At LACMA, East and West Germany reunited anew
Art history is a messy business. And the urge to clean it up is irresistible, especially in the period of the Cold War in Germany.

No surprise, then, that the most common shorthand for art produced in the divided nation goes something like this: East German artists made retrograde figurative work in the service of a repressive government; West Germans produced progressive abstractions under the freedom of democracy.

"That's the binary that has governed so much of the discussion," says Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The other familiar trope is that everything from Germany is Expressionism -- the notion that the loaded brush, the Expressionist gesture, is all that connotes German art."

Such stereotypes disintegrate in “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” opening today at LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Barron and her German co-curator, Eckhart Gillen of Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH, have selected about 300 works by 125 artists -- paintings, sculptures, photographs, multiples, videos, installations and books -- that blur national borders and upend art historical assumptions.

The third landmark exhibition of German 20th century art that Barron has organized for the museum in the last 20 years, "Two Germanys" is rooted in " 'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany," a 1991 examination of an infamous attack on Modern art, and "Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler," a 1997 show that tracked the migration of artists who fled Nazi rule. The latest project presents art from East and West Germany, which shared a devastating history but operated under separate political systems from 1945 to 1989.

Instead of setting up an East-West divide, as might be expected, Barron has taken a chronological approach to what turns out to be a very complicated story. Neither a battle between opposing cultural doctrines nor a unified chorus of Expressionist angst, "Two Germanys" is an outpouring of creative energy and frustration "seen through the lens of the Cold War," she says.

The focus is far from tight, though. Visitors will find Socialist Realist paintings along with abstractions, Constructivist objects, Pop art, assemblage, technical experiments, photographs of ordinary people and relics of the Autoperforationists, a group of Dresden performance artists who used their bodies as art material. The artworks all respond to the legacy of Nazism and postwar political events, but from a variety of perspectives.

When Gerhard Richter painted "Uncle Rudi," a blurry re-creation of a black and white photograph of his uncle in military dress, the artist made the point that most Germans had "a Nazi in the family," as he has said. Georg Baselitz's "Picture for the Fathers," a painting of a woman's head attached to a mound of mismatched body parts, is a satirical tribute to the generation that perpetrated World War II.

Existential longing and postwar pain abound, but the show has lighthearted moments, such as Sigmar Polke's “Potato House Object.” An offbeat celebration of nature's creative power, it's an 8-foot-tall house with wood lattice walls dotted with nails that skewer about 350 potatoes, a staple of the German diet. When the potatoes sprout, they are replaced and the process starts over.

Thomas Schutte's "Long Wall," a grid of 1,200 brick-like paintings, may be read as an ordinary red brick structure or an allusion to the infamous Berlin Wall. But it's also a collection of portable abstract paintings that questions the notion of permanence and the difference between art and architecture.

Some worked secretly

Although Socialist Realism was the official style of East Germany and its art schools were rigorously traditional, some artists who studied there -- including Richter and Baselitz -- crossed over to the West and became major international figures. Other East Germans labored in secrecy and obscurity, but grappled with issues that concerned their counterparts in West Germany and beyond.

"Relief Wall," an installation of geometric elements, including foil-covered discs that rotate behind corrugated glass, was dreamed up by Heinz Mack, a West German participant in an international discourse about abstraction as a field of light, movement and technology. A group of much more modest abstract forms -- made of discarded wood, wire, consumer packaging and paper -- is the work of the late Hermann Glöckner, a pioneering Modernist who experiment- ed behind closed doors in East Germany.

"If the show does anything," Barron says, "I would hope that it challenges conventional notions of this period in Germany, and opens up more questions than it delivers answers."

In process for five years, the exhibition has attracted art-world insiders who will probably debate the questions as well as the answers. Among them is Thomas Gaehtgens, a German art historian who took charge of the Getty Research Institute in late 2007.

"This is really the first major show to bring all this together," Gaehtgens says. "I think it will be of great interest to the American public to learn more about these two parts of Germany which lived parallel without really connecting. The old question of how West Germany considers the history of art in the East -- and the other way around -- is a fascinating topic.

"And now you discover that not only official works of art were produced in East Germany, but a lot of very interesting stuff that was not known. Somebody like Glöckner, a very important artist, was not acknowledged in the West at all. And then all these famous German artists whose work is in collections all over the world and who come from the East. There are so many interesting artists now who come out of this German tradition."

Large figurative and history-themed paintings by German artists such as Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff and A.R. Penck attracted international attention in the 1970s and '80s amid a flood of "neoexpressionism." The most recent German art phenomenon is the meteoric rise of painter Neo Rauch and a batch of younger figurative artists affiliated with the Art Academy in Leipzig, a former bastion of East German conservatism. In the last few years, works by artists of the new Leipzig School have been snapped up by museums and leading collectors including Eli Broad of Los Angeles, Charles Saatchi of London and Don and Mera Rubell of Miami.

LACMA's exhibition, Gaehtgens says, "isn't only about art. It's about German history. It's about German culture. It's about discovering the past."