Wolfgang Petrick, and Critical Realism, an Idea Out of Time

“To those who feel, life is a tragedy. To those who think, life is a comedy.”

Sometimes profound ideas enter our consciousness through inauspicious means. The above quote from a Chinese fortune cookie, one of hundreds in my collection, is an example. Its relevance to Wolfgang Petrick’s practices as an artist and teacher is equal and perhaps more pertinent to our understanding of art in general, but especially to Modern or contemporary German art.

Whether due to its unique political and intellectual past, or its cultural appetites, we have been conditioned to expect from Germany an art of pure feelings, of the highest joy, or the most desperate tragedy, of angst, of pain.

Historically speaking, this emphasis on expressionism is only half the spectrum. While the eye that is governed by feeling turns away as a natural reflex from the uncomfortable, the grotesque, or is blurred by tears, the eye governed by diligent intellect remains focused, hopefully, as an instrument with the capacity for analysis and interpretation.

As Wölfflin states, “Not everything is possible at all times. Vision itself has a history...” (1) As we enter this new millennium, Marc Spiegler postulates that we are entering a new era, a period of “Post Socialist Art.” (2) It is time to strive for an unencumbered vision. The ability to remain clearly perceptive allows us not only to experience the impulse but also to challenge the previous orthodoxy of perception, to transcend existing fields of precedence, to achieve a greater state of intellectual autonomy.

The nineteen seventies dawned as a unique period in Europe, especially in West Berlin. With a quarter century having passed since the end of the Second World War, the reconstruction, a revived economy, and the status of Berlin as a divided metropolis, the city became the focal point of both Eastern and Western political and cultural energies. Its status as the cultural core of Central Europe attracted the attentions and assets of the two competing superpowers, vying for the hearts and minds of the people in what has been referred to as a cultural “Cold War.” This created an environment extremely conducive to artistic developments.

Greenbergian aesthetics of High Modernism, derived mainly from the German Idealism of Kant and Hegal along with a healthy dose of Marxism, as well as Freudian psychoanalysis, were the impetus of the Abstract Expressionists. The cynicism of Pop Art represented a branch of Existential and Deconstructivist thought via Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida. Ironically, America and the capitalist West had co-opted Leftist philosophy to promote their agenda of individual creative freedom. Meanwhile socialist East Germany embraced the narrow ideals of Stalinist “Social Realism.”

This Government-sanctioned style derived much of its conservative pictorial heritage from the classic traditions established by the wealthy mercantile class and the Catholic Church of the High Renaissance, and was codified as Marxist aesthetics by George Lukacs during the 1920s and 1930s. The odd juxtaposition of these two competing aesthetic doctrines, being propagated by forces that seem antithetical to their concepts, created a curious panorama, as if the residents of Berlin are living between two vast mirrors.

Viewers looking either East or West see only perversely distorted reflections of their opposites repeated to infinity. It is no wonder that in this world of deceptive illusion the notion of trying to grasp “reality” would arise.

Critical Realism is a logical manifestation of this bifurcated state of competing interests. As a founding member, Wolfgang Petrick witnessed the early drives of propagandistic images, music and theater promoted by the new Deutsch Demokratische Republic with their collectivist images of the noble proletariat. He also attended exhibitions of the American Abstract Expressionists, and Pop Art, that were being covertly promoted by the American government.

Rather than merely echoing the prevailing doctrines of either of the dominant movements, Petrick and the Critical Realists evolve a type of realism that challenges the hegemony of Western Abstraction, as well as subverts the proletarian narrative and neoclassic traditions expounded by the Eastern Block states.

This apparent contradictory imperative, the contrasts between East and West, between the academic and the dissident, the ideologically cerebral and the humanistic, may be at the core of what this generation of artists who become the Critical Realists express. In conversations Petrick has also mentioned the influences of “The Neue Sachlichkeit that were part of Dadaism...or others like Grosz, Dix, and probably Beckman, also, in a certain way.” (3) Outside Berlin there were several other versions of “Realism” which became manifest in reaction to abstraction.

To name a few: the Nouveau Réalisme of Paris, Capitalist Realism of Gerhard Richter and the Düsseldorf scene, and Photo-Realism from California. The Critical Realists differed from these other “Realisms” in their embrace of a skeptical view of cultural excess and the dehumanization of a consumer based culture. They used a technical fluency, clarity and precision to create images imbedded with satire and wit to ridicule the targets of their scorn.

(1) Heinrich Wölfflin, “Principles of Art History” Translated by M.D. Hottinger, Dover Publications Inc. New York, NY, 1950, p. 11.

(2) Marc Spiegler, “Are the YGAs Supplanting the YBAs” in The Art Newspaper, vol. XIV, No. 151 October 2004, p. 47

(3) All quotes are from an interview with Wolfgang Petrick, 19 December, 2004, Williamsburg Brooklyn, New York