Wolf Vostell, "A Retrospective," Apr. 10-May 12, 2001, at Janos Gat Gallery, 1100 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
Back in 1975, the German art dealer Rene Block, who then had a gallery on West Broadway in SoHo, told me that the famed Fluxus pioneer Wolf Vostell refused to show his art in the United States because of his outrage at the Vietnam war. That was the year that Joseph Beuys finally came to New York, where he spent three weeks in a cage with a coyote at Block's gallery. Vostell, still pissed, stood pat in his hometown of Berlin. Back then, as I looked at books of Vostell's dark prints with images of American B-52 bombers, published under the rubric "capitalist realism," I got an inkling of just how direly Europeans viewed my country's actions overseas.
A small selection of works by the late artist made between the 1950s and '90s recently came to New York at the Janos Gat Gallery. It was Vostell's first show in New York in 30 years. This is polit-Pop, like the print Starfighter (1967) from a smudged photo of a line of American-made German fighter planes streaked with glitter. This work paralleled and critiqued U.S. Pop art using the same pictorial strategies.
Famous for his early Happenings, Vostell in his art and performance work engaged the twin totems of his post-war consumer society -- television and automobiles. In collage graphic that is in fact a remnant of a performance, a grainy photo of Vostell's Fluxus compatriot Joseph Beuys rolling a tire along a road is "taped" onto the sheet, and in a photo in the corner, a fat Cadillac squats in a field of broken dishes. In this detail from Bus Stop and Car Fever (1973), the meaning of Vostell's car Aktionen seems clear: rich, overfed Americans are driving to hell. Today it'd be an SUV in a field of empty bowls.
Vostell claims a postmodern "first" -- the first TV in a painting. Called Transmigration, it dates to 1958, an altered oil painting in which gouts of paint rise in explosive plumes with wadded-up newspaper headlines stuck on in bulges like smoke. Through a ragged cut in the canvas a TV set behind it plays bad signal from a UHF channel. Like his Fluxus compatriot Nam June Paik, Vostell was a great fetishist of the consumer television receiver.
Impressions include a 1995 Fluxus-Russian maquette for a sculpture consisting of a toy jet fighter, TV sets lining its wings and fuselage, stuck nose down in a grand piano (you need a Jane's guide to read Vostell's imagery) and a gas mask with a mini-set inside from 1998; a piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall in which Vostell uses a picture from the 1930s of Jews assembled before the Brandenburg Gate before shipment to the camps (Vostell courageously thematized the Holocaust in his work); a piece called Three Hairs and Shadow from 1968 that combines a picture of a helicopter and colored powder puffs and a pig-tail, this combination of hard image and soft form evoking the punishing adultness of war next to the boudoir self-absorption of the woman child (it's very contemporary, the work you want Vostell to have made).
For years Vostell's art was seen formally, as an expressive Pop mess that thrived in the shadow of American art, as a gloss on it. But of course the content makes and keeps the work indigestible by the mainstream; rather like the acidic art of the Californian Edward Kienholz, who was always popular in Germany. Vostell's work often makes explicit statements -- about consumption, about war -- but it's a statement unrelieved by simple explanations.