Exhibit of German art sidesteps ugliest times
Thomas Struth, “The Consolandi Family I,” Milan, 1996, chromogenic color print, face-mounted to Plexiglass. | Collection of James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach~ Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
‘De-Natured: German Art from Joseph Beuys to Martin Kippenberger’
Through Dec. 9
Block Museum of Art Northwestern
University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston
Updated: October 10, 2012 9:32AM
The particular richness, as well as the signature prickliness, of post World War II German art may result from what curator Peter Nisbet calls Germany’s “severe legacy of traumatic history.”
Nazi dictatorship, the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, which split that nation in two for decades — German artists from both east and west, have had to accept wave after wave of these wrenching, shaming disasters as defining elements of their national identity.
“De-Natured: German Art from Joseph Beuys to Martin Kippenberger,” an exhibition at the Block Museum that features the work of 10 German artists of the recent past, offers a glimpse into this fractured and necessarily self-analyzing sensibility, although none of it deals explicitly with Germany’s fraught history.
The standout works in the show are Thomas Struth’s large-scale photos. Visually appetizing and not as conceptually challenging at first as much else in the show, they draw the viewer in and only then begin to engage the intellect. “The Consolandi Family” is one of a series of Struth’s family portraits. Here, an elegant Milanese art collector appears surrounded by his adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren, all arrayed at cautious intervals among the objects in the old man’s art collection. The photo makes us think about the psychology of family relationships — favorites, fallings out and agreed upon disagreements. The apparent wealth and comfort of this family’s circumstances only make their subtle dissatisfactions more interesting.
Struth’s well-known art museum series is represented here by “Galleria dell’Accademia.” Shot from behind the backs of a couple sitting on a bench, the photo records both them and the painting they regard, Titian’s “Pieta.” The dramatic, emotional night scene depicting the removal of Christ’s broken body from the cross contrasts sharply with the bright, interior lighting and the passive posture of the museumgoers.
Struth leads us into a gradual awareness of our remove from art and its content, starting where we are, in a museum in Evanston, then making us imagine him with his camera in a museum in Venice, then moving back five hundred years to Titian’s studio, and finally back two thousand years to the event that is the subject of the painting.
Half the artists in the show are photographers. Andreas Gursky re-imagines the romantic landscape with large-format photos of the autobahn. Thomas Ruff’s large-scale portraits, though huge, are the opposite of heroic. In one, from Ruff’s famous Other Portraits series, the artist turns even the notion of individual portraiture upside down. By appropriating a montage machine once used by the German police to create composite images of crime suspects, Ruff blends facial types and even genders to create non-portraits that speak volumes about our age of mutable identity.
The work of painters and one sculptor represented here is more complex and therefore more obscure. Sigmar Polke’s Ben-day dot paintings reference the same advertising imagery that Roy Lichtenstein so deftly mined, in this country, during the same period but are possessed of sharper political edges, and less sumptuous surfaces.
Martin Kippenberger is the one wiseguy in the show, with his hotel stationery drawings, sketchy affairs made in ballpoint pen and felt tip marker on letterhead from an assortment of high-end hotels. Not for nothing did he say, “An exhibition is an artist’s running gag.”
Note: Not part of De-Natured but related is “The Neighbor Next Door,” Shimon Attie’s installation downstairs in the Alsdorf Gallery. Attie is American but lived in Berlin during the 1990s, and the installation considers the lives of Jews hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi Occupation of The Netherlands during World War II. Using found film of passing street life, shot secretly from hiding places, Attie created installations by projecting these films on the same cobblestone streets in Amsterdam.
Now, Block curators have movingly and imaginatively re-created the filmmakers’ original experience, rendering the films viewable only through keyhole-sized gaps in the gallery wall.