PRINT Summer 1995


“EVERY GREAT ARTIST,” wrote the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe, “dances his works.”1 It is a “mystical dance,” he said, alluding to a passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost: its moves invent “mazes intricate/eccentric, intervolved, yet regular/then most, when most irregular they seem.” Wilhelm Uhde—another great German critic, and a friend of Meier-Graefe’s—thought that such intricate mystical art showed “Gothic feeling”—the Germanic feeling for being, expressing transcendental Eros’ “tragic impatience” with “banal reality,” and the desire to “transfigure” reality in art.2 Uhde thought Pablo Picasso was the modern manifestation of this “Gothic ideal.” Today, it seems to me, that title would be claimed by Georg Baselitz.

Baselitz has the Gothic temperament’s “dark, excessive, revolutionary” zeal, its “plastic gift” for “redefining” reality.3 And his work—paintings, sculptures, prints, all having what he calls an “aggressive disharmony”—has become more mystical, more erotic, more transcendent, as he has advanced Gothic art’s task of overcoming the ordinariness of things (a basic problem of existence) through the power of dancing form. Baselitz risks everything on this painterly dance, full of wild color and extreme, even violent gestures. At once apparently impulsive manifestations of unconscious energy and sophisticated, self-conscious moves revealing an acute awareness of art history, these tense gestures are a tightrope act reflecting the predicament of Gothic aspiration today: the transcendent is no longer accepted by society, no longer sits in judgment on society, but must be invented out of used, even threadbare esthetic cloth.

Baselitz’s early work was a rebellion against both the pompous Socialist Realist painting of his native East Germany and an abstract art that he felt had become empty, Americanized, and pompous also. His first and second “Pandemonium” exhibitions, held with Eugen Schönebeck in Berlin in 1961 and ’62, were inspired by the art of psychiatric patients discussed in Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922), as well as by the work of Carl Fredrik Hill, Ernst Josephson, Franz Wrübel, and Edvard Munch. Though he downplayed that work’s pathological themes in favor of its visual inventiveness, its troubled subjectivity echoed his own, and Germany’s, “unhealthy” history—as he himself acknowledged.

Baselitz has insisted, famously and disingenuously, “I work exclusively on inventing new ornaments.”4 The fact that he creates his abstract “ornaments” by destroying old pictorial and formal harmonies, however, suggests something deeper at stake than surface novelty. Indeed many think his works index the same emotional disturbance as the fringe art and Mannerist art he admires. In fact he admits that his work is deeply personal, a way of working through his unhappy history—there seems no end to his obsession with it—and by implication that of Germany.

Baselitz’s art is premised on painful memory. Again and again it returns to the human and physical landscape of his native Saxony, a region no longer in Germany—it is now part of Poland. Baselitz took the name of his hometown, variously called Grossbaselitz and Deutschbaselitz, and he now lives in a rural landscape like that of Saxony, and in a castle like one that used to stand in his hometown—it was destroyed by the Communist regime as a symbol of feudalism. Is his art an attempt to undo the past, to restore what has been erased? In post–World War II Germany, would Gothic “transcendence” consist in recovering what Germany lost? Strange as it may seem to say so, Baselitz’s art is a domestic art—it yearns for the comforting feeling of a secure, familiar hometown and homeland. But it only discovers their ruins, and the feeling of abandonment and loss those ruins bring. This is what gives it its ambiguous, scorched, primordial look.

Thus Baselitz offers us a personal, emotionally resonant abstract art, an ornamental residue of the destruction of Germany and, implicitly, of Baselitz’s own suffering. His art, along with Anselm Kiefer’s, may constitute the most sustained revival of physical painting—painting that tries to empower itself by turning to the wisdom of the body-based instincts—since early Modernism. The irony of this new, desperate brand of abstract expressionism is that it is based on trauma. In a sense, it tries to counteract Germany’s wartime physical destruction and to move toward an emotionally healthy new nation—yet it can only do so by dwelling on the old suffering, reflecting the old pathology, which is still emotionally alive. But this, really, is the Gothic spirit. As Uhde says, quoting Jacques Maritain, for the Gothic artist “human nature was wounded and demanded redemption,” which was never unequivocally given.5 Rooted in an unhealable wound, Gothic aspiration nevertheless tries to turn the symptoms of pathology and hurt to creative advantage—to transfigure their meaning by exaggerating their appearance.

I spoke to Baselitz this spring, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and later over lunch, as he was preparing the retrospective of his work that just opened at the Guggenheim.

Donald Kuspit

DONALD KUSPIT: You told me once that you were not just a painter but a “German painter.” Would you still describe yourself that way?

GEORG BASELITZ: You were asking about my painting, and I always feel attacked when I’m asked about my painting. So I responded with a counterattack.

DK: Why do you feel attacked? Because of the way your art has been received?

GB: No, it’s to do with my personal history. I was born in 1938. I lived through seven years of war. After 1945, the part of Germany I grew up in was occupied by the Russians; then I was sent to the part that was occupied by the Americans. It was as though the children were being punished for the stupidities of the fathers. When you grow up in a difficult situation like this, and you’re not humble or submissive, you have to defend yourself—especially when you’re an artist, which makes it even harder to accept dictates from above. In Germany those dictates changed from one part of the country to another, but they were still dictates—supposedly to create a new society, but they just weren’t my kind of thing. Which is why I was very aggressive.

A painter can only do his best when the basis of his work is where he comes from, where he was born. It is only on the basis of his origin that he can try to reconcile all the world’s extremes. The results of his work will be much more interesting for everyone than if he based his art on a kind of compromise, a mixture of all different forms of culture.

DK: What do you think of the reunification of Germany? I understand that when you were a professor of art in Berlin, you resigned in protest because an East German artist was made a professor.

GB: That happened before reunification, when no one knew reunification was coming. It’s something that would be understood in Germany. I come from the German Democratic Republic, the old East Germany. When I was a student, people had no use for what I thought and made; I was thrown out of school. So I went to West Berlin. I wouldn’t have had a chance if I’d stayed in the East; for me, leaving was the right thing to do, because I’d disturbed the stupid system. But other artists made careers in the GDR. You couldn’t have a career there unless you belonged to the system—it was like a continuation of the Nazi period, but with a different etiquette—so only bad or mediocre artists stayed. And they weren’t just tolerated there, they were an active part of the system.

Then, suddenly, West Germans got interested in East German art. I believe the first exhibition of East German art was held in 1979, at the Neue Galerie–Sammlung Ludwig in Aachen. I hated the fact that the people who had forced me and my friends to leave—the people who had persecuted us—were suddenly recognized in the West, even critically praised there. Of course their pictures were much more solidly painted than the experiments people were doing in the West. They were like schoolbooks, you could read and understand everything in them; everything was black and white, good or evil. I couldn’t teach at the same school with someone who made pictures like that, and who had served that system. We would have had to sit on the same committees and deal with the same administrative issues. I found it impossible, so I quit. And then came the reunification, and everybody was back together again. Germany was one, at least nominally. Representatives of East and West now sit at the same table, and everyone says it’s just like before; it’s suddenly as if no one’s really done anything bad.

DK: Your rebelliousness began in the ’60s, with your “Pandemonium” paintings and manifestos. How do you feel about them today?

GB: Dreadful. It’s a matter not just of attitude but of time. I always work out of uncertainty, but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time, though, uncertainty returns; your thought process goes on. You could say you keep developing, but that’s not how I see what happens to me: each painting destroys the old one. I love my old paintings as postulates, as fresh starting points, but I have to destroy them—I have to make a new manifesto. I work quite differently from most painters. Morandi, for example, whom I respect, builds up a metaphysics, an idea, a philosophy, a truth. That’s not in my nature.

DK: You work in a variety of mediums. Is there one you prefer?

GB: Not really. I don’t have a special feeling for any tradition.

DK: But wooden sculpture like yours has a long tradition in Germany, going back at least to the Middle Ages.

GB: Yes, but what’s important for me is that I don’t like plaster. I don’t like things that can be reproduced. Wood isn’t important in itself, but rather in the fact that objects made in it are unique, simple, unpretentious.

DK: At your home in Derneburg once you showed me your collection of Mannerist prints. Were you influenced by Italian Mannerism?

GB: I became aware of it when I went to Florence on a scholarship in 1965. The Mannerist works there fascinated me. Mannerist prints were déclassé then because they were supposed to be the beginning of mass reproduction, but I brought some prints by Pontormo that turned out to be originals. I studied them intensely. Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Parmigianino, and the rest were in a marginal existential position: they were post-Michelangelo, post-Raphael, so they worked under the spell of a past perfection, and they were also in a situation of future uncertainty. The question was how to go beyond the idealism of Michelangelo and Raphael and make the best of their uncertainty. The Mannerists took a daring, destructive approach to the heroic imagery of the Renaissance. They reacted to the established order by trying to uproot it. This had nothing to do with decadence—it was a question of extravagant, extreme emotion. That seemed the way to go, as Vasari’s account of Pontormo suggests. So there sprang up a tradition of irrational emotion, manifested in formal irregularity, as a way of recovering existential originality. This European tradition has its own authenticity, as Gustav René Hocke argued in his important books Manierismus in der Literatur and Die Welt als Labyrinth. Those books had a great influence on me when they appeared, in the late ’50s.

DK: You identify with the Mannerists?

GB: Yes, but they still had an ideal to identify with—Michelangelo and Raphael. I have none. There is none today. I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn’t want to reestablish an order: I had seen enough of so-called order. I was forced to question everything, to be “naive,” to start again. I don’t have the sensitivity, the education, or the philosophy of the Italian Mannerists, but I’m a Mannerist in the sense that I deform things. I’m brutal, naive, and Gothic.

There are artists who think everything flows from what went before, and improves on it. If you don’t think that, you can only see yourself as naive, one of those outsiders or weirdos who choose a different approach. Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, are all such absurd artists; I think I’m like them. They fit in no time frame. It makes no sense to call them contemporary. Walter de Maria is contemporary, and I’m his age, but our art can’t be compared. It isn’t a matter of quality: he is the result, almost the creation, of a trend, a group, an ideology. I’m skeptical of such things. I have to defend my naïveté.

DK: How do you think your retrospective will be received?

GB: No doubt this is an expression of my insecurity, but I don’t understand why Americans should be interested in German art. I also see that people are irritated by the Ross Bleckner and Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibitions now at the Guggenheim—or else they’re blasé. In Germany people go to museums for adventure, the truth, a weltanschauung, a philosophy. But New Yorkers seem exhausted by their omnipotent city, so they go to museums for tranquillity, which means they don’t want to be disturbed by what they see.

Besides being unsure about the American audience, I also don’t know about the idea of the retrospective. As an artist you can never correct what you’ve done. You cannot erase it. I’ve been working for over thirty years; I’m not sure how the earlier and the later pieces will work together.

DK: I once said to you that your art was about the irrationality of the body. You disagreed; you said you were basically an abstract painter, and that you used the body—sometimes upside-down—only to escape flatness, which had become shopworn.

GB: I confirm that. I had to find a new vocabulary for abstraction; the body became a way of fragmenting the painting to generate a new abstract effect. A good painting has nothing anecdotal about it, whether we’re talking about Piero della Francesca, Piet Mondrian, Rembrandt, or even Picasso, who made many seemingly illustrative works, such as Guernica. An illustration may give me a feeling and an experience, but there’s something abstract, seemingly ornamental, at its core. And that’s what I want to get at in my work. I’m ashamed, for example, of The Great Piss in the Bucket, which today seems too anecdotal, less ornamental than it once did.

DK: What do you think of American abstract painting?

GB: I admire it. My first encounter with it was in Berlin in 1958, where I saw an exhibition of works by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, and other artists. I was 20, and they made a big impression on me, particularly de Kooning. The Pollocks were big, but also perfect—not just a fad, not things that were just of their time. Newman was the hardest to understand: for me, what carries the idea in painting is the surface, so it’s hard for me to see how a painting can be only an element in a poetic scheme, a sign of something occurring outside it. Still, the show was extreme and rebellious, which is what I’ve always been too.

I had to defend myself from later American abstraction. I once disliked Cy Twombly, though now I think he’s fantastic . When I first saw Robert Rauschenberg I thought he was an Americanized Kurt Schwitters; now I see him as among the greatest abstract painters, which is also how I see Julian Schnabel, who’s very well informed about abstraction’s history. Clyfford Still is also important. There’s no center in his paintings, which suggests that he was influenced by Asia. But that’s also a very American characteristic: there are no reference points in America, and America, like Russia, is on the way to Asia—it’s a break, a wall, between West and East, a place of divide. Still has this sense of divide, of one foot here and one foot there, or of both feet here and his head there. He isn’t painting the Grand Canyon, as some people think. His paintings are peculiarly dramatic; they have secret doors.

DK: Why should the public be interested in abstract paintings, yours or theirs?

GB: Art can only have meaning for society if it shows a conflict, and the best abstract painters have a lot of conflicts—I certainly do, which is why people react so strongly to my paintings. It’s almost as though they were physically frightened of them. Eventually my work will enrich them, as art should, but first it threatens their peace of mind, as it has to do if it’s to be convincing. It must remind them of their own conflicts, stir up what disturbs them, then offer them, if not a new peace of mind, at least an understanding of their disturbance. That’s what the art I collect does for me—the art of Strindberg, Francis Picabia, Jean Fautrier, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, and others.

DK: What do you think of a German critic’s recent description of your work as “pagan”?

GB: He was absolutely right, however ambivalently he meant it. Think of all the pagan barbarity that the Romans recorded north of the Alps, and that has since been lost. Christianity isn’t believable: what’s my relationship with angels? I don’t understand Christian paintings—people flying around dressed in fairy-tale clothes. Christian ideology came into existence around the Mediterranean; it has nothing to do with us Germans. I don’t know what it means. It has no importance for me.

When I ask myself what my origin is, my background, I have to say it’s the little garden gnomes in my neighbor’s back yard. The problem is that they’re so terribly ugly, because their culture is gone. Nobody made a tradition out of them.

DK: You once said that the concept of quality was relative: one thing in Germany, another in America. The world was too complex for a general idea of quality to apply. Do you still believe this?

GB: Not entirely. Social context is in some way insignificant, and entertainment value doesn’t matter at all. Nor does novelty matter: anyone can make something new, different, “progressive.” In fact there is neither progress nor anachronism in art. There is only one Brücke, one Cubism. They are unrepeatable. What makes them all valid and significant, what gives them their integrity, is their existential quality, which cuts across their differences.

DK: Your last New York exhibition contained works relating to ballet and folk dance. Do those works have anything to do with an existential experience of dance?

GB: I always paint on the floor, because I feel that the world is in better order on the floor. I use very big canvases, and if I want to get to the middle of them I have to walk over them. That’s how my dance pieces started. At first I walked on wooden planks, so I’d leave no footprints on the canvas. Then I took the planks away so you’d see the footprints. I’m also interested in music, particularly the music of cultures without an iconography—Arab culture, for example. I’m interested in that music because I’m interested in iconoclasm, the times in art when pictures are forbidden or controversial. In some way, my dance series—perhaps all my work—is a response to the threat of iconoclasm, picturelessness, the repression of art.

DK: Pollock made his allover paintings on the floor, which was seen as a revolution, even though they were meant to be seen on the wall. Perhaps they should have been mosaics on a temple floor.

GB: I’ve seen the film and photographs of Pollock at work. But my paintings aren’t done in homage to him, however much I admire his art. It’s a coincidence that we work the same way. Even more coincidental, and crazier, is the fact that one of his paintings is called Gothic and so is one of mine.

DK: Your work is strongly Gothic, psychologically as well as formally. Is this one reason why Americans are often uncomfortable with your work—why they see it as anachronistic? I’m sure you realize that the attitude to German art is ambivalent here. In fact some American critics recently smeared Joseph Beuys as a Nazi at a New York conference on his art.

GB: I know what you mean. But I also think I’m a bit peculiar—when I started out, it was my motto that I was a bit peculiar, a bit off the wall—and that comes through in my work, and upsets people. It has to do with the fact that I grew up in this unhappy situation involving a repression of art. That can be understood in Germany and Europe, but not here. Yet Pollock was responding to that kind of situation too.

Americans probably also don’t like the fact that a German is reacting against the U.S. There’s a kind of jealousy or envy of Germany in America now. It used to be the other way round: we all had American cars, American refrigerators, American suits, American paintings, American music, American novels. We were totally Americanized. If you were trying to make something yourself, what was left for you to do? You had to react. Our culture and identity, whatever the ugly words for it, grew out of these conditions. A lot of German artists imitated American art, which turned out to be not such a good idea; German Pop art is ridiculous and stupid.

And then, suddenly, there was German art all over America. I’d be amazed if there were an artist like me in America, though. Bur there are no artists like me in Germany either.

DK: In fact your art hasn’t always been well received in Germany.

GB: That’s true. Beuys didn’t think much of me. He thought my sculpture at the 1980 Venice Biennale was “not even first semester.” I think his work is fantastic, but dialogue between us was impossible, though we eventually came to have a friendly relationship. He was of a different generation, the people who had fought in the war. I am of the generation that fled the war and continues to run away.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. His next book will be called Idiosyncratic Identities: Art at the End of the Avant-Garde, to be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

The retrospective of Georg Baselitz’s work remains at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, until September 17.


1. Julius Meier-Graefe, Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and London: William Heinemann, 1908, 1:49.

2. Wilhelm Uhde, Picasso and the French Tradition: Notes on Contemporary Painting, Paris: Éditions des Quatre Chemins, and New York: E. Weyne, 1929, pp. 39, 51.

3. Ibid., p. 38.

4. Baselitz, quoted in Günther Gercken, “Figurative Painting after 1960,” German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905–1985, exhibition catalogue, London: Royal Academy of Art, and Munich: Prestel, 1985, p. 473.

5. Uhde, p. 49