At LACMA, East and West Germany reunited anew

Art history is a messy business. And the urge to clean it up is irresistible, especially in the period of the Cold War in Germany.

No surprise, then, that the most common shorthand for art produced in the divided nation goes something like this: East German artists made retrograde figurative work in the service of a repressive government; West Germans produced progressive abstractions under the freedom of democracy.

“That’s the binary that has governed so much of the discussion,” says Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The other familiar trope is that everything from Germany is Expressionism -- the notion that the loaded brush, the Expressionist gesture, is all that connotes German art.”

Such stereotypes disintegrate in “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” opening today at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Barron and her German co-curator, Eckhart Gillen of Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH, have selected about 300 works by 125 artists -- paintings, sculptures, photographs, multiples, videos, installations and books -- that blur national borders and upend art historical assumptions.

The third landmark exhibition of German 20th century art that Barron has organized for the museum in the last 20 years, “Two Germanys” is rooted in “ ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” a 1991 examination of an infamous attack on Modern art, and “Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler,” a 1997 show that tracked the migration of artists who fled Nazi rule. The latest project presents art from East and West Germany, which shared a devastating history but operated under separate political systems from 1945 to 1989.

Instead of setting up an East-West divide, as might be expected, Barron has taken a chronological approach to what turns out to be a very complicated story. Neither a battle between opposing cultural doctrines nor a unified chorus of Expressionist angst, “Two Germanys” is an outpouring of creative energy and frustration “seen through the lens of the Cold War,” she says.

The focus is far from tight, though. Visitors will find Socialist Realist paintings along with abstractions, Constructivist objects, Pop art, assemblage, technical experiments, photographs of ordinary people and relics of the Autoperforationists, a group of Dresden performance artists who used their bodies as art material. The artworks all respond to the legacy of Nazism and postwar political events, but from a variety of perspectives.

When Gerhard Richter painted “Uncle Rudi,” a blurry re-creation of a black and white photograph of his uncle in military dress, the artist made the point that most Germans had “a Nazi in the family,” as he has said. Georg Baselitz’s “Picture for the Fathers,” a painting of a woman’s head attached to a mound of mismatched body parts, is a satirical tribute to the generation that perpetrated World War II.

Existential longing and postwar pain abound, but the show has lighthearted moments, such as Sigmar Polke’s “Potato House Object.” An offbeat celebration of nature’s creative power, it’s an 8-foot-tall house with wood lattice walls dotted with nails that skewer about 350 potatoes, a staple of the German diet. When the potatoes sprout, they are replaced and the process starts over.

Thomas Schutte’s “Long Wall,” a grid of 1,200 brick-like paintings, may be read as an ordinary red brick structure or an allusion to the infamous Berlin Wall. But it’s also a collection of portable abstract paintings that questions the notion of permanence and the difference between art and architecture.

Some worked secretly

Although Socialist Realism was the official style of East Germany and its art schools were rigorously traditional, some artists who studied there -- including Richter and Baselitz -- crossed over to the West and became major international figures. Other East Germans labored in secrecy and obscurity, but grappled with issues that concerned their counterparts in West Germany and beyond.

“Relief Wall,” an installation of geometric elements, including foil-covered discs that rotate behind corrugated glass, was dreamed up by Heinz Mack, a West German participant in an international discourse about abstraction as a field of light, movement and technology. A group of much more modest abstract forms -- made of discarded wood, wire, consumer packaging and paper -- is the work of the late Hermann Glöckner, a pioneering Modernist who experiment- ed behind closed doors in East Germany.

“If the show does anything,” Barron says, “I would hope that it challenges conventional notions of this period in Germany, and opens up more questions than it delivers answers.”

In process for five years, the exhibition has attracted art-world insiders who will probably debate the questions as well as the answers. Among them is Thomas Gaehtgens, a German art historian who took charge of the Getty Research Institute in late 2007.

“This is really the first major show to bring all this together,” Gaehtgens says. “I think it will be of great interest to the American public to learn more about these two parts of Germany which lived parallel without really connecting. The old question of how West Germany considers the history of art in the East -- and the other way around -- is a fascinating topic.

“And now you discover that not only official works of art were produced in East Germany, but a lot of very interesting stuff that was not known. Somebody like Glöckner, a very important artist, was not acknowledged in the West at all. And then all these famous German artists whose work is in collections all over the world and who come from the East. There are so many interesting artists now who come out of this German tradition.”

Large figurative and history-themed paintings by German artists such as Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff and A.R. Penck attracted international attention in the 1970s and ‘80s amid a flood of “neoexpressionism.” The most recent German art phenomenon is the meteoric rise of painter Neo Rauch and a batch of younger figurative artists affiliated with the Art Academy in Leipzig, a former bastion of East German conservatism. In the last few years, works by artists of the new Leipzig School have been snapped up by museums and leading collectors including Eli Broad of Los Angeles, Charles Saatchi of London and Don and Mera Rubell of Miami.

LACMA’s exhibition, Gaehtgens says, “isn’t only about art. It’s about German history. It’s about German culture. It’s about discovering the past.”

The Getty Research Institute will add another layer to the subject in “German/American Artistic Exchange During the Cold War,” a conference at the Getty Center on March 20-21. The program will include discussions about American and German artists who worked in each other’s countries and a panel of arts professionals who were active during the Cold War.

After its three-month run in Los Angeles, the exhibition will travel to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg and the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

A long pursuit

For Barron, who joined LACMA’s curatorial staff in 1976, “Two Germanys” is the culmination of a scholarly pursuit that began a few years after she came to Los Angeles. It has already led to five exhibitions and she has another in mind, on Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, a sharply critical form of social realism that emerged in the 1920s.

“German art is not something I started out thinking about,” says the New York native who studied art history at Barnard College, Columbia University and the City University of New York. “I was studying when European exiles were still teaching, but they weren’t teaching German art. My training was more in French than German.”

It was “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives,” a 1980 LACMA exhibit organized by Barron and Maurice Tuchman, that introduced “the possibility of other art histories,” she says. “That also opened my eyes to shows that are multidisciplinary, a hallmark of the historical shows I have done. Not just paintings, but works on paper, photographs, all kinds of things.”

Her focus shifted to Germany when she began doing research at a vast library and collection of German Expressionist art compiled by Los Angeles attorney Robert Gore Rifkind and eventually donated to LACMA. That experience also led to a personal relationship: Barron and Rifkind were married from 1983 to 1997.

“German Expressionist Sculpture,” her first German show, appeared at LACMA in 1983. Barron included photographs of works that had been lost, some of which had been in Hitler’s exhibition of “Degenerate Art.” The catalog of that historic event inspired her to organize her own version, but not until she had completed “German Expressionism 1915-1925: The Second Generation” in 1988.

Although her “Degenerate Art” show launched a series, she sees that exhibition as “a very finite exercise in the re-creation of a very specific event” with “parameters described not by me but by the National Socialists.” The next exhibition, “Exiles and Emigrés,” also had “a finite cast of characters.”

In the case of “Two Germanys,” she says, “the exhibition is broader. It covers a much wider time period. It’s 45 years, two countries, two art histories. So the challenge has been to find threads that connect these two large landscapes.”

The project required extensive research in Germany and at the Getty, as well as the help of co-curator Gillen, who provided crucial assistance in locating artworks and arranging loans.

“Thinking about how to frame the topic in the United States called for some fresh thinking,” Barron says. “Most discussions here of the Second World War have focused on the vic- tims of the Holocaust. For most Germans, the experience involved fathers, sons and brothers who were lost in the war, the massive destruction of major cities, and the humiliation of defeat.

“Our show begins with film footage of the Allied destruction of Dresden,” she says. “That frames what the artists were witness to. It’s not the most popular way to think about the war. But you can’t understand the Cold War without understanding the Second World War and the division of Germany by the occupying forces.”