George Baselitz

Toledo Museum of Art

Georg Baselitz is a particularly telling artist when he works on a small scale. In the small works of this exhibition, his gesture is tightened by the format, creating a smoldering, implosive effect that one does not always get from his heavily gestural paintings. Even his figures seem forced into too small a space. At his best, Baselitz uses paint with linear complexity—draws with paint, as it were. The gestural spillover is the result of the ambivalence of his handling, which is at once assertive and hesitant—peculiarly inhibited for all its forcefulness, as the brusqueness and choppiness of many of the early works, and of the recent wooden sculptures, suggests. The same point is made by his early heroic figures, which seem introverted rather than self-dramatizing.

This sense of compacting too much figure into too little space—of the figure being “enlarged” through the use of abrupt contrasts and rough surfaces—is especially evident in the works in which it appears full-bodied and on all fours, essentially gigantic but humbled. Here the allegorical meaning—Germany down, but not quite out—is minimized, as is generally the case in the small works, or at least it does not seem so overwhelming. In these works spatial expressivity counts for more than linear expressivity or that which is created by dense shadow (the latter being a device to which Baselitz is all too prone).

Some of the gouaches and watercolors seem derivative of those by Emil Nolde, while others seem forced in their pandemonium. One gets the sense that Baselitz is trying too hard to create a Germanic look—indeed, to rescue it from oblivion and indifference—so much so that he ends up being a connoisseur of it. That is, he creates a typical German look in which there is no longer any specific Germanic content. The archaicizing aspect of Baselitz’s work—its revivalist character—is particularly evident in the prints, which display a kind of tasteful heraldic expressionism, an edifying distillation of the primitive.

Small works such as these are no doubt intended to offer direct access to the stylistic quintessence of an artist, but in Baselitz’s case this essentialization raises interesting questions about the artist’s professed “Germanness,” even if it is more a stylistic than an overt ideological issue. Is it, like Mishima’s “Japaneseness,” self-defeating and existentially irrelevant in the modern world? Does it, in its refusal to surrender something that was once vital, inadvertently devitalize that thing completely, turning it into a trophy of itself? Does Baselitz give us a taxidermist’s vision of German expressionism and the Germanic? These small works suggest as much, if only because of their unfailing elegance.

Donald Kuspit