Georg Baselitz

Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Waddington Gallery

“In my eyes you see the altar of nature, the sacrifice of flesh, the remains of meals in the lavatory pan, exhalation of bedsheets, blood on stumps and aerial roots, oriental light on the pearly teeth of the beautiful, gristle, negative forms, flecks of shadow, parades of epileptics. . . . ” At the time of his first “Pandemonium Manifesto” Georg Baselitz saw dismemberment as a function of the grotesque. To focus on remnants, protuberances, and fleshy paraphernalia, all with the appearance of independent life, was to force painting to act as “conciliatory meditation,” a means of defusing the threat these objects presented. The air of nervous exhilaration in pictures such as P.D. Foot, 1963, also pervades the “Idol” series of 1964, which treats the head as an independent, ponderable entity. “The most beautiful thing in the world is always to work a face, a head, to pieces,” Baselitz concluded in his “Letter to Herr W. of August 1963.”

But, he added, “Perhaps something else is involved.” Gradually his alternation between extremes of action and suffering was becoming more evident. And though Christian patience supplanted sadomasochism in Baselitz’s work in 1965, when the “neue Typ” prints followed explicit images of crucifixes and castration, an involvement with emotional polarities remained. Opposing views of repression were shown, a desire to suspend intellect or morals being compromised by a pressure to employ accepted patterns. Suspicious of tachisme, Baselitz had begun by rejecting easy metaphors for liberation, and felt compelled to retain figurative content; yet he could not resist the urge to unmake it.

The “Frakturbilder” (“fracture paintings”) tended gradually toward increased formal dismemberment. In some of the earlier of these works motifs were halved, then one half was shifted sideways; in others, different motifs were arranged like photographs on a page. By 1967, in such pictures as Curlyhead, shapes formed a seething, entirely unexpected unity. Only variations in scale indicated that fragmentation had taken place. By 1968 Alsatians and Three Dogs Upwards revealed a taste for ornament, the logical extension of grotesque, pushed into a decorative, figurative variation on the allover Jackson Pollock works that Baselitz had seen ten years before in Berlin. Three large “Woodman” pictures from the same year demonstrated his most intricate system of facture to date. Already, in the “Woman with Whip” drawings, he had borrowed the child’s trick of stretching the outline of a hill up the side of the paper, then standing figures on it at right angles to the “base”; now blocks of wood hung in midair, men in pieces dangled upside down, one picture-plane was set diagonally inside another. As usual, Baselitz moved forward by opposites. Dry, mat surfaces with raw canvas showing and plenty of overpainting suited his new, celibate foresters. If the argument was not advancing, it was deepening emotionally. Fluctuating between formal dissection and moody hacking offered Baselitz a personal dialectic, a way of isolating irreconcilable attitudes toward partial figures. The decision to reverse motifs permanently in 1969 encapsulated the whole debate and shifted it to a higher ground.

In Baselitz’s recent pictures all the painting is overpainting, in a graphic drawing style. Shouting heads, anguished figures in rooms, a harlequin, are set against windows which tussle for authority, resembling paintings within paintings or scrolls with oriental hieroglyphs, revealing artifice before reasserting it. Only a roundabout way of asserting impact is possible; these enormous walls of canvas are sometimes covered in only two colors. But an impact is felt. Where it comes from, how it reaches us, is all called into question by Baselitz—not the esthete European curators have taken him to be, but a painter content to tell the truth about conventions we have been taking for granted. The heads are shouting messages we are unable to hear; their scream is a figment of art. It takes place inside art. Endlessly sympathetic, always inclined to take an anthropomorphic approach to these painted units, we are led to conclude that they scream because they are locked in.

Critics agree that painting images upside down is a way of distracting attention from content. But viewers have trouble here. The effort of twisting your head around, just out of curiosity, to see the pictures right side up—men in some recent drawings twist their heads around to get a good look at you—is like including the word “dog” in a poem and expecting readers to forget about hairy domestic pets with four legs and a tail—a simple solution to a less simple problem. Perhaps the reversed people are intended to be read neither as content nor as non- or anti-content, but as springboards for thinking about other things. Three of the latest canvases are reworkings of Edvard Munch; perhaps these historical references are a red herring too. A whole range of perhapses extends to the horizon.

In the post-1969 inversions of image Baselitz was trying to simplify his art, to isolate its main features and to help the viewer concentrate on relationships between image, content, and style by keeping them separate. The nearest parallel could be deconstructive criticism: just as Jacques Derrida located latent contradictions in Fernand de Saussure’s arguments about the relative priority of “spoken” to “written” language, Baselitz found obstacles in the path of painting and set himself to show their existence. The belief that present emotion can be re-presented by means of churned pigment and the simultaneous faith in painting as a vehicle for sensuousness, the question of whether content or “originality” matter—these are areas where it would be wise to seek Baselitz’s aporia. He has moved from a preoccupation with recording experiences of the self and the other to operating within the terms of art, experimenting almost scientifically with Derridean differance to create a form of painting close to traditional art and yet so isolated from it that the two relate in the same way as the terms of a pun.

Just as deconstructive criticism barely conceals its complicity with the texts it worries, Baselitz’s former assumptions and present aims cannot be seen apart. In the same way that the pre-1969 fractures generated visual events, the dissociations of the later work may be thought to “create origins,” as Theo Kneubühler has suggested. Oddly, the success of Baselitz’s enterprise may depend on the points at which he fails. Perhaps he has stopped trusting his chosen medium and abandoned personal exploration only in order to erect a superstructure, a meta-painting with a specific didactic point and nothing else. Perhaps the idea of art about difference is so attractive that we take the thought for the deed. Whatever. Baselitz the exemplar is unmistakably the invention of Baselitz the morbid introvert, the man who made the Frakturbilder. Painting for him is still a hatchet job.

Stuart Morgan