Capitalist Realism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Capitalist Realism
In a politically divided Germany, Berlin in the 1960s was a microcosm of the Cold War, a city in turmoil, physically split into two ideologically opposing halves by the Berlin Wall - the West, American-allied side and the East, Soviet-allied side. The political ideas held by each bled into visual culture; in the East, Socialist Realism was the prescribed doctrine implemented by the artistic powers in the Soviet Union, who instructed artists to portray in a realist style an optimistic, idealised version of factory and farm life. The depiction of negative imagery was banned, and artists were expected to depict joyous, celebratory workers in public murals and sculptures - propagandistic imagery aimed at promoting the benefits of Soviet life. In the West, Germans embraced the stylistic freedoms of the American avant-garde and other Western European art as well as new styles of sculpture and performance art.
In West Berlin, Düsseldorf Academy was a pioneering center for artistic developments. Faculty members promoted various leading international art ideas, from Fluxus events led by Joseph Beuys, Otto Piene, and Heinz Mack to the post-painterly, Art Informel abstractions of Karl Otto Gotz. In this vibrant, lively community, young art students flourished through experimental collaborations and the free interchange of ideas with teachers and fellow students. A group of four leading students stood out above the pack: Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner, whose early collaborations would come to shape their future careers.
Richter, Polke, and Kuttner were all originally from East Berlin, leaving them with the lingering sense of émigré status in the West but also giving them insider knowledge of the detrimental, demoralizing effects created by Germany's two opposing political forces. In the early 1960s, members of this burgeoning group followed with interest the latest developments in British and American Pop Art. While they embraced the freedoms that West Berlin provided, they were highly critical of the rampant capitalism promoted by the West. Richter, Polke, and Lueg began replicating imagery from popular culture in line with Pop Art ideas, reproducing media imagery with a subversive, satirical edge as a critique of capitalist bourgeois culture.
The ‘First Exhibition of German Pop Art’
In May 1963, Lueg, Polke, and Richter rented an abandoned butcher shop in Düsseldorf's old town center to host an exhibition inspired by Fluxus performances and Happenings, titled Grafik und Malerei Sonderausstellung (Special Exhibition of Graphic Art and Painting), where they showcased a group of new paintings in a variety of styles, many depicting magazine advertisements. They justified their choice of venue in their press release, writing, "This exhibition is not a commercial undertaking but purely a demonstration, and no gallery, museum, or public exhibiting body would have been a suitable venue."
In the press release, they also irreverently described their work as "the first exhibition of German Pop Art," but their statement was intentionally subversive. Much of the works exhibited critiqued American Pop for its lauding of celebrity culture and the promotion of capitalist commodities.
Much of the inspiration for the show, and their practices in general, came from American art critic Barbara Rose's article in January 1963's edition of Art International titled "The New Realists, Neo Dada, Le Nouveau Realisme, Pop Art, The New Vulgarians, Common Object Painting, Know Nothing Genre." In the article, Rose made reference to the darker side of American Pop Art and its international variants, which depicted "the American dream they see commercialised, exploited, and fading before their very eyes," while suggesting the fascination with commercial America was a response to "a depression, a world war, and the subsequent polarisation of East and West."
Rose's broad-ranging article had an instrumental effect on the artists as they attempted to unify varying interests in the neo-avant-garde movements springing up across the international art scene. Aligning themselves with this proliferation of movements, the artists explained, "The major attraction for the exhibition is the subject matter of the works in it. For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop and the like are appropriate."
Living with Pop - A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism
Later the same year, Richter and Lueg staged a legendary, one-night event at Mobelhaus Berges furniture store titled Living with Pop - A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism. The term Capitalist Realism was a cheeky amalgamation of Socialist Realism and capitalism, parodying both East Berlin's Socialist Realism, which they saw as a superficial form of marketing, and West Berlin's increasingly capitalistic culture, drawing parallels between these two supposedly opposing strands. Richter later reflected back, noting, "Capitalist Realism was another form of provocation. This term somehow attacked both sides: it made Socialist Realism look ridiculous, and did the same to the possibility of Capitalist Realism as well."
Influenced by Claes Oldenburg's The Store (1961), the artists took over the entire four floors of the department store, declaring the whole space a work of Pop Art for one night only. They persuaded the furniture store manager to allow them full access under the pretense that they were organizing a PR opportunity which would draw in a new, wealthy class of customers. As a lure to bring in Berlin's wealthy elite, they described their art as "what is hailed in America as the greatest breakthrough in art since Cubism."
The evening was carefully choreographed; when visitors arrived they were ushered to the third floor and greeted by papier mâché figures of American president John F. Kennedy and Alfred Schmela, a well-known Düsseldorf art dealer, who had declined the offer to attend the opening. Guests were invited in small groups to go into the main exhibition room, where Richter and Lueg sat on furniture elevated by raised platforms; Richter positioned himself lying across a sofa, reading a mystery novel, while Lueg sat in an armchair watching the news as it reported the resignation of Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic.
Throughout the space the artists ramped up the notion of kitsch domesticity, including pine-scented air freshener, while displaying various everyday objects including a tea trolley and a vase of flowers. When the space was sufficiently full, the artists jumped down from their perches and led salesman-like pitches around the rest of the space, where various paintings nestled among the furniture, including Lueg's Sausages on a Paper Plate (1963) and Coat Hangers (1963) and Richter's Stag (1963) and Neuschwanstein Castle (1963). The evening ended badly when various pieces of furniture were damaged and the store owner made threats to call the police.
Their short-lived demonstration connected Fluxus ideas with Pop Art, criticising the mindless consumption of capitalist culture that was prevalent in affluent West Berlin. Yet the artists also ridiculed their own art, and even their status as artists, labelling themselves, too, as consumer items for public consumption.
One year later, on December 15, 1964, the 22-year-old gallerist René Block organised a group exhibition in his burgeoning new gallery at Berlin-Schonberg titled Neodada, Pop, Decollage, Kapital, Realismus. The show featured the work of Lueg, Kuttner, Polke, and Richter alongside a new pool of artists including K.P. Brehmer, K.H. Hodicke, Herbert Kaufmann, Siegmund Lympasik, Lothar Quinte, and Wolf Vostell.
In the following years, as the earlier members gradually fell away, Block promoted his own strand of Capitalist Realism through the work of Brehmer, Hodicke, and Vostell. Block also widened the boundaries of Capitalist Realism to include a broader pool of practices, promoting the cause long after the original members had moved on. The regular exhibitions he hosted at his gallery from 1964 to 1971 raised international awareness to the new trend, launching the movement as a global phenomenon.
Block also encouraged the serial production of prints, multiple editions, and pioneering publications by various artists through his platform Edition Block, earning him a reputation as one of the most influential gallerists of postwar German art. In his iconic portfolio, Graphics of Capitalist Realism (Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus) (1968), Block brought together a compendium of prints by Polke, Richter, Lueg, Kuttner, Vostell, and various others, a project recognised today as the culmination of the Capitalist Realist movement.
His ideas extended into New York where he ran a branch of his gallery from 1974 to 1977, hosting regular concerts and happenings, including Joseph Beuys' famous performance, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). When Block closed down his Berlin gallery in 1979, he kept Edition Block running with a greater focus on the links between visual arts and music.
Capitalist Realism in Tokyo
In Tokyo, a similar strand of Capitalist Realist art emerged during the 1960s; many Japanese artists were aware of the Western trends of Pop Art and its variants but sought ways to adapt such ideas to suit their own political agendas. Several artists rose to international prominence as they addressed the political changes occurring in Japanese society, transitioning from a war-torn and defeated imperialist nation to a democratic, consumerist state with more American influence. Much like their German counterparts, Japanese Capitalist Realists were keen to draw comparisons between Socialist Realism and the capitalist nature of Pop Art.
Genpei Akasegawa, also associated with the international Fluxus movement, practiced his own brand of Capitalist Realism throughout the 1960s. Initially trained as a figurative, realist painter, he shifted towards representing contemporary capitalist society through the depiction of consumer objects. In one of his most famous works, he produced a series of single sided, black-and-white 1,000-yen notes. He was fascinated by the role of a bank note as a surface image, since currency held value above other printed matter. He wrote, "Real things are not absolute things. Real things are the embodiments of a dictatorial system of coersion which maintains that they are real."
In another series, he began wrapping consumer objects such as furniture and household items in brown paper, disguising their original function and thereby removing them from the controlling system of capitalism. These objects bore a striking resemblance to Christo's wrapped objects of the 1960s in the United States, although Akasegawa maintained he had no knowledge of Christo's practice at this time. He argued Christo's choice of wrapping material, such as vinyl and cellophane, was often more synthetic and artificial than his own, adding, "I...had been considering the package more in the manner of a scientific idea rather than an artistic act." In Akasegawa's essay, "Thesis on Capitalist Realism," published in 1964, he linked his ideas with the German Capitalist Realists, revealing his critiques of both capitalism and communism as parallel systems requiring state control.
In the 1970s, Akasegawa continued to take Capitalist Realist ideas in new directions. He famously introduced the concept of "Hyperart," which proved hugely influential on the next generation of artists in Japan. The term referred to architectural anomalies, "useless" relics that no longer serve any function. He described Hyperart as "an object, part of a building that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art." Akasegawa later adopted the term "Thomasson" to describe these architectural oddities, taken from American baseball player Gary Thomasson, who spent nearly two seasons on the bench after a series of strikeouts; Thomasson's helpless place on the team became a fitting popular culture reference. Since the 1980s, interest in Thomasson has continued to grow, with various artists expanding the field of study, including Hayashi Joji's documentation of manhole covers and Ichigi Tsutomo's fascination with architectural fragments.
Concepts and Styles
Art & Ideas: Capitalism, the Banal, and Kitsch
The original group of Capitalist Realists, Polke, Richter, Lueg and Kuttner, zeroed in on trivial, banal, or kitsch imagery from ordinary life, much like their American Pop contemporaries. They lifted their subjects from magazines and newspapers, reproducing celebrity photographs, snippets from news stories, and slick advertisements depicting food or other luxury items and then painting them in a subversive way to draw out their superficial nature. Though there were overlaps between Capitalist Realist painters and their Pop Art contemporaries, their intention was to remain distinctly German, placing a spotlight on West Germany's "economic miracle," with its supposed promise of a better life.
Despite the similarities with Pop Art subject matter, the work of the Capitalist Realists was subversive through to its core, aimed at cutting through the media's repressive portrayals of middle-class platitudes and values. In Richter's Party (1963) a newspaper clipping from a New Year's Eve party is painted in a photoreal style, but its glossy, superficial veneer is punctured with crudely painted stitches and slashes, and blood oozes from a man's mouth into a cocktail glass. In Polke's The Sausage Eater (1963), a disembodied head is ready to devour an entire string of sausages, a distinctly German symbol, and to destroy himself in the process.
Conversely, writer Andrew Weiner described the relationship Capitalist Realists had with capitalism in the longer term as more nuanced than it may first appear, particularly when the artists began to tap into the marketable aspects of their work through the production of prints and multiples. He described their practices as "strategic deflections of the power of branding and sincere efforts to participate in the commercial success of Neo-Dada, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop." However, this dual strand of their practice was also, in part, a deliberate attempt to "play" the art market at its own game and, for some members, to make art more affordable to the wider public.
Germany's Desire for Americana
At the heart of the Capitalist Realists' practice was a deep skepticism for the increasingly Americanized nature of West German society. Having been raised in East Germany, Richter, Polke, and Kuttner were unconvinced by West Berlin's capitalist, consumerist Americana, with its shiny new cars, slick billboard advertisements, and luxury lifestyle magazines filled with images of yachts and private jets. Germany and post-war Japan both experienced what writer Ian Buruma called "bourgeois conformism...with its worship of the television set, the washing machine, and the refrigerator ('The Three Sacred Treasures'), its slavish imitation of American culture, its monomaniacal focus on business, and the stuffy hierarchies of the academic and artistic establishments."
Not only was this lifestyle inaccessible to the artists and large swaths of the population, but the artists also saw a hollow core in this vacuous materialism. Polke and Richter in particular read in West Berlin's celebratory popular culture an attempt to erase and repress Germany's recent traumatic past of Nazism, replacing it with a shiny new façade. Art, then, became the perfect tool for deconstructing and scratching away this veneer to reveal the truth beneath.
Polke came to epitomize this school of thought, with his plethora of paintings depicting luxury items that would have been unavailable to him as a child, yet as an adult became symbols of indulgence, gluttony, and excess. In his Bunnies (1966) he also portrays Hugh Heffner's objectified women as symbols of American desire, but their pixelated surface reveals their true nature as inaccessible, two-dimensional, fantasy figures. As his style developed, he increasingly overlapped various references to consumer culture. Such satirical ideas that poked at the American dream echoed the work of British Pop artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton.
Approaches to Painting: Reproduction and Appropriation
Throughout the early and later stages of Capitalist Realism various experimental painting techniques emerged which enlivened and reinvigorated the medium for a new, postmodern era. Since the source material for the majority of their paintings came from the mass media, their painting techniques emphasized that their work was a copy, not an original. From the outset, they deliberately avoided any aspirations for beauty, or "aura," associated with a unique work of art. Various techniques of abstraction created a certain distancing from source material, shifting or removing their original meaning. Polke's interest in photographic imagery evolved into a hugely varied practice, where no one style prevailed. He began producing his famous rasterbilder images in the mid-1960s, enlarging Ben-Day dot printed images from the newspaper to expose the mechanical processes that made them, not unlike American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Polke created his rasterized images initially by hand painting and later employed stencils to create intricate patterns of enlarged dots, as seen in his Rasterzeichnung (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) (1963), which distances the viewer from the original source through a process of abstraction and concealment.
Konrad Lueg's career as an artist was short lived - he only worked for five years before reinventing himself as the world renowned gallerist Konrad Fischer. In this five-year period, he explored "pattern painting," where flat, graphic, repeated patterns ripple across surfaces, resembling wallpaper, textile design, prints from towels and napkins, or grocery price tags. He later expanded these ideas into figuration, where people are slowly engulfed by their printed background. Towards the end of this period, he began using phosphorescent paint colors that allowed visitors to cast their own reflections and shadows onto the work.
Semi-abstract, repeated patterns in bold, neon colors also came to play an important role in Manfred Kuttner's practice. In Matratze (Mattress) (1962) the boundaries between abstraction and industrial object blend as a series of grids and repeated circles resemble the springs of a mattress. Moos (1963) is more obscure, revealing his interest in kitschy, commercial patterns and lively Op Art effects. Like Lueg, Kuttner's artistic career was short lived, as he abandoned painting after three years for a career in advertising.
Photorealism: Gerhard Richter
Richter was the key leader of Capitalist Realism's photorealist faction and continued to develop this style throughout the rest of his career. Having spent the early part of his education training as a Socialist Realist mural painter at Dresden Academy, he learned to paint realistically based on photographic images, but after visiting Documenta II in Kassel in 1959 and seeing works by Jackson Pollock, Jean Fautrier, and Lucio Fontana, he wrote, "There was something wrong with my whole way of thinking."
While in Berlin, his lifelong interest in current affairs began to infiltrate his practice, which was invigorated when he came across American Pop Art and its subversion of conventional painting. During the 1960s, he first began to create photorealistic paintings but with his characteristic "blur" as seen in Stag (1963), which, like Polke's dots, obscures the original image to expose its superficial nature. He famously painted a series of military fighter jets lifted from newspaper images, which almost dissolve into abstraction, along with portraits of well-known faces from the media transformed into ghostly, black and white spectres of their former selves. Reflecting on the role of painting in the modern age he wrote, "The idea that art copies nature is a fatal misconception."
New Media, Prints, and Multiples
René Block began recruiting a wider pool of Capitalist Realists to the cause in 1964, introducing a number of artists working with new media techniques, such as digital technology and mass-produced printing. Wolf Vostell rose as a prominent leader of this strand, introducing elements of lo-fi printing, collage, digital media, and found, industrial objects into artworks and installations. Much of the material he explored came from American visual culture, such as images of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, or old television sets, as seen in his iconic Television Decollage (1963). He was a pioneer of the decollage process, tearing apart pre-existing material, to highlight his belief that society is surrounded and shaped by acts of destruction. His recurring imagery of fighter jets also reinforced this mindset.
Much like Vostell, K.P. Brehmer's vital contributions to the movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s came in a wide arena of forms, including prints, films, objects, and publications, with a focus on the role of the artwork as a multiple rather than a single unity. He also advocated the concept of art as a manufactured object to be distributed widely, as seen in his series of postage stamps made in the late 1960s.
René Block supported the production of multiples by launching Edition Block in 1966, a platform allowing him to work with artists to create portfolios of prints and publications, echoing the mechanical printing practices of Andy Warhol's Factory in New York. He even wrote, "The future belongs to multiples." He curated various limited edition projects that were the first of their kind, including Weekend (1971) a suitcase containing block prints by Brehmer, silkscreens by K.H. Hodicke, Arthur Kopcke, and Vostell, offset lithographs by Peter Hutchison and Polke, as well as an object made by Joseph Beuys.
Later Developments - After Capitalist Realism
By the late 1980s in Berlin, a new generation were taking up the helm and responding to Germany's socio-economic situation with a fresh outlook, as seen in the politicized figurative paintings of Kai Althoff and Neo Raush. The Capitalist Realists also had a particularly profound influence on Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, who explored variants on many of their ideas. Their collaborative approach to making art mirrored the close ties Richter, Polke, Lueg, and Kuttner shared, while the crass portrayals of appropriated, Americanized German culture reached new heights of parody and ridicule in their mock-expressionist paintings, sculptures, and performances. Art historian Jaimey Hamilton Faris points out the relevance of Capitalist Realism today in a more global context, noting contemporary artists "are still motivated to create or open up tensions within [capitalism's] now even more extensive system." Art historian Andrew Stefan Weiner calls this outlook a desire to "repurpose Capitalist Realism as a critical concept for theorizing contemporary political ideology and cultural production."
In China, Soviet Sots Art of the 1980s exposed the complexities of life under neo-liberal capitalism, ideas which were developed further by Chinese Political Pop in the 1990s and 2000s. A number of Chinese artists at this time also began to appropriate images of Mao, questioning the country's embrace of state-sponsored capitalism. More recently, Ai Weiwei has critiqued the production of global commodities in Chinese cities through many of his recent projects, including Baby Milk (2013), which addressed fears around milk safety in China. Looking further afield, the Propellor Group Collective in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles recently addressed the complex situations in Southeast Asia, where communist bureaucracies co-exist with neo-liberal policies. In the United States, Stephanie Syjuco exposes the capitalist system's unequal divisions of labor through photography, sculpture, and installation, while photographer Christopher Williams references the media's acts of deception through processes of editing and retouching.