Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde

Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde
Sarah E. James

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
400 pp., illus. 103 col., 10 b&w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 9780262046565.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2022

On vanguard authors, works, networks and practices in former East-Germany (the GDR), our knowledge is very limited. It is also highly biased, suffering from a double prejudice. On the one hand, it is still often thought that the GDR vanguard production is, technically and aesthetically speaking, quite rearguard. On the other hand, from a political and ideological point of view, it is no less believed that this form of vanguard was, by definition, a form of opposition to a regime where social realism was the exclusive model and where only state-controlled art could be tolerated. We thus continue to take for granted that the GDR vanguard was, in comparison with its Western counterpart, rather provincial and backwards looking and that its main aim was to react in a liberal and pro-Western spirit against Soviet-dominated communism.

Paper Revolutions. An Invisible Avant-Garde proposes a compelling reinterpretation of this both half-forgotten and strongly misunderstood tradition, that of vanguard life and art in the GDR. Sarah E. James’s book compellingly demonstrates that the work, the social position as well as the political orientation of these vanguard artists, were not what we think they were. These works were often extremely innovative and truly experimental. The artists themselves were not necessarily outsiders (they were all, although in varying forms and degrees, member of the official artist union, even if not all of them had been trained as such). And their objectives and convictions were those of socialism. The GDR artists explored other media than Western artists, while the production and circulation of their works relied on circuits and networks very different from Western institutions: not the gallery or the museum, but private apartments where one could find the freedom to do what was not always allowed to explore or perform in the public space. However, one should not forget the specific situation of the GDR, unwillingly open to daily Western influences–all GDR citizens could watch West-German television, for instance–and eager to show that it was capable of inventing its own forms of innovation and experiments as well as sharing and confronting them with the Western enemy–hence the not infrequent permission given to GDR artists, even after the construction of the Iron Curtain, to exchange, yet within certain tightly controlled limits, with Western artists. In addition, the GDR vanguard artists studied by James were deeply committed to the ideals of a new, non-capitalist society and a new, non-commodified form of art superseding the frontiers between art and life as well as individual and community–a profile and an ambition that the official art policy and bureaucracy of the GDR almost systematically condemned as anti-social and politically suspect. It cannot be denied however that Socialism, not that of the “Really-Existing Socialism” of the GDR but the more utopian version of it, refusing both commercial Western vanguard and communist bureaucracy, was at the heart of this vanguard production and way of life. In that sense the post-WW2, Cold War and post-Iron Curtain GDR vanguard should be considered an authentic heir of the classic vanguard ideal of merger of life and art.

All this may seem pretty general, yet James manages to make these ideas very concrete and convincing with the help of new theoretical and historical insights as well as the input of outstanding archival research. First of all, Paper Revolutions. An Invisible Avant-Garde (I will immediately come back on the title of the book) is doing much more than simply discarding a certain number of Western biases. Mainly relying on the work of Polish art historian and curator Piotr Piotrowski, James makes a strong plea for reconsidering the center/periphery dichotomy, stressing the fact that the so-called peripheries (including those of non-Western Europe) obey different chronologies, agendas, and mechanisms than those of the Western center (New York, Paris, London). She rightly stresses that these peripheries are necessarily misunderstood when seen in relationship with the self-proclaimed universalizing center of the West. Besides, and this is the most original theoretical contribution of the book, avant-garde work in the GDR, where artistic work was bureaucratically organized, generously state-funded and narrowly controlled, can only be understood if analyzed in connection with its specific environment, which is neither the public space (where most of the vanguard artists were paid to make community art, like in the infamously known social-realist murals), nor the typically Western private studio or art gallery, but the open space of the artist’s private apartment. In the GDR, these both private and public spaces tend to become countercultural places combining a wide range of functions: studio, gallery, archive, lecture hall, meeting and discussion place. The GDR vanguard artist apartment tries to supersede the divide between daily life, labor, and leisure, but also between personal relationships and collective action, and to become a space for reflection and communication, including communication with the non-GDR world, James persuasively shows that GDR vanguard art is also vanguard life and politics. Its aim is not the restoration of a private gated space harassed and jeopardized by mind-dumbing Communist bureaucracy, a jealously preserved personal little heaven of individual freedom pitted against collectivist streamlining, but an attempt to build what the GDR state itself proved incapable of realizing.

Three comprehensive case studies (and a shorter fourth one) detail and develop these general proposals: first the constructivist graphic artist, painter, and sculptor Hermann Glöckner, often working with paper models of large-scale projects that were of course not always meant to be realized; second, the concrete and sound poet Carlfriedrich Claus, who explored the multiple relationships between the visuality and orality and had a strong interest in the philosophical underpinning of the avant-garde, mainly through his reading of the Marxist utopian thinker Ernst Bloch; third, the mail artist, concrete poet, and conceptual artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, who revolutionized the use of the basic instrument of the female office worker, namely the typewriter; and finally, in the epilogue of the book, performance artist Karla Sachse. These names may be less familiar to Western readers, in spite of the highly original contributions of their work (the most striking example is of this historical neglect is Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, regrettably only known as the spouse of a better-known vanguard artist, Robert Rehfeldt) as well as in spite of their strong presence in various international networks (although not all of them have always given the freedom to go abroad or to communicate with their Western counterparts). It is extremely arresting–and hence the title of the book–that most of these works have to do with “paper”, not only writing paper or postcards but also packing material or filing cabinet materials, etc., since that was for these artists the most accessible as well as affordable material in a state where shortage of many products was a daily reality. This “paper” material was however not always free to use and to circulate (in the Soviet-states, private access to photocopiers was illegal, while letters and other forms of mail communication were permanently opened by the Stasi, whose members also infiltrated the artists communities –or vice versa…). The revolution the GDR vanguard was looking for could therefore only be a “hidden” one.

James’s study is an important contribution to more than one domain. It definitely discloses an archive that has never been seriously studied and which it is now high time to further examine, perhaps by having a closer look at the works of GDR vanguard artists that adhered to a Western ideology. It should invite Western art history to revise some of its biases, using for instance this book as a springboard to ask new questions on post-colonialism in Eastern Europe. And it also helps redefine the role and place of what we call avant-garde and the relationship between the ideals and practices of the historical avant-garde (before the divide between the West and the rest) and the forms and ideologies of the various neo-avant-gardes. In that sense, the book is also an invitation to stop studying art from a purely artistic perspective and to reframe it in the broader context of everyday history.