Markus Lüpertz, a Michael Werner stalwart since 1968, is having a moment. An exhibition at the gallery coincides with a two-venue retrospective in Washington, D.C., his first in the United States, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Phillips Collection. Identified with the European generation of Neo-Expressionist painters of the 1980s, Lüpertz is part of a loose group composed of mostly Germans and Italians—e.g. A. R. Penck, Gerog Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente, among others—credited for resurrecting painting as a cutting-edge art practice. His resurgence on these shores a generation later raises a timely question: To what degree has Neo-Expressionism impacted gestural painting’s viability as a platform that speaks to the next generation? Said question was certainly implicit in the Whitney’s recently closed Fast Forward: Painting in the 1980s. The works that still looked fresh—e.g. those by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Cain, and Kenny Scharf—tended to be furthest from the direct quotations of Western art historical images typical of Lüpertz and many of his European cohorts during the mid- to late-80s. Lüpertz’s new paintings in this current show follow a familiar Neo-Expressionist formula: loosely painted, large format paintings straddling abstraction and figuration, centering in this case on the classical theme of Arcadia. With few exceptions, they look ... not exactly dated, but musty—as if they had just been hauled out of storage for a show that could have happened thirty years ago. His gestural handling of paint often lacks emotional urgency, illustrative of rhetorical flourishes. The paintings’ relationship to their classical referents feels second-hand, as the majority of the images reference the works of other artists. Indeed, there is no sense that Lüpertz has an emotional connection to Greco-Roman culture or a direct experience of the art of antiquity; rather, his relationship to Classicism seems mediated through the art of others.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Lüpertz is executing a kind of aesthetic Judo throw, redirecting Classicism’s colossal influence on Western painting’s canon into an open, subjective space of a paradoxically “felt” Classicism, something embodied rather than intellectual. As in sleep, when the automatic functions of the body take over the waking intellect, the overall dreaminess of these paintings is a tantalizing clue that Lüpertz may be proposing exactly that. The image in Die Dämmerung [The Dusk] (2016), a figure painted from the rear who dissolves into the landscape, typifies the show’s overall effect: that of a twilight state between wakefulness and sleep, precisely when the mind gives way to the body’s demands. In their languor, these classical figures betray a decidedly Symbolist cant, and indeed references to Symbolist art run throughout the show. The head in Der Traum [The Dream] (2017), resembles, in profile, Giorgio de Chirico’s bust of Apollo in three-quarter view in The Song of Love (1914)—an example of Lüpertz’s penchant for quoting the classicism of other artists. The figure of Narcissus as a fair-haired youth picking flowers, which appears in three paintings from 2016—Narziss I, Narziss II [Narcissus I and II], and Der Grosse Narziss [The Great Narcissus]—is a direct copy from a section of Puvis de Chavannes’s 1866 painting Fantasy, a tableau of a woman lassoing a winged horse, with the fair-haired youth at bottom-right.
Even more pervasive motifs, albeit less prominent, are black boats and streams, which typically bisect the picture plane, although they don’t always appear together. The show’s catalog clarifies that the black boat belongs to Charon, the Greek ferryman of the rivers Styx and Acheron, and reproduces a painting, Charon (2016), that is not included in the New York exhibition. Another relevant Symbolist artist is Arnold Böcklin, whose painting of a black boat crossing the waters features prominently in his third, fourth, and fifth versions of Die Toteninsel [Isle of the Dead] (1883, ’84, and ’86, respectively). As with the Symbolists, Lüpertz’s obsession with the passage from life to death is a metaphor for the passage from the conscious to the unconscious; or, perhaps, from the light of rational contemplation to the passionate obscurity of physical ecstasy, as Nietzsche laid out in his opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces. Early in his career, Lüpertz’s readings of Nietzsche led to a fascination with the dithyramb, a frenzied form of verse with uneven meter dedicated to Dionysus, on which Lüpertz based a series of abstract, gestural paintings. For Lüpertz, the act of painting is an ecstatic one that opens up an “atmosphere,” as he says in the show’s catalog, which “allows one who looks at [a painting] to be really engulfed by it.”—precisely the experience the dithyramb was meant to commemorate and, in its wildness, imitate.
As Lüpertz seems to suggest in the above quote, the importance of painting today is that it can provoke the viewer’s passage from intellectual distance to embodied engagement. Ironically, the one painting in the show that does so most successfully was an outlier, among the least gestural and the smallest in scale. Devoid of the others’ typical bombast, Das Gebet in Wald [The Prayer in the Forest] (2017), has a riveting play of form, color, and surface that stopped me in my tracks, while the separation from the world around me fell away for a few moments. The most seductive aspect of this work is the rhythm that the many figures create in their movements across the picture plane. As their outlines melt into the background, they create an effect similar to some of Cézanne’s late paintings of figures in a landscape. Cementing the overall composition into place is a figure at center-left, clad in red. Silhouettes of trees against the sky carry the rhythm of the figures into the upper third of the painting. The surface is comparatively quiet, generally following an up-and-down cadence, which plays off the horizontal canvas.
That only one of his works in this show measures up to Lüpertz’s ambitions is by no means an indictment, but more a measure of the difficulty of the challenge he has set for himself. Maintaining gestural painting’s relevance in contemporary culture while also rooting its chief sources of inspiration from within the Western canon is a Herculean task, particularly as the very practice of painting as a discipline continues to erode within the art market, art schools, and public art institutions like museums. Pure abstraction suffers from its association to “Zombie Formalism,” what the painter and critic Walter Robinson called abstraction made to feed the market, while the bulk of contemporary figurative painting does little more than illustrate the conceptual and/or political leanings of the artist. Today, most painters who keep the practice current benefit from either appealing to mass media—as is the case with Kenny Scharf—or to reimagining the Western canon through alternative cultural narratives—as was the case with Basquiat. Lüpertz’s stubborn attachment to the classical narratives of the Western canon in the teeth of cultural trends that have little use for it is cause for admiration. He keeps them alive by rejecting, through the very act of painting itself, the dualism of the mind-body split that has infected Western thinking from the Greeks onward. This vision of painting as a way of being in the world, rather than as a conceptual proposition, is the very source of the leverage that has allowed him to execute his aesthetic Judo in the first place. The result is a Dionysian classicism that Nietzsche would have certainly approved of, based foremost in an ecstatic mode of awareness that sweeps away the dividing line between subject and object.