It all began with the Italian avant-garde artist Lucio Fontana at the documenta in 1968. Frieder Burda discovered a bright red canvas with three gaping incisions. The entrepreneur from Germany’s most famous printing and publishing dynasty couldn’t get the painting out of his mind. It became the cornerstone of one of Germany’s most important private collections. Burda was not fascinated by cold, analytical paintings, but by works that reflect a torn, rebellious human image and that penetrate deep into the psyche and collective history.
To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden, the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin is presenting a selection of 113 works on paper that give insight into a virtually unknown side of the collection and into the creative thought of great twentieth-century painters. In keeping with the concept of the exhibition, six sets of works by Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, Sigmar Polke, Arnuf Raiiner, Neo Rauch, and Gerhard Richter correspond to one another. In each case, an exemplary painting by the respective artist kicks off the presentation of his drawings, watercolors, and gouaches.
The expressive dialogue between de Kooning’s late drawings and the drawings for Baselitz’ 1980 painting cycle Straßenbild (Street Scene), which opens the show, may seem surprising initially. But it unites two protagonists of postwar art who created a dark, “uncultivated” image of humans and touched on traumata. Both dealt aggressively with the figure in painting, developing a bold and violent painting style without representing in the traditional sense or abstracting.
With the groups of works by Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, the exhibition subsequently juxtaposes two artists who feature prominently in the Frieder Burda Collection and at the same time are closely linked by their biographies, their work, and their friendship. Richter (Damenschuh) Richter (Lady’s Shoe), Richters Kundendienst (Richter’s Customer Service), Schlankheit durch Richter (Slimness Due to Richter): these are the titles of drawings from 1965 in which Polke not only satirizes the excessive consumerism, but also the role of the artist and the commodity character of art. His friend becomes a fictive brand. In 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam War, he imbues the potato, a symbol of the German economic miracle, with dubious ideological significance. Polke’s drawings from 1963 to 1976 form the largest ensembles of works in the exhibition. They are set against Gerhard Richter’s canvas Grau (Gray) from 1974 and a group of his abstract watercolors from the late 1980s. In the late 1970s, Richter began working on this “abstract paintings” going against the grain of the zeitgeist and in opposition to the figurative painting of the Neue Wilden and Neo-expressionism. For him, figurative painting had been exhausted. Back in the 1960s, Polke and Richter had helped revive representational painting in contemporary art. Nevertheless, they both questioned the depictive character of painting from the very beginning. While Polke’s grids created a distance to accustomed ways of seeing, Richter blurred and distorted his motifs.
In his overpainted works, Arnuld Rainer, to whom a separate section is devoted, also tries to give paintings back what they have lost: their mystery. In the 1950s, he began overpainting his own works. In the course of the ensuing years, the developed the closed black surfaces in evidence in his early works on paper from the Frieder Burda Collection. Rainer is not concerned with destroying motifs, but in “perfecting” them. His uncompromising engagement with his own human and artistic existence is also reflected in his 1977 Van Gogh Series.
“…..Höhere Wesen befehlen” concludes with a few little-known, early drawings by Neo Rauch. Like many of the works in the show, Rauch’s works on paper from the turning point in his artistic career in the early 1990s walk a fine line between figuration and abstraction. And like the works of Richter, Polke, and Baselitz, they subliminally touch upon the ideologically charged feud between the two movements.
The exhibition was curated by Goetz Adriani, a member of the advisory board of Foundation Frieder Burda, and Friedhelm Hütte, Global Head of Art Deutsche Bank.