Starting with its mouthful of a title, “Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space — Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity” at Galerie Buchholz is baldly ambitious. Organized at this Upper East Side space by the German critic Diedrich Diederichsen and Buchholz’s Christopher Müller, the exhibition offers a crash course in over a century of utopian communities that used art, sex and music as models for better living.
Their two historical touchstones are the Symbolist poet Stefan George (1868-1933) and Ugrino, a community based on free love, founded in northern Germany in 1920 by the organ builder and writer Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959).
George was an early German nationalist at the center of the George Circle, a group of artists, writers and thinkers who modeled themselves after Greek organizations in which younger men were intellectually and sexually initiated into the group by older members. Ugrino, centered around Jahnn and the musician Gustav Harms, was a polyamorous commune in which its members reportedly all had sex with one another.
In a climate where sexual harassment and exploitation are daily news, many of the practices illustrated here — particularly those based on a modern European fantasy of man-boy love in ancient Greece — sound suspect. Rather than detail the complexities of these historical examples, or argue for their validity, the exhibition skims the surface.
Books and prints from the early 20th century introduce the George Circle (although it doesn’t go much beyond an introduction). Nearby is a monitor showing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Satan’s Brew” (1976), a film about a contemporary poet who thinks he is Stefan George and who recruits male prostitutes from the Munich train station to perform George Circle rituals and readings.
The show quickly moves into mid-20th-century psychedelic territory, with works by the artists Ludwig Gosewitz and Jordan Belson that use drawing and painting to realign perception. One of the highlights of this section is “Aprés Hello Dalí” (1965), a painting with swirling motifs by Isaac Abrams, who operated Coda, a 1960s gallery in downtown Manhattan devoted to psychedelic art.
Music as an inspiration for harmonious — or at least alternative modes of — living is suggested by photographs of Jahnn and his organ designs, and circular musical notation by the theorist Hans Kayser, who looked for eternal laws in mathematics, as well as music. Album covers and ephemera relating to the influential composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, before his death in 2007, ended his career making operas to express his spiritual vision of the cosmos) and the psychedelic cartoonist and designer Emil Schult (who also worked with the electronic band Kraftwerk) extend these ideas into the technological realm. Mr. Schult, for instance, crafted lyrics for Kraftwerk’s 1978 album “The Man-Machine.”
The exhibition then shifts to the Americas, with delirious album covers, designs and photographs for the composer Sun Ra and the bands Red Krayola and Funkadelic, as well as Rogério Duarte’s designs for Brazilian Tropicália-related artists. The spiritual and conceptional aspects of minimalism are seen Tony Conrad’s sculptures and liner notes, John McCracken’s concentric drawings and Walter de Maria’s stainless steel “High Energy Bar” (1966). These, of course, are wildly different examples. Sun Ra and his Arkestra lived together at times like the earlier German communes. But Tropicália grew up in the shadow of a military dictatorship, and minimalism was championed by the mainstream American art world.
“Cosmic Communities” feels, in many ways, like a pendant to a show at this gallery last year: “Douglas Crimp — Before Pictures, New York City 1967-1977,” which detailed Mr. Crimp’s pre-and-post-Stonewall experience as a gay man in New York working in art and fashion, leading up to the landmark “Pictures” exhibition he organized at Artists Space in 1977. (In their essay accompanying the show, the curators also cite Mr. Crimp’s historical theorization of being “queer before gay” existed as a category.) But where that show — co-curated by Mr. Müller and assisted in its German iteration by Mr. Diederichsen — felt illuminating and cohesive, this show has a lot of interesting work without a strong coherent thread.
The inclusion of works by women artists who have shown with Buchholz feels like a last-minute attempt to rectify a serious gender disparity. The artist Lutz Bacher (her name is a pseudonym) is represented by a set of organ pipes, which supposedly relates to Jahnn. Isa Genzken’s “World Receiver” (1982) is a boom box that was her personal radio and included in her first show at Buchholz in the 1980s. Jutta Koether is, to my mind, an artist more connected with post-punk irony than any cosmic affiliation. But what about the spiritually attuned designs by Hilma Af Klint and Emma Kunz, albums by jazz pianist Alice Coltrane or the many proto-lesbian utopian communities, stretching back to ancient Greece, one could cite?
The curators attempt to draw links among all these artists, from those who broke with what the curators call the “bourgeois sexual order” to those who later produced (sometimes drug induced) psychedelia. But the questions the exhibition leaves in its wake are significant. What of Stefan George’s conservative ideas about “purifying” German language and culture, which later found full bloom in National Socialism? Are some of the ideas here actually conflicting, rather than living under the same cosmic umbrella? How do sonic frequencies, like psychedelic visual patterns, affect our psyches and serve as road maps for better living beyond the micro- communities of artists? “Cosmic Communities” rests upon a valuable trove of ideas and includes many interesting artifacts, but it feels like a sketch for an exhibition more than a fully realized one.
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