Summary of Capitalist Realism
Though a relatively short-lived movement, Capitalist Realism took a darker, more ironic stance than most of the Pop Art that spread across Western countries at the height of the Cold War. Started in Düsseldorf among a group of art students, including Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the Capital Realists shared a critical stance toward the invasion of American capitalism and consumerism into West Germany. A play on Social Realism and capitalism, Capitalist Realism used various styles and media to create imagery that called into question middle-class values and aspirations and that hoped to remind Germany of its not-so-distant traumatic past that the artists felt was being too easily repressed and papered over.
Coming out of the international Fluxus movement, the Capital Realists' most recognizable happenings and paintings were made in the mid-1960s, and its tenets and younger artists were later promoted by gallerist René Block. Its influence was consequential for German artists like Martin Kippenberger, who was a provocateur of Bad Painting, and the more contemporary Neo Raush. Additionally, in the increasingly globalized world, many younger artists, including prominent artists such as Ai Weiwei, have taken up the Capital Realists' philosophical critiques of capitalism in their efforts to expose the unseemly side of its global reach.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Like its British and American Pop Art counterparts, Capitalist Realism employed mass media imagery, including advertisements and photographs to create their compositions, but Capitalist Realists tended to be more critical of consumer culture. This criticality had roots in the international Fluxus movement that often relied on staged events, or Happenings. It shared with Fluxus ideas about the democratization of art and the use of multiples to subvert art market value.
- Capitalist Realism is less a unified style than a set of political ideas and beliefs about art, Western culture, and capitalism. Critical towards traditional artistic and social values, Capitalist Realists employed photorealism, mechanical reproduction, as well as collage to take aim at their subjects. Because they rejected the unique, auratic art work that had traditionally been hailed by Modernism Capitalist Realism is one of the first recognizable Postmodern movements.
- While Capitalist Realism has had a global influence reaching to Japan and China, it was originally calibrated to the specifics of Cold War Germany and specifically West Germany with its influx of postwar capital and American influence. In addition to their leeriness of American influence and values, the Capitalist Realists felt that Germany had not sufficiently confronted the horrors perpetuated by Nazism during World War II, and many of their works address the widespread repression of memory the artists witnessed in West Germany.
Artworks and Artists of Capitalist Realism
Stag (Hirsch) (1963)
Abstraction and figuration merge in this ghostly, monochrome scene. A stag is painted with near photographic detail, yet it has been blurred to resemble an out-of-focus snapshot, suggesting the slightest trace of movement. Around the deer a thick network of spiky, jagged branches are drawn only as a series of abstracted outlines that weave in and out of one another over a washy grey ground. Richter made this painting while he was still a student at Düsseldorf Academy, copying the motif from an old photograph he took as a teenager. His close friend, Konrad Fischer, persuaded him to leave the work in a somewhat unfinished condition, prompting Richter to describe the work as a "finished painting, courtesy of Konrad Fischer."
This painting is seen today as an early example of Richter's trademark "blur" technique, where images copied from photographs appear hazy and out of focus, lending them a painterly quality. But Richter's blurring process is far more than a formalist device; he deliberately creates a sense of distance between image and viewer, reminding us that photographs, whether personal or published, are one-dimensional, biased depictions rather than a complete reality. Writer Tom McCarthy says, "What is a blur? It's a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils."
Many of Richter's earlier paintings, like Stag, were copied from photographs relating to his past, portraying people and places that no longer exist, which when painted through a hazy lens suggest the natural erasure of time. But Richter's blurring process was also applied to public photographs, such as political figures and consumer items, including planes, boats, and even toilet rolls. With his critical and subversive eye, Richter reduces the capitalist culture that surrounds us into an indistinct blur, a reminder of how superficial and one-dimensional the media really is, encapsulating the Capitalist Realist critique. He wrote, "I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant."
Oil on canvas - Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Neuschwanstein Castle (Schlob Neuschwanstein) (1963)
The painted towering spires of Germany's famous Neuschwanstein Castle are nestled among an expressively painted landscape, and yet the castle seems to have been collaged onto the canvas. Much like many of his early, student paintings, Richter deliberately uses multiple styles to create a disjointed, broken version of reality. While the castle is portrayed with clean, graphic simplicity, the background has a pointillist quality, comprised of flickering dots and dashes of color, reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet's series Landscapes of the Mind, in which he created layered, monochromatic surfaces. It is likely Richter appropriated the image from a cover of Germany's Stern magazine, which celebrated Germany's famous Bavarian castle set amongst the dense, mountainous solitude of Lake Forggen.
By reproducing imagery from popular culture with a detached, deadpan eye, Richter echoed the language of his American and British Pop Art contemporaries. It is telling that the famed castle inspired Walt Disney's castles in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and that Andy Warhol made a silkscreen image of this same very castle in 1987. But Richter's image has a darker, more subversive edge which it is distinctly German. The castle has achieved a cult status in German culture with its mystical, fantasy appearance, built by the famously eccentric King Ludwig II, who had a complicated, troubled life and who is often superficially referred to as the "Fairy-tale King." Richter was also well aware that the site was used to store stolen works of art by Nazis during the Second World War. Moreover, his painting's cut-and-paste, disjointed aesthetic parodies Germany's nationalistic tradition for Romantic landscape painting - such as works by Caspar David Friedrich, which were championed by Adolf Hitler.
During his Capitalist Realist phase, Richter was keen to explore the ways art could address Germany's painful, difficult past rather than gloss over it with the veneer of American advertising and consumerism. Paintings such as this one point to the hidden meaning lying beneath a supposed "fairy-tale" surface, exploring art's powerful role as a carrier of cultural trauma.
Oil on canvas - Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany
The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser) (1963)
On the right side of the canvas, a cartoonish face in profile, with bulging cheeks, opens his mouth wide, ready to devour a long string of sausages that spreads across the surface of the canvas into a configuration that resembles the lines on a map delineating lands. Polke made this work early in his career while still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy, where he began appropriating imagery and ideas from popular culture and creating various forms of parody and satire.
Polke was raised in East Germany before leaving to study in West Berlin, where he encountered for the first time the encroaching consumerism that accompanied an economic surge in prosperity. On the one hand Polke was fascinated by the materialistic decadence around him, but on the other hand, he also saw it as a vulgar form of excess, which he explored in his works. Here, Germany's national sausage becomes a symbol for general indulgence and gluttony, as a single figure tries to consume far more than he needs. While the work undoubtedly has a humorous quality, writer Faten Hakimi points out the dark streak running through it, writing, "Polke's humour wasn't sarcastic, it was a form of rebellion."
In contrast with his American Pop contemporaries, who undoubtedly had an impact on his practice, Polke's work was less about glamorizing the world of media and advertising and more about pointing out its inherent failings. In contrast with Roy Lichtenstein's various Hot Dog paintings, Polke's image has a deliberate ordinariness, with a complete lack of decoration or aesthetic appeal, as museum director Kathy Halbreich points out, "Compare Roy Lichtenstein's Hot Dog with Polke's The Sausage Eater.... Same subject matter, but Lichtenstein's has a triumphant cleanliness, and Polke's is dirty, dusty and contaminated."
Dispersion paint on canvas - Estate of Sigmar Polke
Two glamorous young women strike a pose for the camera in Girlfriends, typifying the stylized imagery of women from in 1960s media and advertising. Polke copied this motif from a cheaply printed newspaper image, deliberately emphasising its rasterized, or pixelated pattern, which becomes increasingly obvious in parts of the composition and threatens to engulf the subject matter.
Much like his Pop Art contemporaries, Polke mined the world of advertising and consumer culture for his paintings and prints, but, as painter Peter Doig points out, "[H]is take on popular culture was not always about things that were recognizable. They were more quirky, idiosyncratic things that he discovered for himself and that he seemed to find personally amusing." The women seen here are not well-known celebrities, but simply referred to as "girlfriends."
Polke's work is often compared with the slick, Ben-Day dot patterns of American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, but as we see in this work, Polke's world was full of painterly imperfections and stylistic irregularities. Patches of pink flesh bleed into oversaturated stains or fade out as if bleached by a cheap photocopier, while blue flecks are scattered here and there, lending the work a visceral, expressive quality, while also emphasising the fact that this is a two-dimensional, abstract image, not an imitation of reality. Writer Adrian Searle comments, "Polke revels in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in." Polke also deliberately left part of the border showing on the right side of the image, lending the work a casual, "anti-art" informality, which was a key component in the Capitalist Realist movement.
There is also a commentary here about the portrayal of women in the media, a criticism of the ways women are objectified and reduced to commodities in the same way as other supposed objects of desire, for as Searle points out, "As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext..."
Dispersion paint on canvas - Estate of Sigmar Polke
Starfighter I (1968)
There is a sinister precision to this seemingly endless, ordered row of fighter jets, which are angled to emphasise their sharp, pointed ends, resembling weapons or a row of jagged teeth. Vostell reproduces the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a jet that dominated the U.S. Air Force in the late 1960s and early 1970s and came to play a role in West Germany's plan for rearmament during the Cold War in their fight against the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Eastern Europe. Known notoriously as the "widow maker," the jet had a reputation for frequently crashing, and various rumors suggested Lockheed had bribed government officials during sale negotiations. Vostell was one of a number of artists who explored the Starfighter as an emblem of West German corruption.
Vostell produced this work as a series of six to be included in the widely acclaimed folio produced by René Block titled Graphics of Capitalist Realism (Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus) (1968). He appropriated the image from a television still, and the horizontal bands seen on the TV screen are still visible in Vostell's rendering. Vostell also added silver glitter to his prints, which was intended to create an ironic satire, mocking West Germany's apparent infatuation with the military, but it also lends the jets an intriguing, haunting form of power. Vostell included jet fighters in various film works, where he related the abstract themes of order, repetition, and banality to the politics of everyday life, as he explains, "[B]oredom, delays, repetitions, and distortions are analogies to processes going on in the world about us."
Color silkscreen with glitter on cardboard - Raphaël Lévy Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland
Untitled (Uncle) (1965)
A suited, corporate figure stands before us with the trace of a bespectacled face only just visibly rendered in delicate, thin lines. Over the figure, a repeated floral pattern ripples across the surface, flattening the figure into an abstract design. This work was typical of Konrad Lueg's painting style, which parodied West Berlin's penchant for bourgeois interior décor and wallpaper prints lifted from magazines, tea towels, and napkin designs.
These paintings emphasised Lueg's disdain for middle class comfort and domesticity, which he saw as wrapped up in the homogenized world of commercialism and advertising. Lueg and his close contemporaries saw the idealized, tasteful interiors and luxury lifestyles as an attempt to gloss over Germany's recent, Nazi past with a superficial veneer, rather than confronting or processing it. Lueg's figure is rendered inert by his ghostly face as he gradually blends into his innocuous background, rendering him into a faceless consumer.
Lueg's paintings were also a criticism of the increasingly commercialized nature of Modernist painting, with its leaning tendency towards all-over pattern and repetition, with some artists leaving it open to interpretation as a form of decoration rather than critical commentary. While some abandoned painting in favour of new media, others, like Lueg, produced a form of "end-game," or ironic, painting, that was inherently acerbic, questioning the medium's role while simultaneously giving it a new voice. After his brief, five-year stint as a painter, Lueg reinvented himself as renowned gallerist Konrad Fischer, yet his integration of everyday patterns into painting can be seen in various contemporary artists, including German artist Albert Oehlen's freewheeling abstractions and American painter Kehinde Wiley's richly decorated portraits, which challenge perceptions of identity and masculinity.
Casein tempera on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A network of lurid green and blue diamonds pulls inwards towards the middle of the canvas, where the viewer's eyes are drawn to a red and blue horizon line. There seems to be a mechanical force at play, stretching the diamonds over curved mounds as they curl into the center. Kuttner played with lively Op Art effects in this and similar works, where intense colors painted with fluorescent paint hum and vibrate, reminiscent of Bridget Riley's works, prompting many critics to describe his work as kinetic.
Writer David Rhodes explains, "He sought to break down the picture plane into a series of repetitive and geometric patterns that often appear laconic and improvised." Kuttner made this work with Pelikan's Plaza paint, a newly invented fluorescent paint which came in a range of vivid hues, a medium he later extended into three dimensions, painting his trademark patterns over objects including a piano and a typewriter. In contrast with his more figurative Capitalist Realist contemporaries, Kuttner's paintings were concerned with abstract pattern, although there was an oblique reference to industrial design and the urban environment, as suggested here through structure and movement. Much like his fellow artists Richter, Polke, and Lueg, Kuttner's paintings make a mockery of industry by reducing it to a series of irreverent, dayglow patterns that take on a ridiculous sense of kitsch and gaudy decoration.
Though Kuttner abandoned painting for a career in advertising in the late 1960s to support his family, his disorientating use of color and form continues to influence various contemporary artists, including Christopher Wool's paintings and the musical structures of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.
Tempera and fluorescent paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Brehmer collaged images of female pin-ups, the roof of a car, and several space-men with an austere, mechanical stance to create a complex, multi-layered design. These elements nestle among geometric panels of color, lending the work a further abstract quality. Like his Capitalist Realist contemporaries, Brehmer incorporated elements of everyday life into his art in order to critique modern society, often borrowing imagery from the American media. Much like his contemporaries Richter and Polke, Brehmer's imagery is distorted through the artistic process, rendering any original context and meaning obsolete.
Brehmer's image bears an uncanny resemblance to the work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg, but Brehmer's methods primarily focused on the role of an artwork as a multiple - here he makes use of offset, commercial printing techniques, which allowed him to reproduce and distribute his art widely as multiples with minimal cost. Brehmer was also deeply sceptical about the media's increasing tendency to reduce women to sex objects as a means of selling products. He formed a reaction not dissimilar to the work of Dadaist Hannah Hoch, by combining images of women with disparate or unrelated imagery such as mechanical elements or references to war, thereby subverting and upending their original meaning.
Graphic material Offset print on paper - Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain
Greater Japan Zero Yen-Note (1967)
This image is a fake bank note - a single sided yen-note featuring an anonymous, faceless figure, with a value of zero. The work was made as part of a larger project begun in 1963, in which Akasegawa produced a series of several hundred fake 1000-yen bank notes, which he mailed out as invitations to an exhibition opening in Tokyo. In the next few months, the artist continued to create thousands of new notes, which he incorporated into various projects, such as burning them in a performance and using them to wrap objects.
A year later, the police arrested and charged the artist for producing objects that "may be confused with real currency" resulting in a three-month jail sentence and a one year probation. Akasegawa now refers to the entire experience as the Model 1,000 Yen-Note Incident. He produced a series of Greater Japan Zero-yen Notes, seen here, in response, thereby asserting the complete lack of monetary value in all his notes.
Throughout his trial, Akasegawa argued that his notes were no attempt to imitate real money, but were intended to disrupt and devalue the meaning of the original, echoing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's assertion that a copy can "render both artificial." Akasegawa was keen to draw attention to the inherent fragility and meaninglessness of a bank note, which is not dissimilar to any other printed sheet of paper, writing, "Real things are not absolute things. Real things are the embodiments of a dictatorial system of coercion which maintains that they are real." Writer Reiko Tomii also asserts that the entire Model 1,000 Yen-Note Incident is a group, participatory project, in which the public, court officials, and police played unwitting roles, writing, "While Akasegawa is its primary author, without whom the work would not have existed, the others played crucial roles, if only inadvertently, collaborating with him in its making."
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 and Jean-Claude's wrapped objects of the 1960s in the United States, although Akasegawa maintained he had no knowledge of their practice at this time. He argued Christo and Jean-Claude'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.
Useful Resources on Capitalist Realism
- Anarchism and Gerhard RichterBy Moham Ratnam
- Gerhard Richter - Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007: Writings and Interviews, 1961-2007By Hans Ulrich Obrist and Dietmar Elger
- The Artwork of Gerhard Richter: Painting, Critical Theory and Cultural TransformationBy Darryn Ansted
- Sigmar Polke: GirlfriendsBy Stefan Gronert
- Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010By Kathy Halbreich, Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, Magnus Schaefer
- KP Brehmer: Real Capital-ProductionBy K. P. Brehmer, Jurgen Becker, Rene Block, Mark Fisher, Doreen Mende, Alex Sainsbury, Kerstin Stakemeier, Raven Row
- Manfred Kuttner: WerkschauBy Birgit Hein, Tobias Kuttner and Christine Mehring
- Wolf Vostell: Dé-coll/age als Manifest - Manifest als Dé-coll/age. Manifeste, Aktionsvorträge, EssaysBy Klaus Gereon Beuckers and Hans-Edwin Friedrich
- Leben mit Pop. Eine Reproduktion des kapitalistischen Realismus (Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism)Our PickBy Eckart Gillen, Mark Godfrey, Walter Grasskamp, Elodie Evers, Gregor Jansen, Magdalena Holzhey
- Sediment: How It All Began: Richter, Polke, Lueg, and KuttnerOur PickBy Gunter Herzog, Brigitte Jacobs, Stefan Strsembski
- Rene Block: Ich Kenne Kein Weekend. Schriften und Dokumente Seit 1964By Marius Babias, Thomas Kohler, Philip Ursprung, Birgit Eusterschulte, Stella Rollig
- KP Brehmer: Real Capital-ProductionBy K. P. Brehmer, Jurgen Becker, Rene Block, Mark Fisher, Doreen Mende, Alex Sainsbury, Kerstin Stakemeier, Raven Row
- Models of reality: Approaches to realism in modern German artBy Tina Bara, Bernhard & Anna Blume, Arno Fischer, ... Lewandowsky, Gerhard Richter, Werner Tübke
- Gerhard Richter und Konrad Lueg - "Leben mit Pop"By Lydia Anemüller