WILLIAM E. JONES ON PETER ROEHR
“I alter material by organizing it unchanged. Each work is an organized area of identical elements. Neither successive nor additive, there is no result or sum.”
– Peter Roehr
German artist Peter Roehr (1944-1968) made collages, sound montages, and films employing the guiding principle of strict, mechanical repetition. Roehr used identical fragments from multiple prints of advertising films to show the same thing (e. g., a woman flipping her hair, a view from a moving car) over and over. Peter Roehr’s untimely death prevented him from realizing a fuller body of work or reaching a wider audience. In a posthumous Peter Roehr catalogue from 1977, there is a frame enlargement from one of his films, a shot of two nearly naked men wrestling. Inspired by these films, and by that shot in particular, my video Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) suggests one avenue his work might have taken had he lived longer.
Lev Kuleshov’s famous montage experiment linked heterogeneous elements to evoke emotional responses in spectators. A close up of actor Ivan Mosjoukine’s expressionless face, plus a shot of a bowl of soup, plus a cut back to Ivan Mosjoukine equals hunger; a close up + a shot of a gravestone + a close up = mourning; et cetera. Roehr strips this experiment of its emotional dimension and realizes a kind of tautology in cinematic form (headlights on the highway + headlights on the highway = headlights on the highway.) This might seem to be a simple instance of reductio ad absurdum, but in practice the exact repetition of a shot produces unexpected and complex effects. Each appearance of a shot looks slightly different, even when a spectator knows in advance that all elements in a film montage are identical. Previously unnoticed details become prominent in repetition, and marginal parts of a shot may be transformed into objects of obsessive scrutiny.
Some of Roehr’s films have sound, and this element was as important in dictating the precise editing of the montages as the picture. Phrases repeat seamlessly whether the words express a complete thought or not. Describing banalities such as the action of a shampoo or the broadcast of a television program, the fragments acquire an uncanny power in repetition; they become incantations. The noises of daily life under capitalism, estranged from meaningful contexts and arranged in musical compositions, threaten to derange the senses of listeners. The irritation that characterizes effective advertising gets intensified, at times almost beyond endurance. Lifting the principle of repetition from Warhol, LeWitt et al, applying it to film and taking it to an extreme, Roehr makes manifest a certain sadism latent in the modernist enterprise.
In Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) the hard sheen of butchness and 1970s high tech, accoutrements of leather men, mounds of flesh and eager faces, an invitation to phone sex, and the shrieks of an analogue synthesizer all present themselves with a seriousness befitting totems of high modernism. Scenes from anonymous gay bondage porn, a boxcar orgy from J. Clinton West’s Dreamer (1975), the introduction of Joe Gage’s Handsome (1980), and the “leather freak” sequence from Rosa von Praunheim’s film-provocation It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Situation in Which He Lives (1970) replace Roehr’s wrestlers and shampoo girls. Only the city lights remain.
“The story-line of my films is given in a simple sentence, e. g., ‘A Woman Dries Her Hair.’ Through repetition of this scene the initially perceived situation begins to dissolve and expand.
“Making the films presented no great difficulty (the only problems were the titles). Part of my films were (due to scheduling difficulties) produced entirely by Roland Krell and shown without my having previously seen them. They turned out later not to need any changes.”
– Peter Roehr
Some time after I wrote my first essay on Peter Roehr, I had the good fortune to see an exhibition of works by Charlotte Posenenske at Between Bridges, the gallery in Wolfgang Tillmans’ London studio.
Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985) produced paintings, drawings, sculptures, and films very much in sympathy with American Minimalist art, but at a time (the 1960s) before this work found much acceptance in German galleries. Posenenske’s best known sculptures, made of cardboard and plastic screws, resemble parts of ventilation ducts. They are modular, and can be constructed in different combinations, often on a large scale. She also made objects called “Three-Dimensional Pictures” made of bent metal or folded paper. While on a car trip with her first husband and friends Peter Roehr and Paul Maenz through the flat, monotonous landscapes of Holland, she made two film studies.
Posenenske, in the course of what is now conventionally called a career, grew pessimistic about the social possibilities of art. As the art world became more professional and profit-oriented, she sought a more engaged practice. She finally rejected art making in 1968, leaving the field to study social sciences. Her second husband, sociologist Burkhard Brunn, has arranged posthumous exhibitions of her work.
Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck and the Museum for Contemporary Art in Siegen published the catalogue Charlotte Posenenske in 2005, on the occasion of a survey exhibition of her work they hosted that year. A number of interesting passages in this book refer to Peter Roehr:
“In the exhibition Dies alles, Herzchen, wird einmal gehören (‘All this, sweetheart, will be yours’) which Paul Maenz organized at the Galerie Loehr in Frankfurt on 9 September 1967, in which both Charlotte Posenenske and Peter Roehr participated, Roehr’s film Ringer was shown on the façade of the gallery building: two men fighting with one another in ‘three shots, repeated twelve times,’ according to the commentator of a television feature by the Hessian Broadcasting Corporation on this art event.” (p. 24)
“Posenenske was close friends with Maenz and his then life companion, Frankfurt artist Peter Roehr. At the time Maenz was still working for an American advertising agency. For professional reasons he lived in New York from the fall of 1965 to the spring of 1967 where he was able to make his first contacts with the local art scene. Thanks to his familiarity with Peter Roehr’s works which, since 1962, had been strictly based on a serial principle, Maenz was particularly interested in artists who did similar work such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt.” (p. 41)
“Charlotte Posenenske was a loner, which made close friendships with Peter Roehr and his partner Paul Maenz all the more important. Through a critical analysis of Roehr’s serial works, Posenenske was able to focus on her own work. The age difference of 14 years was insignificant, there were no other comparable interlocutors. Peter Roehr rejected the notion of being an artist shortly before his death in 1968. Together with Paul Maenz, he established the store Pudding Explosion, which offered a mixture of Pop Art, underground crafts and political information.” (p. 56)
Ringer, unlike the rest of Roehr’s films, has a title. Whether it departs from the practice established in the previous films in any other respect, I cannot say. I haven’t seen it. I did see one group of Peter Roehr’s Film Montages in 1993 at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles. The memory of that viewing has stayed with me ever since. I was stunned that repetition without variation could be explored by anyone with such determination. The Film Montages were abrasive, even a bit repellent. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
The films I saw were composed of images drawn mostly, though perhaps not entirely, from advertisements. All of the human figures in them were women projecting impossible vivaciousness. New York skyscrapers and automobile headlights also made their appearances. At first glance, I couldn’t determine how the subjects of these images related to the serial strategies that Roehr imposed upon them. In statements I read later, he asserted that subject matter in a literary sense was of little concern to him. Certainly, formal considerations came first for Roehr, but his choices bear the traces of a sensibility. Roehr shows his attraction to the manic rituals of fashion, to the low genres of the horror film and the thriller (as he mentioned in his statement about the films), to flesh grinding against flesh in the wrestling ring (could Gorgeous George be the star of Ringer?) The vapors of camp – not yet exhausted, only recently analyzed – hover over it all. I have no idea if Peter Roehr had the opportunity to see many Warhol films, but I am reminded of the ad segments of Andy Warhol’s Soap Opera. Paul Maenz, not Lester Persky of hard sell advertisement fame, was Roehr’s connection to the business. While in New York, Maenz not only got his initiation into Minimalism, but he also became his boyfriend’s source for found footage. Unfortunately, the New York glamour that advertising man Paul Maenz helped sell to the world artist Peter Roehr did not live to see in person.
Roehr’s rejection of art shortly before his death casts the brevity of his career in a different light. For him, there was no indulging the myth of the artist’s life tragically cut short. “Realizing a fuller body of work” and “reaching a wider audience,” those salutary if conventional goals, were not on the agenda. He was already done; his practice led him to a conclusion, and he embraced it. What remained was one last chance to enjoy himself. Pudding Explosion, the name suggesting an infantile excretion or a college food fight, became the focus of Roehr’s energies. The place was ephemeral, as all retail environments inevitably are, and its description ambiguous. “Pudding Explosion... offered a mixture of Pop Art, underground crafts and political information.” What were underground crafts? I imagine a head shop, an Actionist commune, or a clandestine bomb factory. Perhaps Pudding Explosion was all of those things.
The words “partner” and “life companion” remind us that Peter Roehr and Paul Maenz were lovers. Their relationship is not the subject of any extended comment, but the sources suggest that it was Roehr, the younger of the pair, who educated Maenz about art and prepared him for the work of artists he would later show in his Cologne gallery. After his lover’s death, Maenz administered the estate of Peter Roehr. Paul Maenz told art historian Suzaan Boettger in an interview that the title Dies alles, Herzchen, wird einmal gehören “ironically refers to those grand movie gestures, like when the sheikh points out the vast desert lands to his young successor and promises his world.” The young successor, Peter Roehr, died before he could inherit anything. The title of the last exhibition of Roehr’s work during his lifetime is instead a clear statement to Maenz: “All this, sweetheart, will be yours.”
Paul Maenz, “Peter Roehr Remembered,” in Peter Roehr. (Frankfurt am Main: Museum für Moderne Kunst, 1991) pp. 71-76.
I was a friend of Peter Roehr from 1964 until his death in August 1968. Though his creative period encompasses the years 1962 to 1967, most works were produced around the middle of the Sixties. It is this time – in Frankfurt – and the circumstances in which Peter Roehr lived and worked, which I shall discuss here.
Peter Roehr, whose parents had divorced in 1947, moved with his mother from Leipzig to Frankfurt am Main in 1955. Expelled from the eighth year of elementary school in 1959, he became apprenticed to a sign-writer, and after completing his apprenticeship, in 1962, went for six semesters to the Werkkunstschule (School of Design) in Wiesbaden. There he attended the painting classes until Easter 1965, and after his exams remained for another semester in master classes, admittedly more “pro forma” than out of interest.
I came to know Roehr in 1964, in Frankfurt, when he helped out at the firm for which I worked at that time. Only after some time did I learn that he was active as an artist, and only with hesitation did he agree to show me his works. My reaction wasn’t new to him: incomprehension, concealing itself behind the reproach of monotony and similar arguments. The dialogue continued, however, for Roehr’s persistence and matter-of-fact self-confidence conveyed an attitude that increasingly fascinated me, who until then had had very little to do with artists.
About a year later, in early 1965, we produced together a small printed circular, with which he introduced himself to people whose interest he valued. The names of those he approached vividly recall the landscape of contemporary art (and the publicizing of art) in the Germany of the mid-Sixties: Bode, Helms, Schulze-Vellinghausen, Bense, Heißenbüttel, Schmela, Thwaites, Wilp, Brock, “Op-Mayer” and so on. West Germany at that time presented a picture as eager, in some respects, as it was fragmentary, and what later, from about 1970 onwards, developed beyond national boundaries into an international avant garde scene, small at first, but on the whole solid, did not exist for young artists in the Sixties. A concentrated gallery scene had not yet emerged, to say nothing of a structured art market, and the anti-authoritarian themes of the student movement or an international subculture that exploded moral norms were only just beginning to emerge in the intolerant, rigidified social climate of West Germany. Roehr’s efforts to awaken interest in his work remained more or less unsuccessful. Occasional publications in small private journals of his text- and typed montages – most in fact mistaken for concrete poetry and rejected – were no consolation. If, on the other hand, a journal like the Frankfurt Diskus printed a reproduction, it was either upside-down, or a detail, and so on. At one time, indeed the Literary Studio of Hesse Radio was interested, but nothing came of this: “… one must think of the listener, who has little understanding of such things.” The galleries, too – most of them financially weak and unnoticed by the media – saw virtually no opportunities for themselves in Roehr’s work. Consequently those exhibitions held during his lifetime remained small and hardly prominent. Once Roehr, around 1963, had sought contact with the Frankfurt art scene, whose activity at that time centered on the Galerie D, he soon withdrew again, disappointed. He considered the reactions to his work – positive as well as negative – to be a misunderstanding: He neither saw himself as being, intellectually, in the tradition of Nouveau Réalisme, nor did he feel close to the so-called Neue Tendenzen (“New Tendencies”) or to the Zero-Bewegung (“Zero Movement”). Yet his work was not viewed from any other perspective.
Standing apart from local artistic activity, he nevertheless began, at the end of 1965, to produce work feverishly. The single driving force behind this productive creative unrest was the “work thoughts,” which the artist felt necessary, and which – much like a scientific theory – he strove to demonstrate in a practical way on all possible levels. Acquiring material was a daily problem; only industrially manufactured material provided true sameness, he needed approximately 40 pieces of each kind for each montage; and Roehr was very selective. Through the advertising agency I had access to printed designs for advertisements that found their way into the photo montages; later I sent him from New York used television advertising “spots” from which most of the film montages emerged.
Roehr worked more and more intently, and in 1966 wound himself up to a fury of production, at the same time working, as he had always done, half days in offices to support himself. His productivity was all the more astonishing as, fundamentally, no one wanted his things, for whatever managed to leave his room was, for the most part, either a present or a “payment” for photographers, removal men, and other such people. The works were rarely sold, although for example the price list for his exhibition in March 1966 in the Galerie Wallstraße in Aachen indicated that all works were between just 25 and 330 Deutschmarks. Regardless of this, in the same year he decided to produce no more single pieces, but instead restricted himself to producing from each kind of material up to five similar montages, provided the material was available – in view of the realities, a decision as natural as it was “absurd”; it was seldom acted upon.
In 1967, already marked by his illness, Peter Roehr experienced the only one of his exhibitions to be received with real satisfaction – in the “exhibition apartment” of Adam Seide in Frankfurt. It was here that the principle of unvaried repetition, the basis of all the montages, was first carried over to their presentation as well: The exhibition consisted of ten completely identical works – those later called the “Black Panels” – in an empty white space, and radiated an absolute, almost metaphysical atmosphere. They constituted a work of art in themselves.
Before this, in the autumn of 1966, Roehr had been operated upon. What had been a suspected “complication involving the tonsils” proved to be an incurable cancer of the lymphatic system. From now on there followed outpatient and hospital treatments in Frankfurt and in a special clinic in Freiburg. After the diagnosis had been confirmed, I came over from New York to see Roehr. Still weakened by his operation and paralyzed by the significance of the medical findings, that his life would be only a matter of a few more years, he began to experience a rapid change of consciousness: In a short time the eternally restless, impatient, youthful Roehr, whose spirit of rebellion had also expressed itself, for example, in his leaving the church, his refusal to do military service, and so on, achieved great peace. It was not long before he inwardly came to terms with the reality of his situation. This enabled him to distinguish, in a single minded and straightforward way between the necessary and the superfluous, and the circle of friends he frequented was accordingly small. Events in the art world also became increasingly unimportant to him, so that he reacted with uncharacteristic disinterest to an inquiry from the Galerie art & project, newly founded in Amsterdam.
After my final return from New York at the beginning of 1967, we rented together a floor in Robert-Mayer-Straße 55, in Frankfurt, and in the spring organized for the “Studio Galerie” of Frankfurt University the exhibition Serielle Formationen. Roehr wanted to make it plain that serial methods of working rested on quite different intentions, and that it was not a matter of “style”. The exhibition – financed with a meager budget – was interesting not least because here, for the first time in Germany, one could see works by artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, which I had come to know in America. For Roehr, on the other hand, through the open, pragmatic approach of Minimal Art and its fundamental conceptual notion of art, a real artistic kinship was perceptible for the first time. The encounter with the works of these artists was for him – as also for his friend Charlotte Posenenske – a most profoundly confirmative experience.
The time of the illness was hard, and became harder. While it was clear to Roehr that he would hardly live to see the recognition of his art, at the same time he was also convinced that this was only a question of time – just that the time was no longer his own. Less from disappointment than because his “last days” – as he called them – came more and more clearly in sight, he developed a growing aversion to the business of culture, whose mechanisms he felt to be social trifling but also misspent political energy. An attitude which, in Roehr’s position, is understandable, especially in view of the rapidly changing political climate in West Germany at that time; the “Establishment” and the student movement chafing against it quickly made this climate palpable. Whoever consciously experienced 1968 will remember.
Before, at the end of 1967, Roehr had the last exhibition of his lifetime at the Galerie Loehr in Frankfurt (it had already been arranged solely by our mutual friend Charlotte Posenenske and myself), we organized in the same gallery “All this, sweetheart, will be yours,” for which we had invited various young artists to “realize works of art that have the character of an event.” This evening exhibition was an extraordinary success. For a few hours – 19:45 to 21:55, which also became the title of the official catalogue, printed later – it achieved an unprecedented fusion of art and participating public, though neither the art of Jan Dibbets nor that of Richard Long or Barry Flanagan had ever been seen here before.
At the beginning of 1968 – I had abandoned my career in advertising – Peter Roehr and I opened a “Head Shop,” probably the first of its kind, at Holzgraben No. 9 in Frankfurt. One must imagine this shop as a wild and colorful combination of improvised cardboard architecture, flickering light bulbs and loud rock music, legitimate only at that time. For barely 2 years – for a short time, therefore, after Roehr’s death – something like a small, radical Underground situation existed there which fitted into no existing scheme of things.
After thorough consideration and without any panic Peter Roehr decided, in the early summer 1968, to end his life before he became helpless at the mercy of his disease. The attempt miscarried. The hospital in which he awoke two days later, he never left; he died there on 15 August 1968, in the early morning hours. The grave containing his ashes is in the main cemetery in Frankfurt.
At a friend’s house in London, I saw Peter Roehr’s 1991 Frankfurt für Moderne Kunst catalogue shortly after seeing Charlotte Posesenske’s work. There were no copies of this precious book to be had at that time in London, and I didn’t want to resort to theft. Upon my return to the U. S., I patiently waited for my own copy of it to arrive from Germany. This book, like the 1977 DuMont catalogue, is entitled Peter Roehr. It contains Paul Maenz’s memorial text on Roehr and reproductions of various works. Curiously, there are no film stills, and no descriptions of specific films.
The exclusion of the films makes sense in relation to the thesis presented by Werner Lippert, whose introduction contains the following assertion:
“Through the serial organization of objects Roehr suppresses the perception of the object-specific features of these objects and their ‘contentuality.’ It is no longer the iconographic or functional meaning of the individual object that becomes important, but the organization itself: The symmetry, the similarity, the serial quality, the homogeneity inhibit the emergence of perceptual differences and perceptual hierarchies. In the most primary sense, everything is of equal value.” (p. 19)
This description is in keeping with the statements Peter Roehr made about his work, but it applies best to art objects that can be perceived all at once, for example, Roehr’s photo montages. The films pose a contradiction to the official interpretation of the work, chiefly because the element of time diminishes the primacy of pattern and organization. “Perceptual differences and perceptual hierarchies” across time are fundamental to the film medium. Even in a film with a strict formal structure, other elements – the fascination of indexical photographic imagery, human actors involved in dramatic action, and the deciphering of narratives, intended or not – can intrude to obscure a pattern. Roehr’s strategies work “against the grain” of overdetermined sources (narrative films, advertisements) but the lure of these moving images cannot be completely repressed.
The work of repression is never done, and in the case of Ringer, Peter Roehr chose his subject matter with an insouciant vulgarity, an apparent disdain for the repression that formal rigor normally demands. Evidence of his sense of humor can be seen in a photo taken during the installation of “All this, sweetheart, will be yours.”
The photograph shows two pairs of men, a doubling doubled. Peter Roehr and a friend appear at the base of two ladders. Each is wearing a pullover sweater with a button pinned to it. I wonder if they called each other that day to coordinate outfits, or if their intimacy rendered such a precaution unnecessary. The photo arrests the two in the middle of an action. Roehr is turning around, and one of his feet is at an awkward angle. He has turned his head, probably toward Charlotte Posenenske’s sculptures being set up in the area, and is seen in profile. He sports a moustache but not the glasses he wears in other late pictures. His friend – Paul Maenz, in all likelihood – a blonde with wavy hair and a dimpled chin, is taking a step in his light colored espadrilles. His expression indicates some worry, and he squints into the camera.
I imagine that look of worry crossed Maenz’s face after the exertion of installing the large sign above them, which advertises that evening’s showing of Ringer. Paul Maenz had left the advertising industry by the time of the exhibition, but he still had a connection to a great sign painter. This wonderful painting – for a single screening! – has the look of a poster from the golden age of American exploitation films. A Times Square come-on in its lurid glory adds to the carnival atmosphere of a seminal Frankfurt art event.