As you pass through the doorway between two new exhibitions at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum, you might mutter Theodor Adorno's 1951 edict, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," under your breath.
The doorway signifies the Second World War in the historical arc that links the shows. Once you are through it, the expressive range from the 80-odd prints and drawings in Romantic Dreams, Rude Awakenings: Northern European Prints and Drawings 1840–1940 is abruptly replaced by an almost complete flattening of aesthetic affect in De-Natured: German Art From Joseph Beuys to Martin Kippenberger, containing works from the Cold War era to the present.
Featuring graphic work by such Modernist notables as Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Louis Corinth and George Grosz, Romantic Dreams, Rude Awakenings traces the lyric impulse through European history into its head-on collision with the First World War, which made reality more unbelievable than any Romantic fantasy. Works around the doorway in De-Natured show that lyricism splintering into the violent mélanges of Otto Dix and Hans Richter, the Fluxus anarchism of Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky's ideologically perfect Constructivist forms.
Collections curator Timothy Riggs has drawn on the Ackland's collection to present a particularly rich representation of Expressionist woodcuts. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's 1914 work "The Sun" is a simple composition endowed with kinetic anxiety about the uncertainty of the world. Women, their backs to us, rush through a landscape toward either a setting or rising sun. The image can be read as either desperate or joyful, their rush as a flight or a return.
Adorno's "writing poetry" can be read as the natural lyricism that fueled the Romantic and Expressionist engines, as well as the hybrid drives within Dada, Surrealism and other Modernist strains. De-Natured shows how German artists extracted that lyricism from their work as a way of acknowledging their historical context.
De-Natured is anchored by elders Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter, as well as a selection from Bernd and Hilla Becher's influential "Coal Bunkers" series of photographs. Of the four artists in the show born after Adorno's statement, three were students of the Bechers at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.
The Beuys work is isolated in a vitrine in the center of the room, giving it foundational status in the show. Several pieces made of felt, including a postcard and an appropriated blackboard eraser, are next to "How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome," which is a large plastic bag containing printed papers not on view. The bag has a hand-drawn diagram upon it showing the flow of "Kapital."
A wall of Richter's work spans nearly 40 years of his career. Two grainy photolithographs from the 1969 "Nine Objects" series, in which he constructed and photographed wooden optical illusions in his studio, pair with two pieces from his 1972 "Overpainting" work, for which Richter hung 120 canvases in a solid block, painted them all together and then sold the canvases separately.
These Duchampian turns inform more social overtones in Richter's painted-over photographs from the 1990s onward. Bluntly combining objectively real and determined snapshot images with chance applications of oil paint, Richter politicizes his earlier aesthetic questions of authenticity and originality. It's a way of dealing with Adorno's crisis of representation and expression. Richter's comprehensive undermining of craft and artistic intention doesn't avoid or express embarrassment or regret about history; it comes from a categorical distrust of the nationalist programs that shaped it.
Consequently, many of these works push back at whatever aesthetic criteria is brought to them. Hanne Darboven's "Daily Counting IX/89" consists solely of neatly printed numbers on graph paper, appearing initially to be math homework or an outsider artist's arcane code. But the guide explains that the calendar dates the numbers refer to are the "Monday demonstrations" that led to the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989. Darboven's conceptual conversion of this politically joyous event into data exemplifies the postwar German artist's role as documentarian witness and voice of caution. Time will tell if any particular ideology, as positive as it might seem in the moment, will remain differentiated from fascism.
These shows are heavy, but the Ackland always has to do a lot within a single room. To the curatorial staff, the museum must be like one of those sliding tile puzzles in which you try to assemble an image or get digits in numerical order. Several exhibit rooms are really hallways or alcoves, and William Ackland's crypt always must be dealt with as well. It's always interesting to see how exhibitions sit within the floor plan. The frustration of having to show large historical arcs in architecturally chopped-up spaces must be tempered only by the thrill of pulling it off.
Romantic Dreams is claustrophobic; it even includes a room within the room to provide enough wall space to hang all the work. Less might have been more here. Conversely, the De-Natured show begs for more art. It would be interesting to know what additional pieces chief curator Peter Nisbet might have chosen from the James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach Collection had he a second room.
For instance, other than Darboven's static installation work "Children of This World, Brass Trio, Opus 43," which requires you to put on headphones to hear music as you sit before a wall covered with the score, De-Natured lacks multimedia work. Some of the filmic threads that appear in the later graphical work of Romantic Dreams could have been picked up in a video of Beuys' 1974 performance work "I Like America and America Likes Me," in which the artist spent three days in a New York gallery with a live coyote.
Each of these exhibitions would have benefitted from a second room but succeed together. The Ackland's layout requires this additive thinking, and Riggs and Nisbet prove up to the task.