For more than three decades now, a great deal of contemporary German painting has been shown in New York. The leading artists have had gallery and museum exhibitions, and all of them have been much celebrated. And yet, as this exhibition shows, how exotic Georg Baselitz’s visual aesthetic remains. Consider Birnbaum I (Pear Tree I), (1978), a four-part painting, oil and tempera on wood. The gawky outline of the upside down tree is easy enough to make out. But how strange are the dark, highly saturated colors within and behind it. Or look at the two-part Akt und Flasche (Nude and Bottle), (1977), also oil and tempera on wood. Why does Baselitz juxtapose a bottle and a nude, forms of very different shapes and apparent scales, surrounded by jagged areas of off-whites, grey, and yellow? His drawings are equally puzzling—and each of them, also, highly distinctive. One, Untitled (1991), has black oval-shaped pencil marks arranged in a rough circle; another, Adolf, made the same year using pastel and pencil, effaces the rough drawing of a face with red marks and black lines and marks. It would be instructive to set these artworks alongside paintings and works on paper by Willem de Kooning. Like his German peer, this American artist sometimes worked on the borderline between figuration and abstraction; and like him, he was a virtuoso paint handler. But how different is the result. Where de Kooning’s works are graceful—indeed often elegant—and always gracious compositions even when displaying pictorial conflicts, Baselitz’s are harsh, determinedly rebarbative, purposively “unbeautiful” (if I may coin a useful descriptive word), even when occasionally permitting potential visual resolution. De Kooning can be very aggressive, but some ideal of harmony organizes his work; Baselitz lives and works as if in a completely different visual world, one whose very laws are entirely distinctive.
As you maybe can sense, the more I studied this exhibition, the more surprised I was at how hard it was for me to properly describe Baselitz’s art. Consider momentarily just the twenty-two small charcoal on paper works mounted on a grid, Untitled (Lettre International), (1989) that contain a marvelous catalogue of the range of Baselitz’s highly distinctive markings. How varied are these drawings! —and how utterly those of his American peers. Any writer looking at contemporary art sees a great deal of determinedly difficult works—for example, videos with elusive narratives; neoDuchampian assemblages with unlikely components; or perplexing installations. But Baselitz is a tradition-minded draftsman and painter, and so what was unexpected, at least for me, was seeing how very difficult were his works. Even though, as I said, I have seen and, also, occasionally written about a great deal of contemporary German art.
Sometimes when an exhibition is a showstopper, it’s helpful to cast your mind back to your reading, to search out a precedent helpful for describing your experience. When I did that, when I recalled a book I read long ago, then my experience of this show fell into place. In 1908 Wilhelm Worringer, who then was a young German medieval art historian published Abstraction and Empathy, a book that soon made him internationally famous. Worringer’s thesis was that there are two radically opposed artistic styles—naturalistic art of empathy, Italian Renaissance art, which is happily engaged with the human world, and abstraction, which, inspired by spiritual unrest, retreats from mimetic representation of appearances. What he meant by “abstraction” was not abstract painting as such; Kandinsky’s first abstractions were still in the future, but rather art abstracted from concern with appearances. Abstraction and Empathy became famous because it inspired champions of Ernst Kirchner, Edvard Munch and other Northern figurative painters. And, soon enough, also because it suggested a sympathetic way of understanding Kandinsky’s abstractions. Worringer’s book struck a nerve, as I recall from my reading, because it suggested that German modernism was a law onto itself, and not merely an inferior version of empathetic modernist French or American-style painting. It would be instructive to illustrate its thesis by juxtaposing works by Henri Matisse with those of Max Beckman. Worringer believed that his binary opposition described opposed forms of art-making that express diametrically opposed worldviews. Nowadays thanks to travel and the Internet everyone lives in one art world. And of course we have become legitimately wary of the political implications of aesthetic nationalism. But still, I believe that Worringer’s contrast of two opposed ways of visual thinking remains of productive interest. To properly understand Baselitz, you need to look at his works on their own terms. When you do that, so I do believe, then you will discover how challenging and astonishing they are.