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Kunsthalle Dusseldorf presents Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism

Kunsthalle Dusseldorf presents Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism an exhibition on view 21 July–29 September 2013.

Sigmar Polke, Socken, 1963. © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013.
Sigmar Polke, Socken, 1963. © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013.

Fifty years ago, Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter coined the term “capitalist realism” on the occasion of their first self-organised exhibition in Düsseldorf. In 1963, Lueg and Richter also staged the legendary Living with Pop – A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism action in the Berges furniture store. The exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf is the first to take an in-depth look at the whole phenomenon that is synonymous for a brief period of a specifically West German post-war art, and to show its contemporary relevance.

The exhibition documents the actions between 1963 and 1966, when the artists used this term, and concludes chronologically with a documentary account about René Block, who politicized the label for his gallery work in Berlin. A separate section is devoted to the Fluxus movement in the Rhineland, which was a key forerunner. The pictorial world of capitalist realism is presented in a selection of more than 50 photographic reproductions of works by the artists. In fact, the paintings by Lueg, Polke, and Richter (Kuttner soon forged a style of his own) were themselves largely based on reproductions. The artists painted subject matters they found in magazines and newspapers. Analogous to British and American pop art, they turned their attention to the trivial aspects of life in their immediate environments. 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. Whereas images from advertisements, e.g. Polke’s Berliner (Bäckerblume) (1965), are an ironic way of depicting happy and naïve amazement at the economic miracle, Richter’s Onkel Rudi (1965), the man in the Wehrmacht uniform, points for example to the contradictions with which the members of Richter’s generation had to come to terms when they thought about their parents. The frequently recurring topic of cleanliness, as in Konrad Lueg’s Omovertreter (Omo Salesman) (1963), 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 decoration, 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 painting to be a moral act and claimed that the artists were not trying to paint good pictures. The decision not to show the originals thus 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 Schloss Neuschwanstein (1963), 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 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 in this day and age, and creates highly sophisticated photographic images of the superficial aspects of everyday life. Williams has designed the exhibition banner: an immaculate advertising poster on the façade with a special-offer for fresh apples taken from an ad for the REWE supermarket chain together with the exhibition and the artists at the Aktionspreis 3.97. Capitalist realism and photographic or filmic picture production, respectively, are very closely intermeshed. This is particularly evident in the second part of Williams’s contribution to the exhibition. He has situated a programme encompassing a total of eight films ranging from the 1950s to the present at different places within the show. They include Hollywood productions, documentary films, artist videos and an advertising clip dating from 1959 that makes domestic cleanliness and the image of women from the 1950s manifest. The young artist duo Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr, by contrast, filmed Düsseldorf’s Nordstraße, a typical West German shopping street. The camera moves from one store to the next, capturing the conformity of streets in a globalised world. One of the better known contributions is the 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle by the French philosopher and artist Guy Debord. Based on his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle was a radical denouncement of the modern industrial society and capitalism where superficiality causes reality to vanish behind an illusory world composed of advertising, clichés and propaganda.

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 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 capitalism. 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 Eckhart J. Gillen, Marc Godfrey, Walter Grasskamp, Susanne Rennert, Dietmar Rübel, Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, Gregor Jansen and others.

In April 2014, the exhibition will be shown at Artists Space, New York at the same time as the Sigmar Polke retrospective at MoMA.

Curators: Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, Gregor Jansen
Curator of the Fluxus and René Block sections: Susanne Rennert

Kunsthalle Düsseldorf
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