German Art Now. The mere title of the current exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum begs some simple yet weighty questions: Why German art? Why now? And why here? The answers can only be partially found in the exhibit itself. While no one would argue against the importance of these 40-odd examples of postwar paintings, sculptures and photography, there's clearly more to the story than what is on display.
More than an exhibit, the collection is an argument for the significance of contemporary German art, as well as a claim for the importance of the museum's own German holdings. The exhibit prominently features sixteen works recently acquired by the museum, as well as a handful of pieces on long-term loan. It's this recent acquisition activity that sparked Carol Vogel of the New York Times to laud the museum for "quietly amassing one of the most important collections of postwar German art in the United States" (a quote featured proudly on radio ads).
It makes sense for the Saint Louis Art Museum to concentrate on building up its single strongest collection, which now totals more than 100 works. An excellent medium-size survey museum, SLAM still can't compete with larger museums on multiple fronts. Better to excel in one area if your resources are limited, and thereby gain prominence that would otherwise prove elusive.
To repeat, there's no arguing against the significance of the works in German Art Now. Anselm Kiefer's enormous canvas Burning Rods (1984-87) alone makes the exhibit outstanding. The charred, decaying surface, punctuated by the central group of rods and the fragment of a lone ice skate in one corner, is a prodigiously sorrowful metaphor for twentieth-century German history.
The country's brutal, painful past is the subject of scrutiny in many of these works, making a trip through the exhibit an especially moving affair. In Georg Baselitz's Picture for the Fathers (1965), body parts lie in a frozen heap, rendered in flesh tones tinged with red. His White Woman (Woman of the Rubble) (1980), featuring an upside-down female figure, is based on a postwar photograph of a Russian woman overseeing German women street sweepers. Inversions of all kinds -- of power, of fate, of faith -- inform Baselitz's works, which are some of the most striking meditations on German history ever painted. Markus Lüpertz's German Motif -- Dithyrambic III (1972) takes a more straightforward approach to examining the myths and metaphors that surround Nazi symbolism, focusing on a soldier's helmet and a spade planted in a desolate landscape.
Jörg Immendorff's works on display engage more specifically the evolution of postwar German art. His Beuysland (1965) ironically depicts Joseph Beuys, the hugely influential artist, teacher and political activist, as a tiny, isolated island, while 4 Muses (1980) includes a symbolic self-portrait, along with Immendorff's contemporaries Baselitz, Lüpertz, and A.R. Penck, churning out paintings in an eerie, dark cave.
But the question can still be asked, why these works? Why so many neo-expressionist paintings and sculptures by the likes of Kiefer, Penck, and Baselitz? Why acquire additional Gerhard Richters, rather than venture into more contemporary, conceptual territory, represented by artists like Franz Ackermann, Günther Förg, Katharina Sieverding, or Rosemarie Trockel?
In their time, some of these neo-expressionist paintings were controversial; critics and audiences alike had difficulty determining the spirit in which these artists employed the loaded symbols of Germany's past. These days it's rare to see works by Penck, Lüpertz, Baselitz and the like on display in the U.S., which makes German Art Now that much more intriguing.
The logic of these acquisitions becomes clear upon considering the foundation of SLAM's German collection, which is largely composed of expressionist pieces bequeathed in the early 1980s by department store mogul Morton May. The collection includes a huge number of Max Beckmann's paintings, along with works by other earlier German expressionists, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka. In light of this, the acquisition of so many neo-expressionist works is a natural move for SLAM, solidifying its corner on that market.
SLAM's collection includes a number of important Richter paintings, mostly acquired in the 1990s. The inclusion of the major large-scale abstractions January, December, and November (all 1989) in German Art Now was a stroke of genius on the part of curator Cornelia Homburg. These works introduce the mechanization of production, at the same time that they recall the crusty, deteriorating landscape fields of Kiefer's Burning Rods. And Richter's intimate Betty (1988), a painting based on a photograph of the artist's eleven-year-old daughter, provides a natural segue to the conclusion of the exhibition: photographs by Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, all acquired in previous years.
The photographs round out the chronology of SLAM's collection nicely. They are the most recently produced works and indicate where the strengths of contemporary German art lie -- in photography and photo-conceptual work. And they draw a convenient bridge to St. Louis' other major collection of contemporary German art, at Washington University.
Seen in the larger context -- of the museum's earlier collection, of the holdings elsewhere in St. Louis -- the questions that come out of German Art Now no longer seem baffling. Instead, the exhibit indicates a savvy approach to securing the museum's excellent reputation into the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, downtown on Washington Avenue, Philip Slein's new gallery is making an argument for the importance of artists working closer to home. Schmidt's Picks, a selection of works chosen by the venerable local collector Jim Schmidt, features a veritable who's who of St. Louis area artists. It's a knockout show, the perfect vehicle to make converts out of those who doubt -- or don't know -- the level of artistic talent in the city.
It's wonderful to see St. Louis veterans like Michael Byron and Sue Eisler exhibiting side by side. In fact, Byron's Generic Dada Abstraction (K.S.) (2000) makes a witty allusion to Eisler's found-material collages and sculptures. It's also a treat to compare Dan Anderson's wood-fired stoneware "oil cans" to Jeri Au's sawdust-fired ceramic bundle, and to consider how these two celebrated ceramic artists have shaped the St. Louis scene for so many years.
St. Louis clearly has its share of younger talent, as well, as evidenced in the painted abstractions by Jerald Ieans and Justin Tolentino. And two photographs by Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Powder Valley Nature Reserve #4 and Middle Grove, New York #3" (both 2001), reveal the director of the Sheldon Art Galleries to be one of the city's best artists.
Slein says he's committed to featuring works by local artists, a dedication that's nice to see as many St. Louis galleries move further away from representing locals. The gallery itself is a brilliantly restored loft space in which just about anything would look good. Then again, the works in Schmidt's Picks couldn't be much improved upon, no matter where they found themselves. This is a must-see show.