Art 101

What We Owe Postwar German Artists, From Joseph Beuys to Gerhard Richter

What We Owe Postwar German Artists, From Joseph Beuys to Gerhard Richter
Joseph Beuys in I Like America and It Likes Me (1974)

As Germany was in disarray in the aftermath of World War II, the defeated country began the difficult process of rebuilding itself economically, culturally, and spiritually. Faced with the arduous task of confronting their traumatic past, Germany's artists created some of the most distinctive and experimental art of the postwar era. In 1955, artist, curator, and educator Arnold Bode founded Documenta—a 100-day-long international exhibition held every five years in Kassel—as a means of renewing German art and creating a new cultural legacy divorced from the Nazi past. The audacious show has since become one of the art world's most significant events. 

Strains of German contemporary art have also lept from its home country to influence the way artists around the world tackle their work. To map out how this occurred, we've outlined several of the most influential artists and movements to come out of Germany since the mid-20th century, from social sculpture to Neo-Expressionist painting. 


Renowned theorist and performance artist Joseph Beuys is one artist who had a particularly personal relationship to World War II, having been a member of both the Hitler Youth and the German Army. Physically and emotionally shaken following an accident suffered during the war—after his plane was shot down on the Crimean Front he claimed to have been rescued by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who aided his recovery by wrapping him in felt and animal fat, two materials that would take on totemic importance in his work—Beuys began making art that focused on confronting the country's uncomfortable past in an effort to reclaim a taboo history.

In the 1960s, he was briefly affiliated with the Fluxus movement, a Neo-Dadaist group of international artists interested in breaking down the boundaries between art and life (a running theme throughout Beuys's own work), as is an element of political absurdism. In one of the artist's most famous performances, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), he whispered to a dead rabbit while sitting in a gallery window, his face covered in gold leaf and honey. In another, I Like America and It Likes Me (1974), Beuys flew to the United States, swathed himself in felt, and lived tenuously inside an art gallery with a live, wild coyote for several days. For 7,000 Oaks (1982-87), one of the artist's many so-called social sculptures, he planted thousands of trees over the course of several years in Kassel, altering its public interactive space.

These performances are emblematic of Beuys's belief in the power of art to radically transform everyday society, which he saw as one expansive work of art—a viewpoint that has tremendous resonance in the work of current artists from Rirkrit Tiravanija to A.L. Steiner who create politically charged works that draw from the electricity of social interactions.


In the 1970s and '80s, as the art market began to flourish under a newly booming global economy, dealers and collectors turned the traditionally linear art market into a speculative economy, selling collectors on the promise and potential of exciting emerging artists. Marketing and branding became integral parts of the process of publicizing artists. One successful example of this strategy was accomplished by gallerist Gerd Harry Lybke, who packaged a group of art students from a small, post-industrial German city into the "New Leipzig School," which suddenly attracted international recognition almost overnight.

Under this new moniker, artists like Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, and Tim Eitel, who share minimal artistic qualities (and generally reject the classification), became hot commodities for collectors, and rode their wave of popularity to solo shows and museum exhibitions across the globe. This formula became standard practice for market players looking to capitalize on the appetites of voracious collectors and paved the way for geographical groupings of emerging artists like Charles Saatchi and the famed "Young British Artists" in the United Kingdom.


Though it currently boasts a thriving economy, Germany was slow to recover from the aftermath of their defeat in the second World War. Bernd and Hilla Becher, two immensely influential figures, were at the forefront of a wave of artists who captured the desolate industrial landscape. The couple's series of factory complexes and decrepit structures—most often presented, in echt-German fashion, in typological groups showing the similarities and differences between architectural forms (like water towers)—became signature snapshots representative of the bleak monotony of modern life.

Architecture remained a popular subject matter for modern photographers as the country continued to evolve economically, with images of oppressively-scaled buildings and contrasting shots of East and West Germany serving as symbols of simultaneous growth and decay. From 1976 to 1996, the Bechers were on the faculty of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where they mentored a generation of German photographers, including Thomas Struth, Andreas GurskyThomas Ruffand Candida Höfer. (The first two of those are so commonly linked that the art critic Jerry Saltz refers to them as "Struthsky.") Höfer's large-format photographs of empty public spaces in the 1980s, meanwhile, reflect the Bechers's teachings and encapsulate what she calls the "psychology of social architecture" that subconsciously pervades the consciousness of those it shelters.


As conceptual and minimal art reached their heyday in the 1970s, Neo-Expressionist painting—an updating of German Expressionist painting, an atmospheric, intensely personal style practiced in the pre-and-post-WWI era by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz—began developing as an alternative to the cerebral art then dominating museums and art magazines. Though the movement reallyexploded in popularity once it hit the galleries of New York City in the '80s, it first emerged as a genre in Germany, suffused with the region's classical painterly traditions of figuration, portraiture, and vivid, emotive colors.

Some German Neo-Expressionists like Markus Lüpertz and Anselm Kiefer weren't afraid of reviving the darker sides of history as well, as both frequently referenced controversial issues in their country's recent past, such as Nazi governance and fascist propaganda. Kiefer's painterly style in particular, which resembled that of fellow Neo-Expressionist Georg Baselitz, often incorporated found and organic materials, lending a temporality and delicateness to his work that sharply contrasted the often morose subject matter.


A group of important painters emerged out of Germany in the mid-'60s whose divergent conceptual approaches to artmaking marked a new era in the development of abstraction. Blinky Palermo, who studied under Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and adopted the name of a real-life gangster, abandoned traditionalist painterly conventions to make oddly sized, monochromatic "fabric paintings" constructed from cut and stitched textiles stretched over frames. Sigmar Polke, who founded the parodic painting movement "Capitalist Realism," focused on photography for a decade before returning to painting, depicting quotidian objects and experimenting with painterly processes.

Martin Kippenberger, who was influenced by Polke, also worked in a wide variety of media, but is perhaps best known for his "hotel drawings," eclectic collages he created towards the end of his tragically short life on stationary he collected while traveling. Gerhard Richter, the most prolific of the bunch, is also the most renowned, having established a reputable career creating works ranging from paintings based on photographs to blurred, soft-focus imagery to colorful, squeegeed abstractions—one of which recently sold for over $34 million at auction, earning Richter the distinction of the top-selling living artist. 


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