Markus Lüpertz

Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum

If many people viewed Markus Lüpertz’s show here five years ago with a sense of opposition, resisting a kind of pictorial splendor which had almost been forgotten at that time (as R.H. Fuchs remarks in the catalogue here), his new retrospective was a big public success. This is hardly surprising, even if there is no doubt that a regressive idea lies behind this strange pictorialism. Lüpertz is not, as the presence in the catalogue of fragments of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin suggests, a Romantic artist: Hölderlin was a Romantic, while Lüpertz plays a Romantic, in a total surrender to an old-fashioned world that has its roots in the dark side of 19th-century esthetics. Perhaps that is why the earlier retrospective was viewed with such opposition, and not even accorded the status of “interesting novelty.”

Lüpertz is an exceptional and curious German painter who has so far stood in the shadow of better-known compatriots. Yet he paints far better than most of these artists, and above all has something to say. Conversant with innumerable styles and idioms, he always makes them distinctly his own: his work has a touch of malign gravity as he pokes fun at the fashionable Berlin painters with some shower paintings; when he borrows the drip from the action painters a sinister current emerges which owes much to the dark thought of German Romanticism; when he evokes the dark, still atmosphere of the later interiors of Georges Braque, he also gives us a feeling of sentimentality and nostalgia. A few almost-serious figurative canvases take us back to the petit-bourgeois feeling of Balthus, with scenes of repressed relationships in musty surroundings; and in a superb series based on the map of New York, a subject Piet Mondrian exploded in a wave of Modern frivolity, Lüpertz shows an almost regressive personality in his unashamed enjoyment of the painter’s métier.

Obsessed as Lüpertz is with painting as a holy profession, a dark, melancholic sentimentality pervades his work. His illustrations for Alice in Wonderland fail because of the discrepancy between the lightfooted Alice and the passion of Lüpertz’s character. Where in his previous show he posed as a painter engaged in exercises in style and in the adoption of Modernist rhetoric, this rational attitude has given way to a more emotional aspect of his personality. His exuberance breaks through the limits of rationalism in what he himself calls a dithyrambic attitude.

In a series of work with titles like Triumph, Attack, and The House of the Executioners, his dark train of thought spirals down to frightening impressions of the apocalypse. Here the heavy German atmosphere and melancholy make one shiver. Triumph presents a burnt-out world in an allegory of a landscape after the final battle, a field of death with a blasted, fire-blackened post. It is painted in sober colors, heavy with sentiment. But the academic aspects of the “Stand” and “Spielbein” series can only be understood as an acceptance of the challenge presented by the powerful dogma of the academic code. There is no irony here, and Lüpertz’s freedom is entirely subordinated to the academic. With this bombastic kowtowing to an empty discipline, he only does himself a disservice.

Paul Groot