New York

George Grosz

George Grosz’s time of greatness was during the Weimar Republic, when he, together with Otto Dix and Kurt Günther, produced what art historian Franz Roh describes as “a new kind of painting: art engagé.” The densely packed, often chaotic and grotesque paintings Grosz made around this time sprawl over the canvas, unlike the graphic works he produced for political journals, which are brilliantly pithy. At once vicious cartoons and pointed journalism, his drawings and lithographs are more clearly addressed to the German public than the grand paintings are. Indeed, if Grosz was, on the one hand, a sardonic journalist, deeply engaged with the everyday world around him, he was, on the other, a would-be grand-manner “history painter” making art that would hold its own, regardless of the changing times.

Grosz came to New York in 1933 and began to teach at the Art Students League just as Hitler was voted into power. Had he not left Germany, “the Nazis would have hanged him,” Roh notes; Grosz had, of course, been included in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937. This recent show at David Nolan of more than two dozen drawings and paintings he made in New York from the late 1930s until shortly before his death in 1959 made the unexpected point that, seen apart from their time and place, Grosz’s earlier works look less aesthetically ingenious and more like an awkward composite of contradictory styles, however engaging they remain as nightmarish fantasies. The Gray Man Dances, 1949, and The Painter of the Hole II, 1950, actually seem even more disturbing and fantastic than the paintings of the ’20s, but they are rendered much more crudely. The vision remains intense, but the handling has dulled. Again and again we see Grosz nostalgically reprising his own achievement—for example, in such graphic pieces as Siegfried Hitler, 1935; So Smells Defeat, 1937; and Stickmen Meeting Members of the Bourgeois, 1946—and also those of his ’20s colleagues, as in Peace, 1944, which borrows the devastated landscape from Otto Dix’s series “Der Krieg” (War), 1924.

Grosz’s antimilitaristic response to the horrors of World War II is apparent in the allegorical God of War, 1940, but he evidently continued to yearn for the bad old Berlin days when he was on the social scene and politically active—indeed, in the center of the action. In New York he was far from the combat, which is why these works seem less combative—or rather why combat takes on a romantic aura, at times, indeed, glibly so. It is hard to make convincing art engagé from a distance, and hard to believe that if one could it would change society. Grosz knew Berlin and Germany and the aftermath of World War I firsthand, but he knew World War II primarily through newspaper photographs and reports. He always had a tendency to surreal grotesqueness—a Germanic fascination with the grotesque—as well as a journalistic curiosity, accuracy, and feeling for the telling fact. These qualities are ingeniously integrated in his German work, especially the lithographs, but they separate in his American output, which lacks the incisive insight into sociopolitical reality for which he is justly famous. Grosz was more interested in American women than in American politics and society, as his Cape Cod nudes show. The enraged caricaturing in many of the more serious paintings here seems a defensive gloss on unavoidably inadequate reporting, suggesting his sense of helplessness in America—his feeling of being a victim rather than a witness.

Donald Kuspit