German or French? Part I

Modernism came to the US wrapped up in the theoretics of the School of Paris. Our understanding of painting and our tastes for certain kinds of painting arrived here fully formed and deeply connected to that history. America never had a visual culture connected to painting, so our artists looked elsewhere and that’s a theme we keep repeating. Our contributions to the history of painting don’t go very deep after all – and we run out of precedent very quickly. Our visual culture began in the 19th Century – mostly – through photography. We certainly did not have a rich painting culture of note – a few go-to stars – Homer, Eakins, Sargeant, Whistler (both lived in England) and Cassatt (who lived in Paris).

Yeah, we had a few standouts over time, very good painters, but nothing exceptionally avant-garde and nothing very grand. Our early Modernist painters were by and large from the 291 group led by Stieglitz which presented a kind of arms length Modernism connected to issues of traditional American painting, OR we had American painters directly cribbing from the latest trends fresh from the Parisian Galleries. The fact is American Modernism before the war looked highly – provincial. After the Second World War Greenberg became the champion and tour guide for a more expansive and international feeling Franco-American influenced Modernism, and because the rest of world was in tatters we inherited – or according to Serge Guilbaut – we stole – Modern Art. The rest is, as they say, history….

Polke & Richter in the Tub – 1966

Doesn’t much matter, really. We know what happened. The AbEx painters took off – and they took off all around the world. Our government seemed to be interested in presenting a culturally advanced face to the world that they were now leading. So American painting began a non-stop global tour showing off our best and brightest. Nothing new about that kind of publicity campaign either. Look America is good at polishing its brass, and this kind of promotion has been done by our government many times before. In fact it’s still being done and it will continue to be done into the future. But at that time for the countries in Europe trying to rebuild their cities and societies this cultural outreach was a big attraction. It wasn’t just the AbEx crew that was being seen and discussed. American Popists and Minimalists were aso benefitting and making their way into European collections. And in a huge controversy of the time – Rauschenberg actually won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1964 – an American for chrissakes. All of this cross cultural exchange was having an immediate effect on young artists in Europe – especially those in Germany.

“In the sixties, their figurative paintings challenged the primacy of abstraction. Baselitz painted heroes torn asunder. Polke and Richter unmasked the absurdity and emptiness of the consumption that beckoned from all sides. Kiefer exposed the historical roots of the so-called “Third Reich”. It is a stroke of luck to have the opportunity to unite works by the four masters in a single exhibition, and thus to shed light on this important phase in German history.” BASELITZ – RICHTER – POLKE – KIEFER THE EARLY YEARS OF THE OLD MASTERS – Press Release 2019

Sigmar Polke Girlfriends 1965-66

“Polke’s work seemed very different from that of his German contemporaries, many of whom were extremely painterly like Baselitz, Kiefer, Fetting and Hödicke, all of whom were in the New Spirit show. I felt much more connected to Polke because of his use of popular imagery in a kind of witty irreverent way, and that he was prepared to use all types of visual language in his own work, unlike Richter who would be painting paintings that looked like photographs. Polke would make use of other people’s drawings or would reference amateur works. Also, his take on popular culture was not always about things that were recognisable. They were more quirky, idiosyncratic things that he discovered for himself and that he seemed to find personally amusing.” Peter Doig in conversation with Mark Godfrey.

After all that Modernist painting success – surprisingly – artists in NYC found themselves facing a crisis in the late sixties and seventies. For these painters it was High Times Hard Times. Painting had been declared dead and artists were asking – what’s next? How to begin again? So they began actively looking for other solutions, other pathways, other interpretations of Modern Art rather than blindly following the worn out solutions promised by Clement Greenberg’s theoretics of Modern Art. Painters wanted to do more, to make their work about the world around them, and they were fed up with paintings meant for Eyesight Alone. Painters wanted a future!

Gerhard Richter Onkel Rudi 1965

R: Yes. Because I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual. I would only like it to accomplish more.
B: In other words the simultaneity of the opposing strategies of representational function and self-reflexion has nothing to do with a reciprocal transcendence of them? It’s rather an attempt to realize this demand upon painting with different means?
R: Yes, roughly.
B: So you saw yourself at the beginning of the 1960s not as the heir to a historically divided and fragmented situation, in which there was no pictorial strategy that still had real validity . . . ?
R: And I see myself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of painting, and of art in general, which we have lost, but which nevertheless obligates us. In such a situation it’s difficult not to want to restore that culture, or, what would be just as bad, simply to give up, to degenerate. Gerhard Richter in conversation with Benjamin Buchloh

Accomplish more. But how? Where do you go when there are no pathways? Or again as Adam Curtis made clear – when there is no vision of the future – no picture of what might be – how does one progress? The other part of Gerhard’s discussion is the loss and yearning for something once there, a birthright to culture that had been taken away, stopped short, and the obligation that this loss had created for a generation of German Modernists. He didn’t want to “restore” the past he wanted to transform it. To change what it might mean, what it might do. And for both Polke and RIchter it was the American painters that helped liberate them – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Rosenquist all come to mind straight away. But unlike those Americans – all of whom were luxuriating in their own culture – the Germans used the American examples to understand and transform their own cultural history. Onkel Rudi – smiling for the camera – was he beloved? This blood relation – someone who was there for Sunday dinner – was he cheerful and fun with his young nephew? Why would he be wearing that uniform? What was going on? And so the image blurs, becomes something that’s not quite what it should be, not quite what was promised. This is a very hard painting, and it’s a theme that RIchter would revisit throughout his career.

It seems just as High Times Hard Times came for American Painting there were different ideas coming from Europe about what painting might be able to accomplish. New images of the future, you might say. Damned right that kind of painting changed the conversation about what could done here in the US.

1 thought on “German or French? Part I”

  1. This is a century old question. I know from my experience as an art student in Germany in the late Fifties and early Sixties that there was a moment in the interwar period when the 2 art worlds drew closer. Who knows what might have happened if things had not gone as they did.

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