Markus Lüpertz

Berliners were recently offered a dramatic restaging of Markus Lüpertz sculptures and paintings, primarily from the mid ’70s to the present, in four concurrent shows. Lüpertz work assimilates and transforms the formal vocabularies of Modernism—especially Cubism, but also Symbolism and gestural painting—into a flamboyant expressionistic style. What seemingly has become a necessary adjunct to the work is the public persona of the artist himself, who, with media savvy and a tremendous output of energy, insistently plays the genius, the macho man, the jewel-studded dandy—a kind of Muhammad Ali of German painting.

To judge from the works in these four exhibitions, this showy effect has a certain psychological justification in terms of the nondevelopment of Lüpertz art. Few of the works shown have more than the effect of a déjà vu today; therefore, what they themselves lack in power must apparently be compensated for by the “master’s” performances for the media. The artist’s attitude in all of this, as in his handling of the medium of paint, is above all a retrospective one. In the final analysis, his work is based on a parasitic anachronism that flatters an equally parasitic stratum of society. Lüpertz attempts to ennoble this posture through his use of “grand” subject matter. Whether in the bronze sculpture Ganymed, 1985, the monumental triptych Kreuzigung (Crucifixion, 1984) in gouache on paper, or “Bilder über das mykenische Lächeln“ (Paintings about the Mycenaean smile, 1985), mythology and religion are cited—in complete contrast to Anselm Kiefer’s usage, for instance—not out of inner necessity but simply to make for ”interesting“ art. But the category of the interesting (or ”well-made“) painting engages today’s viewing public only superficially Just as we observe the petit bourgeois beneath Lüpertz ”genius" posturing, we also suspect the hollow pathos of a contemporary salon art behind the grand facades of his paintings.

Lüpertz seems, at least on occasion, to sense this. Thus some of these works strike us as attempts to break out of the luxurious cocoon he has created for himself. The pictures from the series “New York Tagebuch” (New York Diary), which he painted on a daily basis during a stay in New York in 1984, have a certain immediacy, an intense energy that jumps straight out at the viewer. And the bizarre combination of Pop art paraphrasing and anxious Expressionistic figuration in the “Duschkabinenserie” (Shower stall series, 1982), with its simultaneous allusions to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Rainer Fetting, and Sandro Chia, reveals moments of self-irony that contradict his otherwise carefully cultivated “German profundity.” However, these paintings certainly are not the work of ”genius," on either a painterly or an intellectual level.

In contrast, Lüpertz has had somewhat better luck with his sculptures in the last several years. Here the “genius” becomes the artisan who practices the conventions of sculpture with masterful skill. He takes up Cubist elements in Standbein—Spielbein (Supporting leg—free leg, 1982), leans toward the surrealistic in the eight painted bronzes of “Alice in Wonderland,” 1981, and reflects Expressionism and Futurism in the series “Die Bürger von Florenz” (The citizens of Florence, 1983) and in Ganymed. His sculptures achieve their effectiveness primarily through the polychroming of the bronze, whereby painting jumps into the third dimension to fuse with sculptural concerns. Visible are both the potential interchangeability of the two genres and the limitations placed on both by an artist whose focus is the extension of the past. This should be emphasized too: there is no forward-looking vision here, and, finally, no insight into the present.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland