Rediscovery: The Cold and Crystalline Poetry of Minimal Pop Artist Peter Roehr

Though his work has been shown on a fairly regular basis in Europe since his untimely death at age twenty-four in 1968, the German artist Peter Roehr’s presence as a link between Pop and Minimalism has been (heh) minimized in the well-plotted sturm und drang of an American-centric narrative of post-war modern art. Curators, the upholsterers of art history, have built these superhighways called “Warhol” and “Judd” and my Lord, the international traffic they carry is certainly something to behold, but not necessarily a lane we should all be trying to merge into. Let’s go off-roading, where you can meet not only Mr. Roehr, but also his comrade and collaborator Charlotte Posenenske, just a hop and skip away from their contemporaneous countrymen who labored in Capitalist Realism.

From his base in Frankfurt, Peter Roehr worked in film, with texts and photography, and all around imagery culled from commercial advertising. An exhibition at Ortuzar Projectsthrough June 16 brings out a representative selection of the more than 600 works he finished before he died, focusing on photomontages dated from 1963 to 1966 and composed using cropped ad images, most memorably from a 1964 Maxwell Coffee campaign. Here’s the common thing again, repeated in squares, but the artist adds no touch except for maybe that of his own scalpel, slicing out the same motif over and over, to add it to more of the same, as in Untitled (FO-08) (1964) and Untitled (FO-21) (1965). The cup of coffee is sipped, and sipped, ad infinitum. And that’s how contemporary life feels, a ceaseless ad for our own lives, a production one is always aspirationally customizing their flesh costume for. You can watch this happening in real time, as people dutifully document their daily doings, as if at the internet’s bidding. Ironically, the more you see, the less you might know. The more you do, the less you’re sure you exist. Keep staring at a picture of someone drinking coffee, and let your eye ricochet around the same shot five times in seven rows as it effaces itself rather than producing the meaning an industry works so hard to create. Artists aren’t industries, but they can mimic them, until the joke isn’t funny anymore.

For more montage, we turn to the artist’s 22 short films from 1965, also projected here, that abbreviate television commercials and stock footage into concise loops. The artist said of his work: “I alter material by organizing it unchanged…there is no result or sum.” But there is a difference: his gesture can hold and pause, the business of unceasing growth can’t. If Roehr had lived longer, would he too have stopped making work, like Posenenske? He was already refusing to express himself, as we’re often compelled to now, choosing instead to siphon off flows from the mainstream and calling it a practice. Practice, or preparation, they both involve a lot of reiteration. Add it to the three R’s and make it four: repetition, repetition, repetition, and Roehr.

Peter Roehr: 1963–1966 runs through June 16 at Ortuzar Projects.

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