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Dithyrambs and Centaurs
Art in America
Brooks Adams
September 2017

At age seventy-six, Markus Lüpertz, the murkiest of the German Neo-Expressionists, is painting centaurs.  That ancient amalgam of man and beast sums up the duality at the heart of his enterprise, the struggle between the highly accessible and the inscrutable, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. These works confront old fashioned Arcadian subjects, while freely mingling abstraction and figuration, Ab-Ex and Pop.  Since 1963, when he first emerged in Berlin with perverse mixes of the painterly and the geometric in his “Donald Duck” series, Lüpertz’s art has seemed caustic and dense with indecision, or rather with an overweening ambition to have it both ways, often in a single painting.

Two concurrent shows closing this month in Washington, D.C., provide an opportunity to find out more about Lüpertz (b. 1941, Liberec, Czech Republic).  At the Phillips Collection, a five-decade retrospective containing forty-six works, curated by the museum’s director Dorothy Kosinski (and idiosyncratically installed by the artist), suggest new continuities in an oeuvre that is hard to pin down.  Kosinski is the right person to shepherd such a project: she worked for many years in Europe and her dissertation addressed the image of Orpheus in Symbolist art, a recurrent subject in Lüpertz’s painting, sculpture, and poetry.

The Phillips show was inspired by a large trove of German and Danish works given to the museum by the artist’s principal dealer, Michael Werner, in 2015.  Since the Phillips Collection cannot accommodate Lüpertz’s largest paintings (one from 1968 is more than forty feet long), the venue collaborated with a second Institution. In the big basement galleries of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, “Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History,” curated by Evelyn C. Hankins, features thirty-two works from the 1960s and early ‘70s, including examples from the artist’s “Dithyramb” series – paintings of loosely modeled forms, sometimes resembling pitched tents or roof tiles, that he meant to be neither fully representational nor fully abstract – and his “German Motifs,” replete with helmets, military caps, and other paraphernalia evoking a verboten Nazi past.

The American consideration of postwar German art may well have begun between 1979 and 1980, with the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Beuys’s art opened a new world of dark content, evocative materials, and artistic hero worship.  The Neue Wilden or the Neo-Expressionists – including Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, A.R. Penck, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Jörg Immendorff (some of whom where Beuys students) – and their work arrived shortly thereafter, reaching critical mass in New York in 1984.  That year, Lüpertz spent two months in the city.

Lüpertz was not a Beuys student, but rather one of a band of international artists who found themselves drawn to the ferment of Cold war-era West Berlin.  A naturalized German citizen, whose family had come from Eastern Europe as refugees in 1948, he had attended art school in Krefeld, and after stints in Paris and the French Foreign Legion, ended up in Berlin in 1962 alongside Baselitz and Penck. He was a nightclub bouncer and a boxer, a provocateur and a showman (today he still sports rock-star rings, bespoke suits, and a mean-looking walking stick).  In 1964 he cofounded the cooperative gallery Grossgörschen 35 with artists K.H. Hödicke, Bernd Koberling, and Lambert Maria Wintersberger.  In ’68 he became part of the nascent Michael Werner stable.

Lüpertz also had an illustrious academic career: beginning in 1974, he taught in Karlsruhe; then, from 1988 to 2009, he was dean of the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.  With age, the “wild man” artist has become a media personality and semiofficial emissary of German Culture.  A little-known Lüpertz commission graces the German ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C., a bright white, bunkerlike house designed in 1994 by Oswald Mathias Ungers.  While in the capital, I made the trek there.  After noting Lüpertz’s heroic bronze figure Clitunno (1989-90) at the edge of the driveway (on loan), I was shepherded in to see the artist’s magisterial installation in the severe, barrel-vaulted grand salon.

Eight gigantic woodcuts on square canvases are set into the walls at cornice level.  Each depicts an androgynous head with a bob hairdo set against a background of loosely drawn grids with lots of cross-hatching.  Related to Lüpertz’s series “Men without Women: Parsifal” (1993), they could almost be parodies of Expressionist chiseling; the fact that they are woodcuts makes them look even more “German.”  The use of color is heraldic, amping up a long line of neo-medievalist references in his work.   The room could be understood as an update on Rittersaal, the type of knights’ hall featured in Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal.

At the Hirshhorn show, with its straightforward, blow-by-blow layout, anyone interested in early ‘60s painting – whether Hand-Painted Pop or Hard-Edge abstraction – would have to take note of Lüpertz’s blazing ambition.  Working on low-grade canvases with cheap distemper paint “borrowed” from daytime construction jobs, Lüpertz put ideas through their paces with both relentless fury and quizzical detachment.

The artist began his “Dithyramb” paintings in 1962.  The term refers to a type of ecstatic ancient Greek verse praising Dionysus.  Friedrich Nietzsche’s slim poetry volume Dionysian-Dithyrambs (1891) and ‘60s-era orgiastic groups in West Berlin also influenced the artist.  We sense Lüpertz searching for an idea he can claim as his own.  The dithyramb was a way for him to put his mark on a number of motifs, and he worked it well into the ‘70s.

Richard Shiff’s excellent catalogue essay indicated that the first dithyrambs were appropriated from the 20th Century Fox logo.   Lüpertz reworked the Art Deco construct and put it through so many iterations that it becomes almost unrecognizable, through you still sense the dramatic perspectival rendering of the original. At the Hirshhorn, Dithyramb (Triptych), 1964, presents a hulking deep blue and red-brown form, with two finials resembling Mouseketeer ears and a loosely brushed portal shape in the middle.  The big shaded volume is stretched across three canvases, the central one being slightly taller than the others.  There’s a tug-of-war between image and form, and the religious format suggests that Lüpertz is thinking about the sacred in abstract art.

A whole gallery at the Hirshhorn is devoted to the buoyant, bright “Tent-Dithyrambic” paintings (1965), which formally evoke pitched tents and are often numbered in the upper right corner.  The imagery, appropriated from mail-order catalogues, seems so inclusive, relentless, and encyclopedic that one wonders if the artist is exceptionally compulsive or simply an avid careerist, creating his own brand.  In Tent 9-Dithyrambic, an upturned flap becomes an abstract horizon line; above is a “sky” of raw canvas.  The tensions between Hard-Edge and lyrical abstraction feels whimsical and theatrical.

An early climax of certitude is the more than forty-foot-long, five-panel Westwall (Siegfried Line), 1968, which takes an array of dragon-teeth blockades form World War II as its subject.  The artist went to visit the fortifications along Germany’s western border and had himself photographed in a fur-collard coat and dress shirt dancing along what Hankins describes in her catalogue essay as “pyramidal concrete tank traps” in the snow.   The tonal daubing on the traps produces perspectival recession and an illusion of patina but also floats freely as abstract markings.  The forms, separated by sharp narrow alleyways, create an impression of an Aztec City of the Dead, a military cemetery, or a forest of felled trees.  There’s something insistently man-made and something unremittingly natural about these forms, each of which is unique.  It’s as if Lüpertz were re-creating this Third Reich battlefront as an earthwork.

The “German Motifs” paintings no longer appear to be Lüpertz’s most incendiary.  Rather, they look somewhat hackneyed, soft, and familiar at the Hirshhorn: Lüpertz was treading softly on forbidden territory.  The works depict German steel helmets, shovels, and other fraught objects sitting in fields.  The conceit of a still life in a landscape is an old Baroque convention.  Other variants, like the three “Cyclops-Dithyrambic” (1973), riff on the ancient Grecco-Roman tropaion (a monument comprising a defeated foe’s armor).  The paintings each portray a humanoid assemblage of a German military uniform, an officer’s cap, and an artist’s palette; the same paper stencil was used for all three compositions.  These dark, brooding depictions of war trophies caused quite a stir in the artist’s 1973 retrospective in Baden-Baden; critics branded Lüpertz a latent Fascist. The works evidently teased out war memories that Germans were only just beginning to deal with.

More fascinating to my mind is the colossal Helmets Sinking-Dithyrambic (1970), in which the murk of Nazi helmets in a nocturnal landscape is relieved by a strip of red sky at the top of the composition, along with a little crescent moon and stars.  Lüpertz painted this work, we learn from a marvelous 2014 interview with Peter Doig, while in Florence on a one-year fellowship, a time when he watched lots of American World War II movies dubbed in Italian. In other words, the artist’s sources are Pop and second-hand, not gut-wrenching childhood memories of war.

Something happened to Lüpertz’s work in the 1970s, after the first scandal around the “German Motifs.”  Clearly, he retreated into more abstract imagery.  Maybe semi-obscurity was as good a strategy as any.  Curving letter shapes are rendered in dizzying, Mannerist-style perspectives.  Forms appear to be plunging, or soaring, but what they depict is not immediately obvious.  Lüpolis-Dithyrambic (1975), one of the last works in the Hirshhorn show, gives us a clue: as the title suggests, it’s the artist’s metropolis – shimmering, seen from on high the windows of skyscrapers rendered as fat white highlights.

As an introduction to the artist’s work, the Phillips retrospective is perhaps not ideal – dizzyingly diverse, the whole thing might be a group show.  Woe to the unsuspecting viewer: there are no reductive lines of development, no easy hooks for understanding.  One of the first paintings I encountered was the deadpan funny Water Lily (1970) – Lüpertz’s nod to Claude Monet.  Almost ten feet tall, the work is occupied by large, green zigzag shapes that start at the top of the canvas and seem to snake progressively downward.  Gradually, we realize that these refer to ripples in the water.  In the upper left corner, one white blossom looks more like an open coconut.  The painting is hard, mean, and hip.

The Phillips show becomes a kind of deliberately perverse tone poem.  The centerpiece is a long wall displaying three works of the same height: Rendezvous, The Rumor, and The Large Spoon (all 1982).  The Large Spoon is a dense, allover dark composition relieved only by bright yellow or blue ribbon-forms and a Pop image of one enormous utensil. The Rumor features hard-to-read Cubist scaffolding and, in the lower right corner, an image of a huge blue ear.  The artist seems to be tweaking his oeuvre, making new triptychs in a show that already contains them.

Lüpertz’s many takes on the old masters are best exemplified at the Phillips by Poussin-Tangier (1989), a bravura treatise on rupture and representation.  In the upper section, Lüpertz has painted a torn reproduction of what looks like an Annunciation, perhaps by Nicolas Poussin, but the figures are treated in a style more akin to that of 1940s Picasso.  The bottom section features a pileup of urban detritus, in which one can discern brick buildings, a childish rendering of an automobile, and garbage cans.  But here, the manner is more like Philip Guston’s late figurative allegories, which were a huge influence on younger artists beginning in the ‘80s.  Lüpertz is juggling a lot, but the rich brown-red coloration and the roiling black outlines pull the whole thing together.

The ‘90s and aughts works are summarily treated at the Phillips.  These include four examples of the “Men without Women: Parsifal” series, in which the faces appear to be grimacing (an effect Kosinski brilliantly compares to the eighteenth-century physiognomic sculptural heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt), and an untitled series from 2008 featuring the German steel helmet, now appearing atop grotesque exploded heads.  The effect of these works was ho-hum, but a trio of small landscapes from 2010, the series “Agepan” (a type of German fiberboard), stood out.  In all three works, Lüpertz coaxes bucolic scenes out of the substrate’s textures.

In a show of recent work this past summer at Michael Werner in New York, Lüpertz ripped with characteristic panache through the Arcadian themes that have preoccupied him since 2011.  The big painterly canvas Susanne (2017) displays an archaic greeting of heroic figures.  But here we also stumble upon zones of total abstraction: a white trapezoidal form at the left edge and a little red necktie shape dangling from the top edge.  The men are dark and the woman light-skinned – a sure sign that Lüpertz is evoking the gender distinctions of ancient wall painting.  A dappled horse stands in front of a burly bearded guy, who in turn appears to cop a feel from the woman beside him.  The horse’s head is missing, as is one of the man’s legs, creating the impression of a centaur.  A liminal zone of fat pointillist daubs around the horse’s shoulder suggests a magical transition between equine and human.

For Lüpertz, the archaic hybrid of the centaur says something profound about the nature of painting and the process of abstraction.  In his view, the centaur – in its combination of the rational and emotional – is painting.  The equine subject, not a new one for the artist, puts Lüpertz’s late work squarely in line with that of nineteenth-century “Italian Germans” like Hans von Marées (1837-1887) and the Swiss Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901).  Von Marées, that purveyor of homoerotic frescoes in Naples and three strange, mythological triptychs from the 1880s, died young in Italy and was posthumously acclaimed by Julius Meier-Graefe, an early champion of Cézanne.  (The Werner show was full of Cézannesque bather types.)

Böcklin’s work, famous in his lifetime for his signature “Isle of the Dead” paintings (1880s) as well as his many images of full-bodied Tritons, mermaids, centaurs, and satyrs, counter the forces of nineteenth-century rationalism with its delight in a more genuinely Pan-inspired vision of freedom and sexuality.  His investigation of ancient mythological creatures has long been understood as a parable for the forces of nature, and it was characterized by Clement Greenberg as the best and the worst of nineteenth-century painting.  Copied by a young Giorgio de Chirico, and claimed ironically perhaps, by Marcel Duchamp as his favorite painter, Böcklin is part of a well-worn, if less traveled, “other” modernist tradition of which Lüpertz is definitely part.

The new work recently show at Werner mines this vein of nineteenth-century German Symbolist painting, which is under-known in the United States and under-emphasized in the recent American literature about Lüpertz’s work.  The artist’s hand-painted frames, in particular, put his work in the tradition of polychrome polyptychs by Max Klinger, such as his over-the-top fusions of painting and sculpture, The Judgment of Paris (ca. 1886-87).

The Phillips/Hirshhorn catalogue, on the whole a commendable addition to Lüpertz studies, lacks a bibliography, and the text are notably short on biographical information: everything aims for the Olympian view of the elder statesman.  The absence of sculpture from the Phillips show is perhaps the most egregious oversight, especially since the museum owns at least one painted bronze, 3 Graces (2000), a work illustrated in Kosinski’s essay and part of the Werner gift.  Sculpture is integral to Lüpertz’s pursuit, and it’s what first attracted me to his work in the early ‘80s in New York.  Everything postwar European was up for reappraisal, and in the old protectionist, isolationist school of American art criticism, the “German invasion,” as we used to call it, was (along with the Italian and French versions) part of an immensely exciting larger cultural shift.