Concrete Poetry, Concrete Book: Artists' Books in German-Speaking Space after 1945

Following World War II and with increasing intensity in the 1960s and 1970s, artists working throughout Western Europe challenged established aesthetic and political paradigms by exploring new artistic media and techniques. In response to and often in protest against traditional art institutions, artists engaged in participatory practices that tested the boundaries of language and action, seeking novel ways to facilitate the dissemination and reception of their work. In this context, the book emerged as a compelling site for the investigation of visual and tactile experience, as well as the ostensibly more abstract activity of reading.

Drawing on the remarkable materials in the Special Collections Reseach Center at the University of Chicago Library, Concrete Poetry, Concrete Book, presents the work of a group of German, Austrian, and Swiss artists who are related to one another not only by their shared artistic aspirations and collaborations but by longstanding friendships. This exhibition traces links between artists affiliated in the 1950s with the reduced visual forms of what was called “concrete poetry,” and artists whose disruptive, often violent actions came to define performance art in the 1960s and the 1970s, including movements known as Fluxus and Actionism.

These generations of German-speaking artists shared a particular discomfort with and often antagonism to their national institutions and cultural traditions, which found exemplary expression in artists’ books that interrogated the German language and book culture. They were also apprehensive of the emergent consumer culture that accompanied the post-war economic boom especially in West Germany, to which the affordable and widely distributable form of the book presented a critical antidote. For these reasons, the book remained a surprisingly persistent artistic form in a period of radical experimentation in art that emphasized increasingly visceral and participatory modes of production and reception.

In tandem with the UChicago Arts Program Concrete Happenings that celebrates the return to campus of Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell’s colossal “event-sculpture” Concrete Traffic (1970), this exhibition aims to showcase an array of Germanic artists’ books that intersect with and depart from the ambitions of concrete poetry and performance art. Furthermore, this exhibition is an invitation to visitors to return after March 17th to the Special Collections Research Center to engage with these fascinating artists’ books.

Take the opportunity first hand to undo the impossible constraint that exhibiting these works behind glass imposes. Don’t just look at art, grapple with it!

A note on language:

Given that so many of these works are themselves profoundly engaged with issues of the form of language, significance, and translation, it is often incoherent to translate their titles, or contents. To the extent that it is possible, and to convey some sense of the playfulness and irony at stake, the curator has provided literal translations of the titles in English in brackets in the item labels.

Curated by Caroline Lillian Schopp,
PhD candidate in art history

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