In 1981, Normal Rosenthal, who writes about art for The Independent helped organise the now mythical ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ at the Royal Academy where the work of George Baselitz was featured amongst others. His generation included Gerhard Richter, Markus Lüpertz – who is also exhibiting in London soon at the Michael Werner Gallery in London’s Mayfair – Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo. Now all these artists are regarded, both in Germany and worldwide, as classics, but Baselitz seems to still be unconvincing.
Rosenthal tells us that at the time, the then director of the National Gallery in Berlin told him in the friendliest possible way that Baselitz was not even an artist. Similarly, the legendary William Rubin, then director of the Museum of Modern Art of New York painting department, whose measure of contemporaneity lay in the work of Frank Stella, expressed his bafflement that Rosenthal could find space in his head for Baselitz and those other artists, all of whom, with the exception of Palermo, were included in the RA show. It was the first time any of them had received exposure outside the larger German-speaking world, where, even at the time, they were reviled outside a small insider circle. These were the times of the emergence of neo-impressionism both in Italy and Germany. I guess my point is that, in hindsight, Rubin and the direction of the National Gallery in Berlin were not that wrong. Baselitz’ show at Gagosian looks flat, cold and childish.
This show starts what we could call the Annus Baselitz. In Gagosian, 15 inverted self-portraits are invertedly hung under the title Farewell Bill (referring to Willem de Kooning). This show, in my opinion, seems to ask too much from the viewer. They look incomplete and the gesturality is childish. With a rather irreflexive palette the pointless brushwork and the iconographic confusion adds up to this sort of messy concoction that must be taken at face value as ‘neo-expressionism’. The problem with this kind of art is that it demands from the artist to ‘vomit’ his fears and frustrations over the canvas which is very difficult to sustain over a three decade career span unless the artist commodifies it as a representation of a presentation of his or her soul. I think this is the case with Baselitz. He has stopped feeling that anger decades ago and what we see today are nostalgic plastic exercises that come across as too rethorical.
This Annus Baselitz will continue at the British Museum where a group of some 90 works on paper in an exhibition titled Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation, will be shown. Baselitz was one of a number of artists who hailed from Saxony (then of course part of the German Democratic Republic, the “wrong side” of post- Second World War-divided Germany), most of whom came to West Germany before the wall was erected in 1961.
The third manifestation, opening at the Royal Academy on 15 March, is an exhibition of 16th-century Italian Mannerist chiaruscuro woodcut prints from the artist’s own collection. Baselitz discovered this world as a student in Italy in the early 1960s when these objects were relatively easy to find. Now they are priceless and rare beyond measure. Baselitz has twice built up probably the finest collection of such prints in the world – to rival any great museum, including the Albertina in Vienna where they have just been shown.
He started collecting as a young man and the selling of his first collection allowed him to buy the legendary medieval castle of Derneburg near Hanover, which for many years, since the congress of Vienna, had been in British hands. Abandoned after the Second World War it then served as the artist’s studio for several decades until he recently moved to a house near Munich to be closer to his family.
These prints by and after artists of the late Renaissance, such as Correggio and Parmigianino, inspired an extraordinary print series by the artist he made back in the 1960s called A New Type. These were representations of defeated German soldiers using this almost forgotten technique of printing that suggests form, volume and depth, and are positively painterly in themselves. They are among Baselitz’s greatest works.
Georg Baselitz is rich, lazy and a pretty nasty guy. He said many times that women can’t paint, he once depicted a dwarf with a boner and he likes to piss everyone off by hanging his paintings upside down. His work throughout his long career – he first made headlines with that aroused dwarf in 1962 – has always been marked by outright aggression. And the 12 immense new paintings and 11 smaller works on paper on show here are as harsh and distorted as you’d expect and as Allan Stone used to say, ‘they don’t cut the mustard’. Just a thought.