In 1961, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter enrolled in the Art Academy in Düsseldorf, to be followed in 1962 by Blinky Palermo. Each student had found their way to the renowned art school from various areas of East Germany and within the first years at the academy, productive and competitive friendships would be formed and collaborations, taking on various shapes, would emerge. This exhibition will present a selection of paintings, which demonstrate the formal and thematic interests of this highly influential artistic group as they grappled with the dominance of the American Pop movement and their own German cultural inheritance.
In the early years of the 1960s, Polke's and Richter's growing dissatisfaction with the predominating style of the academy of Art Informel, motivated them to seek other sources. A 1963 visit to Paris, where they discovered the work of Roy Lichtenstein, set the stage for their own very individual explorations of popular culture and problems of style. It was Lichtenstein's anti-painterly technique, one devoid of the artist's hand, which would influence the work Polke and Richter both on a practical and conceptual level.
Plastik- Wannen (Plastic tubs), painted by Polke in 1964, underlines the notable distinction between the pop iconography of Warhol and Lichtenstein and the more- generalized imagery of the German artists. The generic quality of these plastic containers subverts any notion of the 'Brand Name', focusing more fundamentally on images of consumer culture that illustrate, in a more universal manner, the state of contemporary German society.
At the same time, Richter was producing paintings from black and white photographs extracted from the popular press. He considered a photograph to be a 'perfect picture', in that it denies any presence of the picture-taker. To paint from photographs would allow Richter to paint 'style-free', making each painting a self-effacing event. In the 1971 painting Alter Mann (Old Mann), a portrait of an old man is painted from a black and white photograph created at the time when Richter was working on his monumental work 48 Portraits, 1971-72, a series of portraits of historical men found in an encyclopedia. Alter Mann differs from these in that Richter has systematically subjected the photo-realistic origin of the painting to a horizontal blur, a technique devised in the 1960s as means of categorically removing any trace of the artist's hand.
In Gibert & George, 1975, Richter continues his investigation of the problematic reality the photograph. Five photographic images are superimposed creating a complex rendering of the artist duo, where the physical identities of the two men are merged into one visual persona. This is one painting in a series of six variations of Gilbert & George, which is significant in that Richter did not paint portraits of any other contemporary artists. His interest in the 'live performances' of Gilbert & George could hearken back to his own performance work of the early 60s.
Polke had also developed a technique to deal with similar stylistic issues. Bavarian, 1968, is a classic raster or 'dot' painting, where Polke transforms the original photograph or newspaper clipping into a schematic series of enlarged black dots that parody traditional printing processes. Mass reproduction infiltrates both Polke's process of painting as well as his choice of subject matter as he pursues the depiction of everyday German society. Although Bavarian obviously refers to a clipping from a typical German newspaper, here highlighting a regional Bavarian band, the process of its making is paramount. In Untitled, 1968, Polke represents a banal scene of beachgoers, alluding to the emergence of the German petit-bourgeois preoccupation with travel. However, the viewer is confronted with the inescapable presence of the boldly painting black dots forcing the eye to the surface and the subject to collapse into abstraction.
Palermo had switched to Joseph Beuys' class in 1964 and, although he was associated with Richter and Polke during these early years, the work he created was almost impervious to the artistic movements surrounding him. It was only in the 1970s that he and Richter would establish a close relationship, involving collaborations, as well as a genuine friendship based on their common interest in the formal properties of painting. Palermo's work of the 1960s is steeped in the 'poetical idea' of Beuys, where the art object is beyond language, and above analysis. The spiritual element of Palermo's work relates significantly back to the post-war American artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
In Untitled, 1967-68, Palermo employs a rectangular canvas heavily painted with white enamel paint upon which two brilliant, blue triangles are floating. The triangle was a leitmotif in the artists' oeuvre and it was the enduring concept of spatial and spiritual presence that guided Palermo's work. The edges are not pristine and the visible pentimenti indicates that Palermo had moved the triangles. Palermo experimented with the constructive principles of compositional order, as well as with how color could instill an object with immaterial level of meaning. In a Stoffbild (fabric painting) from 1969, constructed from stretched expanses of industrially dyed cloth, a horizon line emerges from where the two sections, (the bottom being dark gray, and the top panel in orange) meet. The associations to nature and landscape are evident, as is the importance of color and its role in abstraction.