That KP Brehmer (1938–1997) has been relatively overlooked in postwar German art history is both understandable and surprising. It’s understandable because his exquisitely diagrammatic projects occasionally look scarcely like art. Instead his paintings, prints and films enact a consistent theme, the visualization of capital: the economic statistics and representations of political trends in West Germany and beyond. The austere abstraction of Brehmer’s works means that a difficult painting might look more like a difficult statistical diagram or set of data. This has, and will doubtless continue to, put off certain viewers. But as the many, highly imaginative and varied works on view at Raven Row, London, show, Brehmer’s neglect is unwarranted: here was evidence not only of a first-rate artist but – perhaps more uniquely – a rigorous theorist of art’s relationship to politics, power, ideology and representation.
KP Brehmer. Real Capital–Production, curated by Doreen Mende, is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK and beats his native Germany to the staging of an institutional retrospective (Mende curated the artist’s first in Seville in 2011). Illustrated, and then subtly reconfigured, on view was the graphical representation of a broad swathe of themes, in works ranging from the 1960s to the 1980s: race and economic relations in the US, East and West German relations during the Cold War, city spending and efforts at national branding such as designs for postage stamps and flags. In Korrektur der Nationalfarben, Gemessen an der Vermögensverteilung (Correction of National Colours, Measured by Distribution of Wealth, 1972), Brehmer ‘redistributed’ the colour bands of the German flag in a series of modified designs based on the distribution of wealth amongst the country’s social classes.
These works are not simply diagrams. As with Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, a key component is one of distancing and defamiliarization. Here, ‘information’ is both presented and subverted by the introduction of obstructive ‘painterly’ elements. The four-panel series Realkapital–Production – made in 1974 for the group exhibition Art into Society–Society into Art held that year at the ICA in London – comprises four panels of paint and self-adhesive film on melamine, each attempting to illustrate the relationship of labour and capital: on the first, a text piece discusses the conditions of capitalism in a US context; following, several graphs ostensibly charting their bind – ‘real-capital’ on one axis, ‘labour’ on the other – are interrupted by broad clawing brushstrokes that seem symbolic but are actually meaningless from a mathematical standpoint. As Brehmer would write in the catalogue accompanying the ICA exhibition, ‘diagrams used are not intended to convey any exact scientific data. What interests me are dividends, and the aggressive form they develop under the various conditions that exist between production and real capital.’
Brehmer’s works aren’t simply spoofs of data, either. Their aesthetic-political component emerges precisely in the ‘aggressive form’ of the painterly marks that alternately distort and communicate an exaggerated economic structure: capitalism. Like many of Brehmer’s works, this series presents a rigorous, mannered schema but introduces a surprise element of humour to critique the invasiveness of all forms of social representation – not least economics’ own understanding of the relationship between labour and capital as itself a form of representation. The artist’s process might be described more generally as the ‘ideological kleptomania’ Brehmer once wrote about in an explanatory text. ‘Ideological kleptomania’ lacks the rhetorical bravado and ironized disaffection of détournage, yet similarly believes that the best way to comment on societal and economic conditions is to present their presentation.
Brehmer, who was born in Berlin and died in Hamburg, trained as a graphic artist in Düsseldorf. Though unaffiliated to any party, his work was grounded in a political dilemma: how to mobilize art as a vehicle for politics when historical catastrophe had corrupted that concern. But to call Brehmer a ‘political’ artist would be to perpetuate the very division (between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’) that political art is supposed to overcome, as he rightly corrected in a 1976 interview in Studio International. It’s this dialectical intelligence and categorical awareness that’s evident in Brehmer’s use of reproducible and serialized media such as prints, books, display editions and films. From the standpoint of art’s relationship to its media the ‘Capitalist Realism’ of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke – the quasi-movement Brehmer was also associated with, mainly with his Berlin gallerist René Block, with whom he exhibited in this context until 1971 – will be found wanting. After all, rather than a painting, where else to enact and speculate upon the reality of capital than in capitalist media par excellence: the film, the printed poster, the diagram, the statistic? Yet just like Richter and Polke, Brehmer has a keen sense of the perfectly timed, deadpan joke: in one photograph, from 1967 we see Brehmer literally inflate deutsche Werte (‘German values’, in the form of bank notes) inside transparent balloons, a brilliantly facile comment on cultural and economic inflation; Kultur (1974) is a large panel with its title written on a starry night sky, with only a few worthless constellations marked.
In an interview, Brehmer once asked parenthetically, ‘(why don’t museums show the commodities of our time?)’. It’s a pertinent, charged question, one which casts value on art’s commodity status and the artistic status of the commodity alike. With this exhibition, belatedly, the museum has given its answer.