New York

Georg Baselitz

Matthew Marks/The Pace Gallery/Michael Werner

In the hands of Georg Baselitz the figure becomes an unholy landscape. Alien and ambiguously monumental, it seems to disintegrate at the very moment it is declared heroic: the psychosocial space of his paintings is one of irreparable suffering. Despite this turbid content, it remains fashionable to talk about Baselitz’s paintings as abstractions, as though the perverse act of reversing the figure—the works at Michael Werner, from the ’70s, include some of the first examples of this practice—were merely a technical matter, and as though his painterly explorations were mere attempts to stretch the limits of the expressionistic tradition and sensibility. In fact, Baselitz is not just trying to be “technically” new; he is attempting to articulate the tragedy of being human as unsentimentally and succinctly as possible.

Paradoxically, in the recent paintings exhibited at Pace, the efforts to be both gesturally innovative and “human” cancel each other out, leaving us with peculiarly inconsequential if not entirely uninteresting works. The figure tends to become a token, evanescent presence liable to disappear completely in a variety of painterly flourishes. On the other hand, the painterliness seems dragged down by the implied figure, as though its weight were too much for the quasi-spontaneous, would-be lyric strokes to bear. Baselitz’s gestures are peculiarly restrained in most of these works—certainly in comparison to the earlier, more vigorous efforts, in which the strokes seem at once exalted and raw, grating and ebullient; the more autonomous Baselitz’s strokes, the weaker his paintings. In the works at Pace, Baselitz has become too conscious of his own history as both a figural and gestural painter to be completely convincing. They are suave rather than incisive, sophisticated rather than driven.

Nonetheless, there are some innovative touches, such as the sole prints (from a boot?) on the surface of Wienballett (Vienna ballet, 1990), that suggest an awkward pantomime of dance, as though painting itself were a ritual. In works like this Baselitz has given us a stately gesturalism, which is no doubt an uncommon, seemingly self-contradictory phenomenon. Baselitz is clearly into grandeur rather than artificial subtlety. The paint moves from thick to thin and back again with a sleight of hand that would be magical were it invisible. Unfortunately, there seems little spatial tension and excitement between gestures. Still, certain nonfigural works, such as Wurzeln (Roots, 1990–91), have a dramatic simplicity and abstract authenticity, an “inner necessity,” that surpasses mere grandiosity.

I especially liked the two drawings at Pace: Untitled, October 11, 1991, and Untitled, October 22, 1991. In each, a horrific face—a grotesque version of man’s “original face” under the social mask—emerges out of the disintegrative matrix of strokes, as though staring at us from its cell in the underworld. These drawings represent Baselitz at his visionary best: a master of anamorphic hallucination, in which the gestures exist both for their own pictorial intensity and as a means to bring us face-to-face with our “psychotic core.”

What these two works suggest —that these days Baselitz is at his best in an intimate rather than “operatic” medium, testing the border between pure abstraction and figuration—is confirmed by the wonderful drawings and watercolors exhibited at Matthew Marks. The figural element, whether animal, human, or still life, seems merely the stereotypical occasion triggering an often pyrotechnical display of gestures, one sometimes strained by the attempt to turn stereotype into archetype. Many of the works show an aggressive competition between grid and chance gesture—controlled form and seeming formlessness—that makes them miniature tours de force. Again, it is as though Baselitz were evaluating every known Modernist means of creating a dynamic image to test its remaining validity and creative potential. The most “liberated” works are sheer displays of agitated, at times “stuttering” lines, swirling autonomously, which demonstrate that, as in the past, German Expressionism is most vital when it is outwardly small but inwardly cosmic in scale.

Donald Kuspit