Jörg Immendorff

Neue Nationalgalerie

THE EMINENT SPEAKERS at the September opening of Jörg Immendorff’s Neue Nationalgalerie retrospective “Male Lago: Unsichtbarer Beitrag” (Male Lago: Invisible Contribution), included Gerhard Schröder, who just a few days earlier, on the eve of Germany’s federal elections, had made a remarkable appearance on national television. Clearly exhausted after weeks of campaign battles he still exuberantly claimed to be the only person in the country able to form a government. By the time of the opening, despite the fact that most voters had actually cast their ballots for the various parties of the Left, Schröder’s days in office were numbered, but Immendorff had made it clear that his own political affinities were aligned with those of the majority. Throughout this sprawling exhibition, the artist announces his political leanings via his excessive use of the color red—the red of the Social Democrats, of the Red Army and of the Maoist “bible.”

This heraldic gesture is visible even from afar. Peering through the Mies van der Rohe–designed building’s glass walls as you approach, you see what appears to be a miniature scarlet city installed within the museum—an architectural agglomeration consisting of freestanding walls and six angular pavilions interconnected by curving, branching red-carpet pathways. (The carpet runs right up to the exhibition’s entrance, as if to greet emissaries and celebrities.) Following it through the exhibition, visitors find themselves navigating open spaces and culs-de-sac, wandering past banners bearing absurd slogans like DER GARTEN MACHT UNS FERTIG (The garden is killing us) or such confrontational questions as WO STEHST DU MIT DEINER KUNST KOLLEGE? (Where do you stand with your art, colleague?) interspersed among paintings dating from the mid-’60s to the present. Along the way are groupings of bronze sculptures, simian figures that grotesquely paraphrase Degas’s ballet dancers. And at the center of the installation is an assemblage of stencils and other painter’s paraphernalia hanging from a wooden armature as if from a gallows tree—a reference, perhaps, to the artist’s illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which has left him unable to handle a brush. (Assistants now make his paintings according to his instructions.) Meanwhile, digital projections of various Immendorff motifs—monkeys, eyes—flicker on screens suspended from the ceilings, so that the art literally comes at the audience from all sides.

Immendorff’s preoccupation with the politics of space is a kind of idée fixe, traceable from his late-’60s maps and plans for a utopian community; to his paintings of a mythical cabaret on the border between East and West Germany (the “Café Deutschland” series, 1978–82); and, finally, to this bright red mini-city. While the color scheme telegraphs the artist’s long-standing allegiance to the Left, his presentation of a neatly contained, institutionally sanctioned “city” contrasts curiously with his earliest forays into the creation of social space, which stemmed from the belief that collectivism—and the social and architectural interventions that facilitate it—might activate art’s revolutionary potential. As a student at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the late ’60s, Immendorff, influenced by his teacher Joseph Beuys, staged numerous politically charged performances and Fluxus-like actions that critiqued postwar German society. The most famous of these were carried out under the rubric Lidl (a nonsense moniker in the tradition of “Dada”) and culminated in the creation of autonomous spaces such as the Lidl-Raum, 1968–69, and the Lidlakademie, 1969. The latter was a sort of ideal art school, open to all, housed in a portable shed and focusing on the erasure of boundaries between art and social action. Immendorff’s provocative attempt to set up this mobile institution in a hallway at the Kunstakademie got him expelled, just as Beuys would be “expelled” a few years later. What might in retrospect seem a quaintly theatrical attempt to assume the mantle of the “militant” or “radical” was, in fact, an action grounded in real political conflict and linked to substantial personal risk.

But Immendorff’s political activities, as well as his performance, are given relatively short shrift in this exhibition. Tellingly, the legendary 1967 Lidl-Block—a rectangular piece of wood with a crude rendition of the German flag painted on each side—appears under a Plexiglas cover, like a fetish. There is no explanation of how, during a 1968 protest in Bonn, Immendorff tied it to his leg and dragged it in front of the Bundestag until the police intervened. Artifacts and documentation of other actions, such as the artist’s teach-ins, Vietnam protests, or cofounding of a tenants’-rights group, are also somewhat sparse. The massive catalogue for the show does include a rich collection of pamphlets, posters, and other ephemera, but they are not coherently orga- nized. Instead, the volume, like the exhibition itself, foregrounds a single aspect of Immendorff’s practice: his paintings. These, of course, also have a political dimension—for example, his 1973 portraits of Stalin, Lenin, and Mao, or his fantastic series “Rechenschaftsbericht” (Statement of Accounts), 1971–72, in which Immendorff used text and images to histrionically explore the conflict between his personal ambition and his collectivist ideals. (Consider Ich wollte Künstler werden [I Wanted to Become an Artist], 1972, where we find Immendorff in a garret, dreaming of getting great reviews even as he castigates himself for his self-absorption.) Such subjects and themes—as well as the agitatory, autocritical quality of his figurative language, which always seems to be struggling to justify itself—could certainly have been illuminated by a fuller explication of his early identification with Communist ideals, Maoism, and various left-wing groups.

In any case, we do get a sense of the persistent tension, in Immendorff’s work, between political concerns and overweening self-regard. As did ex-chancellor Schröder in his recent television appearance, the exhibition shows signs of delusions of grandeur, though here you also find irony behind the egotism. The painting that greets visitors at the exhibition’s entrance, Deutschland in Ordnung bringen (Put Germany Straight), 1983, sets the tone: It’s understood, of course, that the artist himself is the one who will set things right. Like other German painters late in the cold war (Markus Lüpertz, Georg Baselitz, and, later, Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen), Immendorff was drawn to history painting, which was decried at the time as hopelessly regressive. But he and his cohorts recognized the incendiary potential of such a genre at a moment when history itself was virtually taboo in Germany. In his own reanimation of history painting, Immendorff vacillated between the directness and legibility of agitprop and the Neue Wilde idiom of the early ’80s, often combining textual elements and figuration with proto-expressionist zones of smeared paint. Thus he demonstrated that pictorial languages that might seem mutually exclusive (e.g., Expressionism and social realism) need not be seen as antipodes. Deutschland in Ordnung bringen, a friezelike panorama of a teeming bar or nightclub apparently descended from the imaginary Café Deutschland, exemplifies this marriage of opposites. Immendorff portrays himself in the work not once but several times, following the aphoristic articulation of the split subject, L’AUTRE C’EST MOI (The other is me), emblazoned on one of the ban- ners in the show. To fully grasp the painting’s nuances, it’s essential to know that in the early ’80s Immendorff was cultivating a sort of pimp look—lots of leather, lots of jewelry. Here, he and his doppelgängers are depicted in full regalia, presenting themselves as the nation’s unsavory saviors. In addition, a pair of swastika-shaped chunks of ice, symbolizing Germany—the figure is another of Immendorff’s recurring motifs—crop up in Deutschland in Ordnung bringen, one of them bleeding surreally from jagged cuts. The artist hovers over the object as if to tend the wounds of his divided country. In fact, the division of Germany may be called the agonal principle that motivated and structured Immendorff’s work from the mid-’70s until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throughout the paintings of this period, we find images of barbed wire and forbidding walls, but we also find Immendorff and East German painter A. R. Penck hugging, allegorizing an end to the conflict (auf geht’s [Come On], 1976).

In later paintings, contemporary West German artists and heroes of the art-historical canon (always male) begin to show up more and more. Immendorff has always imagined himself in exalted company, as in Ready-made de l ́histoire. Vater von Morgana/avec Marcel dans Café de Flore (Readymade of History: Father of Morgana/With Marcel in the Café de Flore), 1987, which features the artist in a banquette next to Marcel Duchamp. Recently, he has been communing with Sigmar Polke and Albrecht Dürer, appropriating benday dots from the former and images from the latter’s engravings.

Today, Immendorff is one of the best-known artists in Germany. One could say that by playfully proposing himself as a “state artist,” on a par with the likes of Polke and Dürer, he has actually become one. Yet ironically, the more established he becomes, the more he seems compelled to underscore his own significance. The title of his recent painting Gestatten, mein Name ist Geschichte (Allow Me, My Name Is History), 2005, seems yet another example of his penchant for positioning himself in the annals of greatness. Claiming historical status for his “name,” Immendorff is saying that his art and his reputation will live on forever. But the painting is also haunted by a sense of mortality—it is, in fact, an allegory of death. The central figure here is a skeleton, suggesting that the speaker of the title, the artist himself, is offering a posthumous self-assessment.

Despite Immendorff’s cocky gestures and genius-artist posturing, his paintings always contain complex conceptual elements. Moving through the exhibition, one can reconstruct an agenda that is linguistic as well as painterly, conceptual as well as expressive. In fact, many works could almost be categorized as institutional critique, since they reflect on the institution of art. There are even early paintings explicitly engaging issues that preoccupied American Conceptualists—for example, the text painting Rennendes Pferd, Weise, hauender Adler (Running Horse, Meadow, Striking Eagle), 1966, which resonates with the idea of “a linguistic turn.” Gestatten . . . is another example of a painting that functions primarily as a linguistic gesture.

What has changed in the forty years between Rennendes Pferd . . . and Gestatten . . . , of course, is that Immendorff’s aspirations to relate his work to social realities have been replaced by an ambition to place it in the context of art history. The central debates that once animated his practice—internal conflicts between ambition and conscience, external conflicts between himself and society—seem to have been resolved. At the Neue Nationalgalerie, he was given carte blanche to realize his vision, and the “city” he chose to create was not a utopian collective like the Lidlstadt but instead what is in essence a giant display case for his own production. Still, this exhibition does gesture beyond the labels, like neo-expressionism or Neue Wilde, that have often defined Immendorff, providing a glimpse of the complexity of his practice and hinting that to pigeonhole his oeuvre under such reductive terms is to gravely misunderstand it. While the show perhaps lacks the breadth one might hope for, it does convey a sense of the gambles taken in Immendorff’s art—even if the gambles taken are not as great as they once were.

Translated from German by Brian Currid.

Isaelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic.

“Male Lago: Unsichtbarer Beitrag” (Male Lago: Invisible Contribution), organized by Peter-Klaus Schuster and Anette Hüsch, remains on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, through January 22.