“Must Art History Be Rewritten?” – In Place of a
Preface by Roland Nachtigäller
in: catalogue: Dirk Dietrich Hennig / Blacked Out - George Cup & Steve Elliott - Retrospective, Berlin 2008
When a comparatively young institution such as the
George Cup Research Center, which moreover claims to have offices in New York
and Hannover, approaches two rather small exhibition institutions with the
suggestion of a thoroughly sensational project, then as a rule caution is
required: How serious is this sort of organization, whose interests possibly
lie hidden in the background, how is the research center financed, and with
what scholarly pretensions is work being done there? Generally these are
questions which can only be answered with difficulty down to the last detail,
and to which one responds – after some preliminary research – more or less
intuitively, on the basis of one’s feelings in encounters with individual
persons, and with a view to the existing or absent fascination engendered by
the specific artistic project.
So what is the appropriate attitude when an eloquent individual in his mid-forties arranges with the requisite circumspection a personal appointment with the secretarial office and then, in a jovial and self-confident manner, proceeds to serve up an almost unbelievable story? In this case the biography of an American artist-couple with German roots, whose name in Europe (in the meantime!) is almost completely unknown, but who nevertheless are supposed to have belonged since the early nineteen-sixties to the most influential impulse-sources of American Minimal Art: George Cup & Steve Elliott? Two artists and in addition, for more than thirty years lifetime-companions, whose respective and joint works were not only slowly forgotten during the last twenty years, but were supposedly also systematically removed from collections and art-historical examinations?
Above all after a careful examination of the works in question, and after due consideration of the numerous aspects of this enigmatic art-historical originality, the Städtische Galerie Nordhorn and the Kunstverein Wolfsburg decided to present, as the first institutions in Europe, the two-part retrospective of both artists. The works are drawn from two different private collections, which up to now have likewise not appeared in a more extensive framework – the collection of a French enthusiast who remains anonymous here, and the collection of A.C. Greenspan – whose convincing work-groups by George Cup & Steve Elliott ultimately tipped the scales favorably. It is above all the great artistic energy, the unswerving focus of the Minimalist attitude in the struggle for formal reduction (here above all in terms of color), and the so-called primary structures which persuaded the responsible officials to take a chance on this experiment consisting of an exhibition whose validity cannot be guaranteed one-hundred percent. Ultimately of pivotal importance were also discussions about how much the individuality of the artistic position actually comes to the fore in a lifetime oeuvre which conceives of art above all as a depersonalized, self-referential system. If then in later years, for example, this de-individualization, the attempt to avoid all allusion to everyday objects, or a deliberate anti-illusionistic procedure are slowly retracted, then to what degree is there the actual emergence of a productive “slapstick potential of Minimal Art” (Jörg Heiser, Plötzlich diese Übersicht, “Suddenly This General View,” 2007)?
Thus there are above all questions at the beginning as well as at the end of this preparatory process, and in this case these are predominantly inquiries which are directed more towards the public than to the respective institutions. Why were these groups of works, which seem so consistent within themselves, not acknowledged for so long a time in an appropriate manner? With the rediscovery of these works, is there a concomitant change in the view of Minimal Art altogether? Which interconnections emerge into view here between the Constructivism of the nineteen-twenties, the tendencies of American abstraction in the post-war years, and the post-avantgardist movements of the nineteen-eighties? Must evaluations and correlations, art-historical classifications and perspectives be rethought?
And finally, this exhibition, its history and its objects also rests upon a fundamental issue: How does history, how does art history arise? “No pause for breath; history is made, it moves onward” (Fehlfarben, 1980). But then who makes history? Every individual, opinion makers, the mainstream, or market interests? And how objective is this history? There have been periods when the focus of classical history was primarily on revealing the wide panorama of dominating interests, and a start was made in writing a new history “from down below.” At the moment, however, heroes are once again being sought, in art as well. And only too often one hears the prescription that history must be “rewritten” or even entirely “written anew.” By whom? For what reason?
Ultimately it is a question of responsibility as to which exhibitions and which works are presented to an interested public by communal, or at least non-commercial, exhibition institutions. The generally interested visitor, just like the professional public, trusts that a fundamental seriousness and purity constitute the basis for the works being shown. And so in the end, it is also a question of individual passion when, in two institutions which are actually dedicated to contemporary art, there is a presentation of this in no way risk-free view of the historical works by George Cup & Steve Elliott. Available as formal justification are the astonishing urban-historical correspondences of their respective birthplaces (in Nordhorn and Heßlingen, today Wolfsburg), but in this matter both institutions have their backs to the wall. If we present this artistic duo and their works for discussion, we allow the audience, each individual person as well as the professional world, to form an opinion – not only concerning the relevance, quality and binding character of the exhibited works, but also as to whether we have become entangled in the complex web of various hidden interests so that, upon more exacting scrutiny, everything turns out to be utterly different…
Roland Nachtigäller, 2008
© dirkdietrichhennig.com 2016