German Pop artists come clean

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Exhibition opens in Frankfurt, includes artists overshadowed by Richter and Polke

Thomas Bayrle, Ajax, 1966. Photo: Rudolf Nagel, © Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt

The curator of “German Pop”, Martina Weinhart, had her work cut out for her when faced with tracking down some of the paintings featured in this exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. There have been many Pop art shows but this is the first about how young West German artists’ embraced, in a complicated and very German way, the art movement born in the US and UK in the 1960s.

“I went through a lot of cellars,” Weinhart says, finding works by artists who have been overshadowed by the likes of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Weinhart is particularly pleased to include the works of three woman artists in the show. Bettina von Arnim is a “major discovery”, she says. “I did not know her work at all.” Weinhart also met Ludi Armbruster in her Munich home shortly before the artist’s death. In Armbruster’s cellar “there were 30 to 40 paintings just sitting there”, the curator says. Another female artist whose work is only now being discovered is Berlin-based Christa Dichgans.

German artists went Pop first and loudest in Düsseldorf. Konrad Lueg and Richter (who, like Polke, had moved from East Germany) organisedLiving with Pop: a Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, a fortnight-long group performance in an empty furniture store in October 1963. The young artists were in a rebellious mood as Germany’s post-war economic miracle took place.

“The Rhineland was really flourishing. Düsseldorf had art schools. Frankfurt was where the US army HQ was based and so really familiar with American culture,” Weinhart says. German artists’ reaction to US-style consumer culture, or “Coca-colonisation” according to its German critics, was never going to be a straightforward celebration of all that was sexy, glamorous, mass produced and popular as the country’s first shopping malls opened, commercial TV began broadcasting and the Berlin Wall went up. “German Pop was different because of the devastation of the Second World War,” she says. “There was also a conflict between the generations.” You do not find portraits of “Liz Taylor, Marilyn or Jackie O”, she says. Instead, Richter painted an obscure female doctor, Portrait Dr Knobloch, 1964, that he has lent to the show, which is sponsored by Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain with support from Novomatic AG.

The many references to cleaning products in German Pop art, such as Thomas Bayrle’s Ajax, 1966, were a reaction to post-war Germany’s cult of tidiness and cleanliness, or “Omo euphoria”, as older, conservative, bourgeois Germans tried to sweep the recent Nazi past under the carpet.

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