The New York Times

June 7, 1998, The New York Times

Where the Past Haunts, Berlin Embraces the New

Germany orders up mammoth load of art

The city that Hitler adorned with muscle-bound statues by Arno Breker and where East German Communists plastered images of Marxist stalwarts is set to get a mammoth new load of officially sanctioned art. For Berlin’s latest incarnation as Germany’s capital, the Federal Government plans to order more than $33 million of freshly painted Neo-Expressionist canvases, cerebral conceptual installations, neon sculpture and perhaps even earthworks.

This one-shot public-art spending spree appears unrivaled in modern times and is all the more remarkable for its coming amid a general retrenchment in German Government support for the arts. By contrast, it has taken the United States Government 35 years to spend the same amount on artworks for public buildings across America. “They’re determined to bring the glory of Germany back and bring it to Berlin,” said Robert Storr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “This is about the creation of an official national art and a recognition that if you’re going to have a proud national culture, you’re going to have to go to the avant-garde to get it.”

Not only will the official art of the new Berlin forgo the conventional works that have historically prevailed in this once-divided metropolis; it will also be resolutely international for reasons that are as much political as esthetic. While the United States Government Art-in-Architecture program commissions only living American artists for its Federal buildings, Germany is taking pains to include outsiders. Among Americans receiving Berlin commissions are Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Holzer and Joseph Kosuth.

In addition, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has met with the sculptor Richard Serra and the architect Peter Eisenman, both New Yorkers, to discuss their joint proposal for a German national memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims. The design, consisting of 4,000 concrete slabs arrayed like a vast burial ground, is one of four schemes short-listed in a state-sponsored competition. The Government and a private group are expected to decide in the coming weeks which design will be built on a site south of the Brandenburg Gate.

The memorial plans are not without opponents. Several intellectuals have objected that none of the submissions will create a suitable place to commemorate the horrors and iniquities perpetrated from Berlin. And Mayor Eberhard Diepgen of Berlin has challenged the project altogether, asking whether any memorial design is capable of conveying the terror of the Holocaust to future generations.

But the controversy has not shaken many Germans from their belief that state-sponsored art, particularly in the revived capital, can be therapeutic as they continue to wrestle with their difficult history.

The Federal Government, moving from Bonn to Berlin by the year 2000, has asked more than 140 artists from around the world to propose pieces for the new Chancellery, the President’s office, the Reichstag and a new set of parliamentary office buildings. Works are also being commissioned for more than a dozen ministries and agencies moving into renovated structures dating from the Prussian monarchy, the Wilhelmine empire, the Nazi era and East-bloc Communist rule.

By injecting the capital with such an overwhelming dose of new art, the German authorities seek to proclaim that although they are returning to well-trodden, bloodied ground, Berlin’s refurbishment represents a fresh beginning. “Using the art of today is a way of making the Reichstag our own,” said Peter Conradi, a Social Democrat in the national legislature, the Bundestag. “We’re not moving into a museum.”

The new art, said Klaus Bussmann, head of the Federal Government Art Advisory Board, “should also be a signal within Germany itself that the state is not withdrawing its responsibility for art.”

“There’s a strong tendency at the moment to leave it up to private investors,” Mr. Bussman said.

Germany’s bellicose past makes politicians wary of relying heavily on historic artworks to furnish their offices. Chancellor Kohl, for example, would prefer to hang paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Albrecht Durer, Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth in the chief executive’s quarters rather than new art, said Axel Schultes, the Chancellery architect. “That would of course be the preference of the politicians,” said Mr. Schultes, “but they don’t have the confidence to do it. An American President can say, without eliciting any suspicion, ‘Here I’d like to have a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware.’ ”

And so with politicians wanting to avoid sending a wrong signal with too much art from yesteryear, modern works by established and cutting-edge artists will prevail. Mr. Kelly is working on a $1 million mural for the main facade and an exterior side of a Bundestag office building. The work will consist of six colored-aluminum panels, each averaging 225 square feet. “They are the largest panels I’ve ever done,” Mr. Kelly said. “My being chosen means that the Germans are looking forward. In the 17th century, Rubens did big paintings in the Louvre for Marie de Medici, and that was a wonderful thing to do. Artists are always looking for opportunities to do public art.” Mr. Kelly’s project is one of several direct commissions already approved.

The Bundestag, scheduled to move into the renovated Reichstag next year, expressly wants representatives of the Allied victors of World War II to have a hand in overhauling the building. Erected more than a century ago as the imperial parliament, the Reichstag came to embody fascist terror in 1933, when Hitler used a fire inside the building as a pretext to impose emergency rule. The architect in charge of the renovation is Sir Norman Foster, a Briton. The plans call for works by Ms. Holzer and Christian Boltanski of France as well as by the German painters Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz. The Bundestag is also negotiating with the conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov, a former Soviet citizen, to join the project.

Like the Breker statues that stood in and outside Hitler’s Chancellery, much of the art envisioned for today’s Berlin carries a distinct element of propaganda. The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan has drawn up a series of glass panels to be erected along the River Spree and inscribed with Germany’s Basic Law, which was drafted in 1949 to guide the post-totalitarian democracy. Astrid Klein, an artist from Cologne, will illuminate one parliamentary office building with neon text from “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes’s critique of power.

At the monumental north entry to the Reichstag, Ms. Holzer, also using language as her medium, plans to deploy quotations from addresses given there by Hitler and other German politicians. She is consulting with historians to select hortatory excerpts from “the most terrible and the better speeches,” she said. The project will take the form of a four-sided, floor-to-ceiling sign column with light-emitting diodes spelling out sometimes contradictory statements about war and peace. “It’s a daunting project,” Ms. Holzer said. “I went to bed with a headache twice after my first site visits.”

Mindful that Berlin once inflicted great pain on the world, the Art Advisory Board is encouraging artists to plumb the depths as well as the heights of German identity and history. “A critical dialogue is particularly imperative in the burdened buildings of the Third Reich,” the board guidelines state. “This involves not just coming up with superficial countermeasures but an intelligent and contemporary esthetic response to the pre-existing situation.”

At Hermann Goering’s former Aviation Ministry, a thrusting, stone-clad complex completed in 1936 and now being converted into the Finance Ministry, another New York artist, Dan Graham, is being invited to create a sculpture for the rear garden. Tadashi Kawamata of Japan and Piet Trantel, a German creator of earthworks, are being asked to submit proposals for refurbishing a drab inner court once used by the Luftwaffe for military exercises. Six German painters, including Markus Lupertz, A. R. Penck and Jorg Immendorf, will vie for a commission for the entry staircase, previously decorated with a fierce eagle atop a swastika. “This building demands esthetic interventions that make clear the ambivalence of the place,” the board’s guidelines say.

Down the street, the former Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, from which Joseph Goebbels delivered anti-Semitic diatribes, is being transformed into the Labor Ministry. There the Government wants the French sculptor Daniel Buren to help alleviate the severity of the building’s interior courtyard. In Paris, Mr. Buren’s addition of truncated candy-striped columns to the majestic court of the Palais Royal was decried as an act of desecration; amid Berlin’s grim fascist-era architecture, however, a bold intervention by the artist will more likely be greeted with a sigh of relief.

But plans for the former Nazi Reichsbank, soon to become unified Germany’s Foreign Ministry, have provoked unease. The architect Hans Kollhoff is working with Gerhard Merz, Germany’s representative at last year’s Venice Biennale, to add color to walls, floors and ceilings in an effort to give the solemn building a freshness and visual unity. To some Germans, though, Mr. Merz was a thorny choice because of his predilection for classical forms and his coy use of fascist symbols in some of his mausoleumlike art installations.

One critic, Hans-Ernst Mittig, a Berlin specialist in Nazi architecture, says Mr. Merz’s installations call into question Germany’s postwar anti-fascist stance. “Works like those of Merz perpetuate, elevate and certify the practice of superficial and indecisive discourse about National Socialism,” Mr. Mittig has written.

The New York-based German artist Hans Haacke also assailed Mr. Merz’s role. “If one is dealing with a building that is heavily fraught with history,” he said, “it is irresponsible to overlook that history.” The design of the Reichsbank, a sandstone colossus of 1,000 rooms, was personally selected by Hitler. Its vaults, used under the Nazis to store plunder from Holocaust victims, are being turned into the Foreign Ministry archives.

The plan for the Reichsbank’s imposing main foyer has also aroused concern among some art-board members. Mr. Merz wants to install a cobalt-blue ceiling ringed at the cornice line by 1,200 neon tubes and retain the original floor of highly polished red porphyry, a combination that board members fear will reinforce the building’s chilly aura and create an uncomfortable space in which to greet foreign dignitaries and put them at ease about the new Germany.

The board therefore wants overtly politicized artists like Mr. Haacke, Hanne Darboven, Frieder Schnock and Renata Stih to attempt a more critical confrontation with the architecture. “Merz has a severity that could be misunderstood,” said Mr. Bussmann, the board chief. Mr. Merz brushes aside the criticism, calling his work “beyond any ideology, enlightened, cold, uninvolved with life, only pure form.”

Other artists, like Gerhard Richter, who examine the Nazi legacy and sensitive postwar political issues, can be counted on to stir strong emotions in Berlin. Mr. Richter’s work often explores painful aspects of the national past that some of his countrymen would prefer to forget. One of the most provocative contemporary German works ever produced — Mr. Richter’s series of 15 paintings based on the unresolved 1977 prison deaths of Baader-Meinhof terrorist group members — was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1995. It’s doubtful that Germany would hang portraits of terrorists, dead or alive, on official premises, and by awarding commissions to artists like Mr. Richter, the politicians could well find their capital-art initiative reaping an unwelcome harvest. “I’m not certain whether very critical works will obtain majority support within the ministries or the cabinet,” Mr. Bussmann said. “I’m very curious. It’s an experiment.”

The inclusion of artists who worked for the defunct East German regime has already sparked protest. Fifty-eight artists, dealers and critics signed a petition condemning the invitation to Bernhard Heisig, a Neo-Expressionist and veteran Communist, to submit a work for the Reichstag. But the Bundestag has stood by Mr. Heisig’s participation.

In the United States, the General Services Administration has subjected public art projects to extensive citizens’ review since 1989, when Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” a sculpture that threw a 120-foot-long steel barrier across Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, was removed. The German authorities appear less concerned about a populist backlash against difficult artworks. Rita Sussmuth, the Bundestag President, has argued that “precisely in a democracy, it’s essential to have selection criteria other than mere acceptability to public opinion.”

As for critical opinion, the esthetic merit of the huge quantities of art that will soon be strewn in the German public’s path remains to be judged. But even many of those behind the project temper their support with a note of caution. For all Germany’s expense and effort, Mr. Bussmann conceded, “It will be a miracle if a few good works come out of it.”