Despite its name, Capitalist Realism wasn’t a movement so much as it was a collaborative art project, encompassing several exhibition-slash-performances in West Germany during the early- to mid-1960s. Of its principals—Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter—two became hugely famous, which is why this art-historical epiphenomenon has garnered so much interest.
Artists Space recalls this chapter in postmodernism through an unconventional format that presents re-creations of paintings and other artifacts instead of the originals (in the spirit of Capitalist Realism’s critical examination of mass-media reproductions, though the cost of loans undoubtedly played a part). The result, which includes films selected by artist Christopher Williams, is more of a documentary than an exhibition.
Inspired by American Pop Art, Capitalist Realism grew out of a desire to formulate an alternative to the self-mythologizing, art-bleeding-into-life tendencies of the Fluxus aesthetic associated with Joseph Beuys. Polke, Richter et al. created a critique of pop culture rooted in Germany’s denial of its Nazi past, a collective amnesia that found expression in the consumption of cars, appliances, TVs and other signifiers of mid-century bourgeoise aspiration.
Capitalist Realism remained indebted to Fluxus, though, most noticeably in the way shows were presented: One was mounted in a furniture showroom, another in the front yard of a dealer’s house, still another in a vacant Butcher’s shop.
In retrospect, Capitalist Realism’s attacks on the middle class seem a bit elitist given the straitened circumstances of today’s 99 percent, and there’s no avoiding the irony that Polke and Richter’s works from the period now fetch vast sums. Though the individual members drifted off to separate pursuits, their efforts as a group remain highly influential, and this opportunity to revisit their moment in time is nothing less than fascinating.—Howard Halle