New York

Georg Baselitz

Gagosian | 522 West 21st Street

Half a dozen wooden figures, all painted and larger than life—and all rather ordinary looking. The Heideggerean issue seems to be how these sculptures transcend their Alltäglichkeit to acquire Eigenlichkeit, moving from the everyday state of mind to the awareness of death that opens the way to authenticity.

Georg Baselitz’s figures embody the dialectical tension between these two conditions: It is evident in the difference between the male figure who holds a skull behind his back—the watch on his right wrist suggesting that time is running out—and the female figure who holds a lunch box behind her back. At Gagosian Gallery they stood across from each other in a community of figures, hinting at their conflicted nature—the hidden truth behind their public appearance. The legs of one female figure face backward while her body faces forward, suggesting the selfcontradiction—indeed, torment—of her existence. It is as though she is two people in one: Her colorful appearance suggests that she presents a pleasant face to the world, even as she turns away from it, perhaps in unconscious horror. Not every figure is as obviously conflicted, but all seem subtly at odds with themselves.

Baselitz’s signature upside-downness, which appears in several black paintings in the show, epitomizes this internal conflict. Abandoned in infinite space, the figures in Baselitz’s paintings have been, to use Heidegger’s idea, thrown toward death but seem unaware that they are falling in nothingness like figures in medieval hell. They continue with their daily lives in apparent—if artificial—comfort, however inwardly tormented their awkward positions suggest they truly are.

The mixed meaning of Baselitz’s wooden figures—they are at once tragic and pedestrian—is visible on the surface of their bodies: The horrific slashes on the surface, which oddly evoke the dueling scars that once served as proof of German manliness, send one meaning, while the delightful blue and pink tints communicate another. If Baselitz’s wooden sculptures are an attempt to convey the body’s lived experience, that experience seems more painful than pleasurable, for the slashes are cut into the surface while the paint merely covers it like sugarcoating.

Baselitz may be ironically juxtaposing sculptural and painterly gestures, but the formal difference is also an expressive one, all the more so because their dynamics are radically at odds. The sculptural gashes, made with chainsaw and chisel, seem openly hostile—they sometimes form parallel lines, like lacerations made by a whip—while the painterly “touches” seem ingratiatingly erotic. Both may be spontaneous, and this quality is colored by opposing instincts. Should the opposites reconcile, Baselitz’s figures would become existentially meaningless, not to say emotionally hollow. He needs the “pandemonium”—to use his own early term—generated by the contradiction in order to be credible.

This mixture of morbid harshness and healing voluptuousness has been a constant of Baselitz’s style from the start. So has a mix of “naive expression,” to use Friedrich Schiller’s term, and aesthetic sophistication. Baselitz has asserted that he is attempting to reconcile German naive realism, rooted in raw sociohistorical experience, and American Abstract Expressionism, understood as tending toward purity (whatever its evocative power). The question that haunts his new work is whether he has become too comfortable with his aestheticized naïveté or, more pointedly, whether the eroticized violence of his emblematic upside-down figures has become a habitual argot or continues to carry power and dialectical conviction. A grotesque stump of a leg with a black-painted boot—its meandering veins and the orderly geometry of its laces perhaps symbolizing the familiar German conflict between crude expression and dogmatic reason—suggests that the mode’s efficacy remains extant. But the row of listless figures in the small watercolors on the wall next to it suggest the contrary. Here is the perennial problem of the aging artist struggling to maintain creative surprise, despite the fact that he can by now accurately predict what he is going to make next.

Donald Kuspit