After Stephanie Barron’s stupendous Degenerate Art and the compelling Exiles, her latest Germanophile extravaganza at LACMA—The Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures—was puzzling.
On the one hand, it was packed with choice novelties:
- Werner Heldt is a minor, Berliner Stuart Davis. His 1952 Sunday Afternoon is a silvery, bleakly sweet gesture of observation and defiant life.
- Konrad Klapheck is somebody I want to see more of: he’s droll, bitter and seductive.
- Dieter Roth’s exquisite Literature Sausage: Martin Walser of 1968—an actual sausage made of the ground-up books and fat—is like a collaboration of Chardin and Joseph Beuys. And his Lion Tower, reeking sourly of chocolate, was the most haunting work in the show.
- The Felt TV video from 1970 reminded me what a good comedian Joseph Beuys was.
- There was a stunningly moving Baeslitz from 1965, Picture for the Fathers, with vividly alive tendrils and an ambiguous sulfur sky. (Query: Why do so many German artists use pseudonyms?)
- Penck’s paintings are okay, but the work of his that really sent me was the Standart #36: a cardboard box decorated with dials, switches and diagrams: “Stop / Identität / Differenz”
- The most compelling image in the whole show is Gundula Schulze Eldowy’s 1990 color photo of an infant trussed up in a horrific restraining contraption, for the purposes of taking an x-ray … I assume. It is unforgettable and chilling. I don’t know that I’m happy I saw it, but I will never forget it.
But on the other hand, the show couldn’t help but seem a let-down. One reason is that unlike Barron’s previous shows it is not an overwhelming sensory overload—it’s very restrained. There are no listening booths (so there’s nothing about postwar German music) and it’s light on the didactic displays and theatrical installations.
The other reason is that sticking dutifully to the task of illustrating similarities and differences of the two cultures results in the show containing a lot of material that is just not very good art. Most of it ranged from so-so to frankly awful. When I came to Richter’s November 1989 in the last room, it was a shock to encounter something so poignant and serious after rooms and rooms of posturing and sentimentality. In this context Willy Baumeister suddenly seemed compelling.
By the end it seemed the real thesis of the show was Claptrap East and West. The East German Social Realist kitsch was stupefying. Other than Werner Tübke—who demonstrated imagination and mimetic skill—the GDR team failed even as illustration. Norman Rockwell is Van Eyck compared to Heinrich Witz, whose 1959 New Beginning really it did it for me. I was glad to see it—to see a depth to which German painting probably can’t sink again. But that’s not the same thing as enjoying a work of art.
The oil painting of Ronald Reagan in Hans Haacke’s installation was a better example of Socialist Realism than any of the East German crap on display. Which is hilarious, if you think about it.
Likewise the West German side was filled with lots of junk. There was a very instructive room with one wall of photographs by the Bechers and their students Höffer, Ruth and Struth—representing art, it seems—and everything else in the room represented really terrible 1980s academic political art. The worst offender being Astrid Klein’s 1988 photo piece, which truly deserves to be in a museum. The sentimentality of the East about the Party is nothing compared to the sentimentality of the West about the Revolution.
In the end, I couldn’t help but feel that this exhibit was compelling postwar German visual art to do something it couldn’t do—convey something about German experience in general. These were all passionate, eccentric gestures—intensely personal, even private meditations. The political posturing of many of the artists has not aged well, and now seems quaint. For history and social commentary, see Gunter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Fassbinder, Straub & Huillet, the TV series Heimat, and the other writers and movie-makers for a comprehensive and detailed panorama.