New York

Jörg Immendorff

Anton Kern Gallery / Michael Werner Gallery

Painting must take on the function of the potato.
—Jörg Immendorff, 1966

Discussions of Jörg Immendorff’s artistic itinerary often begin with a painting from 1966, when he was still a student of Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. The words Hört auf zu malen—“Stop painting”—are smeared over an impulsively crossed-out bed, with Beuys’s signature hat hung on the bedpost. Like Brecht’s Erst kommt das Fressen (“Grub comes first”), Immendorff’s injunction analogizing paintings and potatoes signaled a determination to make art that was humanly useful in some basic way. Shaped paintings of fat-cheeked, Buddhalike babies in lurid fleshtones—brown, yellow, red, as well as pink-served as emblematic props in Immendorff's Fluxus-inspired Happening of the late ’60s, which he christened Lidl. Named after the alleged sound of a baby's rattle, Lidl, like Dada—itself a nursery term—used regressive conduct as a form of cultural protest. Hence the slogans in baby-talk, such as “Teine Tunst Mache.” (Keine Kunst Mache translates as “Don’t make art!”) Just as “Stop painting” used painting in a self-stultifying way, Won’t make art!” was a way of making art that deconstructed artmaking as institutionally understood. Lidlakademie—a kind of alternative academy-within-the-academy that was part of the Happening—was a way of symbolically beginning all over again. Lidlstadtplan, a childish exercise of urban planning, was dedicated to “All the darlings in the world.” The baby was Lidl’s political paradigm, as play was its artistic means.

Lidl managed to do what Happenings were supposed to have done, namely, make something happen. It was not merely an episode in art history but helped shape the political reality of its time. Immendorff was arrested when he paraded in front of the parliament building in Bonn, dragging by his leg a block painted in the black, red, and gold of the German flag and with the word Lidl written on it. The Lidl-Raum, in Düsseldorf, as the center of such Lidl activities as teach-ins, was finally considered sufficiently threatening to authority to be cleared out by the police in 1969. “I am for a form of art.” Immendorff said in Venice in 1976, “that sees itself as one of the many means through which human society can be changed.”

A good painting, by Immendorff’s criterion, is to be judged the way a good potato is judged. As an agent of metabolism, the potato’s lack of formal beauty is neither here nor there. “The enemy of painting, within the painter, is the painter’s best friend” is one of the artist’s slogans. Questions of aesthetic merit evaporate when assessing the Lidl babies. We assess them in terms of the role they play in the enactment of a political-educational agitation. When Immendorff became a Maoist in 1973, he used the format of the didactic comic-strip panel as a way for painting to subserve action. When he addressed a divided Germany in his Café Deutschland pictures, he used “bad painting” as the political painter's best friend. The ’80s label Neo-Expressionist utterly obscured Immendorff’s agenda. The defining preoccupation of his life has always been how to be a painter in the political landscape of late-twentieth-century history. His work has been an unfurling self-portrait of the artist as activist, using whatever pictorial means that seem to suit the occasion. So precisely what kind of potatoes are the recent paintings that were shown at Michael Werner Gallery while an array of ephemera associated with Lidl was on view at Anton Kern downtown? Into what structure of action do they fit?

The new paintings are uncharacteristically subdued and in a way universal—advancing certain large philosophical views about human life. In tone and imagery, they could be taken to illustrate a famous melancholy thought of Hegel’s: “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old. . . . The Owl of Minerva takes flight only with the falling of the dusk.” Owls, one of them indeed painted gray in gray, appear in at least two of the paintings; and though this may seem too slender a basis for an interpretation, the overall iconography seems largely pessimistic. Symbols from Immendorff’s lexicon reappear here, drawn in grisaille, often in gray cartouches. Consider Enormous, 1999. It shows a man, presumably the artist himself, walking resolutely out of the picture, pulling a medieval maze behind him. Man, rope, and labyrinth are diminutive relative to a large black iris, with which they share the picture's space. The man has a globe rather than a head, and the globe itself is ringed with figures copied from a famous 1596 etching by the Dutch artist Jacob de Gheyn. Gheyn’s globe is a recurring motif here and is in fact the subject of one of the paintings. It's an allegory of history as a cycle: Fortune leads to Prosperity, giving way to Pride, which generates Envy and leads to War, then Poverty, then Humility, and finally Peace. The cycle then begins again—scarcely an activist's philosophy of history. A Tower of Babel—with the Lidl block at its base—spirals up to a maze that crowns it. In one painting the tower shares space with an ominously veiled wagon, in another with a dead tree. An artist's palette hangs on a broken limb; a forked branch holds a maulstick. A nude with a single crutch, appropriated from Hans Baldung Grien, silhouetted in gray, looms over a veiled maze. Some of the paintings—those with the large flowers—have the feeling of vanitas. There is one sign of hope: a caterpillar. In two paintings the caterpillar carries a brush. The world’s a muddle, but painting will show the way out—if there is a way out.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.