Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator,” an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Wolf Vostell.
Unlike John Cage’s birthday earlier this month, which inspired celebratory events all over the world, Wolf Vostell, whose work, in fact, coincided with much of Cage’s early involvement with the Fluxus movement, roused little more than a celebratory thread of hashtags on his 90th birthday yesterday. But whether his name is known outside of social media circles or not, Wolf Vostell’s undeniable influence has been, and continues to be felt throughout the art world, particularly among the fields of performance and media based art.
The Décollagist Style
Wolf Vostell’s interest in décollage, or the tearing apart of an existing image rather than the piecing together of multiple images, can be traced back to his early belief that society is surrounded and shaped by destruction. As a lithographer’s apprentice in the 1950s, Vostell began channeling this belief into the manipulation of the posters that surrounded him at his apprenticeship. From there, unlike many of his contemporaries, who tore apart pieces of colored paper in order to create new images, Vostell took the idea of décollage to the streets, deforming and manipulating posters in public places in order to reflect the violence of post-war Germany and its newfound US-inspired consumerism. His work with décollage throughout the 50s and early 60s transformed the medium into a tool of public engagement and set up an early foundation for the style that he stuck with for the rest of his artistic career.
Happenings, Fluxus, and Public Art
Unsatisfied with the idea of art as a phenomenon closed off from the outside world, in the late 50s and throughout the 60s Vostell became involved with artists who were beginning to create with and for the public, moving from their studios to streets. In 1958, Vostell helped to organize the very first European happening, which, in turn, led him to get involved in the founding of the Fluxus movement. In 1962, Vostell, along with George Maciunas and Joseph Beuys, organized a series of “fluxfests,” which showcased performances by John Cage and Nam June Paik, among many others.
Around this same time, Vostell’s interest in décollage began to take on new forms. Alongside his emerging affinity towards public art, Vostell began creating large-scale public sculptures that echoed his ongoing belief in entropy. Now, instead of deconstructing posters, Vostell began deconstructing large objects, such as cars, and became the first artist in history to use a television set in his work.
Hommage an Henry Ford und Jacqueline Kennedy, (1963)
Technology and Décollage
Not only was Vostell the first to incorporate a TV in his work, he also started to apply his décollage style to film. In 1963, he made Sun in Your Head, a video in which sections of film are removed, creating disjointed, patchy playback.
Sun in Your Head, (1963)
Additionally, in the late 60s, with the help of engineer Peter Saage, Vostell began building interactive electronic environments that made use of microphones, loudspeakers, X-ray machines, and shoes. In 1968, Vostell created two installations that used multiple microphones to pick up noises made by viewers. The noises were then magnetically manipulated, then played back to viewers in an altered state. Vostell’s goal in these pieces was to create environments that responded to their human viewers, a goal that today seems extremely common.