KP Brehmer: World in Mind
March 1–April 29, 2023
March 1–April 1, 2023
In his effort to subvert capitalism’s visual representation of politics, economics, science, consumer culture, and everyday life, KP Brehmer adopted a graphic designer’s aesthetic to produce diagrams, postcards, inserts, multiples, posters, banners, and displays. Such ephemera was meant to democratize his work in a Benjaminian manner while also exposing how the representations of information and analytic systems are used to quantify and rationalize our lives. When he did produce singular works, Brehmer would make unique the mass-produced iconography and symbolism of the soft propaganda that permeates culture. In Portrait Graziella I (1967) he inserts a sexy picture of a women’s head and shoulders into a chevron of cotton-balls as a way to address how women are depicted in a post-War Western culture whose objective is to sell some commodities. Throughout his work, his goal was not to lay blame or engage in exposé but to raise his audience’s awareness of how capitalism visually shapes the perception of reality of individuals and the collective.
Born Klaus Peter Brehmer (1938–1997) in Berlin and trained as a reproduction technologist in the early 1960s, before studying at Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, he adopted using his initials “KP” as a nod to the then-banned West German Communist Party (KPD). This two-part exhibition titled Welt im Kopf [World in Mind], held at both Petzel Gallery uptown and Maxwell Graham on the Lower East Side, consists of a wide array of drawings, prints, paintings, films, objects, ephemera, and archival documents made between the 1960s and mid-1980s. Though in Europe he is considered a major German artist, Brehmer’s work was last seen in the U.S. in 1976 at René Bloch Gallery in Soho.
Unlike in the U.S., Pop Art in Europe was not associated with the celebration of prosperity, commodification, and popular culture, but instead used to register political reactions to the destruction of the Second World War, and the American reconstruction of Europe via the Marshall Plan. So, while glossy magazines, comic books, movies, advertising, Abstract Expressionism, and then Pop were used to sell the “American” dream, European artists responded in their own ways: Nouveau Realism and the Situationist International in France; the Independent Group in Britain; Arte Povera in Italy; and notably, Capitalist Realism in Germany with whom Brehmer, along with Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg (Fischer), Gerhard Richter, Wolf Vostell, and others identified.
At Petzel Gallery, examples of Pop-inflected artworks and publications from the late 1960s–70s predominate. Many are based on commemorative postage stamps, depicting portraits of John F. Kennedy, German monuments, and Soviet propaganda imagery. Brehmer sought to call attention to the symbols of the “State” as represented from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Significantly, a number of these stamps bear cancelation marks; in this way, Brehmer indicates not only the voiding of the stamps’ symbolism, but also the negation of the very system that circulates them. Other works at Petzel include altered national flags, appropriated advertisement imagery, and a series of films Brehmer made on walks through the divided city of Berlin, as well as a vitrine of his various editions and publications.
More stamps are displayed at Maxwell Graham alongside abstract works based on data derived from statistics representing economic output, population numbers, and effects of a workers’ emotional states on productivity. Such data reflects the biopolitics of the Western welfare states used to engineer and ideologically naturalize consumer desires. These works mark his move from the realm of Pop and into that of Conceptual Art. In a large installation titled Zeitzonen [Time zones] (1975/76), Brehmer objectifies each time zone as a shaped PVC . A white globe lit by a spotlight centered on London sits on a pedestal before them. Brehmer’s film Welt im Kopf [World in Mind] – Skala [Scale] (1970) shows a technician producing differing quantities of an orange liquid, perhaps a reference to the manufacture of Agent Orange by the German chemical and pharmaceutical industry. There are also examples of both Brehmer’s heat painting based on brain scans, and others from his series of map paintings titled “Color Geography.”
In general, anti-fascist / anti-capitalist artists such as Brehmer believed those who engaged in self-expressionism and other subjective enterprises in the name of freedom were complicit in the effort to forget the West’s own barbarism by generating a utopian vision. An abhorrent “Other” was central to this project of creating a capitalist dream world—this time Communism would be the new enemy of humanity. Under the banner of freedom, individualism, and the free market, capitalism initiated a Cold War consisting of proxy wars, a nuclear brinksmanship that threatened total annihilation and neo-colonialism to prove the justness of its cause. From this perspective, American-made Pop Art failed to address capitalism’s economy of domination, and anesthetization, while advancing a particularly liberal white, middle-class vision founded on commodity fetishism. So where Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and others celebrated the world of glossy advertisements and celebrities, Brehmer’s aesthetic of the common, grainy, and cheaply produced exemplifies an antithesis.
These two shows may do little to promote Brehmer’s reputation and status in the U.S. but not just because there are no iconic works with which to identify him, nor because these shows are relatively sparse, but because they lack context. Much of Brehmer’s work is incomprehensible in the United States because the political, critical, and historical discourses he was responding to are little-known or understood here. American political art tends to protest the ills of inequality and social violence, rather than seeking to conceptually reveal the subtle means by which capitalism sustains its social and cultural hegemony and the culture it breeds. It tends to be reformist in its politics. Given this model has become so well-established and possesses so much cultural market muscle, the idea of an art of resistance has become almost inconceivable.