There’s No Geist like the Zeitgeist

The exhibition called “Zeitgeist,” which generated such heat and smoke in Berlin a year ago, still lingers in the mind as an event—even though the promised English version of its catalog has not yet materialized. It was a huge show in an overwhelming setting, a bombscarred and partially restored palazzo named the Martin-Gropius-Bau, built in the late nineteenth century as a venue for international trade-and-culture expositions. The Wall runs directly outside its abandoned portico; not far away are the ruins of Gestapo headquarters. Short of a De Mille set constructed on the lines of Piranesi’s Carceri, it would have been hard to find a more dramatic environment, or one which did more to make its contents more theatric: 237 paintings and sculptures, by some fortysix living artists. And theater was the order of the day: even the catalog preface bore the title “Achilles and Hector before the Walls of Troy.”

Its organizers were Christos M. Joachimides, a Greek art historian living in Berlin, and Norman Rosenthal, of the Royal Academy in London. They had collaborated before, on a much-discussed and somewhat incoherent potpourri at Burlington House, “A New Spirit in Painting.” But “Zeitgeist” was intended to be a much bigger affair: a blockbuster, in fact, one that would put the hotly discussed topic of figurative revival in perspective. It would be an epiphanic moment for post-modernism (or neo-expressionism, or la transavanguardia, the “trans-avant-garde,” as the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva, despairing of finding a better label, named the art he liked to promote). Not in a long time had a major show of contemporary art openly borne so many palm prints of the mafia. Though its curators did a lot of legwork, their selections in the end seemed to have been ordered directly from a menu presented by a few dealers: Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone, Leo Castelli, and Michael Werner. Thus of eight artists in the show, seven came from Castelli’s stable.

There was also a blatant sexual bias. Out of forty-six artists selected by Joachimides and Rosenthal, one was a woman; and that woman, Susan Rothenberg, was represented, to her indignation, with old work. The idea that responsible curators could put together a “survey” show that ignored women artists has become unthinkable in the US, but Joachimides pettishly dismissed objections. Women, he told an interviewer from the German magazine Kunstforum, had their place in performance, photography, video, and other non-malerisch activities—electronic knitting or media quilt making, as it were; in any case, “we were not looking primarily at the genitals of the artist.”

The profusion of work by such painters as Rainer Fetting, “Salomé” and Helmut Middendorf suggested that his glaucous curatorial stare had been riveted nowhere else; it seemed unlikely that a fair eye would find such squawking rubbish better, or culturally more revealing, than the work of Nancy Graves, Judy Pfaff, Elizabeth Murray, or Jennifer Bartlett. The attitude was perhaps best summed up by David Salle, a young painter whose late-Picabian …

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