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A Look at Klaus Wittkugel, East Germany's Most Prolific Graphic Designer

By Dwell @dwell
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York

"One aspect of Klaus Wittkugel's work that always fascinated me is his self-reflexivity about the process and labor of graphic design," says Prem Krishnamurthy, director of the experimental New York gallery P!, where he has just mounted a show of works by the East German designer. He first discovered and began researching Wittkugel eight years ago, when he discovered a book of his work in a Boston bookstore. "In the poster Das Plakat from 1954, an exhibition of international posters is communicated through an image of a poster column, just moments after someone has finished wheat-pasting it. The 1957 political poster on the right calls for citizens to run for a local council. It represents a scene-within-a-scene: a worker putting up posters for other candidates as the poster itself."

On view through February 21 at Manhattan’s pocket-sized P! gallery, OST UND oder WEST (East and/or West) presents an abbreviated survey of the late graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985), who, despite a prolific four-decade career spanning logos, posters, publications, posters, and architectural signage, has remained largely unknown to Western audiences. The probable cause for Wittkugel’s enduring anonymity: his longtime client and home, the East German Socialist state. Though ostensibly focused on the graphic output of a single individual, the show provides a lens into the visual history of the Cold War, and more broadly, the complex political nature of producing work under the commission of a client. The last is a context not entirely unfamiliar to graphic designers practicing even today, Socialist state–client or not.

Inside, the exhibition is filled with contextual displays, interspersed with brief, historicizing texts. In a clever twist of mise en abyme, a slideshow of Wittkugel’s spatial designs, mixed with present-day screenshots showing 3D-models of the gallery's exhibition design, project onto a wall-size reproduction of East Berlin’s iconic Kino International cinema, for which Wittkugel designed the facade signage.

The sense of nested or hidden, underlying messages—indication of the designer’s authorial agency, despite working for a Socialist state—permeates the surrounding works on display. The age-old opposition between client and designer seems to have persisted even in Wittkugel’s lifetime, and in some cases, he seems to have been getting away with something. Among the meta works is 1954 Das Plakat (The Poster), a flyer for a poster exhibition that referentially depicts a poster column with a ladder propped upon it.

Out front, an actual poster column protrudes from the gallery’s storefront entrance. Neatly pasted onto its surface is a checkerboard of alternating flyer designs—a mix of works by Wittkugel, and some by Anton Stankowski (1906–1998), his West German contemporary, and in many ways, his foil. In what sounds a little Spy vs. Spy, the two designers studied under the same teacher in Essen, each going on to relatively successful advertising careers in the 1930s; after World War II, Wittkugel began working for the East German state, and in the West, Stankowski took up projects with large corporate clients. The pairing, as it were, carries over at the OSMOS project space in the East Village, where Cay Sophie Rabinowitz has installed a show on Stankowski as a companion to the presentation at P!.

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