13 November 2011

From the Rubble of the Chancellery / Leben mit Pop

Reading Andreas Huyssen's Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, I come across the following in the author's essay on the art of Anselm Kiefer, here writing about the artist's Occupations photo series of 1969:

"There is another dimension, however, to this work, a dimension of self-conscious mise-en-scène that is at its conceptual core. ...But why ten the Sieg Heil gesture? would suggest that it is to be read as a conceptual gesture reminding us that indeed Nazi culture had almost effectively occupied, exploited, and abused the power of the visual, especially the power of massive monumentalism and of a confining, even disciplining, central-point perspective. Fascism had furthermore perverted, abused, and sucked up whole territories of a German image-world, turning national iconic and literary traditions into mere ornaments of power and thereby leaving post-1945 culture with a tabula rasa that was bound to cause a smoldering crisis of identity. After twelve years of an image orgy without precedent in the modern world, which included everything from torch marches to political mass specatcles, from the mammoth staging of the 1936 Olympics to the ceaseless productions of the Nazi film industry deep into the war years, from Albert Speer's floodlight operas in the night sky to the fireworks of antiaircraft flak over burning cities, the country's need for images was exhausted. Apart from importing American films and the cult of foreign royalty in illustrated magazines, postwar Germany was a country without images, a landscape of rubble and ruins that quickly and efficiently turned itself into the gray of concrete reconstruction, lightened up only by the iconography of commercial advertising and the fake imagery of the Heimatfilm. The country that had produced the Weimar cinema and a wealth of avant-grade art in the 1920s and that would produce the new German cinema beginning in the late 1960s was by and large image-dead for about twenty years: hardly any new departures in film, no painting worth talking about, a kind of enforced minimalism, ground zero of a visual amnesia."

The essay in question was originally published in the journal October in 1988. That being the case, Huyssen is talking about the work that the Kiefer did over the first 15 years of his career. By the late 1980s, the artist's work had already shifted to include a broader array of cultural references and iconography. After Kiefer moved off to France in the early 1990s, critics wrote him off for a stretch, the verdict being that a more "romantic" (supposed French) sensibility had seeped into his work, softening it to some degree. Admittedly, the artist's style did evolve. Yes, he still works on the same large, almost monumental, scale. But there's an elegance to the look of the stuff -- mainly in the handling of materials -- that was absent during his first 20 years of work.1  The rough-hewn quality that was so much a part of the character of the early work always seemed to be inextricably bound up with the content -- the thick and deeply textured crust of paint denoting the scarred and haunted landscape of the Heimat, while simultaneously implying a throwing-mud-at-the-wall effort of trying to give voice to the unspeakable (or at least the unspoken).2

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Huyssen continues in the next paragraph...

"I am reminded here of of something Werner Herzog once stated...'We live in a society that has no adequate images anymore, and if we we do not find adequate images and an adequate language for our civilization with which to express them, we will die out like the dinosaurs. It's as simple as that.' The absence of adequate images in postwar Germany and the need to invent, to create images to go on living also seems to propel Kiefer's project. He insists that the burden of fascism on images has to be reflected and worked through by any postwar German artist worth his or her salt. From that perspective indeed most postwar German art has to be seen as so much evasion. During the 1950s, it mainly offered derivations from abstract expressionism, tachism, informel, and other internationally sanctioned movements. As opposed to literature and film, media in which the confrontation with the fascist past had become an overriding concern during the 1960s, the art scene in West Germany was dominated by the light experiments of Gruppe Zero, the situationist-related Fluxus movement, and a number of experiments with figuration in the work of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The focus of most of these artists, whether or not they wanted their art to be socially critical, was the present: consumer capitalism in the age of America and television. In this context Kiefer's occupations of the fascist image-space and of other nationalist iconography were as much a new departure for German art as they were a political provocation, except, of course, that this provocation was not widely recognized during the 1970s."

Which addresses what I was writing about, albeit by a much more circuitous route, in that bit I wrote about Bowie's "Berlin years" for the '70s-themed outboard venue earlier this year. This matter of historical and cultural limbo that followed the Nullpunkt of 1945, the artistic conundrum of the how to proceed when when a society is anxious about its own past and ambivalent about its present.

This ambivalence is what prompts the reading of the early work of Gerhard Richter as so emblematic of its milieu. Richter generally always had the habit of working in a variety of disparate styles simultaneously. A painterly polyglot, with no style taking any sort of aesthetic pre/eminence over any of the others, since -- by dent of their lack of historical/lineal moorings -- there is no developmental artistic lineage or tradition for them to adhere to. But it's the blurred, semi- photorealist works of the 1960s that are most associated with his "Capitalist Realism" phase, that are exemplary of the early leg of his career. There are the numerous paintings modeled from images taken from various magazines, newspapers, school yearbooks and whatnot, all of which seem to be at once both voguish and utterly mundane.

And then there's a much more problematic painting like Onkel Rudi...

It being an old photograph of a family member dressed up in his S.S. uniform. This one occurs in another series of images Richter produced during those years, derived from anonymous found snapshots taken from family albums. As one critic has pointed out, Onkel Rudi is at once both transgressive and innocuous – transgressive in the way it references a suppressed and sordid past, innocuous because of the fact that almost every German household might have had a snapshot of this sort tucked away somewhere. Yet there it is, appearing amid a large body of work that featured an array of images drawn from modern life – of cars, fashion models sporting evening wear, family portraits, a depiction of a cow from a children's book, etc. All of them blurred and distorted by way of painterly manipulation, all of them blurring together as free-floating signifiers in a cultural landscape. A sort of entropic blankness sets in, as if all these images are -- in the realm of an ahistoric moment in time -- equally meaningless and interchangeable. The selection of images is arbitrary -- with no single image meaning anything more than any of the others, all of them ultimately cancelling each other out. There is, one suspects, a critical disinterest on the part of the painter that borders on nihilism.3

Capitalist Realism, the name that Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Konrad Lueg chose as their collective artistic banner when they first began exhibiting. The fact that they abandoned it shortly thereafter and went their separate creative directions suggest that the sobriquet may've been little more than a nonce marketing move in the first place. Still, it was clearly at the time a German response to the Pop Art sensibility that had already emerged in the U.K. and the U.S. some several years previously. But in Britain and the States, this sensibility had emerged out of a different social context -- with the arrival of "pop" modernity having been a state that these western countries had transitioned into during the postwar period -- a cultural situation that had evolved (as it were) organically. Whereas in Germany there was more the sense that it was – to some degree – being imposed from elsewhere, flooding in to fill a cultural void.4

Still, it could be added that this issue or impasse about there being a lack of "adequate images" of the age, and of artists striving to find or create such images wasn't limited to Germany during those years. Among the generation of American artists that started their studies and careers during the 1950s, there was a similar dilemma: What to paint? Abstract Expressionism seemed exhausted and epitomized a type of romanticism that no longer fit the times. It's critical successor, post-painterly abstraction, seemed too digressively formalistic and too decorative. It was, by many accounts, a common question. The question would be answered in a variety of ways -- from Pop, to John and Rauschenberg and the American associates of what would become Fluxus raiding the contemporary common culture for materials and imagery, to someone like Philip Pearlstein playing about with pop subjects before settling into a clinically sterile mode of figure painting. This "crisis of representation" arose from an entirely different context, one that was comparatively unburdened by traditions or the weigh of history. In each instance, however, this aesthetic nullpunkt would prove a pivotal juncture -- strongly dividing the first half of the century from the second.

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1.  No need to construe that this is a necessarily negative thing. Far from it.

2.  Add to this the fragments from the poems of Paul Celan scrawled across some of the paintings, which -- as Huyssen also points out -- in itself echoes Adorno's remark that epic poetry was impossible in the wake of the Holocaust.

3.  Much of this emerging modern consumer culture was leveraged and subsidized by the Marshall Plan, by the U.S. economic assistance that was directed to assist Germany (et al) in the project of rebuilding in the postwar era -- therefore, regarded by some Germans of being of external origins. Some accounts suggest that some Germans of the era were wary of this sudden slam-dunk into this new way of life, resulting in vague sense of malaise and occasional anti-American sentiment. Hence the remark that later appeared in Wim Wender's Im Lauf der Zeit, "The Americans have colonized our subconscious."

4.  The work of Sigmar Polke, however, often proves much more difficult to parse. One detects, especially in his work of the 1970s and '80s, a sense of deliberate irony fueling the work -- the artist's selection of images and the choice of appropriated materials, as well as from the sometimes willful ugliness of the work.

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