Hans Peter Feldmann

Over the course of forty years, Düsseldorf artist Hans-Peter Feldmann’s central activity has been the collecting, organizing, and display of generic photographic imagery. After he was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize last year, Feldmann’s name suddenly drew new attention; up to that point, he had been something of an artist’s artist, not recognized by many, but fanatically followed by a small coterie of admirers. Among curators and critics, his work has often been compared to that of Gerhard Richter, John Baldassari, and Ed Ruscha; certainly he shares their interest in the deadpan nature of vernacular photography, but unlike that trio, Feldmann seldom converts his imagery into something else. There is no immediately apparent material or metaphoric transformation of the everyday into the visionary. Feldmann’s works remain stubbornly humble.

For a century at least, the use of found objects and images has been a vital practice in art. Perhaps part of the attraction is the lack of authorship combined with seemingly random juxtapositions that can potentially cohere to reveal the obsessions of the collective unconscious (Surrealism meets material culture). For Pop and Conceptual artists of the 1960s, photographic reproductions were the most debased yet ubiquitous of cultural artifacts—and therefore highly intriguing. Ruscha commented about his 1964 photo-work Various Small Fires and Milk: “My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter. They are simply a collection of ‘facts’ . . . my book is more like a collection of ready-mades.” Richter, who in the mid-1960s began work on his voluminous Atlas, an archive that has grown over the years to contain thousands of images from which he has generated many of his paintings, has said: “I collect photographs and I am always looking at them. Not ‘art’ photographs, but ones taken by lay people or ordinary newspaper photographers. The subtleties and tricks of art photographers are easily seen through and then they are boring.” And French artist Annette Messager says succinctly: “Mostly, I believe an artist doesn’t create something, but is there to sort through, to show, to point out what already exists, to put it into form and sometimes reformulate it. . . . I didn’t invent anything, I indicated.”


Hans Peter Feldmann, Blumenbild


The confluence of Conceptualism, the archival impulse, and the use of everyday objects as subject matter made up the artistic environment in which Feldmann came of age. His first works, made in the late 1960s, were small photographic booklets called Bild or Bilder (picture or pictures). Each book featured an assortment of similar images taken from newspapers, magazines, or occasionally made by the artist: women’s knees, snowy mountaintops, soccer players, a sequence of images of a hotel housemaid making a bed, for example. These modest, unprecious publications were portable, easily produced, and materially almost inconsequential, yet even then, his quirky and insouciant humor showed through the straight-faced exterior. Never one to make great claims for his work, Feldmann noted: “I am not interested in the high points of life. Only five minutes of every day are interesting. I want to show the rest, normal life.”

“Normal life” is discovered through a lot of sifting, shuffling, and scanning. Intense focus is rare in Feldmann’s work. We wander with our eyes through labyrinths of images, stopping here and there at points of general interest, and occasionally we are struck by desire or curiosity. Feldmann’s collections and arrangements of photographs hint at the archive but are not deep, exhaustive, or authoritative. Often, the samplings are drawn from popular culture. There is no apparent hierarchy of subject matter or aesthetics in Feldmann’s approach; he is not interested in single images but in what he calls “average value.” When necessary, he will produce his own photographs, although he makes no special claim for them. Alle Kleider einer Frau (All the clothes of a woman; 1977), for example, is a series of straightforward black-and-white pictures, a visual index of sweaters, blouses, stockings, etc., photographed by the artist in an affectless manner on a blank background. While remaining staunchly pedestrian, the images gravitate around issues of absence and loss, and demonstrate that Feldmann’s approach to Conceptualism is more than a game of semiotics.

Feldmann, born in 1941, grew up, like many postwar German artists, with privation and rationing; this may explain his apparent obsession with the repetition and variations of commodities in his work. Yet his arrangements are not simply ironic critiques of consumer culture; instead, he seems to marvel at overabundance. Through relatively simple gestures, he somehow humanizes the image glut, making it comprehensible, funny, and occasionally melancholic.


This is not to say that Feldmann’s work lacks political intent. In 1975 he photographed himself having sex with two women in a brothel-like environment. Devoid of romantic—or even erotic—conceits, the pictures are clumsily staged and harshly lit like amateur porn. He mailed these photographs to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and with the images enclosed a letter pointing out that far more shameful and sickening things were happening in public in terms of war, violence, and public corruption.

Not long after this aggressive prank, he excused himself from the art world to tend to a gift shop he had opened in Düsseldorf. Feldmann insists on describing himself as a “merchant” rather than an artist or photographer; and indeed, for nearly ten years he contented himself with selling tin toys and writing and editing a small publication devoted to collectible thimbles. During his hiatus from exhibiting, Feldmann persisted, however, in obsessively collecting and cataloging imagery. He also continued to make photographs of banal rituals that would eventually become works, such as Blicke aus Hotelzimmerfenstern (Views from hotel-room windows; 1975–99) and Autoradios wahren gute Musik läuft (Car radios while good music was playing; 1970s–1990s). His decade-long estrangement from the art world did not hurt his reputation. It may, in fact, have been fortuitous timing: by sitting out the 1980s, Feldmann was able to avoid comparisons to neophyte Appropriationists and didn’t get lost amid the excesses of the Big Picture and Neo-Expressionist years. In the early 1990s, his return coincided handily with a rekindling interest in the founding figures of Conceptualism.


The stereotypical German is, of course, known for a love of organization—August Sander’s Faces of the 20th Century, Richter’s Atlas, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies, and Hannah Darboven’s Cultural History 1880–1983 all attest to it as a cultural characteristic. But Feldmann’s approach is more idiosyncratic than those of his compatriots; there is a childlike wonder in his archive of fragments and detritus, in his obsessions with shoes, old movie stars, and flowers. His approach to collecting images betrays no apparent codification of genre; he is deliberate but not systematic, embracing but not encyclopedic. He makes use of images from the news, advertising, pornography, documentary, public relations; the worlds of science, anthropology, tourism, film, fashion, politics; pictures of products, family snapshots, and more. Recognizable images by notable photographers—Sebastião Salgado, Man Ray, Mario Giacomelli, among them—serve as points of light in Feldmann’s constellated image fields. And although attention to his work has grown over the last decade, with more elegant books and larger and more prominent exhibition venues, he continues to devote himself to his role as conduit for photography’s inherent capability to isolate, point, collect, sort, reproduce, and distribute.

In the 1990s, Feldmann published a small and unassuming two-part book called Voyeur (volume 1, 1994; volume 2, 1997, both published by Walter König). The only text in the book is on the last page, where Feldmann thanks “all the photographers whose pictures have been used for this work.” Voyeur is both recognizable as a photo-album and utterly mysterious as a collection of incongruities. This tension between the familiar and the inscrutable is at the heart of Feldmann’s sensibility. The images in Voyeur are reproduced as tiny black-and-white rectangles, sometimes six to a page, with no perceptible connection among them. Presumably some were originally in color and splashed across double-page spreads in glossy magazines, but here all are equalized as humble monochromatic utterances.


Hans Peter Feldmann, pages from Voyeur


Voyeur suggests an imploded Family of Man: here, the idealism of photographic humanism is transformed into a thornier view of human endeavors. But more than just an exercise in Marshall McLuhan’s “medium is the message,” Feldmann’s works prod at something deeper, darker, and more slippery. His image clusters gather and disperse in the imagination like a riot of starlings on a winter’s evening; ideas that cohere on one page are thrown to the wind on the next, only to return in a slightly different form a few pages later. Epiphanies of transitory meaning are gleaned from simple associations of poorly reproduced imagery, and personal and collective history is broached episodically, tangentially, and chaotically.

Books large and small, modest and fancy have been the primary vehicles for Feldmann’s work, although installation, sculpture, and writing have become increasingly important in recent years. Artists as diverse as Christian Boltanksi, Barbara Bloom, and Nayland Blake have reimagined the history of the Wunderkammer and its offspring, the display vitrine. Feldmann extends this tradition by filling the Wunderkammer with banal and anachronistic objects such as a toothbrush, a set of skeleton keys, a vacuum tube, an abacus, and a brownie camera; and in doing so he connects the history of collecting to that of photography, reminding us of the fundamental appeal of looking at things through glass.


Hans Peter Feldmann, Wunderkammer


If we expect photography to confer “uniqueness” on its subject matter, then the humor in Feldmann’s work derives partly from the silliness of seeing lots of similar things vying for our attention. In the spirit of Feldmann’s work we should be laughing our heads off as we walk down the grocery store aisle. He mocks individuality by reminding us of photography’s inherent contradiction: that a single image is exceptional only until it is pulled into the orbit of the billions of images just like it. The Blumenbild (Flower pictures) series from 2006 is a collection of large-scale floral studies. Garish and obvious, pictures like this exist outside notions of refined taste and would ordinarily find their proper place in cheesy calendars and greeting cards. His 2004 work Ein Pfund Erdbeeren (One pound of strawberries) is an off-kilter grid of thirty-two color photographs of individual berries that made up a pound. What does it mean, exactly, for Feldmann to bring so much attention to them via careful selection and radical expansion of scale? Can earnest flowers and fruits transcend kitsch? Is Ein Pfund Erdbeeren a contemporary reiteration of René Magritte’s 1928–29 existential poke The Treachery of Images, a picture-perfect rendering of a pipe accompanied by the proposition “This is not a pipe”?


Hans Peter Feldmann, Ein Pfund Erdbeeren


The critic Helena Tatay has written:“In Feldmann’s work there is no romanticism nor any ideal world nor any transcendence.” This appears to be true: clearly the artist wants to drain art of any hint or delusion of redemptive promise. Feldmann himself has stated that he considers aesthetics to be “something from another time.” Yet it is difficult not to feel that an image such as Two Girls with Shadow (2004) is more than simply a play on photographic illusion. It is a snapshot of a sweet but ordinary gesture, undermined by a careful excision performed with godlike specificity. One girl reaches out to touch the other, only to find that her friend has been replaced by a white-hot silhouette. A pair of shadows echoes her gesture and reaffirms that the second girl is still somehow there. This may not translate into transcendence, but there is temporary solace to be found in Feldmann’s paradise of the ordinary, where kitsch and pathos are embraced as equals.


Hans Peter Feldmann, Two Girls With Shadow


Originally Published in Aperture No. 203  Summer 2011