape to cultural sites of public meaning (such as museums and houses of worship). In the process he took advantage of the astonishing range of techniques that had been developed in Düsseldorf and allowed artists as never before to make photographically based art that competed on the scale of painting and sculpture. In Struth's case, what we see is a rendering of the contemporary industrial, natural, and cultural world that is an incomparable mix of the formally beautiful with the rigorously analytic on a scale that has since become routine, but which at the time it appeared (in the later 1980s) posited and championed a completely new place for the photograph within contemporary art practice.
Struth's contemporary Thomas Ruff took a different tack in his landscape works by using the Internet as a source for his image of a cave in the Copper Canyon. Creating a series in which the artist used pixels to produce a latter-day version of a pointillist landscape à la Georges Seurat, Ruff literally breaks down the parts of a picture and leaves the implications of the view to be seen by looking out from a cave in a desert to our reflective capacities. An even younger artist, Thomas Demand, takes the truth as well as the artificiality of photography for granted in his depictions of staged interiors and natural phenomena. In one of his most explicitly German works, Demand recreated the studio of Albert Speer, which contained models of buildings that would be built once the Nazis had conquered Paris (and Europe). Such a work resembles perhaps the Bechers' and Struth's use of sometimes-ominous architecture, but does so in a way that reminds us, grimly, of what could have been, not of what is.
Before Ruff's and Demand's investigations with image making, however, came Lothar Baumgarten's extensive, decades-long, multimedia project with camera, book, sound, and installation. In his Carbon works, Baumgarten (significantly, a student of Beuys) uses landscape to record the contemporary, often neglected, state of the American rail system that enabled the expansion of the country, but was made possible by (and even allowed) the near-total extinction of native America. An earlier project involving hundreds of slides and a mysterious soundtrack saw Baumgarten ingeniously using the wastelands around the Düsseldorf airport to recreate a supposedly pristine rain-forest setting that turned out to be none other than a fouled ecosystem of the industrialized West. In a related way, Rosemarie Trockel uses images, in this case moving images made possible by video, to present an ambiguous narrative suggesting the impossibility that childhood innocence can last or even exist within a charged range of particularly Eastern European historical (political?) and religious iconographies.
Anselm Kiefer, another of Beuys's students, represents a classic example of an artist seeking to invest art with meaning by reengaging with just those kinds of signs and symbols. Perhaps the clearest example of a German artist seeking to exorcize the malignancy of the Nazi era, Kiefer, in his early work, confronted that legacy head on and then sought to reflect on the very achievements of German culture up to and including the 19th century. Whether this citing of precedence was intended as rebuke or reminder, the fact remained that for Kiefer, as for other artists, the very realities of German history were now to be confronted after what was felt to be a post-World War II amnesia. In his works with books, Kiefer summons the ancient form of the large book containing the wisdom of the ages, while in his giant mid-1990s canvases, he takes the landscape again as bearer of meaning, conjoining the infinite with the artistic in a typically crossbred evocation of the power of art that no less a painter than the 19th century German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich himself used in conjoining nature and mysticism.
Possessed of a completely different sensibility from nearly all the artists mentioned above, Sigmar Polke represents a powerful expression of postwar German art but has consistently used the notion of irony, not earnestness, to buttress his jabs at the conventions and pretensions of both the art world and broader culture in which it exists. Polke's earliest work relied like Richter's on a subtly more analytic use of popular imagery than that of the American pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (whose influence was even at the time acknowledged and who were the inspiration for Polke, Richter, and Konrad Lueg- who later became Konrad Fischer, the art dealer- to create the satirically named Capitalist Realism movement). Central to Polke's art is the use of the benday dot system that registered images in print through a half-tone process. A metaphor for the literal construction of images and thus their meaning, Polke's use of many printing techniques and mechanics actually rendered by hand is in effect often ironic to the point of a serious absurdity.
Behind his almost-too-easily grasped satire—on Texas gun culture, sex between men and women, the pomposity of conceptual artists, and the grandiosity of space travel, for instance—is a deeply intelligent and profound questioning of the fundamental tenets of the culture itself. Polke's art exhibits a skepticism bordering on the nihilist that is brilliantly masked by often wryly humorous juxtapositions of images and titles. What brings Polke back from the brink is his insistence on making art that is formally assured and sometimes out-and-out soaringly beautiful, a sign that for all his subversive intent there is at work here an equally accomplished aesthetic sensibility that takes beauty as one more convention to be used a transformed in an art of an almost forbiddingly smart and aware engagement.
The irreverence sported by Polke's art found an apt successor in the sculpture of Martin Kippenberger, who took forms of cultural import and adapted them for his own purposes, investigating the way in which symbols functioned in both the larger sphere and in relation to his own experience as an artist inheriting what was already seen as a powerful tradition of German art making in the environs of Cologne and Düsseldorf of the 1970s and 1980s. Kippenberger died in the mid-1990s at a young age, yet his influence on the international practice of the making of art by a younger generation has been great and represents the continuing importance of the laboratory that has been centered in Germany since Joseph Beuys first conceived his idea that everyone can be an artist.
Charles Wylie, "A German Persistence," Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art ; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 188-193.