On ViewThe Morgan Library And Museum
Georg Baselitz: Six Decades of Drawing
October 21, 2022–February 5, 2023
If entelechy is the process by which something becomes what nature intended it to be—the fertilized egg becomes the human being, the acorn the oak tree—then Georg Baselitz leapfrogged it, springing, like Athena, fully grown from his own forehead. His evolution into himself takes place in a remarkably short time, and he seems to have known who he was, personally and artistically, early on. He was born in 1938 in the town of Deutschbaselitz, in what would become East Germany, and changed his name from Hans-Georg Kern to Georg Baselitz in 1961, two years before he made the first drawing in this show. He took absolute charge of himself: he not only names himself but defines himself.
We may safely disregard Baselitz’s work before 1962, when he was twenty-four years old, as juvenilia. He himself does so, in effect saying that after 1961 he will be who he declares himself to be once and for all: Baselitz. The only significant later change in Baselitz’s style takes place in 1969, when he begins making images upside down. Why he chose to do this is a mystery—perhaps simply to shock the viewer, but perhaps also to consider more forcefully art’s relation to life. Inverted images, inevitably, remind us that mirrors not only reflect reality but are the things we peer into to find ourselves. An ordinary mirror returns a laterally reversed image of the object before it, but a concave mirror produces a vertically inverted image provided the object is more than one focal length from the mirror. So, if we stand close to a concave mirror, we see our actual reflection, but as we step back from it, the image becomes first distorted, then inverted.
Baselitz, in effect, has been carrying out such optical experiments, using a mental or imaginary concave mirror to produce his own reality. This use of optics locates him in an artistic tradition that goes back at least to the sixteenth century, but Baselitz is not attempting to achieve a higher degree of realism. To the contrary, he is using an optical pretext (the inverted image in a concave mirror) to make the given world over in his own image, much as renaming himself makes him his own creation.
The Morgan Library and Museum’s superb show of drawings made between 1963 and 2018 takes us deep into Baselitz territory, and the fact that we are seeing drawings reminds us that these images all possess a spontaneity, even an aleatory nature, albeit within the framework of Baselitz’s modified Expressionist aesthetic. P.D. (1963), our point of departure, shows Baselitz engaged with post-World War II German reality. The “P.D.” refers to the Pandemonic Manifesto he composed with fellow artist Eugen Schönebeck which addresses the confusion and contradictions of the German situation by mirroring it perfectly: the document is angry, confused, and chaotic. The 24-by-19 inch drawing enacts that mental state as well. A mutilated colossus stands in the foreground of a plane that recedes to the horizon line, while behind him looms a cloud, perhaps nuclear. Baselitz’s image recalls Goya’s Colossus (1808–12), but with important differences. Goya’s (if in fact the painting is by him) titan strides offstage, while Baselitz’s brute walks toward us. What better image of a fractured nation trying to move away from its nightmare past?
That Baselitz never abandons socio-political reality even as his inverted images render their subjects abstract is made clear by his astounding Eagle (Adler) (1977), a 17 by 14 inch ink on paper. The brushwork is gestural, the image simply the suggestion of an eagle. But, again, for a German artist to draw a falling eagle creates automatic associations with the German past. This is not to impute allegorical meaning to the drawing, but merely to suggest that despite the largely non-representational nature of the piece, there are hints here the viewer may wish to consider and a larger context that is difficult to ignore.
In the later drawings, we find, at last, a more lighthearted Baselitz. Consider, for example, his Tracey Looks Behind the Sofa and Finds His Drawing, That is, What Bob Left of It (Tracey schaut hinters Sofa und findet dort seine Zeichnung, bzw. das was Bob davon übrig ließ) (2008). Inscribed on the history of art in the second half of the twentieth century, this improbable drawing brings together various events and personalities. First, we remember that Bob (Robert Rauschenberg) famously “erased” a Willem de Kooning drawing in 1953 to announce yet another new era in art. Baselitz thinks de Kooning was an influence on Tracey Emin, so he brings her together with Rauschenberg in the only space where such a meeting could occur: one of his brilliant ink and watercolor on paper works. The blue and orange tints of this image signal a festive, jolly spirit. But the lesson is also serious—and one Baselitz has been pondering for six decades. The past, in history or in art, does not disappear, and it is the artist’s obligation to deal with it as best he can.