John Anthony Thwaites
My maternal grandfather was John Anthony Thwaites, an art critic and author who lived and worked in West Germany from 1946. Born January 21, 1909 in Kensington, London, John studied history at the universities of Lausanne and Cambridge. From 1931, he was a member of the British Foreign Service, and worked until 1943 as a British vice-consul in Hamburg, New York, Chicago, Katowice, León (Mexico) and Panama. In 1946, he was posted from London to the British Consulate in Munich. John worked as an art critic from 1933 onwards. He also started collecting works by modern masters such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Henry Moore. This came to a premature end in 1939 when he had to abandon his entire collection in his then apartment in Katowice due to the German invasion of Poland. The works remain lost and are listed in the German Lost Art Database.
In 1949, John left the Foreign Service and devoted himself to establishing modern art in West Germany, lecturing, writing for a number of newspapers, and giving slide lectures. He cofounded, with the painter Rupprecht Geiger, the group Zen 49. As German correspondent of Art and Artists (London), Art News, and Pictures on Exhibit (New York), among others, he worked to restore German art to the international standing he felt it deserved. Living in Düsseldorf from 1955, he supported the artists of Gruppe 53 and ZERO. In the ’70s he worked as a lecturer at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and did radio broadcasts for Westdeutscher Rundfunk. He died on November 21, 1981, in Leienkaul, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany.
My grandfather viewed art as a mirror revealing the human experience of any epoch. According to him, true artists are those who truthfully and originally interpret that reality, in contrast with “shameless epigones” whom he believed to be simply chasing after success by following trends. His bête noire was Joseph Beuys, who was not an artist in his opinion, but a demagogue and seducer.
As a critic, John might be called a moralist. In 1961 he wrote in the German paper Deutsche Zeitung (Stuttgart/Köln):
A critic must be capable of rubbishing his personal friends and praise artists he personally dislikes. He should, if need be, harm himself. He must never write for personal advantage. Power and position are corrupting even as money. When critics protect each other and each other's protégés they create an intellectual corruption that will strangle art.
In October 1964, Sigmar Polke adopted John’s name as a pseudonym for a mock interview with Gerhard Richter (reproduced in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting–Writings and Interviews 1962–1993). In his Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, Robert Storr writes:
Thwaites was […] an art critic who wrote a short monograph on the sculptor Norbert Kricke that was published by Harry N. Abrams in New York. A relatively conservative constructivist sculptor and the first German artist of the postwar generation to be given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, Kricke was a member of the faculty at the art academy in Düsseldorf. In that capacity, he was the relentless enemy of his colleague, Joseph Beuys, whom he attacked for indulging in what Kricke called “Jesus kitsch.” Making Thwaites a figure of fun would this seem, in the context of the mock interview, to have been a polemical gesture aimed at the modernist art establishment of the Rhineland by two young artists eager to dissociate themselves from it.
In 2004, VDG, Weimar, published Beate Eickhoff’s John Anthony Thwaites und die Kunstkritik der 50er Jahre, an account of John and his contemporaries that has yet to be translated into English.
Ich hasse die Moderne Kunst (I Hate Modern Art) (Ullstein: Frankfurt, 1960)
A comprehensive list of John’s magazine articles is featured in Eickhoff’s book.
An exhibition focusing on the work of Galerie Hennemann and critic Manfred de la Motte also examined the role of other critics including Albert Schulze Vellinghausen, Rolf Wedewer, and my grandfather. Showcasing largely unpublished letters and photographs, and a wealth of original material, it tracked a movement that is only now being rediscovered from its beginnings through later key developments. “Art Informel: The Beginning,” was organized by the Zentralarchiv des Internationalen Kunsthandels (ZADIK) for Art Cologne 2010, April 21–25, 2010.
Norbert Kricke (November 30, 1922–June 28, 1984) was a German sculptor. Born in Düsseldorf, Kricke was a student of Richard Scheibe and Hans Uhlmann at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Berlin. He started making abstract sculptures from 1947, using wire and other industrial materials including steel, glass, and concrete. He was one of the most important artists in the group known as L’Art Informel, and had close links with ZERO and Nouveau Réalisme. From 1959, he worked with Yves Klein and Werner Ruhnau, and after 1972 he taught at the Art Academy of Düsseldorf, where he died. One of Kricke’s best-known works is Water Forest, 1957, which was installed outside the Gelsenkirchen Opera House (Musiktheaters im Revier). He also created wire sculptures for Münster Theatre (1955–56) and fountains for the University of Baghdad. He is generally known for his theories on the use of flowing water in art, which John shared.
Zen 49 was a group of German artists that came together in Munich in July 1949. Originally the Gruppe der Ungegenständlichen, they took the name Zen 49 the following year. The seven members were Willi Baumeister, Rolf Cavael, Gerhard Fietz, Rupprecht Geiger, Willy Hempel, Brigitte Meier-Denninghoff, and Fritz Winter. They were joined by Bernard Schultze in 1955. Their first exhibition was held in 1950 at the Central Art Collecting Point in Munich, and the group continued to exhibit until 1957. Retrospectives exhibitions were held in Baden-Baden in 1987, and in Munich in 1999.
ZERO “If Minimalism in American art was about stretching the limits of perception,” writes Michèle C. Cone in “Starting at Zero,” an exhibition review for Artnet, “Zero art did the same in Europe. […] How Zero came to be formed is not exactly clear. What seems to have happened is that in the late ’50s, artists from Düsseldorf met their counterparts from Milan, possibly in Paris, and discussed their shared attraction for near silence in their art practice. They apparently found that they liked each other enough to invite each other to write in their publications and exhibit their latest work in their respective countries. The Galerie Schmela in Dusseldorf and Azimuth in Milan were instrumental. Udo Kultermann, who became the director of the museum SchloB Morsbroich at Leverkusen near Düsseldorf in September 1959, cemented the connection. The exhibition he organized, “Monochrome Malerei,” opened in May of 1960, and though the place was Germany, many of the artists on display were Italian. Kultermann’s actions in favor of the Zero Group cannot be underestimated. He invited Ad Reinhardt to show in 1961, and he invited Theodor Adorno to speak on Samuel Beckett as part of the multi-disciplinary festival he organized in 1962 (titled “Morsebroicher Kunstage”).”