The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall

Jonathan Borofsky, "Running Man" (1982)
October 25–December 15, 2014
Curated by Paul M. Farber

“It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”
– Peter Schneider
  German Novelist, The Wall Jumper

“There’s no firm dividing line between passionate political engagement and epiphany and pleasure. At the core of my writing is a desire to dissolve most of the cultural Berlin Walls running through our imaginations.”
–Rebecca Solnit
  American author and essayist

During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was the world’s most notorious line of demarcation. From 1961– 1989, the fortified border not only separated East and West Berlin, but it also surrounded the allied zones, including the American sector. Divided Berlin became a global epicenter of ideological conflict, military occupation, and artistic experimentation. Hundreds of American artists felt compelled to visit Berlin and produce work on both sides of the Wall. Even in the shadows of its stark border, the city served as a focal point of cultural exchange between Germans and Americans.

While many Americans traveled to post-World War II Paris for their own imposed exile in Europe, or formulated perspectives on the complexities of domestic culture while driving interstate on the American open road, the divided city of Berlin was another popular option for Americans seeking critical distance. Identifying sometimes as visiting artists, sometimes as expatriate Berliners, American cultural producers have time and again returned to the Berlin Wall to ponder political borders worldwide and social boundaries back in the United States, especially those connected to matters of race, gender, sexuality, class, and national belonging. In addition to exploring the Wall, they also pursued projects in Berlin with German colleagues that led them to engage with post-Holocaust Jewish trauma, radical political communities, diasporic identity, queer culture, and other historical manifestations of division. When viewed collectively, a creative tradition emerges: artists from the United States look to the Berlin Wall as an evolving site and symbol for American culture.

This practice continues to generate layered perspectives on freedom and repression, despite the demise of the Berlin Wall as a formidable border in 1989. Select contemporary artists weigh the afterlife of the Wall with a resilient critical and creative eye, producing projects that consider its monumental ruins and the “new walls” around the world. Whether based in reunified Berlin or elsewhere, such works complicate the routine treatment of former Wall pieces as self-evident relics and highly priced art objects. Placing these stories, sites, and projects in a shared frame helps us to understand artistic representations of the Berlin Wall as a significant form of American cultural reckoning. The artists in this exhibition demonstrate a practice of civic engagement by moving in and out of U.S. borders, and critically exploring the space between democratic ideals and deeds.

The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and reflects on this legacy of division in American culture. The exhibition sheds light on critical American artistic perspectives on the Wall from 1961 through the present, foregrounding artworks that confront social boundaries in the United States as well as the complex historical crossroads of Berlin.

Lindy Annis
Alexandra Avakian
Jonathan Borofsky
Chuck D
Frank Hallam Day
Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab
Ron English
Allen Frame
Leonard Freed
Nan Goldin
Keith Haring
Oliver Harrington
Carol Highsmith
James Huckenpahler
Allan Kaprow
Farrah Karapetian
Nilay Lawson
Oliver Miller
Adrian Piper
Stephanie Syjuco
Shinkichi Tajiri
Bill Van Parys and Reyes Melendez
Lawrence Weiner


Assistant Curator: William Roy Hodgson
Production: Nilay Lawson
Prints: Furthermore
Web Design: Caleb Eckert


With generous support from the following institutions:

Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation
Getty Research Institute
Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship
Keith Haring Foundation
Library of Congress
Magnum Photos
National Gallery of Art
Provisions Library
The Wende Museum

Special Thanks

Wilfried Eckstein, Sylvia Blume, Norma Broadwater, Craig Childers, Amira Abujbara, Bill Adair, Zach Alden, Laurie Allen, Judith Brodie, Catharine Clark Gallery, Scott Cummings, Verna Curtis, Cory Danziger and SceneFour, Elizabeth Dee Gallery, Caleb Eckert, Dr. Walter O. Evans, Brigitte and Elke Susannah Freed, Aimee Fullman, Gemini GEL, Gitterman Gallery, Nan Goldin Studio, Julia Gruen, Evan Hamilton, James Huckenpahler, Julie Joseph, Allan Kaprow Estate, James Krippner, André Robert Lee, Katherine Lennard, Kristin Lindgren, Janice Lion, Rosie Lou, Patrick Mansfield, Matthew Marks Gallery, David Morris, Moved Pictures Archive, Annelise Ream, Amanda Robiolio, Donna Ruane, José Ruiz, Michael Rushmore, Jeremy Rutkiewicz, Leonard Schmieding, Debora Sherman, Parker Snowe, Square Form, Jacob Sweeney, Stephanie Syjuco, Giotta and Ryu Tajiri, Francis Michael Terzano, Lawrence Weiner Studio, Kai Wiedenhöfer, Joseph Wills, Elen Woods, and Tarssa Yazdani.

About the Curator

Paul M. Farber is a scholar of American and Urban Studies. He is currently a Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Haverford College. Farber has a PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan. Farber’s research focuses on American cultural histories of the Berlin Wall and urban memory projects in Philadelphia. His current book project is a study of representations of the Berlin Wall in American art, literature, and popular culture from 1961 to the present. He is also co-curator of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage-funded public history project, Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia in Spring 2015.

He has contributed essays and helped produce several photography books including This Is the Day: The March on Washington (Getty Publications, 2013), a new critical edition of Made in Germany (Steidl Verlag, 2013), and Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972–1990 (powerHouse, 2013). He is the co-editor of a special issue of the journal Criticism on HBO’s series, The Wire (2010).

About the Goethe-Institut Washington

The Goethe-Institut Washington organizes and supports cultural events that present German culture abroad and that further intercultural exchange. Of special interest to us are film and exhibition projects. Our language department offers German courses, workshops and seminars for teachers of German as a Foreign Language, as well as a wide-ranging testing program to prove proficiency in German.

The Goethe-Institut Washington is responsible for providing cultural programs and pedagogical and language services to the District of Columbia and to the states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware. A special, wider-ranging focus of our work involves projects using the electronic media (internet, radio, and television) for audiences in the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. We organize and provide advice about electronic media projects in the areas of cultural programming, language services, and information on behalf of the Goethe-Institut locations in these countries.