This retrospective, curated by Pamela Kort and Robert Storr, made a strong case for Jörg Immendorff's placement among the handful of most important German artists since World War II. Its secondary agenda, peeling away the 1980s Neo-Expressionist label that still adheres to him from his first wide exposure in the U.S., was also largely convincing.
Like Beckmann, who both partook and stood to the side of pre-war German Expressionism, Immendorff is at once Neo-Expressionist and more than that.
His Marxist-era work from the early 1970s provides one bracing antidote to the Neo-Ex identification. Using the broad strokes and frontal presentation of comics and vernacular signage, these paintings offer not only straightforward protest messages, but the beginning of a personal narrative born out of Maoist-style self-criticism. In Immendorff's hands this became the painfully funny, acidly insightful series "I Wanted to Become an Artist," illustrating a personal dialectic that seemed to eject him finally back into the art world.
An exact contemporary of Anselm Kiefer--both were born in 1945--Immendorff first launched himself artistically through his intense mentor-student bond with Joseph Beuys at the Dusseldorf Academy. Although he performed a number of Beuys-style actions in the 1960s, he broke with his teacher by turning to painting and by using kitsch as a means to access charged and symbolic material. Whereas Beuys stroked a dead hare, Immendorff's "animal helpers," versions of which run right up to the present, comprise cartoonish polar bears, monkeys and turtles. His ambivalent relationship to Beuys forms another decades-long painted narrative. The large Sun Gate (1994) offers a magisterial summation, with the taller, fedora-topped teacher connected to the smaller, jeans-clad figure by an umbilical veil of images and a slanted ramp between their two heads.
A direct link between the two artists is their impulse to self-mythologizing, which Immendorff has made obsessively central to his work. In his grand, mature "Cafe Deutschland" series, he paints himself in as a bold-face name or hanger-on among a crowded cast of artists, politicians and club denizens. These overwrought paintings from the 1970s and '80s formed the visual centerpiece of this show. With star cameos by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Duchamp, Ernst, Schwitters and Beckmann, as well as by contemporaries like David Salle and A. R. Penck (who lived in East Germany until 1980), the works build to a collective, cacophonous vision of imagined reunification--political, artistic, emotional--on some ideal plane of shifting probabilities. The operatic fullness and urgency of these works make a conscious bow to Beckmann, and their worldly tenor a nod to Brecht, another hero to the artist.
Filled out with an abundance of sketchbooks and smaller drawings and paintings, this show conveyed the haunted profligacy of the artist and his work. With this much on view, the complete Immendorff package--combining visual overkill; a tremendous, self-conscious ambition; and an unflagging conceptual incisiveness--could not be denied its due.