New York

Georg Baselitz

Sonnabend Gallery

The staging was superb: one imposing figure in the entry room, three heads in the back room. All are wood sculptures marked by paint slashes, saw cuts, and chisel marks, all seemingly made by the same saber. These “marks of dignity and honor” become character traits; neo-primitivism is made into the ultimate psychological sophistication. The figures are at once vitally abstract and like a map of the unconscious. They are a masterful mix of force and meticulous detail, their harshness mitigated by a sense of precise observation of inner life. The look is one of Expressionist arbitrariness, of gratuitous Sturm and Drang violence, but on closer observation—demanded by the dandyish swagger of the surface—the works reveal an amazing penetration of persona. We are in the presence of symbolic forms of soul in which we are tempted to invest our understanding of the human. It is as though we disapproved of any objective correlative for its depths until we saw these works.

The heads are obviously mannerist. One with a normal head-to-neck relationship has a gouged left cheek and light- and dark-blue coloring. One with a long neck and a long head with popping eyes has features touched with orange. An unpainted round head has a short neck. All three are mounted on roughhewn packing-case-like bases which match the coarseness of their carving. No plane is left undisturbed; the short neck is split down the back, the long neck has some bark left on it—everywhere there are signs of rawness, which brings with it a sense of urgency. But the rawness is studied, is allowed just so much power before it is put into place, so that it seems created by the sculptor’s touch as much as by nature. This is what is at the heart of these works. On one level they are psychological portraits in a Ludwig Meidner vein—not that Baselitz is quoting, rather that he is returning to an underused but ever ready mode, waiting for the artist equal to it—and on another they are about the tension between nature and art, a tension that is I ike a fever each figure must ride out, knowing it will never really break.

The full-length figure is even more complex. It has a military aura, at times one thinks a mock one, for its stocky bulk seems to threaten to topple it over. Its uprightness seems to come more from nature—the tree trunk it once was—than from social duty. It looks as though it were on parade, a dubious hero marked with the crude signs of an anticipated violence, but the feeling of spectacle is muted by the materiality; bark is still visible on the wood in which the legs are implanted, as though this soldier could never really get free of the Black Forest. Prominent saw cuts mark the chest and belly. The eyes of the blue face are hollowed, the nipples black with, on one, a touch of blue. There is a black smear on the left leg, on the upraised arm, and also a little on the face. Behind, the ribs and spinal column stand out in almost a transcendental summary of all that Matisse did with the back, but here the cut separating buttocks and legs is harsher. Knots in the wood, one on the back of the head, one on its right side, become signs of wounds. The figure, larger than life, conveys a battered heroism.

This is painterly sculpture, exploring the human; its impurity makes it potent and eager. Baselitz does not eternalize, but searches out the natural root of the unnatural self. His return to nature—mythical, like all nature for man—defies the standard view of it as raw material with no mystery, and of man as a belated machine. Baselitz’s defiance of our society’s mechanistic point of view, without relapse to an ornamental organicism (as in Art Nouveau), aligns him with the speculative, critical existentialism of an earlier Germany. It may be that the recovery of sculpture as a sublime roughness is his most notable artistic contribution, for it shows the way to artistic autonomy as once again personal and complex, a dangerous passage. Baselitz makes it clear that one can no longer get away with quoting the autonomy of others and expect to be regarded as heroic.

Donald Kuspit