Through May 13, at Michael Werner, New York
This delightful exhibition offers a glimpse into the creative intelligence of a young man whose mature art became a mainstay of late 20th century German Neo-Expressionism. The Jörg Immendorff that we encounter here will not paint his Café Deutschland pictures for many years. He is still in awe of Joseph Beuys, his professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. He is committed to taking his politically engaged art out onto the streets, and he is still fired by a late-adolescent sense of mischief. The resulting art is at once fascinating and entertaining. Occasionally it is laugh-out-loud funny.
At the same time, it can often be difficult to disentangle the comic from the serious in Immendorff’s early works. We can forget the political ferment that spread across Europe in the late 1960s, and like many of his contemporaries, Immendorff was deeply opposed to the Vietnam War, as well as to the socioeconomic establishment that he felt it benefited. But in choosing the image of a chubby-cheeked baby “as a sign of love and peace,” as he wrote, he was able to keep his contemporaries (and present-day viewers) a little off-balance.
The young Immendorff invented nothing less than an alternative reality for himself. He called this imaginary domain “LIDL,” which—with deliberate absurdity—was a neologism derived from baby talk and the sound of a baby’s rattle. In 1968 he set up a LIDL-Academy within the Düsseldorf art school, and managed to get himself expelled. (Of course, Beuys, already the subject of a complaint by ten of his academic colleagues, stood by him.)
In anticipation of the 1972 Olympic Games being planned in Munich, Immendorff fantasized a sports team. He produced a runner’s outfit, flags, banners, and a small gouache in which he exhorted the young people of the world to bring sand to Munich to extinguish the Olympic Flame. He attempted to extend the parliament building in Bonn to include a LIDL-Room. This gesture was recorded on film, which, transferred to video, is one of the most poignant pieces in this show. It reveals the young artist attempting to erect a rudimentary tent while being apprehended by officials and uniformed police officers. It will lift the spirits of anyone who recalls the golden age of politically engaged performance art.
There are many strands that we can tease out of these “LIDL” works that link them to the far more celebrated paintings that Immendorff made a decade and more later. There is the same concern with German national identity, the same iconoclasm, and even the same taste for the outspoken gesture. However, there is an innocence about these earlier works as well as an absence of self-seriousness that give them their own special character. Some gallery-goers might even prefer them.