L'homme Machine: Dieter Roelstraete on the Art of Konrad Klapheck

Artforum International, March 2012 | Go to article overview

L'homme Machine: Dieter Roelstraete on the Art of Konrad Klapheck


KONRAD KLAPHECK was never one to range far afield--he was born in Dusseldorf in 1935 and lives there to this day. From 1954 to 1958, he studied at the city's famous art academy under Bruno Goller, a little-known Surrealist who also taught Konrad Fischer and Blinky Palermo, and in 1979 became a professor there, a position he held until his retirement in 2002. A man of great constancy and stahili-tas loci, as the Benedictines used to say, in more ways than one: It was his localized early experience of Dusseldorf's postwar devastation that would prove formative, profoundly influencing his subsequent development as a painter of singular dedication to a handful of idiosyncratic iconographic motifs. In a 2006 interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klapheck recalls having been enchanted by the ruins of his bombed-out hometown, which he depicted in the sketchbooks of his youth as landscapes worthy of Max Ernst's wildest imaginings. By the time he entered the art academy, however, West Germany's so-called economic miracle was well under way, and the cities of the Rhineland and the Ruhr region in particular had been cleaned up to accelerate the US-sponsored postwar reconstruction.

In this charged climate of selective urbanist amnesia, "the machine was the opposite [of the ruin]; it was an image of perfection."1 Where only recently the collapsing, disintegrating ruins of Germany's Stunde Null had stood as so many ghoulish reminders of a criminal regime, there arose a phoenix of gleaming, shiny steel--the material on which much of the country's postwar economic fortune was to be built, and the stuff out of which were fashioned the mechanical objects that would come to emblematize Klapheck's painterly practice. Indeed, art historian Christine Mehring calls his body of work "the first art to address explicitly the economic miracle"--which Klapheck understood as a miracle of machines and, above all, of machine-induced forgetting. (A large-scale 1968 painting of a car tire ready to flatten everything in its path is titled Die Macht des Vergessens [The Power of Oblivion].)

Working at a moment in art dominated by various subject-centered traditions of abstraction (Abstract Expressionism, art informel, art hrut and Cobra, all of which were highly critical of modernity's machine-enchanted worldview), Klapheck, Mehring notes, "painted against the times," even if his paintings were "nevertheless about the times." He countered the era's prevailing standards of lyric abstraction with what he called "prosaic Super gegenst and lichke it" or super objectivity--a term in which the echoes of prewar realist traditions such as Neue Sachlichkeit and Purism can be discerned.2 The implementation of such super objectivity required developing a practice whose rigorous, bureaucratically administered discipline ironically mirrored the taciturn work ethic that made the economic miracle possible in the first place. (Something of the ambivalence of this ironic stance also emerges in Klapheck's apparent preference for a businesslike approach to the painting trade. He has always insisted on a tightly timed working schedule and is almost invariably portrayed in shirt and tie underneath a paint-stained smock.)

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Over the past fifty-some years, Klapheck has painted bicycles, irons, telephones, fire hoses, shower-heads--it was while rendering a showerhead that the artist, as a student, discovered the particular joy of painting mechanical details, an epiphany that led to a forty-year abstention from depictions of the human form--and a number of more abstract machinic assemblages whose springs, screws, and bolts inevitably call forth the ghost of Francis Picabia. Yet two subjects, typewriters and sewing machines, predominate. Between 1955 and 1997, he painted some forty versions of each. The fact that these machines in particular have loomed so large in his oeuvre--literally so, since in his paintings they are almost always larger than life--is a reflection, in the artist's mind, of the basic division of labor along gender lines in the postwar world: "One--and I am not saying anything new here--stands for the world of men: the typewriter, the decisions in the office, the decisions in politics etc.

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