From Baudelaire’s 1859 dismissal of photography on down, the image-culture of the petit bourgeois “mob” has long served as a provocation to artistic thought, a relationship that reached its most literal apogee in the West with the Pop Art of the 20th century. For the group of German artists currently subject of an historic-archival exhibition at Artists Space produced by Kunsthalle Düsseldorf — Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner — an engagement with the banality of middle-class life laid bare the relationship between artistic labor and mass images in a consumer society recovering from the shock of the Second World War.
Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism, curated by Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, Gregor Jansen, Stefan Kalmár, Richard Birkett, and Susanne Rennert is a data dump of an exhibition, spanning both Artists Space locations at Greene and Walker Streets in lower Manhattan and comprising hundreds of objects, with leaflets, pamphlets, postcards, pictures, films, correspondences, and (mostly reproduced) artworks. Beginning, chronologically, at Artists Space Books & Talks on Walker Street, the exhibition grounds the rise of Capitalist Realism in the Fluxus art movement of the early 1960s, which the four artists were enmeshed in as students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. There the work of George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, and Josef Beuys was an animating influence, best distilled by the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus held in the school’s auditorium in February 1963. A flyer featuring a manifesto by Maciunas enjoined the audience to “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness” and “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART.”
Read as an ironic screed, equal parts sardonic spectacle and manifesto, Maciunas’s flyer codified a sentiment reactive to the Eastern Bloc’s doctrinaire Socialist Realism that Capitalist Realism would go on to develop — with Richter himself having begun his career in East Germany as a socialist muralist (all but Lueg were East German). In Nam June Paik’s Serenade for Alison, a series of one-page pamphlets printed in red and displayed in the “Fluxus” section at Artists Space Books & Talks (and performed at Gallery Monet Amsterdam in 1962), we get a glimpse of the sly aggression of this anti-ideology: “Take off a pair of red panties, and put them in the vest pocket of a gentleman,” the artist instructs the performer, Alison Knowles, among nine other actions involving the undergarment, including “stuff[ing] them in the mouth of a music critic.”
The mouth, as it turns out, becomes as good an entry point as any for embodying the asphyxiating affect of the image under capitalism, which exists at once as a wellspring and nullification of critique. In the exhibition’s second, and larger, location, at Artists Space proper, large-format reproductions of artworks lean against two outer walls, facing a maze of displays, each representing a key Capitalist Realist exhibition or grouping of exhibitions. Among the copies, which are printed on cardboard, Polke’s iconic “Der Wurstesser/The Sausage Eater” (1963) painting embodies, in its face stripped of eyes and ears consuming a rope of sausages, what the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas called in Totality and Infinity (1979) the “stomach without ears,” which is in its consumptive enjoyment “deaf to the Other, outside of all communication and all refusal to communicate.”
The notion of heedless pleasure that provoked Lévinas into this anthropomorphization is linked to the injunction to consume propagated by the aspirational culture of advertising addressed by Polke and his peers with their extensive, and often programmatic, riffing on the aesthetics of ads and photographs. (A selection of period magazines, turned to ad pages and set on a table featuring a reproduced invitation to an exhibition at Galerie Schmela, display some of these unalloyed pleasures.) This morally tortured machine was the one driving — often quite literally, in the form of the automotive industry — the West German Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle,” that the young artists found themselves witness to.
The conjoined forces of industry and leisure, with their penumbra of idealized pictures from advertising, was especially traumatic given the horrors of World War II — a national tragedy so recent and horrific as to literally be unspeakable. But this cleansing of the body and body politic by consumerism was also supplanted by a more exigent question of positioning bodies in socio-economic space: the problem of fitting the artist’s labor into the engine of commerce and industry. Richter and Kuttner posed just such a question in 1964, writing the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs for the State of North Rhine Westphalia under the pretext of asking him for a job:
… Of course today every worker is needed in business or industry but if nothing else should be left for us except to earn a livelihood by working at a lathe or on a construction site after 8 semesters of the art academy it would probably make more sense to take this situation to its logical conclusion and break with tradition, dissolving the painting departments at art schools, including teaching positions and departmental employees. Aged 31 and 27 respectively, we still believe that the visual arts are necessary, also in a time characterized by industry, whether as part of a percent-for-art scheme, as wall-mounted pictures, or as avant-garde experiment.
The letter, displayed with its English translation, is more than a bit cheeky — the opening salutation ends with an exclamation mark (“Dear Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs!”) — but it reveals something of the group’s aims. Though deeply unsympathetic to the project of Socialist Realism, the young artists evince a concern not for a particular type of career, but rather something more utopian: integration with the social order. The exclamation mark might underscore their awareness of the absurdity of this request for economic asylum, but the very fact of the group’s artistic attrition — only Polke and Richter would go on to full careers as artists — makes at least as stark a point about the condition of these artists under capitalism as any of their art ever did.
By 1964’s Front Yard Exhibition at Galerie Parnass, Kuttner “no longer fit with the figurative stance of Capitalist Realism,” according to the excellent Artists Space catalogue, and — perhaps as a consolation — the group staged an impromptu showing of Kuttner’s work in the garden of the Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen. The museum’s director saw the work but passed on an actual exhibition of the paintings, which by then had turned to abstraction, dropping the “p” in “Pop” for a formal similarity with Op art. Kuttner went on to abandon art for work in advertising, and Konrad Lueg would drop his mother’s maiden name to become the prolific art dealer Konrad Fischer. Even the label of “Capitalist Realism” owes its popularity not to the usage of the artists who coined then abandoned the term, but to its “strategic” use by the gallerist René Block, who according to the catalogue deployed it with “an open-ended, imprecisely defined range of interpretations,” and largely as an antipode to “American Pop Art.”
“For me, Capitalist Realism was quite simply a brand, not a style — not an ideology,” Block told Artforum‘s Michelle Kuo in an April 2014 interview, a seeming evasion that captures the cynical character of the group’s project. But it’s accurate, and hardly a slur — after all, the 1963 Living with Pop — A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism show at Möbelhaus Berges from which the Artists Space exhibition takes its name was held in a furniture store, with Lueg and Richter holding court in the product displays. The pair watched television as visitors wandered by with a numbered program, halfway between brochure and take-a-number slip, that was issued at the entrance. This obsession with replicating the organizing logic of capital extended to the level of aesthetics, with Polke saying in a 1966 Rheinische Post interview translated in the exhibition’s supplementary materials that “raster is for me a system, a principle, a method, structure.”
Despite the gulf of politics and recent history, what’s striking about Capitalist Realism is that its effect is in many ways indistinguishable from that of American Pop Art: the trouble is not that the glib vocabulary of advertising assimilates critique, but that it flattens it. This becomes increasingly apparent as Capitalist Realism forged into the late 1960s, with works like KP Brehmer’s “Deutsche Werte (German Values)” (1967) consisting of enlarged postage stamps, some in sealed packaging, others featuring the swastika, whose meaning at this scale is further complicated by the historical context of the stratospheric face values carried by stamps during the ruinous hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. Pop Art is in this sense an anti-language, where a sneer might as well be a smile, and the Artists Space exhibition’s format accentuates this ambiguity. With few original artworks on view and no explanatory wall texts (the catalogue’s diagrams offer basic information), the effort is less an exhibition than an all-out assault on aura, one facilitated by video contributions from the American artist and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf photography professor Christopher Williams (whose current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art also drops the wall text in favor of a diagrammatical catalogue).
Williams’s participation consists of a selection of nine films engaged with the circulation of capitalist commodities and images thereof, ranging from a brilliant excerpt from Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space, which deals with global trade and the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao, to the winking inclusion of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. All told, the sheer amount of material in this show, and its arcanely playful presentation in labyrinthine displays, brings to mind again the chaotic links of “Der Wurstesser/The Sausage Eater.” The whole setup’s vertiginous claim to time and attention flirts with the ponderous side of erudition, at risk of drawing the same ire provoked by the bourgeois ‘intellectual’ in Maciunas’s Fluxus manifesto. So when Williams presents the film version of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, with its familiar intonation about “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images,” it can feel like a toll booth rather than a revelation.
As an enthusiast’s delectation, the show is a clever and rewarding success. But the elaborate conceit comes at its own risk: two video pieces showing historical footage and screen tests from Gerhard Richter’s Volker Bradke series are missing from the catalogue, the exhibition’s only index. This isn’t to say that the show’s demands are intellectually onerous — the catalogue is mercifully short, its histories tightly written; it’s simply the nagging suspicion that the whole exercise seems to be more trouble than it’s worth, and begs the question of its format. Would an online repository of this information, structured with hyperlinks and accessible at all hours, be a better idea? Isn’t this kind of show, with the stated goal of “diminishing the aura that these works have accumulated in the intervening fifty years,” a little bit of a dated gambit, like Pop Art itself? Are such questions of purpose and efficiency subject to the same critiques applied to pictures themselves?
Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism continues at Artists Space (38 Green Street, Soho, Manhattan) and Artists Space Books & Talks (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 17.