Local Color
German Pop at the Schirn and the Deutsche Bank Collection

Much more than just Richter and Polke: The Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt discovers German Pop. Achim Drucks on a great show and German Pop Art in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
They look like they were cloned: they are all the exact same size and shape, are bright red, impeccable. But their aroma leaves a lot to be desired. Dutch tomatoes symbolize the triumph of the exterior over the interior—and over the taste. K.H. Hödicke devotes his painting Holland Hd. Kl. A to this insipid greenhouse vegetable. “Handelsklasse A,” or “Grade A,” indicates that the painting is about a product. The Berlin painter shows overflowing crates of tomatoes, a homogenous mass product for a mass society. The painting from 1964 is emblematic of the works of a young, international generation of artists. First in Great Britain and the USA, and then in the entire Western world, they unite art and everyday life, high and mass culture more strongly than every before. Whether it’s Dutch tomatoes, the Queen, Elvis or advertising for a clothes drier—Pop Art transforms everything into art.

On permanent loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Hödicke’s signal red painting normally hangs in the Garden Halls of the Städel in Frankfurt. Now it is temporarily on view at the Schirn on the occasion of German Pop, the first large-scale exhibition dedicated to this movement. Aside from prominent artists such as Thomas Bayrle, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, the show presents surprising rediscoveries, including Ferdinand Kriwet’s radiant yellow, pink, and turquoise neon paintings, and Winfred Gaul’s image objects that bridge the gap between Pop and Hard Edge. Christa Dichgans’ loud and lurid still lifes are particularly mesmerizing. Today, her inflatable frogs, sharks, and seahorses instantly recall Jeff Koons’s toy sculptures.

Pop Art reflects the upbeat mood of the 1960s, the radical break with movements such as Art Informel and Tachism. Abstract Expressionist interiority was no longer topical. “I had enough of bloody painting,” Gerhard Richter said in an interview in 1964, “and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do.” But he didn’t see the utopian light ballets of the ZERO artists as a viable alternative. Like Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg, who also studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, Richter wanted to engage directly with the pictorial world of the age of the so-called economic miracle in Germany.

Richter and Polke, both of whom turned their back on the GDR and Socialist Realism, are also united by their interest in a new kind of figurative painting that opposes totalitarian usurpation. Both artists play a central role in Deutsche Bank’s art program. When the collection was built up in the 1980s, many of their works were purchased, and in the first art arrangement at the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, a whole floor was devoted to each of them. As “Artist of the Business Year,” both realized editions for the bank.

Works in the collection, including Richter’s painting Kahnfahrt (1965), Luegs’ Fußballspieler (1963), and Polke’s prints Wochenendhaus and Freundinnen from 1967 correspond with works by the artist included in German Pop. All of them are based on photos from mass media. “We reassured each other that the real pictures were in newspapers and magazines,” recalls Richter. “And that we would consume and analyze them voraciously.” At the same time, they visualized the longings of the young Federal Republic of Germany: girlfriends pose in fashionable bikinis, the dream of having a weekend house comes true. Yet Polke’s dot grids and Richter’s gray blurring suggest that these longings are just as prefabricated as the consumer products that had become affordable to more and more Germans. At the same time, recent history was swept under the table.

Thomas Bayrle responded to this repression in 1996 with his motor-driven sculpture Nürnberger Orgie. The artist has an arm with a swastika band around it salute an anonymous mass of people again and again. German Pop shows this work together with an “homage” to the cleaning product Ajax in which Bayrle has battalions of housewives wield mops. “I made those two machines one right after the other. I wanted to caricature the simple political reality around me and leapt to the conclusion that the ethnic cleansing of the Third Reich had been replaced by an obsession for cleaning after the war. It was like a switch had been flipped.”

In the course of the 1960s, Bayrle developed his very own subversive variant of Pop Art, making prints on which tin cans, cars, or airplanes formed patterns. For example, his Christel von der Post (1970) from the Deutsche Bank Collection is composed of dozens of yellow telephones. The artist moves seamlessly between politics and commerce: “From 1969 to 1971, there was Bayrle & Kellermann The Makers of Display—a mixture of studio, silkscreen workshop, and advertising agency. The structure was very open and successful, and the clients couldn’t have been more different: Ferrero and Pierre Cardin during the day, at night Marxists, anarchists, the anti-authoritarian nursery school, and Lotta Continua.”

His ornament of the masses is not only present on canvases. As wallpaper, it covers an entire gallery room at the Schirn. Posing in front of it are display mannequins wearing plastic raincoats, naturally also in a pattern-repeat design. Rarely did art from Germany look as cool and casual as it did in Bayrle’s work—or in that of Peter Roehr, the other important Frankfurt protagonist of Pop. The artist, who died in 1968 at the young age of 23, also worked serially. Like his montages of advertising images, for instance Untitled (FO-93) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Roehr’s films thrive on the constant repetition of the same scene: time and time again, the model shakes his blonde hair. Goods fetishism and advertising metamorphose into pure form.

Roehr’s starting material comes directly from the birthplace of Pop. His friend Paul Maenz, who would later own a gallery, worked as a graphic designer in New York and provided him with TV commercials. In 1968, the two opened the “Pudding-Explosion,” Germany’s first hippie shop, in downtown Frankfurt. Here they had 800 light bulbs flicker rhythmically, and the smell of incense lingered heavily in the air. The offer included buttons with slogans such as “Wer stirbt, spart” (Those who save, die) and Mao bibles which cost only one deutschmark.

As in the U.S., Pop Art is a big-city phenomenon in Germany. Consequently, Martina Weinhart, the curator of the show, organized the exhibition around four urban centers. Frankfurt and Düsseldorf were supplemented by Munich and Berlin. In the “front city of the Cold War,” Rene Block’s gallery, founded in 1964, became the most important forum for the new art. The e show was programmatically entitled Neodada, Pop, Décollage, Capitalist Realism. Apart from the Düsseldorf-trained artists Polke and Richter, the 22-year-old gallery owner is primarily presenting Berlin artists such as KP Brehmer and Wolf Vostell, who are proponents of a more politically involved kind of Pop Art. For instance, in 1968, at the height of the student movement and the Vietnam War, Vostell had lipstick rain from a B52. For him, the American way of life is asserted not only with bombs, but also with consumer products.

In Munich, members of the artists’ group SPUR, including Heimrad Prem and HP Zimmer, reacted skeptically to the Pop phenomenon and remained closely allied to Informel. Still, their circle spawned Uwe Lausen, one of the best German painters of the sixties. In only nine years, until his suicide in 1970, Lausen’s work developed explosively from expressive abstraction to unmistakable painting. Long before Martin Kippenberger and Bernhard Martin, he sampled styles and motifs, had Op and Pop Art motifs collide with gestural passages. Figures that might be found in Hollywood B movies move through undefined pictorial spaces. Lausen’s drawing Ich bin's nur, euer Sohn (1967) from the Deutsche Bank Collection shows the disturbed relationship between the generations in 1960s West Germany. The middle-class living room becomes the scene of rape, murder, and manslaughter.

Whether in Munich or Düsseldorf, the new artist groups and cliques have one thing in common: although women in the sixties became increasingly emancipated, in German Pop, which is actually progressive, they primarily play a conventional role—that of the model. Nevertheless, Martina Weinhart tracked down three women artists for the show.  Given the quality of their works, it is surprising that these artists have disappeared from the public gaze. Christa Dichgans’ toy still lifes are very impressive, as are Ludi Armbruster’s body pictures and Bettina von Arnim’s stylized science-fiction creatures. In the latter, Cyborgs clad in warlike uniforms embody an anonymous male power.

“For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop, and the like are appropriate,” wrote Gerhard Richter about the first exhibition of German Pop Art, which he co-organized in 1963. It was here that the term was coined that serves as the title of the Frankfurt show. But what is typically German about German Pop? Obviously, it is not as glamorous as Andy Warhol’s Marilyns and Jackies, and Americans would probably not deem Richter’s stuffy Dr. Knobloch worthy of being presented on canvas. German Pop is more ironic, more critical, more political. In Germany, people’s relationship to seductive surfaces is considerably more tentative than in the U.S. This new art expresses the very specific social situation in the young Federal Republic— the field of tension between the legacy of the Third Reich, the fustiness of the 1950s, and the “Coca-colonization” by American-influenced consumer culture.

Last but not least, German Pop represents an upheaval, in society and in art. “There was a certain lightness and the freedom to try out things that perhaps hadn’t been tried out before,” recalls Thomas Bayrle. “All of art was exciting in a positive sense and took completely new conceptual steps during this period.” Pop was a point of departure for all kinds of artistic positions. While Bayrle and Richter tended to work conceptually, the “ironic alchemist” Polke embodies wit, experimental zeal, and a plurality of styles. With his neo-expressive painting, Hödicke became the founding father of the Neue Wilde. The list of their students reads like a who’s who of German art: Rainer Fetting, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Tobias Rehberger, Thomas Struth, Thomas Zipp, and so on and so forth. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that German Pop—alongside Beuys and the photographers of the Düsseldorf School—has had the most lasting impact on contemporary art in Germany.

Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt am Main
Until 1/8/2015