Creating a scene : art and experimentation in Düsseldorf circa 1958




Hanson, Lauren Elizabeth

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In my dissertation I explore artistic experimentation and patterns of influence from the mid-1950s to the early-1960s in West Germany, specifically artistic activity centered in Düsseldorf. By 1958 artists, curators, and critics in this city were articulating and visualizing explorations of the post-World War II era of physical and social reconstruction, the quotidian effects of economic expansion, and direct encounters with Anglo-American cultures. I examine the diverse source material that informed artistic practices in this period that contributed to the construction of a vibrant art “scene.” The “scene,” which I define as a multidimensional network characterized by relationships and personal references, acted as means of fostering and exchanging ideas through key spaces of exhibiting, both on the small, intimate scale of the Wohnatelier (“live-in studio”) and on the larger scale of the public exhibition in new local galleries and old museum spaces, often in partially ruinous states. Based on extensive archival research, I investigate how the diverse efforts Informel, Zero, and Neo-Dada movements interacted with and expanded upon each other. Rather than organize these movements according to a linear, evolutionary model, I instead consider the complex processes through which artists realized visually distinct approaches while studying at the same art academy, visiting the same exhibitions, and scrutinizing the same art historical models. I determine that collapse, decay, and ruination, balanced by reinvention and reconstruction, defined artistic practice in postwar Düsseldorf. Despite diverse formal, material, and aesthetic practices, artists such as Joseph Beuys, Konrad Klapheck, and Otto Piene participated in a communal scene, crafting makeshift environments in which to create and exhibit. I investigate the manifold ways that these artists, aided by critics, curators, and gallerists, rejected ideology and revived past avant-garde practices of the early twentieth-century, combining them with present concerns and critiques of the so-called Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle,” to create a new, “contemporary” art scene. Finally, I consider how artists related their own practices and actions to the past—psychically in the form of memory and physically in the form of ruins—and to present conceptions of art according to local, national, and international frameworks.



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