Markus Lüpertz may not be the most formidable of the German Neo-Expressionist painters who came to prominence in the U.S. in the 1980s, but, as a recent solo at Michael Werner demonstrated, his work can stand apart by virtue of a certain intimacy of scale and content. Here Lüpertz showed some two dozen pieces, half of them drawings in gouache, chalk and ink and the rest 39 ½ -by-32 inch oils on canvas, from a 2004 series titled “Rückenakt,” a German word that cumbersomely translates in English as “standing nudes seen from behind.”
Each of the oils presents the back of a single headless figure. Beyond the foregrounded figure there might be a landscape, or the rudiments of one, or simply a flat expanse with textural brushwork. In some of the paintings, Lüpertz slips a small horizontal vignette depicting a log, ship, or human limb over the top [part of the figure; a snake or a turtle now and then materializes elsewhere in the composition. Such motifs have the quality of things glimpsed or remembered, detached from any narrative necessity but essential to creating an air of mysterious self-sufficiency in each work.
As for the figure, according to the catalogue essay, Lüpertz is recalling a nude back view of his wife, but memory has distorted it in many ways, most notably in the squaring off of the form so that it resembles a male or at least an androgynous being. Often, the overly long arms hang so far away from the torso that they seem independent, as if amputated and set dangling. The palette is generally somber and muted, though subtly heated by warm tones, and bright colors appear in abstract patches that can border on the floral. Lüpertz’s brushwork is rough and fugitive, the paint often sparing. The dark forking line of the spine and the looping buttocks seem to take on a life of their own.
In passing, it should be noted that Lüpertz’s drawings break the formula of the paintings, and can be wilder and weirder, as in one example where the figure has been compacted into a scaly mass itself resembling a turtle, with green human feet rotating around the periphery. (The disembodied feet reminded me of a similar recurring image in works by Georg Baselitz.)
Lüpertz has, in the past, deliberately cited earlier artists, as in a series of ‘80s landscapes appropriating Corot. Here, his meditation seems to have turned to the early 20th century. Matisse is particularly present, both his “Nus de dos” reliefs, with their flattened, somewhat distended bodies, and such classic paintings as the 1908 Bathers with Turtle, with its triad of loose-limbed girls and the beautiful, seemingly random device of the tiny creature at their feet. One of Lüpertz’s more fleshed-out landscapes includes a branchless (headless?) tree with a yellow trunk that might have been brushed by Franz Marc.
As if to emphasize the impression the group conveys of separate worlds, each oil features an artist-made frame, placed flush with the surface and decorated with patchy, abstract designs that evoke an old, peeling window embrasure. The headless figure within becomes the viewer by proxy, gazing into an imaginary place where the visual experience3 dissolves into a haptic sensuality.