In the mid-1960s, KP Brehmer began to work with postage stamps. The late Berlin-born artist, who, from an early point in his career, dealt extensively with the content and aesthetic of advertising, transferred the familiar format of the postage stamp onto medium-sized canvases and ‘franked’ them with self-designed rubberstamp motifs like ‘brush teeth twice daily’.
As is evidenced by Brehmer’s retrospective at Neues Museum Nürnberg, ‘Art ≠ Propaganda’, these stamp graphics have come to epitomize a type of political art in which references to popular forms merge with subtle and positively gleeful critiques of social, political and economic conditions. Brehmer’s postage-stamp prints, which were produced between 1966 and 1972 and occupy a full chapter of ‘Art ≠Propaganda’, address the petit-bourgeois pleasure of stamp collecting, associating it with art collecting, the pastime of the truly wealthy. But Brehmer’s stamps were produced as multiples, ensuring that they remained practically affordable for those of more modest means.
Like the banknote, the stamp is a medium in which state, economy, politics and aesthetics overlap on a tiny surface. Many of Brehmer’s stamp works are based on existing, often historical designs. In one example, Brandenburger Tor (1967), he used a West German stamp featuring the Brandenburg Gate, which was first issued in April 1966, five years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, but does not depict the wall itself. Many letters bearing such a postage mark were declared invalid by the East German authorities, either redacted or returned to sender. Brehmer has also depicted an East German stamp issued in 1961, which features the profile of the country’s then head of state Walter Ulbricht (Ulbricht, 1967), who was politically responsible for the construction of the Berlin Wall, as well as Nazi stamps emblazoned with motifs from the Reich Labour Service and the profile of Adolf Hitler.
‘Art ≠Propaganda’ looks beyond Brehmer’s graphic work and printed matter to the installations, paintings and films that were informed by his interest in mass media, mass production and mass consumption. Korrektur des Bofingerstuhles unter Berücksichtigung des deutschen Waldes (Correction of the Bofinger Chair Taking into Account the German Forest, 1971), for instance, incorporates three of Helmut Bätzner’s Bofinger chairs, which were amongst the first one-piece plastic chairs produced for the global market. In his wider practice, Brehmer appropriated motifs from history books, newspapers and magazines, social statistics, maps and, in his screenprinted series ‘TV-Braunfarben, Testbild’ (TV-Brown Tint, Test Pattern, 1970–72), the bars of an old-fashioned television test pattern, which come together to form a swastika. Korrektur der Nationalfarben (Correction of National Colours, 1972), inspired by a set of statistics about the unequal distribution of wealth in Germany, makes use of the black, red and yellow flag of the Federal Republic. Brehmer produced his own version of the flag, but ‘corrected’ the national colours by ‘taking the distribution of wealth into account’ and giving ‘big business’ (yellow) a correspondingly large share of the design. As in 1967, when Brehmer contributed to the now-legendary ‘Graphics of Capitalist Realism’ portfolio, which was published by René Block and featured the likes of Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Wolf Vostell, here, the artist sought to spread his work as widely as possible. In March 1971, a graphic rendering of the flag was published in the financial magazine Capital, which had a print-run of 225,000.
In a note from 1976, Brehmer wrote: ‘Besides science and philosophy, I see art as an instrument for taking possession of reality. These fields cannot be viewed in isolation from the conditions of society as a whole, they reflect them in a special way.’ In ‘Art ≠ Propaganda’, it becomes clear that the more Brehmer managed to ‘disappear’ behind his serially reproduced art, the more his approach emerged as something quite different in the chronicle of art history.
Translated by Nicholad Grindell
KP Brehmer, ‘Art ≠Propaganda’ was on view at Neues Museum Nürnberg from 26 October 2018 until 17 February 2019.
Main image: KP Brehmer, Time zones, 1975/76, installation view. Courtesy: Neues Museum Nürnberg; photograph: Roman März