From the Archives: Baselitz, Straight Up

Georg Baselitz: Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1965, oil on canvas, 64 by 51 inches. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.


On view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through September 16, “Baselitz: Six Decades” celebrates the eightieth birthday of the influential artist, known for his expressive brushwork and upside-down portraits. In a review of a 1995 Baselitz retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Brooks Adams explored the artist’s art-historical references, from his parodies of Renaissance religious symbolism to his admiration for the nineteenth-century Swedish eccentric Carl Fredrik Hill, even speculating on the affinity of Baselitz’s sculptures of the 80s with the Bateke tribal objects in his personal collection. His work is so protean in its variety of appropriations that the linear form of the retrospective, Adams concludes, “did the anarchic side of Baselitz a certain disservice.” The review, from our November 1995 issue, is published in full below. —Eds.


How you perceive the Georg Baselitz retrospective currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (to January 7, 1996) may in part depend on how you relate to the decades it encompasses. If you think good old-fashioned figurative painting with an abstract edge is dead meat in 1995, the Baselitz show may just convince you to change your mind. If you are virulently anti-’80s, you’re not going to be predisposed to like his signature paintings of upside-down figures. If you think painting died in the ’70s, you might be surprised to learn that Baselitz kept painting right through that decade and even went through a belated Abstract Expressionist phase in his ’70s work. If you have an archeological fascination for all things ’60s (and who doesn’t these days?), you will agree (as almost everyone does) that Baselitz’s early paintings are brilliant and enigmatic works, an odd mix of late Symbolism and neo­Mannerism capable of sustaining the most contradictory analyses and of becoming more resonant with each passing year.

As seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this past summer, the Baselitz retrospective offered a plethora of upside-down images that seemed suspended, like sleeping bats or stalactites, from the ramps above them. The artist’s subversive device ceased to look abnormal in what could be seen as an upside-down museum; in fact, the primal space of the museum started to look like what the artist enthusiastically described in a 1985 lecture, “The Painter’s Equipment,” as “the great cave” of art.1 As curated by Diane Waldman, deputy director and senior curator at the Guggenheim, the retrospective makes a strong case for continuity in the artist’s oeuvre. Baselitz’s early “Heroes” paintings (1965–66) were emphasized by the inclusion of numerous examples, since Waldman feels that they relate to his ’90s paintings; the latter were shown under the rubric of “The Return of the Hero.” Waldman states her thesis for the show in the catalogue: “The Heroes paintings represent an extraordinary achievement for the artist, for in their image he found himself. Painted in less than a year, they have continued to inform all of his subsequent work.”2

To me, the “Heroes” are important as ironic skewerings of Socialist Realist heroism. Many of them are also depictions of men jerking off. Roughly contemporary to early Warhol, these ithyphallic images come across as immensely salutary even in the revolutionary precincts of early ’60s painting. In his ’60s writings, Baselitzs paeans to masturbation are quite wild, and this literary parallel gives his early paintings a fascinating auto-erotic twist. At times he seems to be deliberately perverting nineteenth-century German ideals of male friendship: his large painting The Great Friends of 1965 (not in the Guggenheim show) shows two guys with unzipped flies and stigmata on their hands who have clearly had some fun together on their post-apocalyptic camping trip. In an outrageous 1963 letter-manifesto (reprinted in the Guggenheim catalogue) titled “Dear Mr. W.” the artist recommends: “Go out in the street and look at the way the people keel over, fall on the sidewalk . . . I can only recommend that you masturbate and watch them rubbing their dicks on permanent red, madder lake, and pigeon droppings and reserving their places in the sun.”3

In a novel kind of swinging ’60s existentialism, Baselitz captures the mood of desperation in postwar Germany. A generation younger than Joseph Beuys (whose work occupied all the ramps of the Guggenheim in 1979–80), Baselitz was born Hans-Georg Kern in 1938 in a village called Grossbaselitz in Saxony, in what would later become East Germany. As we learn from the catalogue, Kern went through the war living in the village schoolhouse. His father, who was the head teacher, was conscripted by the Nazi party, lost an eye in battle and was interned for six months in a Russian prison camp. After the war, because of his party affiliation, he was forbidden to teach, and Kern’s mother supported the family by teaching instead. Kern’s parents wanted him to become either a drawing teacher or, given the proximity to Dresden, a porcelain painter. He instead considered a career in forestry and in 1956 even gained admission to the state forestry school in Taranth. He didn’t go, but woodland themes would come to play an important role in his paintings, especially in the late 60s.

Having been turned down by the art academy in Dresden, Kern was later kicked out of art school in East Berlin after two terms in 1956 for what the authorities called “socio­political immaturity”; basically, he refused to go to Rostock during vacation to do industrial labor and instead produced a series of 50 tumultuous paintings. (A lasting bitterness toward East German official artists would affect his later career decisions; in 1977, for instance, he withdrew from Documenta 6 when East German artists were included, and in 1988 he resigned his professorship at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin after East German professors were hired, although he rejoined the faculty in 1992.)

Having moved to West Berlin in 1958, Kern studied at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Kunst under the Tachist Hann Trier; Tachism would remain a subtext in his ’60s figurative works. At the academy he walked through the shows “The New American Painting,” curated by Alfred Barr, and “Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956,” also organized by MoMA, every day on the way to his studio: Abstract Expressionism would come to have an even more lasting effect than Tachism on his painting and sculpture. In 1961 he changed his name to Baselitz after his place of birth, affecting the nomenclature style of many Renaissance artists. He collaborated on his first and second “Pandemonium” manifestoes with fellow artist Eugen Schoenebeck in 1961 and 1962. (Schoenebeck’s work closely paralleled Baselitz’s until 1966, when he stopped painting. Material relating to their collaborations was not included in the Guggenheim show.)

Baselitz first made a big splash in 1962 at the Galerie Werner & Katz in Berlin with paintings like The Big Night Down the Drain, which depicts a hydrocephalic kid holding a big red erection sticking out of his shorts. Two of these works were immediately seized by the police, and the young artist and his dealers were fined; it was not until 1965 that the case was dismissed and the paintings returned to the artist. In 1965, he spent six months on a fellowship at the Villa Romana in Florence, where he painted his “Heroes” and began collecting Mannerist prints, especially those of the School of Fontainebleau. Baselitz then moved wife and two young sons to Osthofen, outside of Worms; there his first rural subjects begun. (In 1975, he would move again to a castle in Derneburg near Hildesheim, where he still resides; he also currently keeps a studio in Imperia, on the Italian Riviera.)

In 1969, he painted his first upside-down picture, The Wood on Its Head (not in the Guggenheim show). Baselitz began to achieve a European art-world celebrity through his provocative use of upside-down imagery in all the classic genres—history paintings, nudes, portraiture, landscape, still life. These realistic, figurative works revived the old seventeenth-century academic distinctions, even as the upside-down paintings turned those very distinctions on their head. Baselitz’s emphasis on academic figurative genres must have seemed at the time like a subversion of the ideologies of high modernist abstraction and formalist reduction, a kind of perverse harking back to the categorical thinking of Socialist Realism. Yet when seen in the wake of the 1968 student upheavals, Baselitz’s almost literal turning of the academy on its head also emerges as a brave, if hardly isolated, rebellious act.

For many viewers, the problem with Baselitz is that his work appears to merely reaffirm the tradition of German Expressionism, particularly that of the Brücke group based in Dresden, even though the artist himself has expressly denied links to that school. Baselitzs images of nude men seem, for instance, to belong to the same raucous lineage as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Artillerymen in the Shower (1915), prominently on display last summer in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection galleries. One might even be tempted to ask: who needs Baselitz, when we already have Kirchner? As Peter Schjeldahl put it in his Village Voice review of the Guggenheim show: “He has been the unfavorite of Americans, including me, who happily adulate Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. Like the even less exportable Marcus Lüpertz, Baselitz has seemed a late bus of modern art, a macho Existentialist retroactively Germanizing past artistic periods that his nation, for famous political reasons, did not take part in.”4 Quite simply, Baselitz was actively assimilating movements like Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism rather late in the game, in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and even to some degree today in the ’90s, when so many Americans have already comfortably consigned them to the realm of art history. Yet Baselitz’s work, in turn, can make us dust off our perceptions of those art-historical movements and see them afresh as living, changing things.

Apart from his first shows in New York at Xavier Fourcade and Brooke Alexander in 1981, my discovery of Baselitz’s ’60s work began in 1982 in a show at Yale, “German Drawings of the ’60s,” curated by Dorothea Dietrich.5 (The Guggenheim show, unfortunately, does not include the artist’s graphic work, which is some of his best.) That relatively quiet show was memorable because it provided a first taste of those early drawings that seemed to belong to another time, another tradition and another sense of history, namely, that broad vision of nineteenth-century German Romanticism and its lineage, such as was recently encapsulated in the mammoth British show “The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990” in Edinburgh and London, in which Baselitz took part.

To a young American art historian in the early 80s, the art made by Baselitz, Richter, Polke and A.R. Penck, all of whom had “escaped” from East Germany, felt impossibly exotic, necessary, revisionist and postmodernist. Baselitz’s device of painting upside-down figures seemed then to express the notion of a schizoid, divided Germany; now six years after reunification, that reading seems somewhat less germane. His “Fracture” paintings and drawings of 1966–69, in which imagery is divided every which way, made the historical point of Germany’s partition even more dramatically. I remember a show of Baselitz’s early work with several “Fracture” paintings at Mary Boone in 1987, which was followed by two historical shows at Michael Werner—one of “Heroes” in 1990 and one of 70s work in 1992; these three shows were revelatory in their presentation of early work all but unknown in America.

Even in the context of early 80s figure painting, which tended to rely on historicizing references, Baselitz’s work displays an unusual breadth of sources. Imagine a world in which nineteenth-century eccentrics like the Swede Carl Fredrik Hill and the Russian Mikhail Vrubel were points of departure, with Rosso Fiorentino and Parmigianino as stops along the way. Now Baselitz has become an important collector of Hill’s work and an appropriator of his Nordic imagery. He has, moreover, authored a short book on Hill, in which the Swede carries on an imaginary correspondence with August Strindberg, whose paintings Baselitz also collects.6 (As an artist-collector-author, he recently contributed an essay to the scholarly 1994 show “The French Renaissance in Prints from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France” which originated at the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts in Los Angeles.7)

The old-masterish cast of Baselitz’s art was reinforced by an important 1985 article by Richard Calvocoressi in The Burlington Magazine.8 Calvocoressi argued that Baselitz’s upside-down figures may well have been based on images like Masaccio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, with its symmetrical vision of an upside­down crucifixion, a painting that was available to the artist in the Berlin State Museums in Dahlem. In his roles as a parodist and appreciator of Renaissance art, Baselitz was something like a latter-day Nazarene, one of those nineteenth­-century Germans who became obsessed with Italy. In fact, his paintings today seem full of borrowed religious imagery—be it the Last Supper transposed into an homage to the Brücke artists in Baselitz’s behemoth Supper in Dresden (1983), the David and Goliath overtones in the “Heroes,” or the recurrent imagery of falling figures, especially in a recent, colossal vertical format like Picture Sixteen (1993–94), which implies a self-conscious nod to any number of Renaissance and Baroque Last Judgments. Here then was a whole new kind of time-warp lineage for the postmodernist artist. When Kynaston McShine surveyed the terrain of artists who had worked in Berlin in his exhibition “Berlinart 1961–1987” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987, early Baselitz was given pride of place at the beginning of the show, with a marvelous series of scrappy paintings (not the Guggenheim show) inspired by Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, on the subject of diseased feet.

Two paintings switched places in the hanging of the Guggenheim retrospective last summer. The show originally began with The Poet (1965), a quintessentially late Symbolist image of a figure falling into a spiderweblike vortex; the note sounded was one of ineffable and inextricable gloom, perhaps still reflecting the mood of ’60s East Germany after the imposition of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Later The Poet was replaced by B.j.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1965), an image of a hero walking, and one that implies a much greater possibility of purposeful change: that is, the mood of burgeoning development in ’60s West Germany. The rehanging served to infuse the viewer, as well, with a more active sense of purpose: inspired by Baselitz’s ironically propagandistic image, we all became heroes trudging through the ruins of modern culture. Then again, the title of the painting tips us off to the fact that Baselitz has been confronting French art history, and not just German war wounds, from the outset of his career.

Going through the exhibition, we can see how, very early on, Baselitzs hero imagery begins to rhyme with his depictions of trees, producing any number of sylvan Crucifixions, The Tree I (1965–66) is a standout in this respect, for its hacked-off branch is literally dripping blood. In a related work, Trap (1966), one of my favorite “Hero” paintings on view, two trees do battle over a seated male figure, and the sparring of their phallic branches once again draws blood; the effect suggests a Teutonic production of Macbeth. One should also point out that the tree trunks are painted in dappled, fleshy tones that recall Philip Guston’s ‘50s abstraction (first glimpsed by Baselitz in 1958 in “The New American Painting”). Here, paradoxically, Baselitz almost seems to predict Guston’s late 60s return to figuration. Incidentally, the two artists were made to face off with one another most effectively this past summer at the Venice Biennale in Jean Clair’s show “Identity and Alterity: Figures of the Body 18951995” [See A.i.A., September 1995]. There Baselitz was represented by a startling group of 1969 upside-down portraits of his family and friends (none of this group was included in the Guggenheim show), which provided proof positive that part of the shock value of his first upside-down works has to do with their subversion of Realist portraiture.9

In the 70s section of the Baselitz exhibition, the most provocative paintings are clearly the upside-down nude self-portraits of the artist and his wife, Elke. In Bedroom (1975), Elke is depicted as a blue-green blob with her arms crossed rather huffily, while the painter captures himself as bearded and rather well-endowed, with just a hint of a bikini line on his tanned abdomen. (The European éclat of a bikini line on a man is even more evident in other nude self-portraits of the period, not in the Guggenheim show.) The strident blue and orange passages of these works are oddly tentative and suggest that Baselitz is looking at de Kooning, and even going him one better in other canvases of these years (such as Nude Elke, 1974) which are fingerpainted. These finished works remain defiantly showy and ugly—characteristics I never associate with de Kooning’s classicism and refinement.

Baselitz keeps turning up the volume and working through Ab Ex in his later ’70s paintings. Female Nude—Lying (1977), with its slashing black-and-white diagonals, is all too obviously based on Franz Kline, while The Gleaner (1978) seems to take on Joan Mitchell’s bravura brushwork in the figure of an upside-down crouching female nude which also reaches back in its iconography to Dali and van Gogh as well as to Millet’s images of gleaners. Twenty years after the fact, Baselitz was thrashing through the formal innovations of the New York School, not to mention the iconography of nineteenth-century French painting. Although we might feel an emulation of Guston in certain passages of the “Heroes,” or of Rothko in some of their spare backgrounds, it was only in the 70s that Baselitz took on the big, allover compositions of the Ab-Ex generation, an enterprise he continues to this day. In the Guggenheim show, the result was ramp after ramp of canvases that despite their inverted imagery still resemble dreary-looking European postwar abstraction.

In the 80s, coinciding with Baselitzs increasing fame, his paintings get bolder, more posterlike and more obvious. How else to explain the almost carnivalesque imagery of the “Orange-Eaters” and “Drinkers”? These two series of small canvases do, however, exhibit some of Baselitzs most luscious color and brushwork. In the “Orange-Eaters” (spring-summer 1981), we might infer that a male figure with a red crewcut has started gorging himself; in all examples exhibited, the orange is depicted as shoved directly into the figure’s mouth. In the “Drinkers” series (August 1981), the same figure takes to the bottle. Although in the catalogue Waldman surprisingly compares the spare compositional structure of these works to Mondrian’s abstraction, I also began to catch an autobiographical, narrative drift which is not discussed by the curator. In a well-known, large and ambitious canvas, Adieu (March 17, 1982), which depicts two barrel-chested figures on a sumptuously brushed yellow-and-white checkerboard, it looks as if one figure is walking out on the other. Here Baselitz may already be feeling the influence of his own sculpture, which features figures cut from a single tree trunk: his chunky painted figures seem to have devolved to an almost vegetable state of predetermined lassitude—yet another metaphor, perhaps, for life in the East German state.

In the ’90s work, the artist starts walking all over his canvases while they are still wet on the floor. Shoe prints, brushwork and bravura arabesques of paint squeezed directly from the tube commingle in increasingly ornamental compositions. This is the section of the show Waldman calls “The Return of the Hero,” because some of the figures are reminiscent of the ’60s work, but I don’t necessarily see why the ’90s figures should be called “Heroes.” They are, more simply, studies of full figures and heads, often contorted into difficult positions. In the emphatic patterns of sneaker treads, Baselitz clearly resurrects one of the earliest roles of the artist: as walker, or wanderer. He also makes the shoe-marks rhyme with fat, black, painted spots in an attempt to realize what he calls “the ornamental” in painting. That some of his ’90s sneaker and dot patterns have assumed the aspect of a dance, of either the sacred-circle variety or allover mayhem, can be taken as a self-conscious, shamanistic stance, an attempt to emulate both Pollock and Beuys. In The Last Eagle (1991), for example, the mandorla-like pattern of Baselitzs footfalls suggests that he is taking on a tradition inherited from early Beuys drawings, in which the depicted tracks of an animal make prominent lines across or around the sheet of paper. Baselitzs circles and checkerboard formations of shoe prints also recall the ceremonial choreography of Beuys’s performance-piece walks. (In his first foray into scenic design, Baselitz designed huge inflatable costumes, documented in a video at the Guggenheim, for a 1993 production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.)

Baselitz’s use of sneaker treads as a form of pattern, even of readymade pointillism, and his use of squeezed paint as a bold form of drawing suggest a need on his part to connect with the act of painting in some new primal way, Yet by squeezing paint directly from the tube to effect his own kind of automatism, Baselitz produces works that are often reminiscent of late Cocteau or Mathieu; some of this recent work remains embarrassingly sketchy to behold, Baselitz’s ’90s sneaker-tread paintings also made me think of Rauschenberg’s ’50s tire­tread paintings: the sneaker, like the tire, gives these grandiose field paintings a frisson of consumerism.

In several of his most recent paintings, Baselitz establishes a broad horizontal gesture that all but supplants his upside-down figures and makes us look backward to appreciate earlier predominantly horizontal, if also upside-down, figures (usually bathers) from the 70s and 80s. In retrospect, the horizontally suspended figure wins out over the vertically inverted image in the Guggenheim show. Frequently, these horizontal figures are glimpsed through roundels: in Picture Six (1991), the upper halves of two sketchy couples are visible in two large white circles; the implication is that they are lying foot to foot in some archaic tomb. (The artist often speaks of foraging for ancient German archeological remains around his childhood home.) I also liked Picture Twenty-One (1993), with its broad, lateral swaths of sneaker prints, its “off” color combinations of muddy yellow, blue and red and its deliberately schwach or “weak” imagery of two upside-down girls’ faces, again encased in sketchy roundels, which made me think of early David Salle. Even more successful to my mind is Picture Twenty-Eight-No Birds (1994), with its colossal, grisaille fingerpainted portrait of a nude Elke cantilevered out over a ground of yellow and gray organic growth painted in cresting high relief. This looming female archetype with oddly dwarfed little hands devolving to inchoate mitts suggested to me an unlikely marriage of Eric Fischl and Terry Winters. Whether Baselitz is self-consciously alluding to the glory days of ‘80s painting remains seriously open to question. I see him as more consciously extending the range of his female fertility figures into the realm of the primordial. For this more universal message, a dominant horizontality seems like the most potent directional force in the artist’s 90s work.

As for Baselitz’s wood sculpture, which he began making in 1979, it was scattered throughout the Guggenheim exhibition. In the catalogue, Waldman seems to be proposing the artist as one of those archetypal painter-sculptors like Picasso, Matisse, or Kirchner who have so strongly influenced the course of twentieth-century sculpture with their experiments. Yet Baselitz’s sculpture, which belongs to the venerable German tradition of hacking totemic forms out of single tree trunks, strikes me as profoundly conservative, which is not to say that some examples are not very striking. I would be interested in learning more about how Baselitz’s sculpture reflects his own collection of African art, which focuses on the fabric-covered sculptures of the Bateke tribe—an affinity that is not discussed in the catalogue. Indeed, many of the artist’s ‘80s sculptures have a kind of ethnographic charm. The Red Man (1984-85), in particular, with its distended hot pink belly and electric blue base, looked sensational on the ground floor of the Guggenheim in close proximity to Supper in Dresden, a painting which exhibits much of the same tonality. I also became fond of Armalamor (1994), a wooden standing figure reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘20s “Bathers” but covered in roughly collaged, plaid-patterned fabrics. This vertical odalisque, with her arm thrown over her head in the classical position of a sleeping Ariadne, functioned as a kind of oversized sex kitten next to the Guggenheim’s indoor reflecting pool.

On the upper ramps of the exhibition, Baselitz’s sculpture began to seem merely repetitive: for my taste there were too many dismembered or decapitated female fertility figures slathered in red paint. I did enjoy seeing three versions of The Women of Dresden (1990) installed on three successive ramps so that, viewed from across the rotunda, they became a vertical cadmium yellow stripe. This was a spectacular stroke of showmanship, but it couldn’t quite alleviate my feeling that Waldman sacrificed variety and contrast in her choice of sculpture, going for consistent lines of work. Where, for instance, was Model for a Sculpture (1979–80), a piece that caused such a brouhaha at the 1980 Venice Biennale with its Sieg Heil gesture?

Waldman’s show ultimately has a smoothing and somewhat homogenizing effect on Baselitz’s oeuvre. For example, there were so many “Hero” paintings at the Guggenheim that they ultimately began to look predictable and even dull, which they certainly aren’t. Waldman in the catalogue is at pains to associate the “Heroes” with the “Canephora” figures of ‘20s Braque: this is a good way of accounting for their culinary refinement, but it does not explain their outrageous content. This Waldman does by reprinting many of the artist’s own writings at the back of the catalogue, and for this anthology, I am grateful; it is quite the best thing about the book.

In choosing to omit some of the more sexually explicit examples of the “Heroes” from the show, the curator, and perhaps the artist as well, may have been trying to accommodate the newly conservative cultural climate in America. Fortunately, a few explicit works were shown, though, and sure enough, there were usually small crowds of kids looking at The Big Night Down the Drain or Sex with Dumplings (1963) in bemused silence. The importance of Baselitz’s work today is still the degree to which it provokes a healthy reconsideration of what constitutes modern art. In going for a seamless line of development in the oeuvre, the Guggenheim show did the anarchic side of Baselitz a certain disservice.