Berlin's Capitalist Realists

Mark Prince explores the longstanding relationship between German and American art and its effect on Berlin as an international art centre

Günther Förg, Untitled, 2007. Photo: Def Image. © the artist. Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin Andy Hope 1930, 0,10, 2011. Photo: Roman März. Courtesy Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin Andy Hope 1930 & Paul McCarthy, Down Show Show Down, 2013 (installation view, 8. Salon, Hamburg). Photo: Roman Märzc. Courtesy the artists Gunter Reski, Das Selbst ohne Ich, 2014 (installation view, Zwinger Galerie, Berlin) André Butzer, Untitled, 2012–13. Photo: Def Image. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin Andy Hope 1930, Martian Cubism, 2013. Photo: Roman März. Courtesy Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin Gunter Reski, Die Untermieter, 2013. Courtesy Zwinger Galerie, Berlin, and Galerie Karin Guenther, Hamburg Gunter Reski, Doktor Morgen neue Sorgen Borgen, 2013. Courtesy Zwinger Galerie, Berlin Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1989. © the artist. Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin Kitty Kraus, Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009. Photo: Roman März. Courtesy the artist Michel Majerus, Untitled, c. 1993. © Michel Majerus Estate. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Over the past decade, the growing significance of Berlin as an international art centre, rivalling New York and London, conceals a complex and longstanding exchange between German and American art through which German artists have both cultivated and resisted their role within an international art ‘mainstream’.

Twentieth-century Modernism was a ground contested between the European avant-garde and the nascent cultural and economic clout of the United States. Competition and collusion were simultaneous, often indistinguishable. The expatriate American poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were so European embedded they helped initiate a poetic modernist movement in Europe that was to influence North American literature as though from a foreign source.

From 1925 onwards, Marcel Duchamp lived between Paris and New York before settling in the US in 1942. In the 1930s, he collaborated with European Surrealists based in New York, and curated two major exhibitions of their work. Indirectly, he was an influence on the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, for whom Surrealism was arguably their most significant source, even if one they would ultimately define themselves by rejecting. The ground being contested was not merely that of cultural value, but of how value was to be defined: as contingent upon historical tradition, and therefore concentric and centripetal, or as linear, directional, conforming to measure; invested in the dynamic of supercession by what Eliot called ‘the supervention of novelty’.

The centres have since shifted, on the European side, from Paris and London to Germany: to Düsseldorf and Cologne in the 1980s and 90s, and over the past decade, to Berlin. German art of the past half-century has equivocated between assimilating American influence and a sceptical entrenchment. Global network culture has been embraced with reservations. 

German art of the past half-century has equivocated between assimilating American influence and a sceptical entrenchment

The tone of the exchange ranges from irony, satire and self-serving opportunism to homage. Last year, when the novelist Martin Amis was asked to comment on the recent exodus from London to New York of British writers of the generation that came of age in the 1970s – Salman Rushdie, the late Christopher Hitchens, the poet James Fenton and now Amis himself – he replied, ‘There’s an odd sense in which the novel follows the power.’ But his work suggests that the location of the artist is irrelevant to the truth of his statement. In novels of the 1980s and 90s, such as Money (1984) and Night Train (1997), written in London, he was registering the challenge posed by the American twentieth-century novel by inventing a transatlantic idiom capable of traversing the US/European axis.

The German writer W.G. Sebald spoke of ‘the conspiracy of silence’ that descended on postwar German writing of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. German art of the period ‘followed the power’ indirectly, planting forms originating in the US against a German backdrop. Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set and Second Work Set (1963–76) took minimalistic sculptural forms and rendered them as wearable/usable adjuncts to the human body, their semifunctionality realigning them into an antithetical, critical relation to their American source. Walther photographed his sculptures in the empty fields of the Hochrhön region surrounding his native city of Fulda, their minimalist autonomy subverted by the foil of a symbolically barren terrain, a Germany swept clean to ‘silence’.

In his work of the same period, Gerhard Richter combined idioms adapted from US Pop art (photo-paintings of advertising images onto which graphic text is superimposed), US Minimalism (grey monochrome paintings), and US Conceptual art (the ‘Colour Chart’ paintings, begun in 1966, intimating the arbitrariness of aesthetically determined chromatic decisions), with imagery evoking recent German history, such as the 1965 painting of his Uncle Rudi in full Nazi regalia. The blur of a photograph of a nondescript, administrative building registered, when painted, as the brush’s self-silencing erasure of the image it had created. 

It is surely not coincidental that these various redressings of US cultural history in semicritical guise have emerged concurrently with the expansion of Berlin as an internationally visible hub of contemporary art 

Günther Förg’s geometric, gestural painterly abstractions were homages to, and sometimes appropriations of US abstract expressionist idioms radically disabused of their metaphysical address. Förg grounded US modernist forms in the stubborn sensuality of a materialistic facture. His photographs of European architecture associated with fascism – such as the IG Farben building in Frankfurt, which was used for Nazi research projects, or Marcello Piacentini’s University of Rome campus, built under Mussolini’s auspices – convert European architectural neoclassicism into a neomodernism that references the formalistic scale of American abstract painting of the mid-twentieth century, but ambivalently: through the tremor of a handheld camera.

Richter lived and worked in Düsseldorf during the 1970s and, from the 1980s onwards, in nearby Cologne, where Martin Kippenberger was also based. Kippenberger’s art trumpeted its Germanness as a badge of political negation, a ‘silence’-denying rhetoric. His approach has been taken up by the generation of originally Berlin-based artists who emerged in the early 2000s – André Butzer, Andy Hope 1930 (the former Andreas Hofer), Kai Althoff, Michaela Eichwald and Gunter Reski. Their approximate contemporaries the late Michel Majerus, Sergej Jensen and Kitty Kraus have adapted to their own purposes the more passive-aggressive stances of Richter and Förg.

Majerus’s installations of tiled canvases, painted in heterogeneous modes, allude to an American late-twentieth century artistic canon: Andy Warhol’s silkscreened skulls, or Christopher Wool’s text paintings (one painting consists of the phrase COOL/WOOL, a parody/homage to Wool’s formalistic treatment of block capitals). The dynamics of the burgeoning digital network culture of the late 1990s are reflected in the form of a virtuoso painterly sampling. US cultural signifiers appear as a repertoire of branded commodities, like corporate logos. But Majerus’s submission to his American references is undercut by the paradoxical status of the tiled painting installation as both an assertion of the primacy of network commodification and a restatement of Kippenberger’s constellating of painterly modes as a satire on the postmodern diminishment of the intrinsic value of any single artistic position.

Gunter Reski’s exhibition at Zwinger Galerie in Berlin, earlier this year, lined the walls with paintings on paper in an array of disparate styles that recalled Majerus’s scattershot sampling. Text paintings, decorative abstractions and graphic illustrations abutted. But to one side, the cacophony thinned into a conventional painting hang of stretched canvases, as though the imagery they supported demanded a more stable and traditional ground. In these paintings, a surrealistic figuration emerged as though establishing a clearing within an indiscriminate flux. Reski enacts his own succumbing to the onslaught of contemporary pop-cultural imagery as a theatrical backdrop in which to plant images that distil desperation into metaphors for desperation. The distinction is also that between a sampling method which has its roots in US Pop art and canvas-bound, easel-scaled forms of European Surrealism.

Jensen’s fabric-collaged stain paintings of the early 2000s technically derive from the US postpainterly abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis; but this influence is channelled through the German formalism of Blinky Palermo’s fabric works of the 1970s. Similarly, Kitty Kraus’s recent light installations, casting shadow stripes that span the dimensions of a gallery, Europeanise a US minimalist trope by translating it into the theatrical chiaroscuro of light decor. The dematerialised stripe, lassoing the dimensions of a gallery, invokes the Polish artist Edward Krasinski’s bands of blue masking tape, traversing a gallery wall and the pictures hanging on it, as much as the American minimalist Fred Sandback’s gallery-spanning lengths of string.

US Minimalism was originally intended to humble the overblown commodification of modernist painting; but now that minimalist tropes have been absorbed into and attenuated by the commercial aesthetic of minimal decor, Kraus recharges them by having them profess their own functionality. This would be a merely reductive gesture if it were categorical; but Kraus’s light installations aspire to sublimity as much as they efface themselves as decor. The light sources for her shadow stripes are chest-high plywood plinths, placed in the centre of a gallery and leveled off by a thin sheet of opaque black glass, which leaves an infinitesimal gap between wood and glass out of which light of penetrating intensity leaks. 

Unlike London or New York, Berlin is innately provincial: it has no historical pedigree as a capital city, and no native economy 

These plinths resemble minimal furniture, but they can also be seen as energy-charged idols surrounded by an aura rendered incommensurable by the apparently illogical, inverse equation between the slit of light and the line of shadow (rather than light, as one would expect) that it deposits onto the walls. James Turrell’s transcendentalism, Dan Flavin’s materialism and Jorge Pardo’s functionalism intersect. Like Reski, Kraus subversively reverses the linear narrative of twentieth-century US art. Reski takes a sampling method ultimately deriving from US Pop art of the 1960s, and supplants it with a painterly idiom that connotes European Surrealism of the first half of the twentieth century, the rejection of which 1950s US Modernism was founded upon. Kraus has the 1950s qualify the 60s by recharging the phenomenological materialism of US Minimal art with modernist metaphysical yearnings.

It is surely not coincidental that these various redressings of US cultural history in semicritical guise have emerged concurrently with the expansion of Berlin as an internationally visible hub of contemporary art driven by a massive influx of gallerists, curators and artists from all over the world, but especially from the US. German art and the infrastructure surrounding it wears its internationalist credentials as ambivalently as Berlin has assimilated this expansion.

Several large group exhibitions – Made in Germany and Made in Germany 2, at various venues in Hannover in 2007 and 2012 espectively, and Based in Berlin, at various sites in Berlin in 2011 – have been intended as surveys of contemporary art produced in Germany (or Berlin) by artists living in Germany but not necessarily German. In each case, the premise is torn, paradoxically, between asserting national or local culture and positing the national and local as international. Unlike London or New York, Berlin is innately provincial: it has no historical pedigree as a capital city, and no native economy. Newcomers have been only superficially integrated as the mallstyle padding to a persistently local infrastructure. The significant commercial galleries are still those that have been in business since the 1990s: Buchholz, Neu, Barbara Weiss and Esther Schipper; and although they are now exhibiting clutches of young Americans, their core programmes remain German.

Having both recently relocated to New York, Jensen and Althoff have ‘followed the power’. Jensen’s paintings of the past half decade have become larger, and his paint – previously characterised by parsimony or absence – thicker, as if he were testing his language against the demands of another context, and from within rather than vicariously or remotely. Abstention has ceded to plenty, and ambivalence to embrace. And yet the self-definition of German artists of his generation who have remained in Germany, if not in Berlin, appears no less determined by their reactionary relation to a cultural mainstream, which usually means an American one.

Over the past decade, André Butzer’s output has bifurcated. His early, cartoonish figure paintings have diversified into maximalist painterly abstractions, on US abstract expressionist scales. A series of black-and-white or grey-and-white geometric, formalist paintings, under the group heading of ‘N-paintings’, have emerged in tandem. Butzer has exhibited the ‘N-paintings’ in extended series, putting a simple composition through a spectrum of variations in format and scale. His installation at Max Hetzler last autumn consisted of sixteen ‘N-paintings’ based on the same composition: a black top half, containing a horizontal white stripe, balanced on another black rectangle in the bottom right corner containing a vertical stripe.

The rudimentary structure was pimped up and shrunk down, the white rectangles morphing from thin bands into fat blocks. From 4m to 40cm in width, the range rendered US high Modernism as a cartoon film reel, a flick-book sequence. The monumentality of the dour monochrome composition was undermined by wobbly junctures and uneven facture, as though Butzer were demonstrating the absurdly arbitrary relation between his application – sometimes heavily impastoed, sometimes thinly glazed – and the static frame of a repeated motif. This ironic narrative was emphasised by the presence of two small figure paintings in one corner of the gallery. If these cartoonish figurations, in his earlier idiom, stem from the Beckmann/Markus Lüpertz/Kippenberger tradition of soured angst and caustic irony, the geometric abstractions bait the US market that has avidly bought into them as European exoticisms.

Andy Hope merges European and American symbols on the ground of painting, so they relinquish their familiar essence and assume the strangeness of myths severed from their defining contexts

Andy Hope 1930 (an art-school nickname, anglicising the German Andreas Hofer) has developed a vision of twentieth-century European Modernism complicatedly ceding to its US counterpart. European and American references are conflated, only to be subsequently parsed out. A Malevichian monochrome is recast as an American Pop art cypher when it is doubled into a diptych (Final Screen 1 + 2, 2013), comprehending its reproduction, and each panel is framed by an indented thin white line that forces the limitlessness of the black square to submit to being a mere graphic representation of a monochrome painting, if not of a dead computer monitor or television screen.

For his exhibition at Guido W. Baudach last September, Hope visualised his own persona as a lumpen German interloper in the fast-and-loose US cultural landscape. A series of digital posters, titled Space Tourist, collage the image of Hope’s figure – ridiculously costumed in a Mad Hatter’s top hat or a military peaked cap – onto the covers of vintage American DC comics. The displacement of a representative of angular German figurative painting into a brash US context may be played for laughs, but Hope’s vaunting of his own hubris is only partially ironic. The posters precisely calibrate the distance between his Germanic departure point and his surrogate US context. A collaboration with the American artist Paul McCarthy – at 8. Salon in Hamburg at the end of last year (both artists are represented, outside of Germany, by Hauser & Wirth) – registered that distance as a Western-style ‘showdown’, with the elder American big-hitter pitted against the young German upstart.

The rhetoric may be confrontational, but Hope merges European and American symbols on the ground of painting, so they relinquish their familiar essence and assume the strangeness of myths severed from their defining contexts. Paintings such as Impressions d’Amérique 2 (2013), Martian Cubism (2013) and 0,10 (2011) filter cowboy images through a language of European formalism that is alien to the Western landscape into which it is dislocated. US Pop art imagery is induced to renounce its glib gloss and emerge as uncanny and unknowable. 

Hope transforms a multiplicity of references into images that supersede the cultures from which they are sourced, comprehending their unbridgeable otherness, their awkward intersections, and the absurdity of the propaganda of global networking which would claim to erase their differences. The pink plastic flamingos of Razzle-Dazzle 2 (2013) perch atop constructivistic Styrofoam plinths. They may have one foot in American Pop art kitsch and another in nostalgia for the European prewar avant-garde, but they belong to neither history. Their quizzical presence proposes not an independence from US cultural hegemony but the possibility of an always-conditional autonomy. 

An exhibition of work by Michel Majerus is on view at Matthew Marks, New York, through 19 April; work by Christopher Wool can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago through 11 May; and Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism is at Artists Space, New York, from 8 June to 17 August.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue.