The Hirshhorn Museum teams up with the Phillips Collection in Washington to present an underknown German painter’s first American survey
Markus Lüpertz (born in 1941) is an acclaimed figure in Europe, celebrated as a painter, a sculptor, a designer of opera sets, and an influential teacher. Yet in the U.S. he may be the least familiar of postwar German painters, less recognized than such colleagues as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. That may be about to change.
A pair of concurrent exhibitions in Washington—“Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and “Markus Lüpertz” at the Phillips Collection—together offer an over-view of five decades of the artist’s paintings, the first American museum survey of his work. (There are also recent paintings at Michael Werner Gallery, New York.) The exhibitions and their ambitious joint catalog present a sometimes perplexing, always fascinating artist who makes us ponder the boundaries between abstraction and reference, and think hard about the very nature of painting itself.
Despite belonging to a generation who came of age in the shadow of World War II, during the Cold War, when Germany began to deal publicly with its brutal recent history, Mr. Lüpertz is said to have wanted to be “an artist without responsibilities”—one who concentrated on the abstract essentials of picture-making and avoided political or sociological content, in contrast to his contemporaries who advocated expressionist figuration and “German” themes. We can take Mr. Lüpertz at his word and savor his paintings for their virtuoso paint handling, saturated hues, generous scale, and firm, confrontational compositions. Yet it’s obvious that no matter how richly inflected his touch may be, no matter how audacious his pictorial structures, Mr. Lüpertz also always responded to the crucial events of his working life: the construction of the Berlin Wall, the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, Germany’s collective admission of culpability for the Holocaust, growing postwar prosperity, the actions of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang in the 1970s, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of East and West Germany, and the rebuilding of shattered Berlin, among many other things.
Far from being dispassionate abstractions, Mr. Lüpertz’s paintings are haunted by more or less explicit allusions. But it’s a shifting terrain that keeps us guessing, despite the sometimes specific hints offered by his titles, which can refer to everything from Donald Duck to tents for camping to Poussin and Parsifal. In works from the 1970s, for example, we easily recognize the Stahlhelm, the characteristic German army helmet, and military caps. Even earlier, in 1968, there’s an enormous mural-size, meticulously shaded riff on the repetitive tank-trap fortifications of the Siegfried Line. That, in turn, proves to have been anticipated by a domestic version of the composition: rows of crisp, carefully aligned wooden roof shingles. But as in most of Mr. Lüpertz’s canvases, reference is usually subsumed, even overwhelmed, by the paintings’ abstract qualities.
Throughout both exhibitions, we’re constantly knocked off-balance as apparently abstract forms morph into heads and back again, and as multicolored geometric configurations suggest everything from still lifes to tents to architecture. Sometimes, we think we’ve identified a reference or come to terms with particularly complex spatial inventions, as in the Babylon series, in which compressed columnar forms with unstable perspectival illusions suggest tall buildings. But we soon find ourselves seduced by paint applications, from bold swipes to thin washes; by rich color, coiling lines, rhythmically stabbed pat-terns, drips and much, much more, all in the service of unpredictable shapes. And to complicate things, Mr. Lüpertz frequently works in series, repeating a single image with eye-testing variations, the equivalents, he tells us, of the individual frames of a film that, similarly, evoke the passage of time.
Many of Mr. Lüpertz’s titles include the word “dithyramb.” Originally referring to the ecstatic verses created by ancient Greek followers of Dionysus, the term, for him, stands for what the wall texts call “the primacy of the artist’s expressive power over the subject”—that is, the nominal subject that triggered the improvisatory process of picture-making loses its original meaning by being translated into this new state of being, since any painting is both abstract and a fiction. The painted frames on many of the included works emphasize the artifice of the process.
Mr. Lüpertz’s most recent works are his most explicit. We recognize an ample nude inspired by Rubens, references to classical sculpture, and landscape forms, tantalizingly repeated. Alerted by these signals, we begin to read his entire project as a conversation with the history of art and begin to consider all the exhibited works in new ways. “Without painting,” Mr. Lüpertz wrote, “the world is only consumed, it is not perceived.” His best works make us question our assumptions and intensify our perceptions.
Note: The Hirshhorn exhibition focuses on the 1960s and 1970s and should be seen first. The Phillips presents an overview from 1964 to 2014. Don’t miss either.