Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

Living with Pop: Capitalist Realism in Düsseldorf

Reiner Ruthenbeck, Leben mit Pop, 1963; © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013Reiner Ruthenbeck, Living with Pop, 1963; © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013

In 1963, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg presented their performance “Leben mit Pop” (Living with Pop) in a Düsseldorf furniture store. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of that performance, an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf now looks back at an artistic movement in 1960s West Germany that marked a definitive departure from abstraction.

Two men wearing suits are seated on living-room furniture from the store’s inventory, placed on pedestals as works of art. The daily news is running on a television in the background.

It is the 11th of October 1963. The two men are Konrad Lueg and Gerhard Richter. They are not sitting at home, however, but in the Berges furniture store in Düsseldorf. The performance is called Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism.

Beer and Trouble

The photograph of the action by Lueg und Richter is one of those images in the history of German art that document a moment of upheaval. That is because Living with Pop can be seen as a founding moment of Capitalist Realism: the West German version of British and American Pop Art which departed from abstraction and combined a certain fascination for mass media and advertising with criticism of the consumer culture and the frowsy atmosphere of post-war West German society.

Living with Pop transformed the furniture store into an art space. According to a pre-specified dramaturgy, the visitors first had to take a seat in a waiting room before entering the abovementioned living room situation, where they were then able to walk around the furniture to view four works by the artists and a felt suit by Joseph Beuys. Then there was beer – and trouble with the shop’s proprietor because the advertising he had been hoping for had failed to materialize.

“We presented ourselves not as artists, but as sculptures,” said Richter later, talking about the performance. “I wanted to display myself as an occupant, as a member of the petite bourgeoisie, with this pathetic blanket on the sofa.”

Kitschy Idealization

In Living with Pop, the two Düsseldorf-based painters Lueg und Richter, who had made one another’s acquaintance the previous year as students at the art academy there, organized a happening which was to have a long-lasting impact. Between 1963 and 1966, in opposition to the then dominant abstract Informel movement, they joined forces with their fellow students Sigmar Polke and Manfred Kuttner in various performances and gallery exhibitions as representatives of a new trend in art whose name was as ironic as it was programmatic. The four artists caricatured the consumer culture at the time of the West German "Wirtschaftswunder" or "Economic Miracle" in paintings featuring socks, cars, sausages and chocolate, launching a full-frontal attack on the domestic cosiness and prudishness of post-war Germany. Examples are Richter's kitschy idealization of Neuschwanstein Castle or of a deer in the undergrowth.

Capitalist Realism was deliberately conceived as the West German equivalent to Socialist Realism in East Germany. At the same time, it was not intended as a political or socially critical movement. Putting their art at the service of a fixed ideology would not have been an option for Polke, Richter and Kuttner, who had all come to West Germany from the GDR.

Necessity and Virtue

Just under fifty years after said performance in the Berges furniture store, the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf is now revisiting those events with the exhibition Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism. The title of the exhibition can be taken literally, because all of the works shown are presented as reproductions on cardboard in the original size.

In its day, Capitalist Realism was not meant solely as an ironic label, but also as a catchword for the deliberate promotion of the artists’ own careers: a plan which certainly bore fruit, particularly in the case of Richter and Polke, who are currently the most expensive contemporary German painters. It would not have been financially possible to use the originals for the current Düsseldorf exhibition due to the prohibitive costs of insuring them.

With no intention of causing affront, a virtue is being made of necessity with an exhibition of reproductions which, given the fact that the artists themselves often processed and reproduced existing pictorial material for their art, for example from magazines, actually makes sense.

Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism

Fluxus as a Primum Mobile

In roughly chronological order, the exhibition retraces the evolution of Capitalist Realism in individual stages from its founding to the group’s subsequent performances, and finally to the development of specific iconographies with which the artists’ names are still associated today. Living with Pop also spans the decades to the present: the American concept artist and academy professor Christopher Williams designed an exhibition banner to be hung on the outside of the building, and selected several films that can be viewed on monitors scattered around the exhibition.

The exhibition moreover pays tribute to the Fluxus movement, the main provider of impulses for the Capitalist Realists, and to the graphic works with which Berlin gallery owner René Block tried to open up and politicize Capitalist Realism for other artists after the dissolution of the Düsseldorf group in 1966.

Living with Pop also shows documents such as correspondence with the authorities, sketches and invitations, which can be regarded as interesting sources for research into the history of artistic self-organization and the temporary appropriation of spaces: i.e. strategies that are the order of the day in the realistic capitalism of today's art world.

“Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism”
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf
21 July to 29 September 2013

Martin Conrads
is a free-lance author and teaches visual communications at the Universität der Künste in Berlin.

Translation: Judith Rosenthal
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
September 2013

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