Jörg Immendorff

Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum

Jörg Immendorff is a highly eclectic artist. In his latest works, the extended “Café Deutschland” series, he takes Guttoso’s Café Greco, a painting of the well-known café and former artists’ meeting place in Rome, as his starting point. Earlier he drew on the political agitation art of socialist countries and steered a dadaistic course through the Lebenskunst of Joseph Beuys, resulting in the Lidl work.

Two self-portaits clearly illustrate the development toward a freer abstraction, influenced by the Danish painter Per Kirkeby: the earlier one presents the artist passionately working on a larger-than-life portrait of a workman in agitprop style, and the more recent one is a picture of a meditative figure surrounded by Immendorff’s tool-of-trade expressionist touches, stripes, and sweeps. Within six years his work has undergone a rejuvenation and the older style has given way to an expressionist bias.

In this tremendous flexibility and verve for renewal, it is noticeable how far removed Immendorff has become from his earlier agitprop paintings of the alternative scene in Düsseldorf. He has distanced himself from Mao’s view of the artist as one who makes himself useful by expressing the everyday life of the people and their daily class struggle; the grim faces in his portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao offered a marked contrast in this show with the paintings of enormously enlarged babies, which are genuinely lovely. Immendorff’s iconography is now a complex one that can only be understood in personal terms.

The East German artist A. R. Penck has become a constant presence in Immendorff’s work, since Immendorff’s visit to Penck’s studio in Dresden and the two artists’ subsequent collaboration. The problem of the schizophrenic Germany is emblematized in Immendorff’s depictions of Penck and himself hindered in their attempts at cooperation; the West German eagle is shown drunk and the hammer and compass of East Germany is transformed into a thumbscrew, whose warmongering and censoring influence must be undermined. But that is never easy, since there are few weapons to be used against the machinery of the state. According to Immendorff, there is but one effective one; the paintbrush. He constantly emphasizes the power of the brush, and the almost magical effect a radiant painting can have in this politically oriented world.

One cannot avoid the impression, however, that comics have stood as models for Immendorff’s magical brush. One must think all too often of Popeye and his spinach. That comparison immediately points up the weak point in Immendorff’s vision: the manner in which he and Penck find their way out of the chaos of daily life is somewhat simplistic. His solutions to compositional problems are easily gleanable from the better strip cartoons. The sympathetic gestures that Immendorff and Penck offer to each other across the wall remain empty in the world of art.

Immendorff is in a vulnerable position in the conflict between the champions of the artist as individual and those who favor the collective artistic view. His new style of painting allies him with the former, while his subject matter and his political sympathies place him in the ranks of the latter. His work seldom seems to stem from a coherent vision, and it remains to be seen whether he will manage to transform his political engagement into a true esthetic vision.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Michael Latcham.