New York

Antonius Höckelmann

This exhibition of Antonius Höckelmann’s drawings and sculptures from the ’60s made it clear that he is one of the masters of postwar German art. His work is not unrelated to that of Georg Baselitz, who invited him to participate in the publication of the “Pandemonium Manifesto” in 1961. Though Höckelmann declined, this was not an indication that there was no pandemonium in his art. Everything here moves toward a demonic amorphousness, often triggered by an overly sensitive response to genitalia and excrement. His work also seems genuinely pathological—a fixated expression of profound conflict, shattering the very substance of the self. The artist sometimes twists body parts beyond untwisting, as in the sculpture of an impossibly bent arm, suggesting that the crumbling body-ego is his subject. Expressionistic drawings are known for their troubled gestural surfaces, but Höckelmann’s seem particularly disturbed, implying that an even more fundamental disturbance is at stake—the tearing of the ego skin that keeps the body together and mediates between inside and outside. In general, the drawings are striking for their involuted energy—perverse because it has no channel it can flow into, and no object to which it can securely attach itself. This is the art of someone who has been forced back on a self he does not know.

Nature conceived as simultaneously expressive and graphic is Höckelmann’s point of departure. Organic forms are regarded as nature’s self-expression, encouraging Höckelmann’s own self-expression, indeed, inviting him to merge with nature—to lose himself in it, or rather to confirm that he has lost his self. His is a nature that offers no redemption, and an art of massive, willful regression, with no desire to return to society. Indeed, like Baselitz’s pandemonic art, it is profoundly critical of society’s treatment of the self, which can only be saved if it becomes radically bodily, even if that ultimately means one loses all sense of what it is to be in the world. Höckelmann’s art, even more than Baselitz’s, is one of radical disorientation—one of the things signaled by the amorphous, especially when it becomes so radical it resists any definite shape.

There is a sinister tone to Höckelmann’s drawings and sculptures, suggesting that they are not all free expression but peculiarly inhibited, twisted in on themselves. They indicate that the macabre wit of Höckelmann’s gesture has more to do with aggression than libido, torment (even torture) than ecstasy. One cannot help thinking of them as yet another morbid German reaction to World War II, which Höckelmann experienced firsthand as a boy. His works are ultimately masochistic in import, as are Baselitz’s pandemonium works, but whereas Baselitz blamed society for the suffering, especially the German suffering, in World War II (in effect revolting against it in the very act of articulating it), Höckelmann blamed himself. As a result, his expressionism is more tragic than that of Baselitz.

Donald Kuspit