When the marathon German film "Berlin Alexanderplatz" recently ran as a series on PBS, most of my friends gave up on it before the end of the first episode. Too grim. Too violent. I stuck it out for 14 hours as a matter of cultural obligation. The experience left a curious aesthetic residue. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's world seemed to be constructed on a loamy earthen foundation full of blind white roots, irrigated in blood, rich and good-hearted although a trifle repulsive, like farmers' boots oozing mud.
The title and length of the film led one to expect something epic, but there is hardly a long shot in it and what we get to know of Alexanderplatz is from the dim subway station beneath it with its newspaper and sausage peddlers and the human flotsam that passes through like an army of burrowing human animals escaping from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. As the hero Franz Biberkopf, Gunter Lamprecht looks a lot like a Pieter Brueghel peasant.
But all of this earthiness is mixed with a sophisticated sort of particularly modern European ennui, a chic cynicism that 1920s German painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit conferred upon their portraits of poets and pimps, hookers and transvestites. Noel Coward made world-weariness play very stylishly, but in German art it's a very odd bedmate to peasant sentimentality and Protestant fatality. It's a combination that makes for mucky grimness where horror and humor play as close together as classic tragedy and mocking travesty. If it is possible to say that the ultimate French artistic emotion is poignancy, then the German one must be agony.
It all seems worth mentioning because it may cast some light on a benighted exhibition of eight contemporary West German artists on view at USC's Fisher Gallery to April 23. Titled "Behind the Eyes," it was organized by Van Deren Coke, veteran curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That circumstance, however, should not give the viewer the notion that this is a conventional photography show. Most of the participants are also either performance artists, video makers, painters, sculptors, printmakers or authors of so-called "artists books."
Coke, in his catalogue introduction, explains that the rationale of the exercise is to act as something of a corrective against the notion that the only thing going on in German art today is the widely noted Neo-Expressionist movement in painting and sculpture.
"This exhibition is intended to call attention to the fact that in these anxiety-ridden times there are still German artists who are more interested in perception and psychology than angst ," he writes.
That's fine except the exhibition fails to make the case on a number of counts, not the least of which is the fact that there is a marked discrepancy between what is on the walls at USC and what is reproduced in the catalogue. The result is often a curious lack of agreement between what we see and what is written about the artists. Coke, for example, describes Cologne's Jurgen Klauke as, "A subversive and lusty performance artist dealing with scarlet sins and licentious rites."
What we see on the walls are oversize photographs of a man in suit with a bucket over his head. Well, chacun a son scarlet sins.
The catalogue also reveals a subtext suggesting wide conceptual disagreement over what the exhibition is really about. The artists didn't like Coke's original title, which linked this disparate collection of individual artists to the pioneer expressionist group, Die Brucke. Coke's prose is cool and professional while that of his catalogue essayist George Jappe is idiosyncratic, poetic, convoluted and markedly anti-photography.
Come on. What is really going on here?
This exhibition has three main real contents. It is grim and murky. Walk into the gallery on a sunny California spring day, scan the walls and suddenly it's winter outside. Dirty snow melts and trees are stark black silhouettes.
The emotional effect is so marked as to contradict the idea that these artists are primarily intellectual. Angst means fear. Its active manifestation is the explosive agony of the Neo-Expressionists. Its passive manifestation is depression, worry and inability to resolve problems. It makes for a meandering, hand-wringing art so skewed that there is no aesthetic catharsis. Artistic kick is smothered in doubt and boredom.
And are these feelings, in fact, reflective of contemporary West Germany? They should be. The country has plenty to be anxious about. Germany is divided. West Germany has about 63 million people packed into a geography considerably smaller than California with its 26 million souls. West Germany is the odds-on main nuclear target in a European superpower confrontation and one of its main cities is right in the middle of the bad guy's turf.
But everything about this art that identifies it as made in the here-and-now is borrowed raiment from the second rank of international conceptualism. All its redeeming features hark directly back to the established traditions of German art.
Jochen Gerz, a Berliner who lives on Vancouver island, makes landscapes out of series of photographs interspersed with self-doubting philosophical text. Edmund Kuppel pieces photographic landscapes together with individual prints mounted on strips of pleated paper. Both of these chaps might as well be sitting on a rock with 19th-Century Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, staring at the sea.
Bogomir Ecker places childlike cutouts in the rusted industrial areas of Dusseldorf nights. They are coated with a reflective material that glows when struck by passing auto headlights. Ecker's environmental concerns and sympathy for trash link him right back to Kurt Schwitters.
Klauke, the bucket-head, fulfills more of his reputation for kinky stylishness in a videotape evidently shot in a Wienstube with a hidden camera. Its zoo of odd folks is right out of the Germany of Isherwood and the New Realism. Pidder Auberger is in the same tradition except his romanticized, slightly heavy-handed symbolic photo portraits are among the exhibition's few effective works.
Despite the show's stated intentions, Bernard Johannes Blume looks like a straight Expressionist sensibility, thin representation notwithstanding. I mean what else could an artist be when his single series depicts a berserk milk pitcher bludgeoning a man to the floor?
Most everybody mentioned also does something else like painting or sculpting, which muddles rather than clarifies individual sensibilities. It's as if these guys are so hung up on an anarchic idea of freedom they don't even want to have identifiable expressive personalities.
Well, it is all too complicated, but it is not all grim. The lyric side of the modern Germanic tradition shows up in Jurgen Partheimer, who inherits the gentle whimsy of Paul Klee. Claus Bohmler sends up the whole show. He offsets its relentless black-and-white with color collages that make fun of the obsession with mechanism by turning cameras into pretty cutouts and methodical diagrams into animated satires of themselves.