German Expressionism enjoys a firm foothold in America, most recently at Van Doren Waxter Gallery, NY
IN TODAY’S MARKET, CONTEMPORARY GERMAN PAINTERS, SCULPTORS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS COMMAND BOTH CRITICAL AND COMMERCIAL ACCLAIM IN THE AUCTION MARKET, MUSEUM AND PRIVATE SECTORS. IN OCTOBER 2012, AN ABSTRACT PAINTING BY GERHARD RICHTER REALIZED $34 MILLION IN A LONDON SALE, EXCEEDED IN 2013 IN NEW YORK WHEN HIS 1968 COMMISSION ENTITLED DOMPLATZ, MAILAND, SOLD FOR $37.1 MILLION AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK. IN APRIL OF THIS YEAR, THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, PRESENTS ITS FIRST COMPREHENSIVE RETROSPECTIVE OF THE DIVERSE AND BRILLIANT SIGMAR POLKE, ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF THE POST WAR GENERATION. GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHERS SUCH AS ANDREAS GURSKY, THOMAS STRUTH, AND THOMAS DEMAND HAVE ESTABLISHED COLOR PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART FORM AS SIGNIFICANT AS PAINTING AND SCULPTURE FOR INSTITUTIONAL AND INDIVIDUAL COLLECTORS ALIKE. THUS, IT IS EVEN MORE COMPELLING TO EXPLORE THE INITIAL ATTITUDE AND GRADUAL ACCEPTANCE OF MODERN GERMAN ART FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II THANKS TO CURATOR AND SCHOLAR JEFFREY HOFFELD’S COMPREHENSIVE CATALOGUE ESSAY THAT ACCOMPANIED THE RECENT EXHIBITION OF EXQUISITE WATERCOLORS BY EMIL NOLDE, AT VAN DOREN WAXTER GALLERY, 23 EAST 73RD STREET, BETWEEN MADISON AND FIFTH AVENUES IN NEW YORK.
IT IS A PRIVILEGE TO CONTINUE TO SHARE HIS THOUGHTS WITH YOU IN THE LRFA BLOG.
Attempting to explain this new-found enthusiasm for German art, Chipp offered several explanations. In the commercial realm, he theorized that important works by French masters had all but disappeared from the marketplace, forcing dealers to take up the cause of less depleted supplies of German art, while they continued to promote lesser known fauves and cubists. He also reported that a dramatic revaluation of the “hegemony of the School of Paris,” well underway, made it apparent that German culture, long neglected, was particularly ripe for investigation. Finally, citing the rejection by “advanced American painters” of the aesthetics of the School of Paris, Chipp remarked that the Abstract Expressionists, although different in spirit from these particular forbearers, seem “clearly to evoke the Germans as precursors.”
In the aftermath of World War II the continuing investigation, exhibition, and charting of the history of modern German art might have been entirely blown off course in America, were it not for the fact that its affinities with Abstract Expressionism created heightened curiosity about the German Expressionists, and a desire to see more of their work firsthand in American venues. Among the German Expressionists, the paintings and watercolors of Emil Nolde were often cited for their kinship with Abstract Expressionism. Although Nolde–“a rabid nationalist,” as Daniel Robbins, a prominent curator and art historian, referred to him in 1963—was well known to have repeatedly avowed his Nazi sentiments (both before and after Hitler came to power), his work continued to be exhibited in the United States during the war, and, even more frequently, and conspicuously, during the 1950s and ‘60s, well after Eichmann’s trial, when a more complete picture of the grotesque acts of the war years was certainly already available to museum and gallery visitors. Initially, the ability to ignore or see beyond Nolde’s political views may have simply resulted from the unbridled enthusiasm for his work, as in Barr’s catalogue entry, in 1931, where he was already singled out as “one of the foremost masters of watercolor in Germany.” The art critic, Hilton Kramer, would later refer to Nolde as “the quintessence of the Nordic genius….the German Expressionist par excellence.”
When Katherine Kuh presented an exhibition of Nolde’s watercolors at her Chicago gallery, in 1940, in the wake of Munich’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, where Nolde and twenty-seven of his confiscated works were publicly condemned, one critic suggested that Nolde’s watercolors “would have given Art Critic Hitler the galloping creeps.” The fact that Nolde’s art, in spite of his loyalty to the Third Reich, was condemned by the Nazis and prominently featured in its smear campaign at the Degenerate Art exhibition, may have made it easier for art dealers, like Kuh, in Chicago, and Curt Valentin, in New York, to celebrate his work in the United States during the period of the war. Nolde’s disgraced status, finding himself among those forbidden to produce and exhibit their art in Germany, may, ironically, have afforded him special dispensation in America: by no means the stature of a war hero, but someone whose story could evoke some degree of sympathy. In 1963, when the Museum of Modern Art presented a Nolde retrospective, Hilton Kramer, reviewing the exhibition in Art in America, expressed the opinion that Nolde “as an artist triumphed over himself as a man.” Acknowledging that Nolde’s “espousal of the Nazi cause” was likely to make it impossible for many people to “come to terms with his art,” which, he added, does not itself “offer a gentle and beckoning hand,” Kramer reminded his readers that “it was characteristic of Nolde that he never altered his work to conform to the Nazi ideology he otherwise found so congenial to his dark spirit.”
The signature ingredients by which Nolde’s work would be identified over the course of his lifetime, the very same ones that correspond closely to a number of the characteristic traits of several of the Abstract Expressionists, were already remarked upon early in his career as a painter. In 1906, when he was asked to join the Brucke painters, their invitation stated that it was “payment for these storms of color.” In his own words, Nolde said that what he was striving for was “absolute originality, the intensive, often grotesque expression of force and life in the simplest form.” In his 1957 catalogue essay for the Museum of Modern Art’s “German Art of the Twentieth Century,” exhibition Haftmann identified several characteristics of Nolde’s art, and presented a number of the artist’s own ideas about the creative process, subjects that were on the minds of many artists and critics at the time. Haftmann commented on Nolde’s “violent color and spontaneous calligraphy”; his opposition to discussion and intellect, “in favor of the pure painterly instinct”; his attraction to “the elemental powers of the art of primitive people”; and his predilection for “the archaic gesture,” its “brutal power.”
IN THE LAST SECTION OF THIS DETAILED AND INFORMATIVE CONTRIBUTION TO THE UNDERSTANDING OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM IN AMERICA IN GENERAL AND NOLDE’S ART IN PARTICULAR, THE AESTHETIC SYNERGY BETWEEN THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST SENSIBILITY IN GERMANY AND THE EXPLOSION OF OUR AMERICAN ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST MOVEMENT IS FULLY DEVELOPED. WE HAVE, AT OUR DISPOSAL, THE PROFESSIONAL WISDOM AND EXPERTISE OF GALLERIST DORSEY WAXTER WHO ASSEMBLED THE RECENT EXHIBITION OF EMIL NOLDE’S WATERCOLORS AT THE GALLERY AND JEFFREY HOFFELD, ACADEMIC AND ADVISOR, WHO CURATED THE SHOW.
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