Exhibit of the week
Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through April 19

This “extraordinary, sprawling blockbuster exhibition” may change the way you think about the Cold War, said Tom Freudenheim in The Wall Street Journal. There’s a tendency to think of East German culture, and the art it produced, as hopelessly regimented and soulless. West Germany, by contrast, was a world of capitalist energy, artistic adventurousness, and rock ’n’ roll. The 300 works on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, drawn from both countries and across the span of four decades, make “a persuasive case against our clichéd views of East-West aesthetic divides.” Paintings, sculpture, and multimedia works by many of the best known German artists—mostly West Germans such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, and Gerhard Richter—are displayed alongside East German artists “whose work has never before been seen” in the United States.

The unknown East Germans often come off better for the comparison, said Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times. The real discovery is Hermann Glockner, whose intricately constructed “little sculptural gems” were patched together from old newspapers, “cut-up soap containers,” and other detritus. They chronicle everyday life under communism with a casual poetry that makes “much of what passed for abstract art on the other side of the Wall look labored and pretentious.” Barbara Berhold-Metselaar’s photographs of seedy, half-naked bohemians prove that East Germany’s performance art and galleries could be every bit as outré as those of the West. Indeed, the show generally suggests that, despite political differences, “the two Germanys weren’t always so far apart.”

For one thing, artists from both East and West were obsessed with capitalism and consumer culture, said Doug Harvey in the LA Weekly. One of this show’s “most consistent themes is the ongoing struggle to cope with the emerging cultural dominance of the USA.” Yet by the time of reunification, in 1990, Germany had re-established itself as a major artistic center. Beuys pioneered postmodernism, while Easterners such as A.R. Penck and Westerners such as Richter confronted the complicated politics and history that haunt German culture. Today German artists are among the most famous and rich in the world—so why do I feel greater admiration for the nameless East Germans who, like Glockner, slaved away for years on heartbreaking works that would “probably never see the light of day”?