Now in his mid-eighties, Georg Baselitz, noted for both his rebelliousness and originality in his youth, has become an eminence grise of Germany’s post-war expressionism. Born in 1938 in Saxony, Germany, he began his art studies at the Academy of Art and Applied Art in East Berlin. He then moved to West Berlin in 1957 to take courses there at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he finished postgraduate studies, which emphasized Art Brut, in 1962. After living in Germany for decades, he and his wife moved to Salzburg, Austria, in 2013. The show at the Morgan Library, one of the best places in America to see both historical and contemporary works on paper, presents about sixty drawings done over sixty years. Baselitz has made a gift of these drawings to the Morgan Library (along with a similar gift to the Albertina Museum in Vienna). The show, which is exceptionally good, is determined from the start by the expressive vigor of Baselitz, who, while a young artist, took a strong interest in the first generation of German expressionists following the First World War.
Baselitz was born in the year before the start of the Second World War, and began making paintings in the 1960s. He inherited a ruined culture, one that had to find, somehow, a way out of its murderous past. Baselitz was committed to inventing a new language, but part of that language, or most of it, would come from his desire to reinvigorate an art free of the country’s terrible history of Nazification. This meant that his images needed to be forceful and demonstrate a new imagination. Remarkably, he was successful in the way that he built a new mythology, one that rejected previous mythic (and politicized) imageries. He developed an immediately recognizable language of large, broad figures with small heads, usually of men. These paintings, done only a generation after the end of the war, serve as a successful attempt to reconcile the achievement of earlier expressionist art–painters such as Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde–with a point of view that would turn from the false culture of reaction. Given Germany’s accomplishments in realist expressionism, this could only be done by reinventing a sense of the figurative, and these monumental personae cleared recent history to envision a new art. The first expressionists were realist artists–painters who communicated recognizable people and things. Baselitz has been the leading figure of his generation of German artists, not because he established a language that was openly political, but because his figures filled a need for new, independent art.
German expressionism, the child of forebears such as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, began at the beginning of the 20th century. These newer expressionists were both eclectic and very much aware of the Northern European painterly tradition. They took little interest in a constrained interpretation of realist painting, preferring a looser style and an emphasis on content that had ramifications for their subject matter. Much of their imaginative activities concerned the First World War and the struggle to start over after the hostilities ended. A number of these artists would live on beyond the Second World War–Otto Dix, whose group of 1923-24 etchings, collectively named Der Krieg, describes the terrors of combat during the First World War. But he lived until 1969, well into the era of art characterized as Pop art, the predominant art of that time. This kind of overlap between one kind of outlook, marked by militarism and tragedy, and another, oriented toward entertainment, must have influenced Baselitz, even though he has continued to make work linked to much earlier efforts. The artist has lived to see a younger generation, international in scope, embracing very different themes, many both personal and political in nature. We need to credit Baselitz for forging a path that, at the same time, looked back to the first expressionist art, whose high point was still within living memory. As a European artist, someone from Germany who was intent on re-inventing an established language of expressionist figuration, it seems likely that Baselitz was determined to outline a new attitude, one very different from current circumstances.
After the heroic figures, in 1969 Baselitz began painting people upside down. He has said, “Turning the motif upside down gave me the freedom to tackle the problems of painting.” The idea was also to rearrange conventional views of art and disturb the assumptions of his audience; as he has commented, “When you are irritated, you pay closer attention.” Perhaps for some viewers, this decision demonstrates a fondness for visual sensationalism and visual rebellion for its own sake. But the experience of the drawings is such that a good argument exists for Baselitz’s decision to distance the work from the audience via the simple, but powerful, decision to paint upside down. Seeing some sixty drawings spanning some sixty years puts Baselitz into perspective. As a very gifted artist, he produced work that challenges himself as much as it disturbs the onlooker. The result of his decision directs the image, which, to be sure, is recognizable even when seen in an upturned state, toward abstraction. The imagery becomes difficult to read but in valid ways. One begins to appreciate the brush marks as individual decisions, forceful in their own right, as well as participating in a cohesive image. A master of the lyric gesture (but not in the American manner), Baselitz also becomes a master of movement, emphasizing first the individual stroke and then jumping to the drawing’s entirety.
But even before Baselitz made his startling decision to paint upside down, his gifts were evident. In Rebel (1965), a pen portrait of one of his monumental figures, we see a man with a large body, a small head with long hair, and unkempt shirt and shorts. He hold a box in each hand. The drawing style belongs to expressionism, but its social value is equal to its facture. This means that the picture, made twenty years after the end of the war, attempts a new realism. Although it is also related to the expressionist past. As such, it stretches the tradition and finds innovative ways to make use of it. At this time, America had no interest in such a style; while the first wave of expressionism here was evident, as early as the late 1930s, the language used was regularly abstract. Later, the new, international expressionism did not come into place until the 1980s. For this writer, Rebel looks very much like an attempt to represent a new Germany, one whose earlier aggression could be separated from the present. It also intimated an encouragement for a new, energetic Germany. Thus, the work is not only a consequence of an exploratory style, it carries a social meaning. Here Baselitz is advancing an originality developing after Germany’s responsibility for suffering and death. This figure is highly appealing as a call for a new start. Most likely, such a wish could not be conveyed by abstraction; representation is clearly better at presenting social truths.
As I noted, the upside down works began at the very end of the 1950s. Baslitz’s decision to “irritate” the work–or its audience–by reversing the vertical orientation of the usually figurative image, provided him with a window of opportunity. Yet it can be argued that his change is not quite so original as some writers have assumed: Why wouldn’t so simple a choice not become an affectation? Baselitz’s ide is striking but not complex. One might ask, What is the big deal? Does painting the portrait ot someone downside-up really represent a profound rearrangement of contemporary esthetics, or is Baselitz’s alignment merely a tic of his creativity. It is not easy to ascribe to these works, in their topsy-turvy orientation, the same originality we would attribute to the genuinely transformative change that occurred in cubism.
So Baselitz’s reversal of a figure’s verticality starts to look like a very personal alteration–it looks like the artist chose to turn the image into something idiosyncratic. But that does not mean his decision is transcendent in regard to the history of painting. The pictures we see in this rejection of convention quickly become customary, indicating that it is one thing to truly transform a major established convention, alive for centuries, such as perspective, and another to introduce a slightly eccentric decision into a single artist’s style. I do not mean to criticize harshly; turning the work upside down genuinely creates a compelling difficulty and a useful eccentricity in Baselitz’s art His creativity not only grew in response to his new idea, it also successfully introduces a genuinely current note, in which the distance established by his decision makes the viewer study the drawing more closely. Here the absurdity we meet possesses a genuine understanding of painting, even if it is not a major transformation of convention.
In The Girls from Olmo (1961), Baselitz had been painting upside-down figures for only two years. Yet the drawing is fluent, even fully coherent, despite the confusion the artist invites by drawing the figure–a female on a bicycle–in an inversion that complicates our experience of it. The composition is rough but entirely understandable: a girl in profile, her face consisting mostly of a large single eye and her hair flowing behind her. She is apparently without clothes, rides a crudely drawn bicycle set at the top of the paper. The paper itself is covered by small black dots and, at the top, a yellow bar streaking across the ground as it rises slowly to the right. The scene is immediately recognizable; Baselitz’s trick of rendering the figure in an inverted fashion does not result in difficulty reading the image. Some of the other drawings, done later on, do prove hard to comprehend, at least in the beginning, but in this case the work was done quite soon after the artist began his stylistic idiosyncrasy; perhaps Baselitz’s, very recently made, would account for the relative ease with which we make sense of the piece. And Baselitz is right: his decision does introduce an element of “irritation,” both in the drawing and in our attempt to make sense of his style. Because his invention may not be as daring as it might seem, being a mannerism of the artist, the upside-down figures can sometimes appear to be a mere experiment. They do not appear to truly affect the structure of his creative work. Yet the decision would also tie him to the experimental bias of post-war expressionism.
Another drawing, called Stooped One with Cane, was done a year later in 1962. It shows a rough portrayal of a stooped figure, with a coarse, simple face and holding a cane, filling most of the paper. The figure’s feet are close to the top of the drawing, and on the far right there seems to be a very approximate rendering of a tree. The atmosphere of the piece is simple and raw; the legs are drawn without clothing, and the bent posture of the man suggests hardship, perhaps poverty. In this work, the drawing’s expressionism may convey social concern, while the element is achieved via an eloquence of line. As time went on, Baselitz would refine his sensibility; this advance resulted from his continuing work with the presentation of feeling, as determined mostly by a gestural line. Social themes, as adumbrated here, were also suggested as well. In Stooped One with Cane, Baselitz is concerned to describe a man in difficulty. No obvious evidence of indigence occurs, yet the crouching figure attracts our sympathies because of his condition. Although Basilitz’s presentation is not directly intended to evoke empathy, empathic feeling is the consequence of seeing someone so physically vulnerable. We cannot help but care for the figure, whose anonymity, a result of the drawing’s simplicity and crudeness, says so much about suffering we can do little to better.
Yet Baselitz didn’t only make black-and-white drawings. One work, done in 1987, done a quarter century after the drawings described above were made, is called My Yellow Period. It consists of a man’s face with a high forehead, rendered in yellow and tan. The person has orange hair and big eyes, and he also wears a green shirt. All of this is done upside down, and we have no idea who the man is. He may be an actual person, or he may be imagined. My Yellow Period is a striking facial portrait, even if its inversion distances us from easy comprehension. Baslitz’s wish to alienate the viewer works here, as it does with the other drawings. The viewer’s need to make sense of the image, given its intricacies of structure and color, demands more effort than usual in interpreting its content. But that is fine. It is the artist’s way of making perception difficult, not only as a stylistic rejection of perceptual ease, but also as a deliberate challenge to his audience. This takes place even when Baselitz resorts to simple forms, as he does in an untitled drawing of 1984, in which two very simply painted figures, featureless to the point of anonymity, become more interesting due to their inversion.
La rivoluzione di dietro, a later drawing made in 2015, consists of a thick, heavy torso and spindly legs against a background in gray and black, with the upper register’s light color determined by the hue of the paper itself. The figure’s head is missing although we see the neck at the very bottom of the drawing. .We don’t know the motivation of such a drawing, but technically it is clear Baselitz, then 77 years old, has not lost any of his skills. The lines representing the body, legs, and arms are remarkably well done and emotionally evocative. Baselitz is a draftsman who demonstrates much more than competence, in this work and throughout the show. His expressionism, always present in his efforts, results in memorable feeling, just as his craft enables the artist to present emotion in ways hard to forget. We must remember that Baselitz is a figurative artist, but, despite the characterization, he is also someone who is transparently steeped in abstraction in modern and contemporary art. Only rarely do we find today so committed an attachment to drawing as we find in this show. His concerns and craft remain constant. Remarkably, from first drawing to last, Baselitz makes continuity and unity of perception a goal.
In a drawing done quite recently, in 2018, Baselitz offers a portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, likely America’s strongest experimental artist in the 20th century. Rauschenberg died in 2008, so this work was made quite some time after his passing. The portrait captures Rauschenberg in middle age, wearing glasses. A youthful vitality emanates from the drawing, reminding us that the American inventor consistently, for decades, made art that challenged almost everything we took for granted–in materials, design, and general culture. To make sure his audience knew whose likeness he was presenting, Baselitz writes Rauschenberg’s full name at the top. The work pays homage to someone whose work and vision was very different from the output of the German artist. But Baselitz pays Rauschenberg true homage. His portrait serves as a heroic vision of Rauschenberg, who becomes a representative not just of the American avant-garde but also someone central to contemporary art in general.
This show establishes Baselitz not only as a major draftsman, but also as a romantic visionary, capable of remarkable energy and focus. The personages in this body of work, ranging from the early heroic portraits, done when Germany badly needed cultural innovation, to the late work, which establishes that Baselitz’s energies and incisiveness remain intact, benefit from a European sense of culture. In America, we are proud of our originality in art, but our technical accomplishments don’t always live up to our insight. In Germany of course there is a long, continuous history of achievement in drawing–think of Dürer’s watercolors or, much later, in the early 20th century, the very emotional art of Käthe Kollwitz. While Baselitz has an open mind, as made evident by his near apotheosis of Rauschenberg, someone working very differently from him, he comes from a different place than American culture. The six decades of drawing emphasize skill and an ongoing interest in representation, made more complex by his style. But expressionism runs deep in German; its contemporary roots go back more than a few generations, to the early part of the previous century. Baselitz’s expressionism is made stronger by his proficiency, which occurs at a very high level.. Still, there is something else that enlivens this show: the presence of a spirited, inventive artist taking inventory of present-day tendencies in art, even if they are not named. His drawings prove that modern expressionist art, begun more than a century ago, can remain vibrant today–when practiced by a master.