The Art of Peter Brötzmann
Die Poesie der Alten war die des Besitzes,
die unsrige ist die der Sehnsucht.
Friedrich von Schlegel
The art of Peter Brötzmann is remarkably sensitive in spite of its harsh, even bleak means of expression. This is not only true for his visual art, but also for his music, free jazz, which the Remscheid born Brötzmann has significantly influenced in Germany. Comparing both genres with each other, the analogies between them are barely apparent and rather a matter of principle. Both his music and his visual art derive from the artist’s emotionality which he expresses audibly as well as visually. His creative process is rather intuitive and strongly influenced by his personal experience. Both forms of art also have in common Peter Brötzmann’s original ambition to leave and transcend traditional ways, to destroy conventions and to generate a new, all the more fragile poetry from that which allegedly has been damaged and declined. This turning away from dignified forms of high culture, both in terms of classical music and fine arts, comes along with a maximum of sensuousness and emphasis. While in music, recipients are exposed to the haunting, moanful, disturbing free jazz cascades of sound, Peter Brötzmann’s visual work creates an alternative of peace and quiet which still touches those who are allowed to look at it.
This difference between both forms of art is essentially based on dissimilar processes of production. The improvisations of free jazz originate from the musicians’ interplay and are always actualized anew as performances in front of the audience so that primarily they are a social, temporally limited process. In contrast, the visual art of Peter Brötzmann slowly ripens in the seclusion of his Wuppertal studio. A collecting point of materials and findings of all kind, of visual sources, gadgets and ideas, the hideaway situated in an idyllic backyard of Wuppertal’s Luisen quarter serves as a retreat from the hustle and bustle the incessant concert tours bring about which lead Brötzmann around the globe until today. The artist gathers inspiration during his travels all over the world, in the US as well as in Japan or Slovenia, where he stays many a time, but also in his local Wuppertal that he roams on walking-tours. But only in the quiet and loneliness of his studio, these - both actually collected findings as well as photographically fixed perceptions of nature - are transformed into metaphorically charged images. Thus, over more than five decades an exceedingly stringent oeuvre was created for which the artist is solely indebted to himself. Keeping himself aloof from the art world’s erratic fashions and trends, its short-lived blooms, Peter Brötzmann has persistently pursued his own artistic goal, unperturbed by external influences. Being self-sufficient both as producer and recipient, only a small part of his work was shown in public. The art of Peter Brötzmann is created by almost entirely turning away from and rejecting institutions that define art such as galleries and art museums, art magazines and feuilletons. Brötzmann rather gives a few designated friends access to the results of his concentrated work than subjecting to art’s common channels of distribution and to market imperatives. Thus, the present exhibition at the Wuppertal “Epikur” gallery on the occasion of his 70th birthday was - with the exception of some early presentations - only preceded by a few shows in Chicago, USA, in Ystad, Sweden, and in his hometown Remscheid. At the place of his artistic beginnings, in retrospect the work of an artist is presented who relies on little more than himself. A good part not only of his recent work consists of more or less abstract landscapes, be it watercolor, collage, object box, painting or wood-cut. They bespeak a yearning for beauty - albeit a damaged beauty whose irrevocable loss comes along with an insatiable hunger for oneness. Thus being dissatisfied with reality eventually links Peter Brötzmann’s visual art with his music so that the artist appears to be a late romanticist at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century.
Even in his early years, while still being a high school student, Peter Brötzmann is greatly interested in the latest developments in art and music. Soon he decides to attend the Wuppertal Werkkunstschule, the School of Applied Arts, where he studies commercial art and additionally acts as a painter. At the same time, he pursues his musical goals which he predominantly dedicates himself to, yet without neglecting his visual work. Initially, there are parallels between artistic and musical interests. Thus, turning to jazz music corresponds to adopting an informal visual language in the 1950s paintings. The dynamics of seemingly accidental color splashes are also characteristic for Brötzmann’s musical endeavors of those years. In contrast, the horizontally organized compositions made from thickly applied, viscous layers of color, intensified by inserting used textiles, tar, and other non-art materials, constitute oppressive and earthy abstract landscapes which may be on a par with the musician’s dark sounds. Dominated by brown and gray or black color shades, these paintings and collages result in images of hopelessness and sorrow. However, some sort of vulnerability emerges from the raw layers of material, at one time even consisting of a raincoat, and the inchoate color application. So in spite of being heavy and bleak, the pieces convey an inkling of tenderness. Evoking a weary atmosphere, the bruised surfaces bring Jean Fautrier’s “Otages” to mind which were created after the impressions the destructions of World War II left. Brötzmann’s images visualize the wounds caused by the Third Reich which still existed beneath the surface while West Germany ascended in times of economic boom. Breaking them up is not only the jazz musician’s declared goal, but is also true for Peter Brötzmann’s artistic strivings.
At the beginning of the 1960s, metal plates displaying signs of wear and tear are used in a pictorial way similar to the material landscapes. Things discarded and thrown away like the cut off tops of cans, metal sheets and plaques become part of an abstract landscape and are pictorial use, and to further break up the boundary between art and reality. The material images’ surfaces seem to feature a patina which reveals their historicity: not only are they perceived as parts of a landscape composition, but also suggest ideas of their former life - they already seem to have gone through a lot, considering their rust, bruises, and bumps. Due to their vulnerability, there is an element of violence inherent to the metal images, maybe showing the downside of the then propagated unconditional belief in progress. Similarly black and heavy forms still wallow today in some of Peter Brötzmann’s images. Like dark forebodings, gloomy clouds shift at times into melancholy watercolor landscapes. Thick brush strokes literally cross out and thus negate rain-soaked hills. The wistfulness expressed by these recent, meditative works on paper display the artist’s romantic attitude towards nature which is entitled precisely to serve as a mirror for the soul.
But back to the early 1960s, when Peter Brötzmann meets the Korean pioneer of video art Nam Jun Paik in the Wuppertal “Parnass” gallery and starts working as his assistant. After eventful Fluxus nights, when at times a piano goes to pieces, Brötzmann is in charge of reprocessing what was broken afore. The radicalness of Paik’s approach to transcend the boundary between music and art, high and low, and the serenity which he proceeds with impresses the Wuppertaler-by-choice until today. The provocative art events that include music, video, light, and sound in order to radically merge the spheres of art and live, are explicitly conceived to undermine elitist notions of high art. Inspired by the ironic-creative processes of Fluxus actions, Brötzmann finds a new pictorial language with intent to further liberate himself from the burden of a traditional notion of art. While the informal color and material landscapes adhere to conventional easel painting, now Fluxus objects and, a little later, object boxes extend the pictorial space into the three-dimensional by the playful usage of everyday items. Everyday materials are being chosen with a good sense for their pictorial quality and develop a life of their own under the protection of wooden boxes. Their open side presents itself to the recipient like the fourth, imaginative wall of a theater. These pictorial stages which by their accessibility evoke remainders of old folk art are situated between type case, theater stage, and a sacredly appearing collection of devotional objects of private prayer shrines. They too show reverence to discarded and deviant things as they both creatively and wittily open up new semantic contexts. Liberated from the gloom of landscapes and collages created so far, thus the playful aspects of Peter Brötzmann’s art come into being.
The object boxes’ narrative quality also makes appearance in the figurative painting of the early 1970s, which are rendered in a pictorial language that may be described as naïve and that creates mostly surreal visual universes. Metaphors of searching, of shipwreck, of being doomed appear in the shape of childlike, harmless depictions so that the enigmatic, existential imagery possesses a fine sense of irony. In this time, both in paintings as well as in object boxes the theme of the zeppelin virtually turns up for the first time. As mighty as a missile or a phallus, but much more unhurried, the elongate oval of the airship pushes into the pictorial space, relentlessly penetrating the surrounding landscape. Brötzmann was surely primarily interested in the zeppelin’s bizarre shape, but it is inevitably associated with the ‘brown’ past of the airship that was abused by the Nazis for propaganda. Occasionally, Brötzmann transforms the general shape of the zeppelin into other items of identical shape such as an oversized cigar, sausage, or cucumber. Displaced from any meaning, this associative approach is related to automatism of the Surrealists who intended to touch on the unconscious and the submerged.
Over the years, Peter Brötzmann time and again turned to the several groups of works within his oeuvre and developed his themes further, so that today there are material images next to oil paintings, ready-mades next to tender watercolors. Printmaking has been added, something the artist in his early years almost exclusively dealt with in the field of applied arts, e.g. by designing posters announcing concerts, or covers for LPs and CDs. For his art prints, Brötzmann uses the finest handmade Japanese tissue paper to make woodcuts of landscapes, metaphorical views of his adopted hometown of Wuppertal, or erotic scenes. In doing so, he plays with opposing the delicate pictorial ground’s tenderness with the rigidity caused by the contrast between black and white that the relief printing allows for. While the artist tackles the material’s resistance by sharp cutting instruments, the white parts appear on paper like wounds which were forced into the wooden block. The artist’s graphic ability is shown in the masterly way he structures the picture plane into contrasting fields that only just constitute the particular image. These sheets take on the increased expressiveness of German Expressionists who like Peter Brötzmann once were drawn to Wuppertal by its Werkkunstschule and its lively art scene. Last but not least, they strikingly count for the fact that Brötzmann’s art, even if it appears to be calmer than in the early years, still is as strong and as consistent as ever thus aestheticized. Being critical towards the traditional notion of art, the use of these poor, non-art materials presents an opportunity for Brötzmann to employ historically clean
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