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John Lamb, Published October 16 2012

Double Deutsche: German artist paints parallels in Rourke show

MOORHEAD – For his first American museum show, Moritz Götze made some special pieces.

The German painter’s show at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead shows off works from the past 11 years, including some recent ones of women riding bison – a nod to a familiar presence in the area. (Two painted fiberglass bison from the 2006 public art campaign “Herd about the Prairie” are perched on the porch of the museum.)

But the first thing visitors will see when the show opens Saturday is Götze’s take on the iconic oil painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Götze’s enamel painting hangs on the main wall, across from the main door.

While Washington is identifiable, holding his heroic pose, Götze adds new images, like a 20th-century sailor in the front, someone with a laptop at Washington’s feet, a man wearing a baseball cap, another in an army helmet and an outboard motor on the back of the boat.

“It’s funny that American history is a synthesis of so many cultures, and Moritz is a synthesizer,” says Jörk Rothamel, who traveled with the artist to help set up the show and often acts as his interpreter.

Unlike the dramatic realism of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 original, Götze’s approach is more colorful and playful, his subjects drawn in a bold, cartoon style.

Leutze was an American born of German descent who moved back to Germany before creating this tribute to American freedom.

Götze is a German, long influenced by American art, who yearned for the freedom he saw in the West as he grew up in Communist East Germany.

Though the Berlin wall fell more than 20 years ago, Götze’s work, brightly colored, whimsical but with deeper historical and symbolic context, is still inspired by those first exciting sensations of freedom and wonder.

The anachronism of his take on “Washington Crossing the Delaware” raises many questions. Why people from so many periods? Is the man on a laptop a blogger? What is the significance of the piece floating on the wall? What do the items floating by the icebergs – a bouquet of flowers, a bottle, a mine, a cattle skull – mean?

“This is your freedom to see art as you like it,” Rothamel explains. “You are the recipient, and you can see how it relates to you.”

One man’s trash

Götze isn’t entirely coy about his choice of imagery, and many items are there for personal or historic significance.

The trash in the corner of a number of works is more treasure than junk.

“I love trash,” Götze says with a smile.

“It has a romantic dimension,” Rothamel explains. The Götze family used to take holidays on the Baltic Sea and his father used to pluck flotsam from the water and use it in collages.

It was where Götze first saw plastic six-pack ring holders or plastic bottles.

“Things from another world,” Götze says with a smile.

The painter repeatedly pays tribute to pop art icons such as Andy Warhol, as well as classic artists.

A couple of paintings feature Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans, a favorite subject of Warhol’s, as vases holding flowers. A still-life painting centers around a pop can, a candle, a piece of fruit and a packet of cigarettes labeled “Goethe,” a nod to the great German poet.

The women, always blondes, in Götze’s work wear clothes that either boast the image of a historic German figure, or a floral-type pattern. Such flowing, Rococo-like designs appear as the background in other paintings.

“It shows a second level to the painting,” Rothamel explains, adding that it’s a metaphor for the Rococo, a period that used a veneer of pleasantries, fun and frivolity instead of examining deeper substance. The period is marked with the pancaking of powdery makeup and covering for a lack of personal hygiene with perfumes.

One painting, “Rokoko-Himmel,” uses rocaille motif of wave-like flourishes as war planes flying in and out of the cloud-like forms, a possible reference to Roy Lichtenstein’s pop painting “Whaam!”

Pop artists like Lichtenstein, Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist were “extraordinarily important” to Götze’s development, he says, adding that he still marvels at works by Warhol.

“He found this wonderful way of reducing things to the minimum,” Götze says.

He recalls how his father, one of the first and few pop artists in East Germany, discovered the movement. During Communist rule, people were discouraged from buying books from Western dealers, but during a book fair those dealers often turned a blind eye, and Götze’s father walked out with a book on pop art.

On the back cover of the book was a Lichtenstein image of a smoking gun, a visual Götze painted on the dress of one of his enamel cut-out blondes.

A pop contact

Pop art isn’t just an influence on Götze, but also a big part of the reason the show is at the museum.

A mutual friend of the Rourke’s and of the artist lined up the display, attracting Götze by explaining how the institution had a significant collection of the pop artists that influenced him.

“It’s quite similar with James O’Rourke, who was quite a collector as well,” Rothamel says, referring to the art and artifact collection the late museum founder amassed before his death in 2011. “It’s so great we have this meeting of arts going through history.”

“Pop art is generally accessible to people,” says Tania Blanich, director of the Rourke.

She praises Götze on his use of color and light.

“It’s fun. There’s a lightness to his work,” she says, describing him as a pop artist with a deeper context than just consumerism or celebrity commentary. “It’s done in a way that’s not dogmatic or shaking your finger at somebody.”

She says the show with its historical context should appeal to a part of the country where Germans came to settle 140 years ago and their ancestors still outnumber all other ethnic groups.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 20 and will feature a number of visiting lecturers talking about German culture and their settling of this region. Blanich teaches a Communiversity course Nov. 10 – 12 on pop art and how Götze’s work reflects that style and pieces in the museum collection.

“The more you hang around these pieces, the more things you notice in them,” Blanich says. “To have someone of Moritz’s stature in a place like Fargo is kind of huge. … I hope it inspires people and brings people back to see our local artists.”

If you go

What: Gallery talk by painter Mortiz Götze

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Rourke Art Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

Info: The show, “Deutsche Kunst/ German Art,” opens Saturday and is on display through Jan. 20. (218) 236-8861

Online: For more information: www.therourke.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533