On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
On view through February 21 at Manhattan’s pocket-sized P! gallery, OST UND oder WEST (East and/or West) presents an abbreviated survey of the late graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985), who, despite a prolific four-decade career spanning logos, posters, publications, posters, and architectural signage, has remained largely unknown to Western audiences. The probable cause for Wittkugel’s enduring anonymity: his longtime client and home, the East German Socialist state. Though ostensibly focused on the graphic output of a single individual, the show provides a lens into the visual history of the Cold War, and more broadly, the complex political nature of producing work under the commission of a client. The last is a context not entirely unfamiliar to graphic designers practicing even today, Socialist state–client or not.
Inside, the exhibition is filled with contextual displays, interspersed with brief, historicizing texts. In a clever twist of mise en abyme, a slideshow of Wittkugel’s spatial designs, mixed with present-day screenshots showing 3D-models of the gallery's exhibition design, project onto a wall-size reproduction of East Berlin’s iconic Kino International cinema, for which Wittkugel designed the facade signage.
The sense of nested, underlying messages—indication of the designer’s authorial agency, despite working for a Socialist state—permeates the surrounding works on display. The age-old opposition between client and designer was pronounced even in Wittkugel’s lifetime, and in some cases, cleverly winked at. Among the meta works is Wittkugel's 1954 Das Plakat (The Poster), a flyer for a poster exhibition that self-reflexively depicts a freshly wheat-pasted poster column with a ladder propped upon it.
Out front, an actual poster column protrudes from the gallery’s storefront entrance. Neatly pasted onto its surface is a checkerboard of alternating flyer designs—a mix of works by Wittkugel, and some by Anton Stankowski (1906–1998), his West German contemporary, and in many ways, his foil. In what sounds a little Spy vs. Spy, the two designers studied under the same teacher in Essen, each going on to relatively successful advertising careers in the 1930s; after World War II, Wittkugel began working for the East German state, and in the West, Stankowski took up projects with large corporate clients. The pairing, as it were, carries over at the OSMOS project space in the East Village, where Cay Sophie Rabinowitz has installed a show on Stankowski as a companion to the presentation at P!.
Browse the slideshow above for commentary from Prem Krishnamurthy, director and curator of P!, on issues of circumstance, intention, and agency as seen in select pieces of Wittkugel’s work.
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