New York

Max Beckmann

Grace Borgenicht Gallery

This uneven little exhibition didn’t give us the best of Max Beckmann, but did reveal why he is attractive to a number of young “expressionist” painters, as well as the difficulties of his development after he came to the United States. An aura of danger—central to their sensuality—surrounds Beckmann’s figures; densely real, they and the picture space yet become mysteriously abstract by reason of the claustrophobic way the one is crowded into the other. A beautiful example of this is Woman with Cat, 1945, in which a bulky, semiclad girl, her crouching pose making her all the more erotically vulnerable, is like a bone lodged in the throat of space which is the picture. One constantly has a sense of vertigo looking at a Beckmann work: solid figures are poised over a narrow abyss of space, which becomes symbolic of the infernal dailiness of the world, consuming us all. The concentration of figure in space generates a sense not only of visual but of psychodynamic abstractness, as though the characters were being squeezed by some invisible iron maiden of depression, in the grip of some agony they themselves cannot fathom—the very simple agony of being in the world. Indeed, for all the subtlety with which Beckmann backs his figures into the depths he is making the psychosocial point that suffering is simple, fundamental, inescapable, and strangely inebriating.

That Beckmann has a psychological point to make is the source of his interest today. The sturdiness of his figures is another, lesser, appeal; many new painters may claim an abstract approach to figuration, yet would surely love to proclaim their figures with Beckmann’s uncompromising directness. Beckmann intimidates today’s painters because he mastered what some are only beginning to glimpse: the possibility of being simultaneously figural and abstract in an uncompromising way, as well as of being fearlessly psychodynamic and socially critical.

Beckmann is also important because he shows the significance of attachment to an environment for an artist. After his decision not to stay in Europe after World War II, he seemed to undergo a change of sensibility. In the last three years of his life (1947–50), spent in the United States, the complex, powerful, theatrical art he created—a world of “living allegory,” in which observed reality became a heuristic means of investigating obscure psychosocial meanings—degenerated to the extent that one can see it as simply a structure of props waiting for a play, something like Luigi Pirandello’s six characters. This “deconstructive” effect is apparent in Backstage, 1950. The women in Old Lady with Daughter, 1946, still have a postwar, worn-out look, which later becomes the all-too-obvious allegorical melancholy of King Saul, 1947, but the aura of menace from unknown sources is already beginning to disintegrate. Finally, one gets a scene gutted into a hollow spectacle.

It may be that in Backstage Beckmann foretold his own death, and that of his kind of art. The world here looks like a soiled, farcical place, full of the same old dramas, while at the same time the only serious place there is—just because these dramas don’t go away. Beckmann shows that it is possible to establish a visual equivalent of Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage,” and, more profoundly, of Hamlet’s play within a play, to catch the conscience (and deepest consciousness) of the king each of us thinks he is. His art is successfully Modern and at the same time is a successful fiction, in the deepest sense, suggesting that the art of fiction has profounder literal as well as unconscious and preconscious effects than the “pure” painting of nonobjective presence. Beckmann shows us that the fiction of mankind, which involves recognition of its power of abstraction and its peculiar kind of concreteness in the world and in being, is still the greatest artistic fiction there is.

Donald Kuspit