An Invisible Avant-Garde
400 pp., 7 x 9 in, 103 color illus., 10 b&w illus.
- Published: March 29, 2022
The experimental practices of a group of artists in the former East Germany upends assumptions underpinning Western art's postwar histories.
In Paper Revolutions, Sarah James offers a radical rethinking of experimental art in the former East Germany (the GDR). Countering conventional accounts that claim artistic practices in the GDR were isolated and conservative, James introduces a new narrative of neo-avantgarde practice in the Eastern Bloc that subverts many of the assumptions underpinning Western art's postwar histories. She grounds her argument in the practice of four artists who, uniquely positioned outside academies, museums, and the art market, as these functioned in the West, created art in the blind spots of state censorship. They championed ephemeral practices often marginalized by art history: postcards and letters, maquettes and models, portfolios and artist's books. Through their “lived modernism,” they produced bodies of work animated by the radical legacies of the interwar avant-garde.
James examines the work and daily practices of the constructivist graphic artist, painter, and sculptor Hermann Glöckner; the experimental graphic artist and concrete and sound poet Carlfriedrich Claus; the mail artist, concrete poet, and conceptual artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt; and the mail artist, “visual poet,” and installation artist Karla Sachse. She shows that all of these artists rejected the idea of art as a commodity or a rarefied object, and instead believed in the potential of art to create collectivized experiences and change the world. James argues that these artists, entirely neglected by Western art history, produced some of the most significant experimental art to emerge from Germany during the Cold War.
“This fascinating study exposes a lifeworld of intimate and sustaining vanguard artistic exchanges that thrived in unofficial corners of the East German regime. Sidestepping tired Cold War narratives of East German art, Sarah James's poignant account also situates these objects and exchanges within a legacy of Marxist utopianism that surfaced in the German Weimar Republic and continues to resurface in imaginings of a better world today.”
Barbara McCloskey, Professor of Art History, University of Pittsburgh; author of The Exile of George Grosz: Modernism, America, and the One World Order
“Paper Revolutions brings us a much-needed scholarly account of fiercely original but little known 'avant-garde' art made under socialism, including work by Hermann Glöckner and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt.”
Christine Mehring, Mary L. Block Professor of Art History and the College, University of Chicago; Faculty Adjunct Curator, David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art; author of Ellsworth Kelly: Color Panels for a Large Wall