"Art demands fanaticism" -- Adolf Hitler, 1915
Georg Baselitz's (born 1938, Deutschbaselitz, Saxony, Germany) recent work at Gagosian, paintings on a monumental scale, presents the artist as a still-vital explorer, using both his personal history as well as myriad art historical references in a search for a unified, iconic image. Enormous canvases, measuring over twelve feet high, combine elements from his early works, such as "Die grosse Nacht im Eimer" (1962–63) and "A Modern Painter" (1966), remixed in a gambit designed to distance himself still further from the nearly thirty-year span of his signature, inverted, pseudo-Ab Ex work. A sense of nostalgia and reflection is evident here, as well as an undiminished appetite for new forms and styles.
Of these pieces, Baselitz says, "I don't want to create a monster; I want to make something which is new, exceptional, something that only I do...something that references tradition, but is still new." Tradition is key here; "Melancholic Design" (2011–12), "Ending" (2011), and "The Flugelhornist Gracie Irlam" (2012) reference Antonin Artaud's peyote drawings, Jackson Pollock's "Portrait and a Dream" (1953), Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jean Dubuffet. "Enddesign" (2011) is a nod to Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I (1514). We also get, more overtly, Richard Diebenkorn and Lester Johnson in the utterly forgettable "Beginning" (2011) and "Nobody was at home in London?" (2011). In all these pictures, which are horizontally bisected à la Rothko or an Exquisite Corpse drawing, gestural brushwork in pale greens, pinks, and terra-cottas riffs on the early cartoon paintings of Philip Guston -- a nice twist, as Guston stole a whole lot back in the early Sixties from Baselitz's "Pandemonium" period. Like in his 2007 exhibition "Remixes," which were brilliant reduxes of his back catalog, Baselitz continues to obsessively pour over, and distill, his earlier periods, trying to find new ways of creating paintings -- as well as attempting to reassemble the heroic figures he shattered and turned turvey-topsy in the late sixties. From a vantage of maturity, he seems to say, it is time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
This makes sense, as Baselitz himself -- coming from East to West Germany as a youth and having lived in Germany through the reunification of the Nineties -- seems to reenact in paint much of his autobiography. The disintegrating figures of his Heroic Type, Artists, Soldiers, Hunters, and so on, presented his characters as fragments -- fragments of the history that Walter Benjamin described. Seen from our point of view, they represented his attempt at a psychological archeological dig. Donald Kuspit wrote of Baselitz in the late Eighties that his was "an openly German art, in style and theme...haunted by the question of its relationship to the Nazi past...using [his] work as a touchstone to frame questions of German Neo-Expressionism in terms of Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholy: is it more a matter of mourning for the German disaster of World War II or of melancholy attachment to a mythically heroic Germany -- a bygone "prelapsarian" Germany? Inherent in the German sense of self is the sense of being a damaged subject, always on the verge of disintegration." In these paintings, to an even larger degree than in the works to which Kuspit was referring, we see Baselitz attempting to stitch together all the elements (styles, histories, stories) of his past, and, contrary to his explanations of the work, create something like a Frankenstein's Monster of painting.
We might see his "mash-ups" of styles and symbols as an older artist taking stock, trying to figure out his sense of place in history. We might also see these paintings as history lessons for a newer generation -- one not raised in Post-War Germany. They are indexes of history, both art and personal, which might best be read as a primer of painting -- a cut-and-paste scrapbook, or the notes of a painter for the future. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Gagosian Gallery is at 522 West 21st Street in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.