New York

Georg Baselitz

Various Venues

Georg Baselitz’ “upside-down” paintings have lately engendered some peculiar critical responses in this country, for different reasons than they have in Germany. Several New York publications have summarily dismissed Baselitz on the grounds of this “conceit” or “gimmick” of his: a glib parallel was made to the art-school cliché of turning paintings upside down “the better to see their form”; one critic admitted to virtually standing on her head in the gallery and came up with the conclusion that the work was “less interesting’ seen from that angle. If the German ”national character“ has typically and historically brought the wrath of the gods down on itself by its compulsive programs of swallowing and actualizing philosophies in the name of pragmatism, then Americans are at least due for a paddling (behind the woodshed, where David Stockman offered to take his) for stubbornly and literally equating appearances with point of view. It was inevitable that the current, in many cases commercially-prompted, deluge of ”new" European art create a backlash strain of xenophobia, but even so, this dearth of simple curiosity has been numbing.

Baselitz painted throughout the ’60s, and has been reversing his images since 1969—a time when almost no “progressive” young artist outside Germany, either here or in Europe, was painting as such, period. His development as an artist has encompassed the traditional mediums used for “grand visions” (graphics, painting, and more recently sculpture), and has consisted of sporadic breaks from his own precedents, which have led to different linkups to historical precedents. This information, with the context of contemporary West Germany, grows pointed when you learn that in the early ’60s Baselitz took part in exhibitions with manifestos, called “Pandaemoniums,” and that two of his paintings from around that time were confiscated by “the authorities” and were returned only after two years of litigation. The point is still sharper when you see that his paintings, far from being what our “authorities” would judge inflammatory or subversive, have consistently and predominantly been about the act and the fact of painting.

Baselitz, like Joseph Beuys (to mention a different, earlier, and so less loaded example), is restaking a claim for a German art in the international arena, a claim which was revoked by the Second World War and which continued to be suppressed in Germany itself afterward—whether out of “mourning” and “repentance” or in order to refuel a purist nationalism. The numerous visual associations in his work with previous Modern art phases (Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism) are above all gestures of continuity—of the right to an innate but communicative art.

“Communication” has a lot to do with Baselitz’ reversals of image. He is acutely involved with one of the essential implications of Pop—not with its usual iconographic sources, but with the hard truth that the sign language of Pop equals the possession of image. Instead of claiming mass production and commercial imagery for art, Baselitz, in a gesture that is an instant copyright, claims Art for his imagery. Neither violent nor tongue-in-cheek, the initial impact of his work is just disorienting enough to clear the air of a few cultural shackles, and it frees Baselitz to proceed with his explorations of Modern painting.

The 1981 paintings here, as a whole, are unsettling. The overall feeling is one of extreme speed and lightness—rooms full of capricious helium balloons. It is curious that the subjects in these paintings do not look “inverted” or, as one might expect, as though they are “falling.” Baselitz’s most recent break with himself seems to have been coloristic, a shift from dark “expressionistic” earth tones and blues to a giddy, rather Parisian, assortment of bright, naive blues, pinks, yellows, and oranges. His various “glass drinkers” and “orange eaters,” with their fright-wig carrot tops, resemble nothing so much as certain postwar portraits by André Derain and Raoul Dufy—two of the more ephemeral minor majors of our age. The queasy mood of post-Vichy France (Derain, for one, was widely considered a collaborationist) inspired an unusual number of French artists to paint big, disingenuous faces in etherized colors. That period—probably the shakiest ever for painting in Europe—is a logical reference for Baselitz, to make today. Within a sustained motif (figural, reversed), he is gradually mapping himself into a conscious, historically fleshed present. His most abstracted painting is less tentative: Die Maedchen von Olmo (The Girls from Olmo), nominally of girls on bicycles, is a large painting with a filmy, reflective, almost Impressionistic surface. It is anchored in space and to time by vivid blue ovals at the top of the canvas (the bicycle wheels). Like the ovals in Robert Motherwell’s “Spanish Republic” paintings, these are universal signifiers of Painting and of Modern, resonant in an ocher haze.

The linoleum cuts (in another show, at the Brooke Alexander Gallery) are iconic. The figures are disaster-struck; they are falling. The linear jaggedness of the medium (which often signals graphic/gothic), and the stark, almost cataclysmic contrast of lines cut into black and sepia grounds—the figures are here simultaneously reversed and negative—place these works at the precipice of the subliminal, wherein Baselitz can claim myth—German myth, Wotan’s myth, Gothic myth, history’s myths—for himself, and subsume it.

Lisa Liebmann