Review: ‘Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures’ at LACMA


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In the 1980s, art being made in Los Angeles and Germany simultaneously emerged into prominence. The event signaled a dramatic change — the beginning of a new internationalism in a cultural conversation that, for a generation, had largely been restricted to New York. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a cultural barrier definitively fell.

So it’s more than appropriate that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in cooperation with Berlin’s Kulturprojekte, should organize the sprawling exhibition “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” a richly detailed survey of nearly 50 years of painting, sculpture, photography and other work made in the wake of the cataclysm of World War II. The show, which opened Sunday, features about 300 works by 120 artists.


On one hand it offers thoroughly unfamiliar artists. The big discovery is Hermann Glöckner, a Constructivist sculptor who died in 1987 in a Berlin hospital at age 98 after a lifetime in the East — first under Hitler’s dictatorship and then under socialist repression. He’s barely known in the U.S., and none of these works has been shown before.

A tabletop with 21 small objects fashioned from modest, leftover materials — empty matchboxes, a letter, a used tin coffeepot — comprises a remarkable alteration of Constructivist tradition. Made in Dresden between 1958 and 1977 by folding, cutting or joining materials into small, mostly geometric structures, Glöckner’s sculptures merge Utopian idealism with deep humility. Poised on an aesthetic knife-edge between recognizable household object and pure abstraction, each is like a personal amulet of the transformational power of modern secular faith.

On the other hand...

the show also features many artists who are among the most recognizable of the postwar era. (The only surprising omission is sculptor Katharina Fritsch.) One German-born American — Eva Hesse — and the Korean-born video pioneer Nam June Paik, who moved to Munich to study music in the 1950s, are included. But it’s familiar German artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo and several others whose work now looks slightly different in this illuminating context.

When contemporary German art — especially painting — first flooded into America in the 1980s, many were taken by surprise. The new work’s evolution was traced back to the 1960s. Mo stly figurative in subject matter and Expressionist in style, it seemed to reconsider the German Expressionist art made before Hitler banned Modernism as degenerate. With the 1945 to 1960 period missing, continuity, not disruption, appeared to be a force.

“Two Germanys” should permanently lay that idea to rest. A pivot in the show does occur in the early 1960s, but the rooms that lead up to it give it meaning. First is a gallery for the war’s immediate aftermath, prior to the 1949 division of Germany (and Berlin) into East and West.

Germany then was a bombed-out pile of rubble. The jagged, slashing, tumultuous color-forms and spectral masks in Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s sophisticated 1945 painting “Daughter of Hecate I” put the painful violence of rebirth in the shattered guise of an ancient Greek wilderness goddess, mentioned in the title.


The horrific photographs of rotting Nazi corpses by Richard Peter Sr. and the pen-and-ink renderings of devastated Dresden streets by Wilhelm Rudolph are less Expressionist than simply documentary. Gruesome numbered corpses beneath a flock of blackbirds in Hans Grundig’s 1947 “To the Victims of Fascism,” the first German painting known to deal directly with Holocaust truth, anticipates a monumental moral reckoning that did not animate art for a generation.

The next gallery looks at the 1950s, when the country and its art split into East and West and recent history became more subliminal. Social Realist paintings are to the right, abstractions to the left. They represent the sharp social distinction — and it’s as much an official demarcation as anything.

The “new society” championed by the East German government is pictured in Rudolf Pleissner’s earnest scene of women working a high-tech assembly line. Likewise, the democratic government’s so-called “miracle of the West” is embodied in Emil Schumacher’s equally earnest abstract painting, evoking dim light and vestigial marks within a bleak cavern. Reminiscent of Jean Fautrier’s work, it’s fully in line with abstract painting elsewhere in Europe and the U.S.

The tabletop with Glöckner’s humble Constructivist sculptures stands in the center of this room, refreshingly separated from the official cant of East and West. But the grinding social tensions couldn’t be contained, and in 1961 the wall went up to staunch the flow of refugees.

Two years later, denial about (or diversion from) the past became impossible. The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of lower level death camp officials — loosely recalled in the current Kate Winslet movie “The Reader” — pushed painful, hidden Holocaust details out into the public square.

You can feel these shifts in the art. Gone is the mordancy and the musing. Gone is any sense of official sanction, whether demanded or sought. Artistically, all hell breaks loose.


The Zero Group started over, returning art to a shaman-like magic of low-tech, industrial smoke-and-mirrors. Here it’s epitomized by Heinz Mack’s slightly sinister, wall-size installation of spinning silver panels and disks.

Dieter Roth abandoned product for process. A sickening, seven-level pastry cart is stacked with 224 ‘royal’ lions cast from 1,600 pounds of pungent, cracking, puke-inducing chocolate.

Paik altered television sets, including one that warped the state-sponsored broadcast any time the volume changed. His boxy TV is titled “Cuba,” a pun with a political twist.

The section on the 1960s and 1970s is the show’s largest — and the most crowded. One small space overflows with Pop-influenced paintings, sculptures and an installation by the Capitalist Realist artists Polke, Richter and Konrad Lueg. The claustrophobic clutter reflects a glut of mass-production and consumption.

This is where the art begins to become most familiar. But its sources in the pressure cooker of the preceding period changes the way we see it — which is less cerebral, in the manner of newly emerging Conceptual art, and more visceral, as a material response to growing crisis.

Some of this art — mostly by Neo-Expressionists like Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, but also by East German unknowns — looks back at the fractured nation’s past. Yet it also looks at the untenable present, with its inescapable stresses and strains. The social miasma that brought terrorism to Europe in the 1970s also brought the cultural cacophony of blunt artistic disobedience — Beuys literally swept up streets, filling a display case with garbage — which runs through the remainder of the galleries.


The show, marvelously organized by LACMA curator Stephanie Barron and Berlin’s Eckhart Gillen, inevitably ends with a bit of a whimper. The 1980s galleries are shadowed by the wall’s epochal dismantling. That performance is tough competition.

And the final room — with first-rate works by Richter, Rosemarie Trockel, Isa Genzken and others — could be any permanent collection in any mainstream art museum just about anywhere. Silently, it makes a point.

— Christopher Knight

Photos from LACMA