The Goethe University Frankfurt’s Studio Gallery 1964–1968
Often nostalgically remembered as an actual revolution, fifty years have gone by since the anti-authoritarian protests of 1968. And as it has been done previously, four times every ten years until now, this year is no exception: we are once again looking back at this period.
But the heroes of 1968 have grown tired, old or bitter or are often just embarrassing, and the danger of a tacky idealisation is at least as great as their inevitable self-affirmation. To avoid all of this, it is a good idea indeed to focus on the conditions in ’68 rather than well-known people and their actions. This is precisely the aim of two and a half exhibitions being held in Frankfurt, which was, after Berlin, the most influential location of 1968 Germany. The exhibitions are dedicated to the project of the student-run Studio Gallery at the Goethe-Universität and its integration with other Goethe university institutions, especially the university-funded, but otherwise independent student magazine “Diskus”. The exhibition “Freiraum der Kunst” [Open Space for Art] in the Museum Giersch, a university-affiliated house on the Museumsufer, moves chronologically, room by room, not just reconstructing the exhibitions of the Studio Gallery but also illustrating them with other relevant works of the time. The fact that the gallery’s programme was initially mainly concerned with taking over exhibitions is not such a big problem, as the process makes the search for its own identity comprehensible. Rupprecht Geiger or Leon Polk Smith clearly gained a forum in Frankfurt, where the chronology of the exhibitions didn’t necessarily correspond with art historical developments. And so, for example, the Informel-oriented “A-constructive Painting and Sculpture” (another acquisition), as well as the young Ferdinand Kriwet’s typefaces, followed Colour Fields and Hard Edge in 1965. Fluxus actions by Paik, Moorman and Vostell finally herald the new strategies for demonstrations of the protests. With “Serial Formations” in 1967 the Studio Gallery undoubtedly reached the zenith of its activities, followed by two constructive shows. And then it was all over, many vulgar, politicised activists reinterpreted the meaning of care and property (just think about what happened to the Frankfurt student library) and art is once again misunderstood as a “convulsion in class struggle” (Krampf im Klassenkampf).
The exhibition in the Museum Giersch is rich in content, and the accompanying detailed explanations provide the visitor with much previously unknown information. And although there are occasional mistakes, such as those in the description of a screen print by Wolfgang Schmidt, information about the artistic forerunners of 1968 is plausibly conveyed. Unfortunately, the focus on art suppresses the range of different connections these protagonists had with other areas. For example, Schmidt’s palimpsest was created at the same time as his graphic designs for the Frankfurt subway, their connection is reflected in the colours he used; Heijo Hangen’s square module is also the result of his confrontation with Richard Buckminster Fuller; and alongside his artistic work, Eberhard Fiebig worked as a typographer and image-text polemicist. The show ignores these aspects of the protagonists’ work and traps them by presenting them in the restricted space of art that doesn’t properly reflect who they were. With few exceptions, the catalogue also supports this generally limited point of view, and the commentaries are tedious and irrelevant. This is partly owing to a frightening unawareness of the urban environment, exemplified by the contributions of Viola Hildebrand-Schat, who clearly knows nothing about the interconnections and competitiveness in Frankfurt in the mid-1960s with for instance Adam Seide, Dorothea Loehr, Rochus Kowallek and Eckhard Neumann or the diverse range of photographic conceptions by Abisag Tüllmann and Barbara Klemm, or the Göppinger Gallery and Gunter Rambow’s studio. Renate Wiehager’s text refers to a “Holzmarktstraße”, which no doubt refers to what long-standing form subscribers will recognise as the “Holzgraben” and finally Anna Schümer has the gall to reveal Charlotte Moorman as the “Queen of Naked” on almost every page of her article: a case for #metoo?
Clearly, differences arose between the museum and a student initiative working on the same topic. As a result, there are parallel exhibitions in the current Student Centre and the exhibition space of the University Archive in Dantestraße 9. The first of these was probably created in order to add a line or two to the biographies of the exhibition curators, because photocopying the Diskus covers does not tell a story, but leaves content forgotten, and while a mousetrap and a tile onto which the erstwhile Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer is once said to have emptied the contents of his stomach, might count as objects of devotional kitsch, they have little to do with unfinished modernity and the enlightened impulses of 1968. Posters advertising the exhibition neglect to indicate venues and opening times, further underlining an arrogant approach, but also making it harder to visit the exciting exhibition in the University Archive on Dantestraße 9. This sporadically open show has posters, pictures, sound and film documents that provide the context that is missing from the exhibition in the Museum Giersch. Rambow’s self-commissioned poster “It’s Time to Fly to Hanoi” is here, as are a Kriwet audio collage on vinyl, with Ferdinand Kramer’s furniture conveying a sense of university days. There are more Diskus issues, this time with the back covers that have commentaries on art, and you can at least get a sense of the connection between students, the Diskus editors and the Studio Gallery in an urban environment. As is so often the case, I can only conclude by saying this about the parallel shows: the material’s good but if you want to understand something worthwhile, you need to know the background.
The exhibition “Art of Protest” in the Bockenheim Campus Student Centre and in the exhibition space of the University Archive in Dantestraße 9 runs until 5 May 2018.