At a time in which labels for art movements are quickly coined and appropriated (post-Internet art’s vague definition shifts faster than extreme weather), the Schirn Kunsthalle is looking back at art history and rebranding an aspect of it. German Pop, an ambitious survey exhibition, extends Pop art’s remit beyond its conventional Anglo-American reference points and explores how consumer culture’s imagery affected the art of 1960s West Germany, whose society was still collectively licking the wounds of the Second World War.
‘German Pop’ is an admittedly invented designation; during the early 1960s, not even its protagonists were sure what to call what they were doing. Pictured in the exhibition catalogue is an invitation to a 1963 exhibition in Düsseldorf; it lists the names Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter as well as a repeating list of labels: neo-Dada, Capitalist Realism, Junk Culture, Anti-Kunst, Common Object Painting and Pop art.
These influential Düsseldorf artists are usually called Capitalist Realists; other cities had other scenes, often called other things. Yet Pop’s influence is clear throughout. To tie things together, curator Martina Weinhart delineates the exhibition geographically – separating 150 works by 34 artists (including three seldom-shown women: Bettina von Arnim, Christa Dichgans and Ludi Armbruster) into a series of spaces labelled, in turn, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich.
In the first space, Neon-Text 1–4 (1973), a multicoloured neon word piece by KRIWET, illuminates H.P. Alvermann’s Denkmal für die deutsche Sozialdemokratie (1965), a traditional cabinet painted red, embossed with the letter ‘F’ and ‘Wohlstand für alle’ (wealth for everyone) and topped with a helmet, a fox’s head poking out where the missing human face would be. In another part of the Düsseldorf section (definitely the show’s beating heart), Kuttner, Lueg, Polke and Richter come together again. Here, Polke’s dotty Junge mit Zahnbürste (1965) echoes Lichtenstein, Lueg’s Herr und Frau S (1965) takes a swipe at German narrow-mindedness, Kuttner’s neon-pink sculptures incorporate everyday objects and Richter’s works depict images like a folding laundry rack (Faltbarer Trockner, 1962) and a young Elizabeth II. A surprising highlight is Richter’s 14-minute film Volker Bradke (1966), the blurry black-and-white outlines of which predict his later painted abstractions.
What connects the protagonists of Germany’s version of Pop to each other, and divides them from their lighter-hearted American counterparts, is a twinge of melancholy and subtle critique of an increasingly conservative, economy-based culture
Coming from artists and dealers largely imported from the Rhineland, work from Berlin ranges from the obviously neo-Dada to more political statements later in the decade. Displayed in a vitrine, K.P. Brehmer’s Aufsteller 13 (1965) are hilarious stand-up cardboard images, mostly of ladies in tight 1950s underwear; Wolf Vostell’s Lippenstift-Bomber B52 (1968) is a silkscreened aircraft dropping real lipsticks as missiles. The two featured Frankfurt artists concern themselves with seriality: Peter Roehr’s short film loops of American highways and swinging hair are still hypnotic, while Thomas Bayrle shows his famous plastic raincoats and more socio-critical work, like Nürnberger Orgie (1966), a motorised sculpture in which a stiff swastika’ed arm rises before a background of tiny faces in a crowd. In Munich’s section – marked by artist collectives more aligned with Situationism than Pop per se, like the SPUR group – some of Lothar Fischer’s sculptures (like Große Tube, 1968, a tube of toothpaste) are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, while Heimrad Prem’s collages recall Tom Wesselmann.
The show’s choreography underscores a certain provincialism, but the divisions succeed as a guide to the unfamiliar: many works here have not been on view for decades, if ever. What connects the protagonists of Germany’s version of Pop to each other, and divides them from their lighter-hearted American counterparts, is a twinge of melancholy and subtle critique of an increasingly conservative, economy-based culture – Warhol silkscreened Marilyn and Liz in garish colour, but Richter painted four black-and-white views of a dumpy ‘Dr Knobloch’. At the same time, some of these works grabbed, for just a moment, the banal, fun parts of mass culture, before Europe’s late-1960s protests popped Pop’s bubble. And this is not even to mention the coda, a sizeable collection of graphic and print-based works. German Pop is a show worth seeing, if only to witness a familiar aesthetic’s darker, Teutonic side.
This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.