Jörg Immendorff was a fighter, and I miss his presence. News of his death last May came as no surprise; after struggling against the crippling effects of ALS for almost a decade, he died in his sleep at the age of sixty-one. What has proved more difficult is the fact of his silence. Immendorff was one of the ballsiest artists I have ever met. He lived his life to the fullest, and even when he was confined to a wheelchair not one word of self-pity passed through his lips. He didn’t give a damn what people thought; all he wanted to do was paint, teach, and enjoy himself on the weekends. Yet he cherished the individuals who believed in his art, gallerist Michael Werner chief among them. I joined his tribe rather late, when I moved to Cologne in 1991. Convinced that Immendorff was one of great painters of postwar Europe, I knew that the best way I could spend my time was in writing about his work, interviewing him, and sometimes even brainstorming with him about the artistic issues that concerned him most.
Immendorff used to ring me often, usually in the morning, shortly after nine. I would try to sound as though I had been up for hours; knowing better, he would impatiently utter his childlike dictate: “The early bird catches the worm.” Immendorff kept a strict schedule. When he was not teaching at the Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf, he could almost always be found in his studio from nine until six, with an hour-long lunch break at twelve. I was thrilled when he would ask me to drop by and talk shop after he had finished painting. His studio was usually filled to the brim, with gigantic canvases leaning against the walls and dozens of watercolor studies heaped on long worktables. Art books and weekly magazines were strewn around, open to various images. In the middle of all this, Immendorff would sit, perched on an orange chair bearing a painted image of an ape and inscribed DIRECTOR, puffing aon a cigarette and surveying his newest crop of paintings.
One February morning in 1993, he asked me to come by and look at his monumental canvas Gyntiana, 1992-93, before it was sent for exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. That afternoon, I gazed in awe at the 111/2 –by-23-foot painting, which he had meticulously composed and paintstakingly worked on for more than a year. It is, like many of his paintings, jam-packed to the point of bursting, with brilliantly colored images and baffling details. In the large self-portrait in the center of the canvas he is wearing a black coat adorned with the unpretentious blue-and-yellow bees that have long been associated with his art. (They reference his name-an Imme is a honeybee, while Dorf means “village”.) On the left, jutting out into the foreground and sitting on what seems to be either an island of ginger root or a huge pile of shit dotted with tomatoes, is playwright Heiner Müller with his trademark cigar. Behind him, on a table, a large, naked, sweating woman is giving birth to an onion. Not looking overly concerned, Joseph Beuys swings a huge broom near her face as if to fan her.
I don’t know if Immendorf had someone particular in mind when he painted the small sculpture of a woman, on the far left of the picture, pointing at her own forehead in a gesture that in Germany means a person isn’t quite right in the head. As far as I was concerned, however, this applied to pretty much all of the American and German art world of the ‘90s. Most of the people in it believed that the “Café Deutschland” paintings of 1977-82 marked the apogee of Immendorff’s career, though he was not yet fifty when he completed the cycle. These images of a divided Germany and its ruptured psyches are nothing if not stunning, but there are later, equally staggering works—such as Kleine Reise (Hasensülze) (Small Journey [Jellied Rabbit]), 1990, and Langer Marsch auf Adler (Long March of the Eagle), 1991-92. In fact, it was not the “Café Deutschland” paintings themselves but the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 that turned them into icons almost overnight. The series in part originated in the artistic collaboration Immendorff had established with East German artist A.R. Penck—a friendship that had in effect smashed through the wall; suddenly, after it fell, he was praised for having foreseen history and gotten it down in paint. Right through the ‘90s, however, Immendorff remained committed to what can be achieved by diving headlong into loaded issues. Caustically witty but deadpan, at once blatant and highly ambivalent, Immendorff’s art still turned upon calling into question the veracity of the status quo. Unfortunately, during the ‘90s, most critics failed to look beyond what was most obvious in Immendorff’s work. Almost without exception, museum directors in Germany and America didn’t have the pluck to give him even a small exhibition. This was shameful, given his undeniable talent. Exhibiting was Immendorff’s lifeblood—he made paintings so they could be seen—and he hoped they would give rise to discussion. Nevertheless, he continued to create astounding, if underappreciated, works.
Fortunately, opera director Gerard Mortier’s vision was more far-reaching. I was with him when he first saw Gyntiana. He stopped in his tracks and, after a few minutes, said quietly that he had finally encountered the William Hogarth of the twentieth century. The moment would prove a turning point in Immendorff’s career, as Mortier commissioned him shortly thereafter to make the stage sets and costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at the 1994 Salzburg Festival. Immendorff hired me as a kind of dramaturge; it is a phase of my life that I will always remember happily. He not only wanted to understand every angle of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto, but he used the opportunity to learn as much as possible about Hogart. The result was a breathtaking production: The set, the singers, and the orchestra merged into a kind of tableau vivant; Immendorff had even handpainted the stage’s giant curtain.
In 1996, I interviewed Immendorff for the catalogue to an exhibition of his work at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. He said then that Gyntiana’s title alluded to “an imaginary land which one has to make fertile for oneself. . . . Each observer that wants to enter this picture basically has to be prepared to use a spade in order to become active in its land. That means that the observer has to delve into himself to understand the picture. . . . [The figures are] only a trigger or a signal.” Keeping this in mind, I recently took another long, hard look at the painting. It turns out that several (mis-) leading characters conceal a number of scenes that also shed light on Immendorff’s struggles both to become an artist and to remain a vital painter.
In the self-portrait at the center of the painting, Immendorff is pulling two of his “Lidl” blocks—wooden blocks painted in the colors of the German flag, one of which he famously tied to his leg on January 31, 1968, and dragged around in front of the German Parliament building in Bonn in order to denounce the conservative political situation in West Germany. (He was arrested for desecrating the flag when the paint on the sides of the block began to rub off.) A few years later, in 1973, the artist for a time became a committed Maoist; this period of his life is indicated here near the top of the picture, where five heads of Mao appear on a piano being played by a maniacal figure.
In the late ‘70s, Immendorff became good friends with several artists affiliated with Werner’s gallery—Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, and A.R. Penck. But although these artists are among the many figures crowded into Gyntiana under the roof of the Café Flore, the painting is far from a “friendship portrait.” It is, rather, informed by Immendorff’s often-frustrated search for enduring close relationships with other artists, and like several of his paintings featuring such portraits, it operates effectively by double-dealing in comic overstatements.
Gyntiana also underlines the importance of Joseph Beuys to revitalizing art in Germany after the war. To the left of a white goat—possibly an allusion to Picasso’s She-Goat, 1950—we encounter a petulant youth who looks like Arthur Rimbaud and seems ready to dash a plane (labeled FLUXUS, piloted by Beuys) to the ground. This scene directs attention to the year 1964, when two important events took place in the time line of art: Not only did the widely circulated photograph of a punch in the nose that Beuys received during the course of a Fluxus event in Aachen propel him into the public arena, but Immendorff became a student of Beuys’s at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The enduring meaning of this first apprenticeship is also alluded to in Gyntiana: Near the back of the painting is Immendorff again, here wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words BEUYS RITTER (“Beuys Knight”).
Moved by Lucio Amelio’s late interest in his painting, Immendorff decided to include a small, framed picture of this longtime dealer and friend of Beuys’s near the center of Gyntiana. Another framed picture of Picasso’s patron Gertrude Stein, is positioned to the far right, on the floor. In the background we glimpse another framed portrait, of a third, less recognizable individual. These portraits are marked with their subjects’ names and the phrase WÄCHTER DER FORMEL—“Guardian of the Formula.” Completely divergent characters but nevertheless all gatekeepers of a kind, they stand for Immendorff’s conviction that such intermediaries will always protect and pass on the message of great, if frequently mysterious, works of art.
And he believed this even while he was, at heart, a loner. He was daunted by nothing. Even when his illness meant he no longer could hold a brush, he continued to break through established categories of composing and making paintings. If you don’t know what I am talking about, it’s high time you got out your spade and began digging in the rich field of his art.