New York

“New Expressions”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

The central characteristic of current neo-expressionist painting is its desire to collapse history into a shallow field of references. Parodying the techniques by which the mass media manage to deny difference, these painters work to render all things equivalent; styles, images, sources are processed through the art machine, reduced to a more or less interesting mélange and packaged with the signatures of figures made legendary by exposure in fashion magazines. There is a certain legitimacy to this, one which derives from a particular history, the history of conceptual and performance art in the first part of the ’70s. However naively, that history tended to question the central role of the privileged art object in both discourse and commerce, and as such it has proved inconvenient to those who would present the new art. To circumvent the problem they have simply borrowed the borrowed strategy of the artists so as to collapse a real genealogy, erecting a fake one in its place. In the case of the new work from Germany, for instance, we no longer hear much (not that we ever did) of Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, and less of Joseph Beuys. Instead we are told over much about a group of Sturm und Drang painters’ painters whose work, until recently, was rarely considered seriously outside a few provincial Kunsthallen.

This show, curated by Jack Cowart, and now on a vast promotional tour of the U.S., continues the instant tradition of meaningless equivalency. As sudden forefathers of the “wild painters” of Berlin and the Mülheimer Freiheit, two self-important art teachers, Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, join forces with two angst-ridden cartoonists from Berlin, Jörg Immendorff and A.R. Penck, while Anselm Kiefer, the loner in the forest, is added for spice. What disservice the show does in terms of contemporary history, however, is made up for by the chance it offers us to actually see a spread of work by these by now semi-mythic figures, and so to make some preliminary judgments on the quality of individual achievements.

Baselitz and Lüpertz are both academic artists. The first works from the figure, usually the figure in isolation in the studio, the second works from still life. Neither seems very interested in the particularity of his subject(s), tending to generalize, hiding inattention behind the devices of disproportionate style. Originally Baselitz seems to have favored a brushy impressionism that over the years has grown mannered, in a rather coarse expressionism. He obviously hoped at one time that scale might make his work more impressive, but found he could only rescue himself by turning the work upside down. Lüpertz chose a cooler mode, a late Cubist motif, which he meant to somehow reheat. This works reasonably well on a small scale, but when blown up and bedeviled with military insignia it becomes a little pretentious and quite stupidly dangerous. Both painters, in fact, have an unthinking and unforgivable predilection for peppering their work with heroicized references to fascism.

I’ve already called Immendorff and Penck cartoonists, and I mean this in a descriptive, not a pejorative sense. Immendorff’s major source of inspiration is comic-book art—the jagged figures and compressed, overactive space of his compositions suggest as much, and early drawings from 1968 on show here (a polar bear on a red star, a running man in flames on a blue star) clinch it. Penck’s crowded hieroglyphics may have a more ancient lineage, but they too are essentially in a tradition of graphic, easily understood narratives. The problem (or the point?) is that neither artist seems to have a narrative to tell. Penck’s suggestion of some primordial myth has yet to be developed past its initial, very striking presentation; one painting here from 1969 easily bests most of his more recent work. Immendorff’s “Café Deutschland” series is mostly impressive, but marred by an undemocratic cynicism which seems to glorify a military apotheosis while deploring the noisy inefficiency of parliamentary government. He has every right to be incensed over the partition of his native land, but the remedy he seems to favor has an unsavory past.

Which brings us to the Sehnsucht (yearning) of Kiefer, the student of Beuys, who was the first artist to reanimate the Teutonic myths of blood and earth. Kiefer relishes probing the dark regions of the German soul, and flaunting his discoveries with an almost Wagnerian flair. The imagery he resuscitates is that of a landscape in which ideas are preferred to facts, leadership to consensus—the troubled landscape of German romanticism, nationalism, and Nazism. The work grips us so because the artist presents his subject with such sympathetic force, yet manages to mask his intention toward his inspiration. Does he romanticize blood and sacrifice, as Beuys has done, or ridicule the fear of night, as did Kurt Schwitters as he built his Merzbau, or as Max Ernst did as he bricolaged his rainy forests? All that is certain is that Johannisnacht (Midsummer’s night, 1981), a big square painting of tarry black on lumpy burlap, a black bled through with reds and ochers and spattered with white, remained the only truly convincing work here.

Thomas Lawson