Markus Lüpertz

Waddington Gallery

Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Markus Lüpertz made 48 paintings during a six-month period in late 1980 and 1981. In spirit, if not in appearance,they combine that blend of the absurd and the pompous stressed by Sir John Tenniel with elements of secrecy and terror which are Lüpertz’ own addition. The contrast in Lewis Carroll’s book between implacable authority and a natural order in which flux seems the dominant principle yields two distinct styles in Lüpertz’ rendering. In the first, a type of Surrealist portraiture, shapes like deserted buildings are situated in landscapes; the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Mock Turtle, and the March Hare are among the characters dealt with in this way. The second style, an Abstract Expressionist throwback, improvises on snatches of songs and poems—a line from “You are old, Father William,” “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,” the barking chorus of the Duchess’ lullaby—or registers violent actions.

Instead of establishing a direct narrative correspondence between painting and title, Lüpertz employs a stock of images to create the atmosphere of the original. Figures are masked; faces emerge only in number 40, “You don’t know much,” said the Duchess, and number 6, “How fond she is of finding morals in things,” a study of Alice herself. More responsive to menace than to humor, Lüpertz transfers his attention away from people and toward actions, words, and objects. This is a valid method—the Queen’s slogan, “Off with his head!” has more impact than the Queen as a “person”; the Mouse’s tail becomes its own life story; and, rendered as it appears in the book, the March Hare’s house is both brain and emblem, a thing in itself, as vivid with significance as Charles Bovary’s cap. Lüpertz’ tendency to crowd together the colors of his dark palette makes the pictures (literally) more obscure than is necessary; number 42, “Found it,” the Mouse replied rather crossly, with its Beckmannesque crown, flying Easter egg, and early Clyfford Still effects, lightens and varies the palette slightly and restores confidence in his abilities as a colorist. Yet style in itself is scarcely the main issue. The most successful of the series resemble three-dimensional structures, suggesting sometimes heads, sometimes buildings, sometimes sculptures, but always, like entrances to caverns, some unseen interior space. The tight-crowded tones suggest that Alice, who dreams it all, is all the spaces she confronts and enters, and that this haze of meditation constitutes an attempt to distance the facts about her own body. And since Alice is Lüpertz’ persona, it might be possible to speculate further: to regard him as a painter dedicated to (symbolic) abstraction, defiantly attempting to conquer the two (nonsymbolic) modes current figuration permits—the erotic and the grotesque.

The text is well chosen. Alice is taught what it means to be an adult by a team of playing cards and talking animals, while Lüpertz, torn like her between good manners and unedited emotion, experiments with approaches to artistic identity in an attempt to produce some new historical synthesis. “You’ve no idea how confusing it is, all the things being alive,” Alice tells the Cheshire Cat; but later, “Why, they’re only a pack of cards after all. I needn’t be afraid of them.” Varying between the bland and the blockbuster, Lüpertz’ parable of contemporary painting skirts the issue of faux naiveté by examining a case of true naiveté. That Alice refuses to grow up at the end of the book was Carroll’s triumph; this is the part of the text that Lüpertz dare not render. Alice postpones her development into a woman by learning to sing songs and tell stories to the strangers she meets. The same is true of Lüpertz, who in this work outlines the current international Modernist debate without resolving it. Actually, he raises the stakes.

Stuart Morgan