On ViewHaus Der Kunst
Markus Lüpertz: Toward the Image through Art
September 13, 2019 – January 26, 2020
What characterizes the art of Markus Lüpertz? Above all, his interest in the fundamental features of image-making, whether two-dimensionally in painting or three-dimensionally in sculpture. If we follow the curatorial lead through Lüpertz’s retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, we witness an artist investigating in still imagery what the masters of 20th century cinema explored in moving pictures. Presenting a deeply researched account, curator Pamela Kort demonstrates the numerous analogies to filmic practice in Lüpertz’s art. Her essay for the catalogue, “Markus Lüpertz and the Cinema,” could well have provided the exhibition title, but a different one was chosen, presumably with the curator and artist in accord: Über die Kunst zum Bild [Toward the Image through Art]. Without discounting Kort’s compelling cinematic thesis, a more general conclusion emerges from the six decades of Lüpertz’s painting and sculpture: regarded in its entirety, his art establishes structural principles that extend beyond specific media to all representational practices.
Representation constitutes everything that we perceive. To comprehend an object or condition is to have represented it as its image, distinct from other images. Through his art—“toward the image through art”—Lüpertz has been exposing the abstraction that underlies all representation. No matter how direct the impression, an image is a representation once removed from its source—an abstraction or sign, a phenomenological transference to something other than itself. Abstraction in art has a material foundation that commonly involves a decrease in dimensionality (projecting three into two, as painting and drawing do); it can also generate an increase in dimensionality (projecting two into three—an example will come). This, at least, seems implied by Lüpertz’s aesthetic adventures from the 1960s to now.
Toward the Image through Art occupies twelve spacious galleries within the Haus der Kunst; it opened on September 13, 2019 and is scheduled to close on January 26, 2020. Despite the casualness of his studio methods, Lüpertz appreciates organized pomp; for the exhibition, he designed a ceremonial entrance at the exterior, suited to the grand scale of the building. It set the emotional tone for what would be encountered inside, including five works from the late 1960s of extraordinary size, hung in the central gallery—four in horizontal format, one in vertical, with the width of two of the horizontal compositions, Railway Line and Westwall (referring to the defensive tank barrier built by the Third Reich), extending to 41 feet. These are severely abstracted, patterned works, set into dioramic perspective as in instances of early modern spectacle. Their scale suits the “fascist” architecture that contains them; yet, as hand-painted graphic forms, the stark geometry of these oversized images resists all accommodation. Railway Line and Westwall will be out of place anywhere. Half a century after their creation, they continue to shock.
Following Pamela Kort, we might imagine that the internal repetitiveness of Westwall—its grid of trapezoidal, prismatic solids—registers the optical play of perspective, as if a wide-angle movie camera were panning an expansive terrain. Lüpertz’s image, however, remains unmoving. It lacks the spatio-temporal progression of film, as if a film strip had become stuck in its projector. Lüpertz has represented a passage of time that nevertheless remains locked in stasis—41 feet of change without significant difference. Yes, Westwall connotes temporality, but oddly, because it induces a viewer to move (with it) along its length. In this respect, filmic time has been represented, though by an artist laboring by hand for a viewer who must also become bodily engaged. The image corporealizes Lüpertz’s time and space, inverting the temporal reference.
The eccentric proportion of height to width in Westwall, 1 to 6.25, evokes the American West as it might appear in an exaggerated version of CinemaScope (its normal aspect, about 1 to 2.5). Lüpertz assimilated the cinematic space-time of Westerns. Kort quotes his recollections of the 1960s: “I was fascinated by the time sequence of a film and its form, the one of thousands of images. That I painted an image three or ten times, in almost the same shape, has to do with the unfolding of time in the cinema.” The reference is to one of Lüpertz’s jarring idiosyncrasies, his custom of painting multiple versions of a representational image, all nearly identical, save for the variation or imprecision one would expect from relatively rapid renderings. As an example, the exhibition includes eight paintings from 1967, all bearing the title Dachpfanne [Roof Tile]; they comprise two sets of four (two different types of tile), looking quite alike and interchangeable as representation, but somewhat distinct as painting. Representational sign and painted surface diverge. “This was my idea of painting movement,” Lüpertz says; “you make not one, you make three, or a hundred.”
Lüpertz’s connection to his experience of film imagery became especially concrete when he executed a great number of drawings during 1964 and 1965, elaborating on a pictorial theme he named his “Dithyrambs.” Forty of these works hang in the exhibition, and the catalogue illustrates still more, including one in which a structure rendered volumetrically (as if two dimensions into three) projects its own form as a flat anamorphic pattern on the ground beside it (as if three dimensions into two). The term “dithyramb” refers to Dionysiac poetry, song, and dance, characterized by wildly irregular rhythms. Lüpertz derived the concept from Nietzsche; but, as visual form, his dithyramb had a different source. It mimicked the odd structural order of the Twentieth Century Fox corporate logo, appearing at the start of many movies that the artist viewed at the time. The studies deriving from this logo manifest Lüpertz’s fascination with filmic experience. They also demonstrate a concern to project the three dimensions of space into the two of drawing, and even to set the four dimensions of temporality into three- and two-dimensional structures. To put it another way, Lüpertz sought to figure his representations through abstraction: “I didn’t want to paint figuratively anymore, so I invented something abstract that is also figurative, a dithyramb.”
Perhaps a note that Lüpertz wrote to himself around 1966 remains the most succinct statement of his purpose: “One must find an objective occasion to paint abstractly.” We need to unpack the difference in Lüpertz’s thought and practice between objectivity and abstraction. Assume that what is objective is real. In contradistinction, what is abstract must be fictive—a manipulation, condensation, or reduction of the real to its efficient sign. This opposition (unfiltered reality to filtered abstraction) may explain why abstract art has sometimes been called “non-objective.” Profiting from a bit of linguistic drift, we can think of an “objective occasion” (or occasion of objectivity) as an existing subject suited to representation, the antithesis of a “non-objective” or invented abstraction. Lüpertz’s statement, addressed to himself, called upon him to seek a subject of objective representation that could be painted abstractly, that is, non-objectively. A paraphrase of his somewhat paradoxical notion emerges: One must find a representation suited to being painted abstractly. Such a conversion—representation to abstraction—would move visual experience “toward the image through art” (to invoke the title of the exhibition). As I’ve indicated, Lüpertz characterized his dithyramb accordingly: “something abstract that is also figurative.”
The Fox logo presents an inscription, “20th CENTURY FOX,” as if it were projected forward as a solid volume in the form of an architectural construct, like a classical entablature crowning an imposing edifice. The logo-as-architecture appears in oblique perspective, with a right angle projecting forward and its two sides receding from view, each diminishing in height. Lüpertz sometimes imitated this oblique perspective; but many of his early paintings set a free abstraction of the Fox logo into what approaches an isometric rendering, with a flat frontal plane and recession occurring only to one side and sometimes along the top or bottom of an isolated form. He converted the “2” of “20” to a loop and the “0,” naturally enough, to another loop, linking the loops by a linear bar or another curve; this became his dithyrambic abstraction, applied helter-skelter to the construction of representational images. By this device, Lüpertz generated figurative abstractions, converting objective representations to general signs. “I have no interest in the motif as such,” he proclaims. His concern is not the iconography but the structure.
Or, as Lüpertz once defined his aim, he would “force objects into monumentality.” What could he have meant? Think of the Fox logo, and how strange it is to project a number, a graphic cipher, into perspective. Numbers are two-dimensional when materially signified, and even one-dimensional in concept, “pure” abstractions. Architecturally, an entablature is itself shallow relief, designed primarily for its effect as a planar image. The Fox logo entablature, a fantasy structure, assumes the shape of “20,” which it extends deep into indeterminate relief—a dramatic case of an increase in dimensionality. The sense of endless depth projects the image in time as much as in space (like cinematic space-time). Rendered solid, “20” becomes an object cast into non-objective monumentality.
The forty dithyramb drawings, accompanied by three early paintings that also derive from the Fox logo, occupy much of the first gallery of Lüpertz’s retrospective. They set a dithyrambic pulse for whatever will follow. Yet no evident sequence or chronological development appears, as some rooms contain works of the 2010s beside others of the 1960s and 1970s. A mixed chronology serves this artist well, evidence of his structural consistency. By chance, as I wandered from room to room in the exhibition, Dreamer—a figure painting of 2014, about 79 inches in height—became my final stop. I felt that here Lüpertz’s entire career somehow coalesced.
Dreamer appears to have been painted with great rapidity. Indeed, speed shows in the physical way Lüpertz handles both surfaces and substances, not only in painting on canvas or paper but also in his modeling of casts in bronze. His sculpted work constructs human figures as segmented forms butted together, often with variation in scale among the parts (an oversize head on a tapering body). The combination and recombination of elements of plaster can proceed quickly with fluid gestures of attachment, removal, and reattachment. I imagine a work rhythm paced to the speed of intuition rather than to deliberative planning. In most cases, Lüpertz finishes his sculpture with a multicolored surface of paint that respects the internal divisions, yet not precisely. The two-dimensional painting of surfaces can be accomplished with dispatch by a skilled hand, like the three-dimensional modeling of volumes.
Dreamer depicts a nude seen from the back, a figural type common in Lüpertz’s art, in this instance male, in other cases female, and sometimes gender-indeterminate, gender-fluid. A related series of Rückenakte—nude figures seen from the back, of which seven are in the exhibition—derive from a chance view of the artist’s wife, an image that seems to have settled permanently in Lüpertz’s memory. Despite the source, many figures in this series of well over one hundred paintings appear at least as masculine as feminine. Some have been rendered on coarse cast-away materials: wooden panels featuring knots, scratches, and splintering; canvases marred by intractable creases. Lüpertz treats all materials matter-of-factly, while managing, despite the irregularities, to attain elegant color harmonies, subtle compositions, and nuanced plays of texture. He might be accused of fetishizing the cultural status of art and the artist, but he can hardly be condemned for obsessing over the creative process. However impetuous he may be, he has no material standards or aesthetic regulations to violate.
Just as many of Lüpertz’s figures are gender-fluid, many are equally fluid with respect to history: they connote different eras. The figure of Dreamer evokes the ancient Belvedere torso, but its origin is Jacques-Louis David’s study of the model known as Patroclus. What might appear to be the truncated head and arm of a damaged fragment of statuary corresponds to the posture of the late eighteenth-century model. David may have been thinking of antique figures as he represented what was for him a living contemporary. As Lüpertz painted Dreamer, he is likely to have mused over both the ancient world and the early modern, and even to have contemplated the back view of his own sculpture Achilles, a work of the same year. His art reflects on how the body becomes a timeless sign through time, collapsing time into its form, just as its image collapses three dimensions into two. Dreamer incorporates the four dimensions of historical time, the three of spatial volume, and the two of projective, planar imagery. This objective representation is trebly abstract.
Lüpertz set his historically fluid figure into a wooded north German landscape featuring a canalized stream—a site contemporary and localized. Given the material liquidity through which he rendered the male body, little conceptual distance separates the evoked atmospheric moisture of the scene from the constitutive wetness of the painted image, with its vertical, runaway streaking. Yet these prominent drips lack an evident representational function, referring only to themselves as a surface phenomenon of diluted paint. Dreamer satisfies another of Lüpertz’s stated aims: “I paint to make it look like a painting.”
In the nominal background of Dreamer, drips of light blue “sky” intersect with other surface effects that ought to be continuous, such as the verticals of dark brown that render the trunks of trees; this contrast of both hue and value creates an abstraction, a pattern of interference, light against dark. The drips do not “represent” in an iconic sense (resembling what they refer to) but do so in an indexical sense (reflecting their causal history); they indicate the effect of gravity on paint as Lüpertz worked on a canvas secured in an upright position. The drips are an incidental, perhaps inadvertent byproduct of the rapidity of the painter’s handling of a brush; and if we were to seek their cause beyond this immediate physical one, we would turn to the artist’s existential condition.
To the extent that we can isolate an entity by naming or otherwise identifying it, it assumes an existential presence, whether possessing sentience or not. The existential being of Lüpertz’s liquidity splits into an inanimate side, the physicality of paint, and an animate side—the sensory, emotional, and cognitive state of the motivating artist, his awareness or consciousness of the moment. To observe that the representational status of Lüpertz’s drips is interpretively ambiguous is to realize that Dreamer is an image of relatively low resolution. Its ambiguities, which are also interpretive opportunities, mount. Consider that a thin wash of dull green represents a mass of tree foliage near the top margin of the canvas, while virtually the same color renders the grassy banks bordering the stream below. By common convention, a green of any kind can signify vegetation; Lüpertz’s green accomplishes nothing more specific because it fails to differentiate foliage from meadowland. The descriptive color becomes symbolic or, more to the point, abstract—a reduction to an all-purpose, generic marker of vegetation. The shifting referential function of Lüpertz’s green meets his early aim of converting representation to abstraction, the objective to the non-objective.
These conceptual speculations on time, space, and now color should not distract from the aesthetic wonder of Lüpertz’s art. To experience sheer chromatic beauty—color abstracted—view the south wall of the central gallery, where Westwall hangs high on the opposite side. Here two dithyrambic paintings of 1965 alternate with three “Arcadian” pictures of 2012, much larger images and connotatively fluid. Their combinations of nude figures, high-rise apartment blocks, rustic villages, hilltop castles, Pegasus-like horses, and beached boats (from Gustave Courbet) signify diverse eras while compressing historical time. The array of five paintings, which mixes early Lüpertz with late, integrates all by chromatic structure. This wall of color is utterly transfixing—a testament to abstraction in the guise of representation.