31 March 2015

He tore off posters, disrupted television broadcasts, set parked cars in concrete: Wolf Vostell referred to all of these artistic activities as dé-coll/age. He had a substantial impact on artistic development in Germany.

By Ekkehard Tanner

Wolf Vostell (1932--1998) was not a comfortable artist. His art is not nice and innocent, for Vostell did not see anything idyllic in the twentieth century. "The purpose of my art," he once said, "is to educate people to be against war and intolerance."

From 1950 to 1958, Vostell studies lithography and typography in Wuppertal and Cologne, and then painting in Paris and Düsseldorf. He pursues a sociological analysis of reality, turns away from traditional panel painting and toward new sources of inspiration from everyday urban life. This places him close to the "Mouvement des Affichistes" (1954--59), which was made up of Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé, and François Dufrêne. He subsequently wanted to join the Nouveaux Réalistes, founded in 1960 by the three Parisian Affichistes and the Italian Mimmo Rotella, among others. However, it came to blows over the use of the term décollage, and Pierre Restany, the driving force of the movement, rejected admission of the native of Leverkusen into the group. He ended up joining the Fluxus movement in 1962.

The Relevance of Destruction and Reconstruction

Vostell had developed his principle of dé-coll/age long before he became acquainted with the Parisian artists and their art. He initially used the term to describe his torn-off posters, later transferring it to his performances and happenings. The artist discovered the word "décollage" during a two-month sojourn in Paris when he read about the emergency water landing of a Super Constellation airliner on the Irish River Shannon in the September 5, 1954 edition of the newspaper "Le Figaro." Because he did not understand the word, he looked it up in the dictionary and found the following definition: "to take off," "to become unglued," "to become unstuck." He subsequently used the lexicographic spelling dé-coll/age, and in doing so highlighted the relevance of destruction and reconstruction in his oeuvre.

Wolf Vostell (1932--1998) was not a comfortable artist. His art is not nice and innocent, for Vostell did not see anything idyllic in the twentieth century. "The purpose of my art," he once said, "is to educate people to be against war and intolerance."

From 1950 to 1958, Vostell studies lithography and typography in Wuppertal and Cologne, and then painting in Paris and Düsseldorf. He pursues a sociological analysis of reality, turns away from traditional panel painting and toward new sources of inspiration from everyday urban life. This places him close to the "Mouvement des Affichistes" (1954--59), which was made up of Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé, and François Dufrêne. He subsequently wanted to join the Nouveaux Réalistes, founded in 1960 by the three Parisian Affichistes and the Italian Mimmo Rotella, among others. However, it came to blows over the use of the term décollage, and Pierre Restany, the driving force of the movement, rejected admission of the native of Leverkusen into the group. He ended up joining the Fluxus movement in 1962.

The Relevance of Destruction and Reconstruction

Vostell had developed his principle of dé-coll/age long before he became acquainted with the Parisian artists and their art. He initially used the term to describe his torn-off posters, later transferring it to his performances and happenings. The artist discovered the word "décollage" during a two-month sojourn in Paris when he read about the emergency water landing of a Super Constellation airliner on the Irish River Shannon in the September 5, 1954 edition of the newspaper "Le Figaro." Because he did not understand the word, he looked it up in the dictionary and found the following definition: "to take off," "to become unglued," "to become unstuck." He subsequently used the lexicographic spelling dé-coll/age, and in doing so highlighted the relevance of destruction and reconstruction in his oeuvre.

"La Boda" (The Wedding) testifies even more clearly to the processuality of Vostell's artistic work. The work consists of sheet metal found in a Parisian junkyard to which he applied torn-off posters on both sides, and partially smeared with tar and burned. Deconstruction for the purpose of creating something new is a principle that stands in the tradition of Dadaism, which already operated with the destruction of the senses as well as the dissolution of formal contexts. However, "La Boda" is also exemplary of the fact that Vostell, while still influenced by Marcel Duchamp's ready-made, sees art less as an object and more as a process: "If Duchamp declared an object from everyday life to be a work of art, I declare the use of the object to be a work of art; if a urinal is a work of art, then urinating must also be a work of art."

Vostell Scrutinizes the New Society of Mass Consumption

Vostell consequently turned to the happening, which departed from the traditional concept of art. In 1958 he staged his much-cited "Le théâtre est dans la rue"--"The theater is on the street"--Europe's first happening, in Paris. He was inspired to do so by the partially tattered poster walls in the city by the Seine, which to Vostell seemed to correspond to Germany's landscapes of rubble. What was important to him was including the public and the processuality of the work. Participants were invited to read the fragments of words out loud, even tear off parts of the posters themselves to expose new layers and word fragments, and to imitate the still discernable gestures of the depicted figures.

Like the Dadaists and Surrealists before him, and alongside him the likes of someone such as Dieter Roth, Vostell firmly rejected the pathos of grandeur. His décollage "Coca-Cola" can be read as a German version of Pop Art. Yet instead of indulging in the Coca-Cola way of life or artistically sanctifying the advertising aesthetic he encountered, Vostell subversively scrutinizes the newly developing society of mass consumption. The shredded surface exposes the abysmal aspect behind the new compulsion to buy, but also the essential things in life, like the joy of motherhood (Wolf Vostell and his wife, Mercedes, became parents for the second time while the work was in progress)--whereby the idyll is disrupted. Vostell's décollages are like questions about the meaning behind things.

Besides Nam June Paik, who was living in Cologne at the time, Vostell was one of the first artists to include television sets and watching television in his artistic work. One of these works is the art film "Sun in Your Head" from 1963. Video technology was not available yet, and so the artist had the cameraman Edo Jansen film the running television screen while he himself distorted the images. Vostell screened the film that same year during a large-scale happening that took place at different locations in Wuppertal. Bystanders watched the film while lying on the ground. By fragmenting and deconstructing the original film material, Vostell creates something new, so to speak, and applies his principle of dé-coll/age to moving images. Watch out, one believes to hear the artist say, don't let yourself be lulled by the cacophony of discourses, and trust in your own reason.

Learn more about the Affichistes in the film accompanying the exhibition: