Exhibition text
Doreen Mende

What does capital look like? This question runs through this selection of drawings, prints, paintings, films, objects and publications by the German artist KP Brehmer (1938–97) from the 1960s to the 1980s. Brehmer continuously sought to mobilise our ways of seeing (‘Sichtagitation’) and give artistic form to the mechanisms of global capitalism. Shaped by the economic and social conditions of post-fascist Germany – the U.S re-education programmes and subsequent 'economic miracle' – his work articulated new tensions in labour, geographic, class and race relations. Brehmer's work anticipated today's data saturation, and continues to test our sensibility in the face of capitalism's abstractions.


Reprising colour-coded and statistical diagrams typically used as figures and charts in magazines, educational books and sociological studies, Brehmer made visible capitalism's strategies to normalise and rationalise our perception of the world and its differences. He appropriated everyday systems of symbolic visualisation – postage stamps, the national flag, advertisements – that he considered to be closer to social reality than 'high' art.


The earliest works in the exhibition relate to Brehmer's contributions to Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism), an initiative now often subsumed under Pop Art. He studied graphic art and printmaking at the Düsseldorf Academy in the early 1960s, where fellow students Konrad Lueg, Manfred Kuttner, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter coined the phrase to describe a number of their exhibitions and actions. As of 1964, René Block included these and other artists including Brehmer in exhibitions at his Berlin gallery, describing Capitalist Realism as 'not a style, not an ideology’ but 'quite simply a brand'.


Unlike his Düsseldorf peers, Brehmer grappled with the visual regimes of economics and politics in Cold War Berlin, confronting the city's omnipresent double life of socialism and capitalism. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, from the mid-1960s he authored his work using his initials KP, standing for Karl Peter but also the Kommunistische Partei (German Communist Party), which had been banned in West Germany in 1956.


Brehmer was keen to undermine the paradigm of individualism in capitalist society by proposing to de-privatise artistic production, stating in 1968 that ‘the artist should be an official’. From 1971, he was passionately involved as a teacher at the Hamburg Art Academy, and in the late 1980s was a guest lecturer at the Hangzhou Academy of Art. In Hamburg he co-founded and was an active participant in the co-operative gallery Vorsetzen.


In his lifetime, Brehmer was acknowledged in the landmark exhibitions documenta 5 (1972) and 6 (1977), Information (The Museum of Modern Art, 1970), Art in Society-Society into Art (ICA, London, 1974) and Thirteen Degrees East (Whitechapel Gallery, 1978). He died in 1997 while preparing his first retrospective at the Fridericianum in Kassel, conceived in collaboration with René Block and accompanied by the only substantial catalogue of his work until the publication for this exhibition, forthcoming in November 2014.