New York

Georg Baselitz

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Let’s take Georg Baselitz at his word: he’s not a painter of figures or figural elements but of abstract works. His use of the figure is simply his way of restoring credibility and vitality to abstraction after the standardization of its gestural and geometric modes. Baselitz was faced with the same problem as Frank Stella, but instead of trying to solve it by creating a new abstract space through sculptural/architectural artifice, he returned to and manipulated that previously rejected old bugaboo, the figure. Baselitz deliberately put this difficulty in his path to rejuvenate abstraction. It is a self-imposed obstacle, a ball-and-chain intended to make abstract art move more vigorously, if only because it has more dead weight to lift. The figure is a corpse that Baselitz wittingly “stumbles” on; his works are in effect abstract art’s effort to right itself, making excited moves to catch itself so that it does not “fall” (i.e., to prevent it from being read as figural before—or instead of—being read abstractly).

How, then, aside from their figural—German figural—iconography, do we read Baselitz’s development in this stunning miniretrospective of works from 1964 to 1978? As increasingly gestural. The somewhat smoothly and thinly painted E.N. Idol, 1964, is quickly followed by the more obviously thick, “pandaemonic” paint of The Red Flag, 1965, and then to the “liberated” paint of the Waldarbeiter (Forestworker, 1968). The speech of the figure becomes increasingly slurred along the way, until the figure finally comes to seem what can only be described as aphasiac, in such works as Adler (Eagle, 1977) and Die Trümmerfrau (The rubble woman, 1978). In Kullervos Füsse (Kullervos’ feet, 1967), it is fragmented one way, and in Elke 4, 1977, another.

Ignoring the psychosymbolic implications of Baselitz’s handling of the figure, we can see its evolution from an unwieldy, weighty obstacle that the paint stolidly inhabits to an increasingly lighter-than-air ball, agilely if precariously juggled. Its gravity—in the double sense of that word—has been overcome. Baselitz moves from hardened stoicism to reluctant hedonism. It is a move not without its desperate, forced moments—that’s the way Stilleben (Still life, 1976–77) looks to me—but it generally works. The “grudging” early paintings are more convincing in terms of both figure and paint than most of the later works, which are convincing only as paint, for the figure in those works tends to become vaporously melodramatic.

However, as the pace of Baselitz’s paint has quickened, as his gestures have become more rhapsodic and “outrageous,” their Germanic aspect has become clearer: they are the will to power at its most sublime and indifferent, and freshly direct. The danger of gesture is that it can become a specious presence, an empty duration. Baselitz avoids this by making his gestures, whether thin or thick, angrily abrupt and choppy or voluptuously angry and full of will—beside themselves with will, violent and violative with will. This is their critical point. They show us will at its most abstract and thus at its most powerful.

Donald Kuspit