Post-World War II German art has a special voice in the 21st-century world. A country that inflicted incredible destruction, and also experienced the consequences of it; that built itself out of a dark hole — not without scars — to become a prosperous, powerful and liberal nation seems more fitting than most to address the conflicted issues of our day. Among those are the consequences of the digital age. We love technological advances and the comfort of contemporary living, but we are also frightened by what we are doing to our environments, and our souls.
One excellent example is Anselm Kiefer — whose work is currently on display at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale Museum and The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse. Another is Thomas Bayrle, whose solo survey is on exhibit through March 27 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in the Design District. “One Day on Success Street” is a subtle show that has so much to say, and should not be missed. This is the first retrospective of his work in the United States, and will be the last exhibit in the temporary space of the ICA, before it moves into its huge new museum in the Design District.
That the themes — and designs — of an 80-year-old artist can feel so relevant today is a testament to Bayrle’s skill, intellect — and perhaps prescience.
The exhibit is literally paved through with images and sculptures of automobiles and freeways. Like many things German, there is a yin and yang to this theme, fused with history. For Americans, the car and the road has meant freedom, at least until the 21st-century era of gridlock. But in Germany, home to some of the world’s first motorways — the autobahns — the associations are more difficult. Hitler championed them, along with what was called the first “People’s Car,” the Volkswagen. A super-efficient transportation system plus a lucrative car industry were the lynch pins to was known as the Wirtshaftswunder, or the “Economic Miracle” on the Rhine that rebuilt West Germany, and where Bayrle grew up.
But this new, rapidly developing West Germany came with a price: a dulled landscape covered in metal and concrete.
In Bayrle’s world, this tension is expressed through repetition. Images that looked packed with speeding cars and overpasses are in fact the same car, or road, or man in a worker’s cap, collaged together to appear filled with hyper activity — and devoid of human touch. The work is a mix of pre-war German Expressionist film and painting — think of the groundbreaking movie “Metropolis” and the mind-numbing industrialized world it unveiled — and Pop Art sensibilities. There’s an admiration of progress, and a concern of what we lose with its pursuit.
One great example is called “Fiat Jungle,” depicting rows and rows of workers and the car parts they are making, colored in a soupy pea-green factory setting; look closely, and you see that the people and parts are all the same generic image. In a similar vein, Bayrle created a grid-like scene, also in dull green, that could be a factory, but is in fact his view of newly prosperous Germans flocking to a Mediterranean beach vacation, as individual as lemmings.
In today’s digital world, such repetition is so easily created that it has become commonplace. Remarkably, these and Bayrle’s other intricate works were all painstakingly hand-made. In the analog decades of the 1960s and 1970s, Bayrle drew them, square by tiny square. As a result, the work feels very contemporary, suggesting he saw how technology would again change our world.
The repetition is sometimes subtle, sometimes numbing — not unlike our own age of ceaseless information that may — or may not — be true. Bayrle offers relief with works imbued with levity, giving many a Pop Art quality.
In some of the 70 works, portraits that emerge from the pixelated imagery — some so delicately complex you almost miss them. One is of Orson Welles, another of Charlie Chaplin. Co-curator Stephanie Seidel, herself a native of western Germany who came to the ICA just last year, explains that the city where Bayrle studied and still lives, Frankfurt, had a unique position in post-war Germany because of the Allied forces based there. American pop culture, jazz music and movies were all the rage, and Bayrle soaked it up. One whimsical image of a cow, for instance, is a collage of tiny repetitive pictures of one cut-out cowboy. It, and some other works, look like the creations of a marching band whose members bow, strut, and reconfigure themselves to create new icons.
Bayrle also worked as an industrial weaver early in his career, which sheds light on why many of these pieces almost seem like tapestries. He is re-creating a fabric of society, albeit by current threads such as highways. For sculptures, he often uses cardboard — according to Seidel, one of the cheapest and most easily re-cycled material, reflecting again his focus on how our modern lifestyles impact the environment.
But maybe Bayrle’s themes resonate so well at ICA is because we view them in the context of Miami, a city bursting with development that can be cold and monotonous — not unlike Frankfurt after the war — but also exciting and veering towards an unpredictable future. While taking in images of street scenes from Frankfurt with its repetitive grids, anonymous people, automobiles, all in the black and white, we hear the soundtrack to the piece “Conducteur,” which echoes around the exhibit. It is the sound of windshield wipers.
It is somehow calming. We may be sitting in our cars on an autobahn in Germany or on I-95 in Miami, but we are all on the road of “Success Street,” and it’s our obligation, Bayrle tells us, to take care of that path.
The introductory — and departing — artwork softens the steel and concrete environment we’ve experienced even more. Bayrle made a site-specific sculpture for this show, soaring three stories in the atrium, called “Wire Madonna.” A mother comforting her child, the ultimate human touch.
If you go
What: Thomas Bayrle “One Day on Success Street”
Where: ICA Miami, 4040 NE 2nd St., Miami
When: Through March 26
Info: Free, icamiami.org