In his Nobel Prize-winning novel The Glass Bead Game (1943), Hermann Hesse writes,
For we do not regard even the perfect hierarchy, the most harmonious organization, as a machine put together out of lifeless units that count for nothing in themselves, but as a living body, formed of parts and animated by organs which possess their own nature and freedom.
Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space – Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity at Galerie Buchholz on the Upper East Side takes the living body of early 20th-century utopian intellectual communities as its starting point. Organized by cultural historian Diedrich Diederichsen and the gallery’s Christopher Müller, the exhibition brings together art and ephemera spanning the 20th century, anchored by two German literary and intellectual groups from the fin-de-siècle period: the circle of Symbolist poet Stefan George, and Ugrino, the polyamorous community headed by writer Hans Henny Jahnn.
George (1868-1933), a political reactionary whose work was adopted by the Nazis for his advocacy of self-sacrifice and his belief in a secret, true Germany, was at the center of the George-Kreis, an academic circle modeled on classic Greek organizations; the Hellenic principle of man-boy love permeated George’s circle and work.
In the exhibition, a small collection of ephemera by and about George includes his book Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch (A Memorial Book, 1907), dedicated to his friend Maximilian Kronberger, as well as a drawing (c. 1900) and matching 1908 etching by Marcus Behmer, George’s follower and a member of one of the world’s first homosexual organizations. Both of Behmer’s works are called “Prometheus” (the latter, “Prometheus (Stefan George)”)
The curators sharply contrast Behmer’s charming, folksy imagery with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1976 slapstick comedy Satansbraten (Satan’s Brew), presented here on a video monitor along with film stills, in which a frustrated writer adopts a high camp image and surrounds himself with male prostitutes to model himself on George.
Hans Henny Jahnn, who was also an organ builder, founded Ugrino in 1920 with his partner, the musician Gottlieb Harms, as a utopian community dedicated to literature, architecture (specifically, sepulchral), and baroque music. Jahnn, whose dramas were censored in 1920s Germany for their portrayal of “deviant” sexuality (incest and self-mutilation), seemed to equate sexual liberation with personal and collective freedom, exemplified in the sexual interrelationships between male and female Ugrino members.
Although George and Jahnn diverged in their political views, both circles espoused a kind of magic or cosmic utopianism that could be achieved by abandoning bourgeois social and sexual mores and pursuing intellectual and aesthetic ideals.
In their exhibition essay, the curators explain:
[…] we are here primarily addressing the special cases [of collectives] in which the supposed cosmic laws, the musical and mathematical harmonies of planetary orbits, and the numerical ratios that can be found in both nature and music serve as justifications for recasting interpersonal, societal, but also sexual relationships. Ideas of Pythagoras or Kepler here created all-encompassing artistic equivalences which were meant to organize contemporary forms of coexistence as well as important artistic and scientific work, and which were also supposed to give rise to the society of the future.
The first of the exhibition’s two galleries features Ugrino architectural plans and insignia, as well as Jahnn’s sketches for organs, a photograph of a test organ, an undated painting of Jahnn by Karl Kluth, and photographs of Jahnn (in one, he poses alongside an organ). The result is the beginning of what could easily be developed into an archival solo showcase on Jahnn.
Instead, the exhibition leads from George and Jahnn to various 20th– and 21st-century artists, musicians, and intellectuals “by similarity and association” rather than direct lines of influence. The correlation between transmission devices and mysticism is one of the exhibition’s leitmotifs, in works such as “Telefon” (1971), a screenprint of a nondescript telephone mounted on yellow paper by Blinky Palermo and Gerhard Richter; Sigmar Polke’s “Telefonzeichnung (Gespräch)” (“Telephone Drawing (Conversation),” 1975); Emil Schult’s 1974-75 cover design for Kraftwerk’s recording Radioactivity (Radioactivität); Walter de Maria’s stainless steel “High Energy Bar” (1966); and two iterations of Isa Genzken’s “Weltempfänger” (“World Receiver”), the first, from 1982, a radio, and the second, from 2017, a concrete cast of a radio with attached antennae.
The “cosmic” evolves, by mid-century, into psychedelic album covers by the Dutch design collective The Fool and the British design team Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (including a 1968 album by Fats Domino), as well as a selection of Funkadelic album covers from 1973 to 1981, designed by Pedro Bell.
The most interesting objects are those that hold logic and mysticism in suspension, as in a series of geometric drawings (1968-1971) and undated glass vessels by Ludwig Gosewitz that mirror the graphic sci-fi cover of a 1969 edition of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. There are also Jordan Belson’s ink Brain Drawings (1952) of biomorphic forms, Öyvind Fahlström’s series Improvisations for Nightmusic (1967), and two multicolored mandala drawings from 1971 by John McCracken (which fall loosely into the psychedelic camp).
The exhibition is strongest conceptually when the curators focus on collectives and artists seeking a new social and cosmic order through art. Following George and Jahnn, Diederichsen and Müller home in on scientist Hans Kayser (1891-1964), avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brazilian designer and musician Rogério Duarte, and the prophetic composer and performer Sun Ra.
Kayser’s book Der Hörende Mensch (The Hearing Human, 1932), along with reprints of his musical scales and Duarte’s sketches and diagrams, suggest further paths that the exhibition could have explored, given more space and resources. The former’s theory of harmonics based on the Table of Pythagoras identifies harmonics in music with harmonious structure in nature. Duarte, a pioneer of the Tropicalismo movement in Brazilian music and art, was also a political activist who turned to Hinduism late in life.
Undated musical notations by Stockhausen, done in colored marker on paper, are accompanied by several of his recordings and photographs documenting a performance of his 1974 science fiction opera Sirius, in which emissaries from another planet send a message to Earth. Costume designs for Sirius by Stockhausen’s then-wife, artist Mary Baumeister, are also on view.
Sun Ra’s presence dominates much of the exhibition’s second room. He is represented by numerous record jackets, as well as his own drawings and designs for his album covers, photographs by Hartmut Geerken of a 1971 Sun Ra Arkestra performance in Cairo, and a 1994 publication by Geerken, Omniverse Sun Ra, displayed alongside two diagrams by John Coltrane, “The Circle of Fifths” (1961).
Cosmic Communities can be perceived in two distinct ways: as a whole in which major and minor players equally contribute to a tapestry of information and images, or as a study of the key players and their philosophies, with many of the above-mentioned works serving as supplemental material. A slightly different exhibition emerges with the latter, raising questions rather than simply illuminating aesthetic and philosophical connections.
The emphasis on music privileges Jahnn’s influence over George’s, but music is just one mode — if the primary one — of achieving utopias; and utopia is sought in these cases through a collective mentality in which order is imposed and a male leader is installed even as the establishment is rejected.
Diederichsen explained by email that an exhibition exploring the theme of homosocial and homosexual male collectives in the early 20th century “excludes women, not because we want to do this, but because they [the collectives] did.” (In fact, a selection of works from the 1960s and later decades are by women. However, Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), who belonged to a women’s circle called The Five, could have inspired another genealogy.)
The representation of George and his circle in the exhibition is ambivalent, although Fassbinder’s portrayal in Satansbraten targets his persona perhaps more than his reactionary politics. Yet, despite the liberal politics of Jahnn and most of the included artists, a reactionary outlook is embedded in the patriarchal structure and strict order of the collectives; paradoxically, mysticism aligns here with authoritarianism, though it’s not so paradoxical in practice: George and Jahnn emerged from the fount of 19th-century German philosophy, which celebrated ancient Greece and advocated cultural renewal as a rejection of so-called “decadence” (i.e., moral or constitutional weakness). The same philosophy is easily co-opted into fascism.
The exhibition essay, available on the gallery’s website, clarifies some points (a publication is tentatively planned for next year), but not all of the questions it raises are answerable. What risks do we run of whitewashing history when we aestheticize reactionary politics and the myth of the male “artist-genius”? There are clear affinities among George, Jahnn and Sun Ra; how does this juxtaposition impact the relationship between Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism and the American Civil Rights movement? On the other hand, what do we gain by ignoring these histories and apparent affinities, or their aesthetic value? How do we tread the line between aesthetics and ideology? Between the art world’s responsibility to art and to fair and inclusive representation?
At one time, it would have been enough to appreciate the aesthetic value of these artifacts and artworks without attention to the implications. That this is no longer the case is not a loss. Cosmic Communities invites us into a dialogue. It presents us with a choice between passive pleasure and active questioning.
And it concludes with a skeptic. On a wall near the gallery’s back office, a manifesto by experimental composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, from his 1995 CD Slapping Pythagoras, savages Pythagorean harmonics. It ends, “And here’s a slap, too, for stealing the names of all your sect members and taking credit for their works. […] Slapping you Pythagoras, it makes me feel like I’m rising, like watching falling water.”
Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space – Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity continues at Galerie Buchholz (17 East 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through today.