With a contribution by Christopher Williams
Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter coined the term “Capitalist Realism” fifty years ago when they organised an exhibition of their work in an empty shop at Kaiserstraße 31a in Düsseldorf. In 1963, Lueg and Richter also staged the legendary art action, Living with Pop – A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, in the furniture shop Möbelhaus Berges. The exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf is the first to take an in-depth look at the whole phenomenon, which for a short period of time was synonymous with a specifically West German style of art during the post-war era, and to show its contemporary relevance.
The exhibition documents the art actions between 1963 and 1966 when the artists used this term, and concludes in chronological terms with a documentary account about René Block, who used the term at his gallery in Berlin and proceeded to politicize it. A separate section is devoted to the Fluxus movement in the Rhineland which was an important precursor and a source of inspiration for Capitalist Realism. The typical pictorial world of Capitalist Realism is illustrated with a selection of more than 50 photographic reproductions of works by the artists concerned. In fact, the paintings by Lueg, Polke and Richter (Kuttner soon forged a style of his own) were largely based on reproductions. The artists painted objects and sujés which they found in magazines and newspapers, something that they underlined by using specific techniques and image fragments. As was the case in British and American Pop Art, these artists rejected an eloquent and metaphorical form of expression, instead turning their attention to the trivial aspects of life in their immediate vicinity. And by training their spotlight on Germany’s economic miracle with its questionable promise of a better life and depicting the middle-class platitudes, values and repressive mechanisms of the post-war era, they simultaneously documented a period of contemporary history.
The early works of Lueg, Polke and Richter have a remarkable number of themes and images in common which can be used to compile a specific iconography of Capitalist Realism. This includes consumer goods, images used in advertising, interior design, banal everyday objects, pictures of women, portraits, sites of middle-class longing, supposedly exotic images, leisure activities, competitions and sport as a new means of German identification, and cars as symbols of progress and mobility. However, Capitalist Realism is inherently ambivalent, and this makes itself felt whenever something seems to be superficial and amusing. Polke’s Würstchenesser (“Sausage Eater”) looks as if sooner or later gluttony is going to make him choke, while Richter’s Party guests, who have been slashed, do not have much to laugh about. The grin on the face of Polke’s baker, an image taken from the magazine Bäckerblume, resembles the winning smile of Richter’s “Onkel Rudi”. Whereas the image from the advertisement is an ironic way of depicting happy and naïve amazement at the economic miracle, the man in the Wehrmacht uniform points to the contradictions with which the members of Richter’s generation had to come to terms when they thought about their parents. The artist’s personal affection for his uncle is at variance with his political revulsion for the system which the latter served. The frequently recurring topic of cleanliness, as in Konrad Lueg’s Omovertreter (“Omo Salesman”), is not only reminiscent of Pop Art themes and middle-class domestic life, but seems to allude directly to a wish to be “cleansed” from the events of the past. In all of this, the three artists keep their distance by employing a variety of techniques: Richter uses his characteristic blurring technique, while Polke rasterizes his images and Lueg makes use of the notion of ornament, with which he seeks to eradicate the individual. A wallpaper pattern, such as the one he used in 1966 for the gallery that held Hommage an Schmela, covers his figures and merges them into what Thomas Kellein has called a “Sunday veranda setting”.
The artists also had an ambivalent attitude to capitalism. On the one hand, they perceived its emancipatory potential and consciously used capitalist advertising strategies in order to present themselves as artists and to promote their own careers. On the other hand, they pointed out capitalism’s vulgarity with the help of telling imagery. The press release for the exhibition in Kaiserstraße declared: “Pop Art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon […]. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution.”
The decision not to show the originals seems to come closest to the artists’ ironic approach to their own works, as they did not want any sort of aura to be associated with them. A picture such as Gerhard Richter’s Neuschwanstein, which was a kind of decorative object at the Life with Pop art action in Möbelhaus Berges in 1963, and was exhibited in the snow-covered front garden of Villa Parnass in Wuppertal the following year, is now primarily associated with the fact that it is worth millions. The use of reproductions makes it possible to translate the radical nature of the art actions of the 1960s into the here and now, and to shed fresh light on the artists’ early work.
The exhibition has another topical element thanks to a contribution by the American conceptual artist Christopher Williams, who has been a professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf since 2008. In his artistic work, Williams addresses the question of what capitalist realism is today, and makes highly sophisticated photographic images of the superficial aspects of everyday life. For this exhibition, he designed the external banner and compiled a film programme which includes films by other artists, Hollywood films and advertising clips of the late 50ies. This acts as a kind of commentary, and can be seen on screens at various places in the show.
The exhibition was designed in conjunction with Berlin-based architects Kuehn Malvezzi and recreates the heady atmosphere of the 1960s with the help of enlarged historical photographs by Manfred Kuttner, Rudolf Jährling and Reiner Ruthenbeck, while its long corridors, its display cabinets that are reminiscent of shop windows, and its mass-produced furniture allude to central aspects of capitalist realism. The exhibition thus becomes a place to experience how the 1960s intersect with the present in a number of different ways.
During the exhibition, Cologne-based publisher Buchhandlung Walther König will issue a comprehensive book with texts by Darsie Alexander, Eckhart J. Gillen, Mark Godfrey, Walter Grasskamp, Susanne Küper, Susanne Rennert, Dietmar Rübel, Stephan Strsembski, Elodie Evers and Gregor Jansen.
In June 2014, the exhibition will be shown at Artists Space, New York.
Curators: Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, Gregor Jansen