Virus Form, Geometrisches aus Dresden von 1920 bis 2016
21 May - 16 Jul 2016
Karl-Heinz Adler, Hermann Glöckner, Olaf Holzapfel, Günther Hornig, Friedrich Kracht, Manfred Luther, Wilhelm Müller, Ursula Sax, Stefan Schröder, Inge Thiess-Böttner, Leoni Wirth, als Gast: A.R. Penck, kuratiert von Susanne Altmann
21 May – 16 July 2016
And yet spread. Not even official quarantine measures were able to exterminate the virus of formalism. Artists remained true to their inclination toward geometry and abstraction through persistence and tricks, in spite of the restrictive aesthetic ideology of GDR. And this happened in a climate, in which–starting in 1953 at the latest–everything that did not comply with the propagated “socialist idea of man,” either aesthetically or in terms of content, was damned. To be clear: the concept of formalism that is addressed here has nothing to do with the artistic tendency toward self-referential, modernist forms and formulas, which began more than a decade ago. Because of its market-oriented characteristics, it has recently been categorized as “Zombie formalism” or (nicely) as a new “Neo-Geo.” That sort of syllogism leads to (art historical) absurdity. Nevertheless, this trend is accompanied by an important phenomenon: a newly awoken interest in mature geometrical, concrete art and its representatives.
However, forward into the past–the formalism concept discussed here was a spawn of the Cold War and its cultural battles. It was both an official bogeyman and an unofficial reward. As a pejorative term, formalism did not only refer to non-objective artistic practices, even if it especially had these as a target. After having endured Nazi verdicts against “degenerate art,” an artist like Hermann Glöckner (1889-1987), who had already turned to concrete art in the 1920s, must have been bitterly disappointed by the renewed witch hunt. Those artists who adhered to abstract forms, autonomous shapes and compositions, and the magic of geometry were immediately designated as “enemies of the state.” They gave up not only privileges but also the oxygen of artistic production: public reception and specialist discourse. For existential reasons, many East German artists succumbed to the new rules. All the more should we value the works of those who broke ranks, some of which–restricted to the extremely fruitful Biotope Dresden–are presented here.
In looking at art from the GDR, there is still a great temptation to fall for interpretations purely along the lines of recent history. The remarkable accumulation of constructivist, concrete, and otherwise geometrical-abstract or modular-conceptual approaches in the southern Elbe valley will make for an exciting art historical discussion of the phenomenon. I am consciously not using the word “rehabilitation,” since this would once again imply historical resentment. Yet, it is difficult to expect scholarly detachment from the artists themselves (or those of them who are still alive). At this point, The exhibition “60 Years 60 Pictures. Art of the Federal Republic, 1949-2009,” is remembered with a shudder. Already in its title it used a highly problematic distinction, and almost exclusively celebrated the art of the old Federal Republic, which had actually ceased to exist nineteen years ago. “We are exhibiting art that was possible under article 5, paragraph 3 of the constitution, namely free art. In the GDR, art was not free, so it is not welcome in our exhibition....” (Walter Smerling) That was a slap in the face for all those East German artists who achieved their notion of freedom in daily resistance to official restriction. Now they must have felt doubly invisible. This is true for the majority of the artistic positions represented here. Whereas state-approved figurative art often enjoyed recognition in the West long before 1989, the subversives of form were ignored anew. Perhaps because their creations were not exotic enough, given the established role of geometry in Western modernism? Because people, unaware of the conditions in which they were produced, could discount them as derivative? In any case, with a few exceptions they didn’t belong in the canon of German-German art historical writing. After the Nazi and the GDR regimes, this exclusion from research, teaching, and exhibitions seems like a third affront. There were occasional attempts to legitimate these works for museum presentation by showing them together with visually similar products of the West. So it happened on the occasion of the re-opening of the Dresden Albertium in 2010 that Hermann Glöckner could only exist next to Josef Albers or Eberhard Göschel next to Raimund Girke. Why not just start with a commentary-free presentation of all the non-figurative holdings as a discovery for once?
VIRUS FORM now attempts to provide an artistic context with inherent equality–without the ambition of completeness, but certainly with surprises. The autonomy and conceptual substance of the works will speak for themselves. An additional insight for independent recipients: what is illustrated here is an exemplary development, which took place not only in a hostile environment but also outside of any commercial infrastructure. Moreover, the influence of certain resilient “formalists” of old can still be felt today. The interest in the works of Karl-Heinz Adler or Hermann Glöckner, for instance, demonstrates this; regularly, more recent artists like Tilo Schulz, Kai Schiemenz or Olaf Nicolai invoke them as something like pivotal figures. It is guaranteed that their motivation to do so does not lie in local-historical sentimentality but much more in admiration of their artistic relevance and biographical integrity. Yet, even the positions that are less known outside of the region testify to the fact that in unofficial circles, in settings outside the art academy, and even on the margins of academic instruction, remarkable artistic production and a profound exchange could take place. The only student student of Glöckner, Wilhelm Müller (1928-1999), is deservedly featured here. He made his own way unerringly, with his strict constructivist series and witty stretching of the rules. Then Manfred Luther (1925-2004), whose mostly circular spiritual exercises in the series “Cogito Ergo Sum” operate on the same level as the philosophical profundities of the established serialism in Western Minimal Art. Luther did not see the circle as just a geometrical figure, rather much more as a universal symbol. Going on with those infected with VIRUS FORM, Leoni Wirth (1935-2012), Karl-Heinz Adler (*1927) or Friedrich Kracht (1925-2007) found shelter in proximity to architecture. The development of Formsteine (shaped concrete-blocks) by Adler and Kracht, for instance, initially commissioned as building-bound decoration, demonstrate an inventive program in design and realization. They rank on the same level as autonomous contemporary tendencies on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Both artists pursued modular concepts in their free studio work. With these works, Kracht and Adler submitted to a strict, often mathematically grounded set of rules, which went far beyond ornamental aspects and profited from the discipline of the real-world commissions. Parallel to this, Adler conceived patented material technologies. With such artistic and praxis-related experiments, he self-consciously put himself in the tradition of the Bauhaus, which was generally considered to be reactionary by GDR doctrine. Leoni Wirth walked a similar tightrope between construction practice and sculpture. The models of fountains, which were discovered among her artistic effects, function as independent, poetically laden sculptures. They show the artist’s desire to combine geometric forms just as much as the utopian hope–still common in the late 1960s – of actively contributing to the creation of a human-friendly society. Like Leoni Wirth (spatial planner), Hermann Glöckner (graphic muralist), and Wilhelm Müller (dentist), Inge Thieß-Böttner (1924-1998) also lead a typical GDR double life as an employee and artist, working as a puppet maker and make-up artist. Her experiments, often colored linoleum prints and “scraperboard” panels, are astounding in their wealth of variation between rational guidelines and intuition.
In the subcultural milieu of the time, we find close friendships between kindred spirits like Thieß-Böttner and Müller, Adler and Luther, and Glöckner and Müller. The latest formal inventions were discussed at the kitchen table or half-official exhibitions like those in the Kunstklub of the Rossendorf research reactor. It was on these occasions that they found the necessary critique or affirmation from each other. These debates were theoretically fortified and supplemented with contacts to the east and the west by Dresdner art historians like Werner Schmidt (1930-2010) and Ingrid Adler, or Bożena Kowalska from Poland–despite all the state measures to wall off or censure them.
Around 1989, younger artists like Olaf Holzapfel (*1969) or Stefan Schröder (*1966), both graduates of the Dresden Art Academy, were infected by the avant-garde clarity of Müller, Glöckner, and Adler, still naming these artists as their inspiration today. Schröder’s long-term series “Common Alphabet” (started in 1991) with its monochromatic treatment of flattened cardboard boxes and its use of stencils has a close relationship to Glöckner’s printing technique or his “Tafelwerk” series (1933). Whereas Schröder concentrates on the modularity and repeatability of alienated everyday forms, for Olaf Holzapfel the production of geometries is just a side effect. Coming from architecture, he is fascinated by the inner logic of construction and the immanent formal potential of simple materials. It’s no wonder that with his variations on truss construction and straw-inlay (intarsia), Holzapfel feels a special affinity with Adler’s strategies. In addition, he names the early works of another (ex) Dresdner as formative: A.R.Penck (*1939). With his interest in science, especially cybernetics, Penck transcended the boundaries of geometrical abstraction, operating with a non-objective, combinatory repertoire of signs and repetitive analyses of shapes. For this reason, he cannot be overlooked here as a founder of deviant concepts of form. Equally, Günther Hornig (*1937), lecturer at the Dresden Art Academy, and his impressive oeuvre of strongly colored material images, structural superimpositions and fragile sculptures, must be mentioned. Constructing with similar elements again and again, he makes a dense geometrical system, toppling into entropy: disturbance through order. Initially trained as a stage designer, he found an academic niche in this field where students could pursue non-conform spatial and bodily experiments freely. At the same time it served as stimulus for his own three-dimensional investigations. Remaining with the Dresden Art Academy: in 1993, the hiring of Ursula Sax (*1935), a former student of Willi Baumeister, brought about an official reconnection with the avant-garde tradition of pure form, leaving outmoded east/west distinctions behind. With space-consuming objects and courageous performances, Sax brought the spirit of the Bauhaus into the present and opened eyes to unusual materials like clay and textiles. She is still breaking the strictness of her own concrete forms with bold coloration and surprising flying objects.
text: Susanne Altmann