May 5 – October 6, 2019
Two years ago, speaking from his studio, Georg Baselitz said that he felt “no more aggression” and had “nothing to prove.” His statement might seem disingenuous, given his history and the ambitiously scaled paintings he continues to produce. In his youth, he became a disciplinary problem for the authorities in communist East Germany; he behaved no better as an art student in capitalist West Berlin. Throughout his career, he has flouted political and social decorum; his massive creative output remains undiminished at his advanced age. Why does he still pursue provocative innovation so vigorously, if he has “nothing to prove”? Ever since the 1960s, Baselitz says, he has existed “outside society.” Though he identifies as a German with a German history, he belongs nowhere; whenever the contemporary environment has accommodated his stance, he has shifted it, refusing to follow any collective cultural movement, including whatever might pass for the avant-garde at the various stages of his career. Having nothing to prove (ignoring the public context and its fashions) and having something to prove (acknowledging fashion only to demonstrate one’s resistance to it): both these positions suit an outsider.
In recent years, Baselitz has survived serious illness, hospital stays, and attendant bouts of depression. With his typical irony, he concludes that he has endured everything with which life might confront him, except for experiencing Heaven, which has not yet happened. Perhaps he will find Heaven as intolerable as communism and capitalism. If so, he can go elsewhere. With his life having run its course as a tragic comedy, he has nothing left but to continue painting. In old age, he suggests, “it’s up to [artists] to see how they fill the rest of their days.” To paint is far better than jumping out the window; and to his surprise, his practice keeps changing, just as it had in years past, during his decades of “aggression,” when change served to prevent the reassurance of familiarity. Though his psychological condition has mellowed, even normalized, the “outside” nature of his art remains. To be social is to be “inside” and ideological, to live with shared values. But Baselitz has always struggled to break from ideology, which he has said he “hates.” No ideology is the only acceptable ideology.
Is an academy not a product of ideology? Or perhaps academies generate the ideology they support in return. The artist’s latest exhibition, Baselitz Academy—curated by Kosme de Barañano, at the Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Venezia, timed for the Biennale—has been judiciously selected and is substantial, adequate to represent the artist in his extraordinary complexity. Yet it is nowhere inclusive enough to constitute a true Baselitz retrospective, which would require much more space than available at the Accademia for his many techniques and forms of imagery (he says that we live in a “mannerist” period, meaning that virtually anything goes, not necessarily to our advantage). Baselitz Academy is chronologically discontinuous, one of its points of resistance to coherent ideological formation. The artist wanted to show groups of works that had been important to him but not “clearly appreciated as yet—the portraits [1969–1971], the early nudes [1972–1977, including works painted with the fingers], the negative pictures [2008, 2012].” In addition to these three groups, featured in the larger, more formal spaces of the exhibition, three of his celebrated “Heroes” paintings from 1965–1966 occupy a smaller gallery. There are also several sculptures, both relatively early and relatively late, as well as a fine selection of prints and drawings, though only works of 1959 and into the 1960s. With one exception, all paintings are either from the 1960s and 1970s or the last dozen years.
Without contradiction, Baselitz has been countercultural even as he has respected tradition—or, we might say, his respect for tradition has been countercultural. He has derived imagery and techniques of rendering from the masters of Renaissance Italy and equally from a lineage of early 20th-century modernist innovators. In homage, he depicts Henri Rousseau, Edvard Munch, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner among his strangely moving portraits of 2018, their black surfaces veiled and faded by films of white. Baselitz’s complex allusions to tradition—the “academic” aspect of his Academy within the Accademia di Venezia—asserts his connection to the historical past in favor of any coherent involvement with contemporary trends. As he passes in and out of contemporary life, primarily as an internationally acknowledged painter, sculptor, and printmaker, his past is always present as the referential content of his art. His paintings, he says, constitute a diary, a reflexive contemplation on the directions his art—hence, his life—has taken.
The portraits of 1969 were among the first images that Baselitz inverted, developing a conceit that continues to this day; the device stresses the abstraction, or non-representational character, of images that are obviously representational. His models or sources were Polaroid photographs he took of friends. He viewed these casual snapshots in an inverted orientation as he painted them, as if to deploy the banality of the image to normalize an abnormal perspective, with the ordinariness of the Polaroid seeming to transfer to the radical reordering of the compositional format. Because the artist views his photographic sources as inversions and reproduces them as such, the organic process of painting lends a formal coherence to the image seen in this position. Oddly, if you invert one of these works with the aim of restoring to the portrait its ordinary banality—here, the phrasing is not pleonastic—the composition or formal abstraction will seem off-kilter or plainly wrong in some indefinable manner. At the least, it will seem less coherent than when you reinvert to the original state of inversion. I suppose that Baselitz’s inversion amounts to a case of anamorphosis—a representational conceit of intense interest to him during the 1960s—but this anamorphosis operates at the seldom tested extreme of 180 degrees, as opposed to “normal” anamorphosis set to an angle approaching 90 degrees. Instead of standing to the side to perceive an image returned to its canonical frontal perspective, anamorphic inversion demands standing on one’s head. Yet, an inverted view, like any other view if regarded as an “abstraction,” can be normative to begin with.
Inversion was Baselitz’s way of being a representational painter in a time when representation signified the anti-Western socialism of the East, as well as his way of being an abstract painter when abstraction signified the anti-Eastern capitalism of the West. He removed himself to the outside of everywhere; he was wrong, or anti-, from any position. To be wrong without the possibility of the wrong being righted, is an absurdity: “If you paint a figure not from nature,” Baselitz says, “not after a person before you, but from a photo, and you more or less invent it [as abstraction], then there’s something wooden about it, something stiff. ... These upside-down portraits were naturally demonstrations of absurdity.” Yet they were “stiff” only as portraiture, not as painting. The formal brilliance of Baselitz’s technique counters any representational absurdity. In the portraits, the umber skin tones, oddly cold, nevertheless glow in the presence of the painter’s blues and greens, with the complex of colors establishing novel chromatic chords.
Some of Baselitz’s “negative” paintings have portraiture as their subject, including his use of Otto Dix’s 1924 painting of his parents; others develop narrative images from the Socialist Realism of the artist’s youth in the East. They are negative with respect to reversing (with the aid of a computer) the hues and values of the original photographic sources. Some of the examples in the exhibition have a horizontal register of blank white priming at the bottom of a vertically oriented canvas, occupying a bit more than one sixth of the total surface. This curious configuration underlines that the image is only a painting, distancing the reference, an effect perceived in some postcards and reproductions, where the proportions of the paper fail to match those of the picture The striking image of Elke negativ blau (2012) sets the given whiteness (perhaps the negative of a blackness that could have been there) against the depicted figure clothed in a heavily patterned sweater, a motif that introduces a play of at least two blues and some green and yellow, along with black and white. The register or void of white at the bottom—or, if considering the inversion, at the “top”—becomes just the right quantity of “nothing” to compensate for all the “something” that is Baselitz’s painting.
As someone who contributed essays for several Baselitz exhibitions over the years, I could not move through this one without reconstructing moments of my own edification that occurred from my various experiences, an ever-expanding understanding of visual form linked to Baselitz’s evolution. I was struck by some rough sketches he made in 1959 during his student years in West Berlin, variations on a small 15th-century panel painting, Giovanni di Paolo’s St Clare Rescuing the Shipwrecked (c.1455–1460), then in the Museum Dahlem (though Baselitz’s custom was to draw from reproductions, not work in galleries). Di Paolo was hardly a canonical figure in relation to the norms of the Italian painting of his time. Baselitz has been attracted to many other misfits of cultural history: from the late nineteenth century, the Swede Carl Fredrik Hill; closer to his own era, Antonin Artaud. “When an artist does art history, he doesn’t do it objectively,” Baselitz tells his curator de Barañano: “He asks himself: What can I take from this?” He can take what is “outside society,” outside the prevailing ideology.
Never having forgotten his self-taught lessons of 1959, Baselitz returned in 2000 to the schematic waves with which di Paolo filled the lower half of his painting, developing a variation on the appropriated form to capture the wave-like character of mountain ranges—perhaps a misuse of the misfit. Extending his analogy, he displaced the hovering Saint Clare with an eagle. The more fundamental analogy, mountains to waves, has a geological foundation, a bit of science to be derived from the instincts of representational practice. At the time, Baselitz was re-making a motif of mountains and eagles that had been his subject in 1953, before he knew of di Paolo or much of anything concerning the history of aesthetic insight. He was an East German 15-year-old experimenting at making paintings in a land of censorship. In 2000, the example of St Clare Rescuing the Shipwrecked inspired the aesthetically mature Baselitz to render mountains as a linear pattern of repeating elements—a seemingly simple-minded solution to a representational task. “Mountains and waves, water and stone,” Baselitz told me in 2002, “can be painted using one and the same method.” As much as di Paolo constructed water stiffly (as the artist said of his own portraiture of 1969), Baselitz painted, or re-painted, his mountains fluidly. Through di Paolo, he could connect his anamorphic metamorphosis—upright waves becoming inverted mountains—to the academy, the tradition of humanistic art. His academy accepted all artists, but especially those “outside.”
Passing through the Accademia exhibition, I mentally juxtaposed my recollections of Giovanni di Paolo’s linear precision—which, from my 21st century perspective, verges on decorative fussiness—and Baselitz’s way of rendering mountain peaks with comparable repetition. The exhibition must have reflected many external links and affinities of this kind to visitors already attuned to the range of Baselitz’s art. But as an immediate aesthetic experience, Baselitz Academy demonstrates another quality of the artist as fundamental to him as his capacity for anamorphic and metamorphic invention. His linearity could hardly be more different from di Paolo’s in the fluidity of its exaggerations and excesses. Virtually from the start, the gestures that Baselitz has devised to render his representational subjects have accommodated his abiding need to move quickly, instinctively, spontaneously, whether working on a small drawing sheet or on an oversized canvas that needs to be laid out on the floor of a spacious studio, walked over and knelt upon, as its extensive surface receives the morphing imprints that constitute an image (Baselitz Academy includes two such grandly scaled works from 2018). His lines and strokes are consistently irregular and spotty; their taper expresses the variation in force as the artist sets down one mark after another. The analogy in his sculptures of wood (and in bronze castings from wood) is the slicing cut of a power saw that articulates the volumetric block. Even the images of his woodcuts of the 1960s appear as if cut with a fluid stroke; and his lack of precise registration in prints of more than one color adds to the sense of both spontaneity and impatience.
Perhaps this impatience, so often and so variously in evidence, has always been the surest sign of the “aggression” and need “to prove” that Baselitz now says he no longer experiences. But the productive side of impatience—the inventive spontaneity—remains in everything he does.