Behind the German Blitzkrieg of Pop Art

How Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and the rest of the German gang took control of the means of reproduction


How is it that the nation that vilified the avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century somehow brought forth a band of artists that propelled vanguard art into the 21st century? Are Joseph Beuys (1921 — 1986), Sigmar Polke (1941 — 2010), and Gerhard Richter (born in 1932) the cultural equivalents of Newtonian physics? After the philistine actions of the Nazis, they discovered liberating opposite reactions.

Begin your survey of the 1960s German art movement Capitalist Realism at Artists Space Books & Talks with a wall-size enlargement of the manifesto of Lithuanian-born American Fluxus artist George Maciunas. His handwritten “Fluxus Manifesto” reads, in part, “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” That struck-through “fully” punctuates the amorphous appeal of Fluxus, which was less about understanding specifics than about embracing serendipity. This exhibit’s cornucopia of ephemera includes rambunctious typographic announcements Maciunas designed for Fluxus events, letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and performance instructions.

The ad hoc grace of Fluxus is conveyed in photographs documenting a February 1963 happening in the auditorium of the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where the charismatic Beuys was an instructor. Copies of Maciunas’s manifesto were thrown into the audience; music, “anti-music,” and various actions were performed alongside a ladder, a chalkboard, balloons, and other props. One commentator wrote that Beuys annoyed the Fluxus performers by shining a flashlight into their eyes while he was seated in the audience, a “spontaneously initiated transmitter-receiver action. In the audience, by contrast, the rays of knowledge become entangled.”

Among those ensnared by Fluxus was a foursome of ambitious Art Academy students — Polke, Richter, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner. The bookstore exhibition includes their application to rent a vacant butcher shop in order to display their artworks, along with a photograph of Polke looking through the window at some of the group’s objects. (An inside joke: He often photographed store-window displays.)

Continue on to Artists Space Exhibitions, reached by a short stroll through the mercantile free-for-all of Canal Street. Here, the show opens with photomurals documenting an exhibit put on by Lueg and Richter, which was held in a furniture store. “Actually, it’s about the worst thing that can happen to a person, to exhibit in a furniture showroom. But it was exactly this that attracted us,” Richter said later. Lueg and Richter sat on plinths as living sculptures and used the store’s loudspeaker system to direct visitors through rooms decorated with their paintings. In a nod to their teacher, Joseph Beuys’s hat, yellow shirt, blue trousers, shoes, and socks were hung on the wall. Beer was served in the kitchen department, and unruly guests caused enough damage that the store owner threatened to call police. The event, held on October 11, 1963, also included a papier-mâché statue of John F. Kennedy, who had dazzled the Germans during his official visit to the country in June. In keeping with the night’s theatrics, the effigy smiles with celebrity wattage, recalling a description of JFK’s perpetually tanned face in Tom Carson’s novel Gilligan’s Wake: “autumn leaves with a pack of Chiclets at the center.” Six weeks after “Living with Pop — A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism,” as the pair had titled the one-night event, the U.S. president would be dead.

More photographs convey the four young men’s self-promotional chutzpah, as when they propped up their paintings on the snow-dusted lawn surrounding a prominent dealer’s villa. The brazen “Front Yard Exhibition” won Lueg (flat, garish figures), Polke (cartoonish food imagery, raster-dot Playboy bunnies), and Richter (realistic figures blurred like poorly focused photographs) an exhibition with the gallerist, while, as the catalogue dryly notes, the abstractionist Kuttner “subsequently went his own way.”

Much of the documentation at Artists Space consists of vintage materials, but the paintings are represented by large, full-color reproductions, some propped against walls and windows in homage to the blunt marketing tactics the artists used to promote their new styles amid the increasingly commercial blare of West Germany’s postwar economic “miracle.” Some of these paintings can be seen in the flesh in the rollicking Polke retrospective at Museum of Modern Art (closing August 3). If that extravaganza has the visceral ambiance of a head shop, these alternative-space surveys are more like visiting a library. Both incarnations contain pleasures and treasures.

The reproductions also make sense in light of the fact that much of the German artists’ understanding of American Pop art — and of America, that shining citadel of capitalism — came from magazine illustrations. This remove from reality may have especially appealed to Richter, who grew up in Communist East Germany and had worked within a system that, like Nazism, used artists to represent state policy while simultaneously crushing any expression of individuality. While in the East, Richter had painted a mural of a contented working-class family complete with tractor and peace doves, a perfect expression of Socialist Realism, under which the artist’s role was summed up by the slogan “From me to we.” After Richter moved to West Germany, freed of official constraints as to subject matter, we get his realistic painting of partygoers crisscrossed with Frankenstein-esque stitches and dripping blood, which absurdly contrasts their laughter and smiles. It’s not a great stretch to assume that the simple title, Party, was a jab at any sort of oppressive political power.

“I cut out photos from illustrated journals and dissolve them with a chemical solution and swipe and smear them,” Richter wrote in a 1963 letter. “That is fabulous fun. I have always loved illustrated magazines, perhaps because of their documentary actuality.”

This transmutation of photographic “fact” into abstract blur can also be seen in a fascinating film, Zachary Formwalt’s In Place of Capital (2009), part of a series that updates some of the original group’s ideas. In it he quotes photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot: “If we…attempt to take a picture of the moving multitude, we fail, for in a small fraction of a second they change their position so much as to destroy the distinctness of the representation.” The long exposure time of Talbot’s 1845 photo of London’s Royal Exchange captured only the barest ghosts of the bankers, traders, and clerks who teemed around the columned edifice.

Capitalist? Socialist? Whatever “reality” we live in today, a group of young German artists half a century ago helped define it.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.