Friday, February 27, 2009

Deutschland Deutschland

"I wonder what Syd Barrett was doing on July 21, 1990, whilst his former Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters was cranking the bombast to 11 in Berlin by supersizing that already bloated paean to bilious self-pity known as The Wall and conflating it with the decommissioning — six months prior — of the “anti-Fascist protective rampart” that had divided the German capital and stood as a symbol of Yankee/Soviet stalemate for the previous quarter century. Probably painting.

After his death in 2006, it was revealed that Syd had spent much of his three-decade withdrawal from show business making art, which he sometimes photographed before painting over or destroying. The question that nags me is this: Which is the greater creative act, micromanaging a spectacular but rehashed postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk for half a million people (and millions more via live satellite TV — and all ostensibly for charity!), or daubing away in a Cambridge cellar on a canvas that will probably never see the light of day?

What brings this to mind is Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures, an ambitious and treasure-laden exhibit now happily displacing Damien Hirst (among others) from the second floor of LACMA’s BCAM building. It isn’t just the superficial Berlin Wall reference that summons the mighty Floyd, but the jostling polarities at play, that between hubristic historical importance and unrecorded humility as artistic motivators, and of the almost cosmic narrative of good and evil that drove Cold War politics — and tried to oblige Art into choosing a side.

Completing curator Stephanie Barron’s exceptional historical trilogy that began with 1991’s Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany and continued with ’97’s Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, Two Germanys adheres to this übernarrative closely, albeit in a subtly nuanced and richly detailed way. Beginning with Richard Peter Sr.’s claustrophobic, horizonless documentary photographs of the charred rubble (and citizens) of Dresden, the exhibit winds in a chronological circuit through the schizophrenic era of reconstruction toward the conceptual terminus of reunification. Shell-shocked attempts to assimilate the recent carnage with the tools of Modernism provide the first of many painterly gems, with the luminous biomorphic abstractions of Willi Baumeister, who chose to remain in Third Reich Germany, working in secret after being classified as degenerate.

The bifurcating streams of Communist Party–sanctioned Socialist Realism and laissez faire expressions of the Westside “economic miracle” afford glimpses into summarily disparaged modes of narrative figuration and prescient op/kinetic gizmoism respectively, while the first stirrings of anticonsumerist skepticism that blossomed in the “Capitalist Realism” of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke are traced to the 1950s typewriter and sewing-machine portraits of Konrad Klapheck. A tableful of Dresdenite Herman Glöckner’s constructivist models — assembled in secret from tiny bits of trash to evade the disapproving eye of the East German Socialist Unity Party — provides a hauntingly poetic riposte to both official programs of aesthetic progress, while looking eerily contemporary — like something from last month’s grad-school open studios."

Read the rest of Divided We Stand: Art of Two Germanys here

Roger (Syd) Barrett Untitled, 1963, Pencil and oil on board (not in the show, Dummkopf!)
Willi Baumeister Gravour Faust – Scherzo, 1952, Oil and pencil on cardboard (also not in the show, but one I particularly like)
Various models by Herman Glöckner, c. 1960
Sigmar Polke, Object Kartoffelhaus (Potato House Object), 1967

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