News
Artist puts Hercules, and Himself, on Pedestals
The New York Times
Michael Slackman
29 October 2010

IF the past is any indicator of the future, then a former coal mining town in Germany's Ruhr region should begin bracing for protests. Its officials ought to be readying themselves for public condemnation and its police force should be setting up a plan to stymie acts of vandalism.

Markus Lüpertz is about to erect another sculpture in a public space, and in the past his work has been, to put it kindly, misunderstood. One piece was smeared with paint and covered in feathers. Another was beaten with a hammer. Another was removed altogether after protesters demanded it be taken down.

'It doesn't matter,'said Mr. Lüpertz, one of Germany's most prominent and influential contemporary artists, who embraces the cliché of the self-declared genius, misunderstood in his own time. 'The general opinion of my art is that it is rejected. I attribute this to a lack of intelligence among the people.'

Now before delving further into Mr. Lüpertz's unvarnished views, consider what the residents of the former mining town, Gelsenkirchen, will find when they wake this winter. Towering above a landscape once dominated by smokestacks and coal mines, a 60-foot-tall statue of Hercules will be mounted atop a tower climbing 275 feet into the sky. To be more precise, it will be Mr. Lüpertz's abstract interpretation of Hercules. In this case, the strongman will have just one arm, with a large head, bulbous nose, exaggerated torso and stunted legs that appear incapable of holding up such a body.

As always, Mr. Lüpertz is challenging convention, or as his admirers say, confounding expectations.

'This is the reason why people love him and hate him,'said one big admirer, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna. 'When you decide on making a sculpture that depicts, let's say Daphne, the most beautiful in her time, so beautiful that even Apollo fell in love, you expect beauty. When you depict Mozart, who died young, you expect a hero of youth, of beauty. And what Lüpertz offers is the ugliness of the beauty.'

His work grates, and not just with the masses.

In 2005, the city of Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart, displayed a sculpture of the prodigal son by Mr. Lüpertz. The work was a knobby, nude abstraction that upset one of Germany's most famous painters, Gerhard Richter, who in a newspaper interview called on the people of Salzburg to do something about what he saw as a 'depravation'of public art.

Two senior citizens took up the cause, applying the paint and feathers, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

'Art in the public domain is always a conflict and causes resistance,'Mr. Lüpertz said at the time. 'But I did not expect such aggressive actions.'

BUT perhaps he should have.

In 2002, residents of the city of Augsburg thought a Lüpertz statue of Aphrodite was so ugly that they protested, and the City Council voted to have it removed. Mr. Lüpertz paraded it back to Berlin.

'He doesn't really care about anything,'said Julia Raab of the Raab Gallery in Berlin. 'He has the urge to do things. If the work is accepted by the masses, it is mediocre. A good artist is ahead of his time.'

Mr. Lüpertz is 69 years old. He is tall, and still has sharp blue eyes. He still has a tattoo of a snake coiling through a skull on his left forearm. Still drives fast. Still cultivates the image of a dandy and a tough guy, still boxes, plays the piano and swings his favorite walking stick with a skull handle. He is still creating ' paintings, poems, sculptures ' hundreds of works a year. And he is still reinventing himself and his work each time.

'You have to have success,'he said, drawing a distinction between that and popularity. 'Without success, you cannot keep producing.'

Mr. Lüpertz is quick to give his take on many issues. He says culture has been flattened out because Europeans have lost their values, turning their backs on religion and their families, while turning to the state for cradle-to-grave care. He says if Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to save German culture, she should stop the government from subsidizing cultural institutions and pour that money into education.

He is a brooder who believes that contentment stifles creativity. He is at once an elitist endorsing a survival-of-the-fittest social contract and an aspiring anarchist, or as he said, revolutionary.

'Chaos is the basis for the individual,'he says, though he always demanded obedience from his art students during the 22 years he was the head of the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

'I only work with students who admire me and think I am great,'he said in a catalog of his work printed in 1994. 'If I am not the one that takes their breath away, I don't feel like working with them, because this would be a waste of time. It's not about their individualism, it's about my individualism. It's not about their genius, it's about my genius.'

What a lot of people don't like about Mr. Lüpertz is his lack of humility.
'His dandiness is a kind of curtain, an iron curtain between him and the ordinary people, him and the world, it is a curtain he needs to be protected in his own artistic world,'Mr. Schröder said.

MR. LÿPERTZ was born in 1941 in Liberec, in what is now the Czech Republic. When he was 7, his family fled to West Germany. He went to art school, worked in a mine, went back to art school, worked in road construction, slipped off to Paris, joined the French Foreign Legion.

And then in 1962, he moved to Berlin, where his work first captured public attention by combining the opposites of abstraction and concreteness. Of course, controversy was soon at his heels. In 1970, he began painting images of Germany's not too proud past, with military helmets and other taboo symbols that were roundly criticized as fascist propaganda ' until the culture caught up with Mr. Lüpertz and his work was hailed as genius.

'You cannot understand the artist in his time, you can only love or hate him,'Mr. Lüpertz said. He was greeting a visitor to his sculpturing studio, a former storage facility in Teltow, a community of the former East Germany just outside Berlin. On the mailbox it said 'Senator, Painter, Professor.'

He is thoughtfully grungy, the sleeves of his gray hooded sweatshirt cut just so, the paint splattered on his pants, just so. He has a gold loop in his left lobe, a wide-linked gold chain around his neck, and his gray hair is shaved close to his head. He seems a bit stiff with age as he walks into his chilly studio to show a part of the model used for Hercules' head. It is floor to ceiling and as big around as a tank.

'HERCULES is a troubleshooter,'he said of his subject. 'He has impossible things to settle, but he has a solution for the problems.'He said that Hercules was a good symbol for a region with high unemployment, trying to reinvent itself as a cultural center. But that, he says, is only a coincidence. He does not do symbolism.

The statue is, like his other works, a personal expression. He leaves interpretation to others and he knows, for sure, that his one-armed Hercules is going to inspire some, probably many, to complain. But this time, that is exactly what his patrons say they want, to promote discussion, even controversy.
'He disappoints expectations, which is the best I can say about him,'said Mr. Schröder of the Albertina Museum, without irony.

Victor Homola contributed reporting.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 30, 2010, on page
A4 of the New York edition.