New York

Georg Baselitz

Zwirner & Wirth

Fracture, distortion, murky handling of paint—these have long been the mainstays of Georg Baselitz’s art, as this exhibition of his early drawings and paintings indicated. On display were works made during the ’60s, when Baselitz was in headlong rebellion against the School of Paris, which seemed to have reached a dead end in a tachism that had become decorative, and the School of New York, which was witnessing the birth of Pop and Minimalism. At the time, making an “art of the insane” and coming into one’s own through “pandemonium,” to refer to the title of Baselitz’s 1961 manifesto, was not only to announce one’s alienation from postwar Germany but to return to the roots of art in the unconscious. It was to be hot at a time when cool was in, to indulge authenticity and overstatement when understatement and irony were fashionable.

Baselitz insisted, then as he does now, that he was making a “new image” that escaped “interpretations or associations.” This is patent nonsense, considering that so many images here were grotesque renderings of the human body with a particular emphasis on its sexual parts. His gesturalism owes an enormous debt to Lovis Corinth and Chaim Soutine—ostensibly minor artists who made surface much more painterly, and thus more intense, than it had hitherto been. And many of Baselitz’s fantasies tap into social clichés. Whipping Woman, 1964, illustrates an aggressively demeaning view of woman as mindless body—all bloated belly and breasts, topped by a tiny head. Baselitz’s Untitled (new man), a 1965 drawing, depicts a figure that is isolated and abandoned, but the artist still conveys a traditional belief in male dominance and authority. For all of the subject’s manneristic distortion and air of futility, he retains a certain grandeur.

Indeed, the issue of whether Baselitz’s “new man” was in fact the old Nazi Aryan type in tragic disguise continues to haunt the artist. But his decisive fragmentation obviously contradicts the Nazi version of the classical figure, rehabilitating expressionistic art and emphasizing the individual in a way that unequivocally damns National Socialism and mass society. For the artist, who took Artaud as an early role model, emotional disturbances are acts of rebellion against the forced, dreary collective life he experienced as a youth in East Germany (which, he has said, differed from Nazi Germany only in its uniforms).

Nonetheless, Baselitz’s figures are deeply German in their roots in nature: They are neither cogs in a totalitarian society nor the democratic consumers the Germans had become but rather “expressions” of nature. The body parts of humans and animals merge with tree stumps; the organic character of the body overwhelms its human identity in many images. Baselitz might have what has been called a German Antaeus complex. He takes comfort from Mother Nature, which renews his creative strength just as it renewed Antaeus’s power, making the mythical figure invincible until Hercules strangled him. Does Baselitz’s early work depict the German Antaeus’s scream—the release of “strangulated affect,” as Freud called it—as he realizes that his heroic days are over and that he is about to die? The scream of existential agony is often regarded as the essence of Expressionism, and Baselitz may well have been mourning the loss of German masculinity to history.

Donald Kuspit