Gerhard Richter: Articles, Information, Images (2015)

The Art of Gerhard Richter

Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning

By: Christian Lotz
Media of The Art of Gerhard Richter

Published: 10-22-2015
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 256
ISBN: 9781472589019
Imprint: Bloomsbury Academic
Illustrations: 16 colour illustrations in plate section: pp.180-181
Dimensions: 6 1/8″ x 9 1/4″
List price: $112.00
Online price: $78.40
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WIDEWALLS

Gerhard Richter Colour Charts in London – Presented by Dominique Lévy First Time Since 1966

Amy Lin

Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts will be on display for the first time in the last five decades at Dominique Lévy gallery in London. The exhibition will present some of the best colour panels by the celebrated German artist. Colour Charts exhibit highlights a crucial moment in the artist’s career and works that are situated across several leading art movements of the twentieth century. Gerhard Richter has embraced industrial materials and commercial serialism designating the series as Pop Art although he has once stated that “Colour Charts manifest the influence of a Duchampian model of Conceptual Art“.

 

Dominique Lévy,catalogue, raisonné, picture, august,news, square, 2006, just great, come, number, world, page, began, atlas, set, fields, cologne cut 2007, colours, work, search, pictures, glass, 1974, London

Sample Card for Enamel Paint from Ducolux, 1963

Paint Sample Cards by Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter was inspired by a collection of paint sample cards noticed in one Düsseldorf hardware store. The artist was captivated by the chromatically rich industrially designed selection that was completely deprived of any aesthetic motives. He had copied the originals exactly and the composition of colors was random throughout the process. At first, Gerhard Richter’s friend Blinky Palermo would visit the artist’s studio and randomly call out the names of sample color cards, which were then incorporated into the artwork. Later the artist himself had chosen the colours randomly in order to remove the artistic impact on the compositions. These colorful paintings have been the initiator for Gerhard Richter’s renowned multi-colored abstract paintings created in the following decades. The series was crucial for the artist’s future works partly because for the first time in his carrier, Gerhard Richter was able to capture a referent and its symbolic representation in the same painting. On a visual level, Colour Charts series is pure abstraction but the paintings are also a representation of industrial color sample cards that inspired the artist and therefore and object in its own right.

 

Dominique Lévy,painting, richter's, window, english, make, number,arts, 4900, news, work, search, photographs, white, history, books, collections, arangement, arts, group, squares, press, november, deutsch, quotes, videos, like, people, different, life, english, 4900, richter's, colours, London, raisonné, 2011

Left : Gerhard Richter – Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), 1966 – 1996, photo by Tom Powel Imaging / Right : Gerhard Richter – Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows), 1966, photo by Volker Naumann, courtesy of Museum Frieder Burda

The 50th Anniversary of the Colour Charts

The exhibition at Dominique Lévy will mark a 50 years anniversary of Colour Charts series. Each painting consists of multiple monochromatic rectangles or squares of glossy enamel painted onto a white background. The size of the canvases varies and while some are only few feet tall others almost reach human height. The installment will include single Colour Chart painted in 1971. when the artist begun to expand the series after a five-year break. This monumental 180 Farben (180 Colours) painting that consists of twenty panels with a three-by-three white-based grid, will be provided by Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden. Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden will lend one of the artist’s biggest single-panel paintings Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows) for this occasion.

 

Dominique Lévy, page germany, book, home, book, 2014, quotes, film, group, London

Gerhard Richter – Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), 1966 – 1996, photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Abstract Painghtings and Archival Documents at Dominique Lévy

Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts exhibition will open on October 13th at Dominique Lévy gallery in London. Apart from enamel on canvas paintings the exhibit will feature a selection of archival documents related to the series, including an original 1960s Ducolux paint sample card that inspired the artworks. Additionally the exhibit will be accompanied by a comprehensive publication dedicated to the series. Exhibition of some of Gerhard Richter’s best Colour Chart paintings will close on January 16th, 2016

 

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Featured image: Gerhard Richter – 180 Farden (180 Colours), 1971, photo by David Brandt, courtesy of Gerhard Richter Archive
All images courtesy of Dominique Lévy gallery

MOUSSE

“Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” at Dominique Lévy, London

October 18~2015

Dominique Lévy is pleased to announce “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts,” an exhibition featuring a vital group of paintings selected from the artist’s original nineteen “Colour Charts” produced in 1966. Presented with the support of the Gerhard Richter Archive, the exhibition is the first to focus on the earliest works of this series since their inaugural appearance at Galerie Friedrich & Dahlem, Munich in 1966. At once paradoxical and coalescent, the “Colour Charts” highlight an important moment in the artist’s career and are situated across multiple leading art movements of the twentieth century.

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Colour Charts’ inception, the exhibition brings together works from multiple prominent international institutions. These include the Hamburger Kunsthalle, who is lending 192 Farben (192 Colours), 1966, Richter’s earliest fully realised Colour Chart and the only work from this series executed in oil, and the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden who is lending Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows), 1966, one of the largest single-panel “Colour Charts,” originally exhibited at Friedrich & Dahlem in 1966. “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” also features an earlier work, Sänger (Singer), 1965/1966, a Photo Painting with a colour chart of various shades of red painted on the obverse side of the canvas, which provides an integral insight into the artist’s conception of the series. Additionally, Richter’s 180 Farben (180 Colours), 1971, has generously been provided by the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden. Comprised of twenty panels, each with a three-by-three grid, this work is the first Colour Chart Richter produced when he returned to the series in 1971, after a five-year hiatus. “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” is accompanied by a comprehensive book featuring newly commissioned essays by Dietmar Elger, Head of the Gerhard Richter Archive; Hubertus Butin, curator and author of several key texts on Richter; and Jaleh Mansoor, Professor at the University of British Columbia, whose research concentrates on modern abstraction and its socio-economic implications. This book is the first publication dedicated to the original “Colour Charts.”

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at Dominique Lévy, London

until 16 January 2015

“Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” installation views at Dominique Lévy, London, 2015

Courtesy; Dominique Lévy, London.

– See more at: http://moussemagazine.it/gerhard-richter-levy-2015/#sthash.XMoMd1Qf.dpuf

WALLPAPER

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BROOKLYN RAIL
 
  • DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

MoMA’s “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925” Article Collection

Photo

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, opening Sunday at MoMA, includes “Endless Column,” by Constantin Brancusi, and a wall of Kazimir Malevich paintings. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

In the second decade of the 20th century, abstraction became the holy grail of modern art. It was pursued with feverish intent by all kinds of creative types in Europe, Russia and elsewhere, responding to assorted spurs: Cubism and other deviations from old-fashioned realism, the beautiful whiteness of the blank page, communion with nature, spiritual aspirations, modern machines and everyday noise.

Painters, sculptors, poets, composers, photographers, filmmakers and choreographers alike ventured into this new territory, struggling to sever Western art’s age-old link with legible images, narrative logic, harmonic structure and rhyme. It was a thrilling, terrifying process, and in terms of the history of art, it is one of the greatest stories ever told.

“Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” a dizzying, magisterial cornucopia opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, captures something of that original thrill and terror, in a lineup of works that show artists embracing worldliness and, in some cases, withdrawing into mystical purity. The show brings new breadth and detail and a new sense of collectivity to a familiar tale that is, for the Modern, also hallowed ground.

The 350-plus works on view include numerous paintings — most of the major ones from outside the museum’s collection — as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. Arranged loosely by nationality, they represent a herculean feat of orchestration on the part of Leah Dickerman, a curator in the Modern’s department of painting and sculpture, and Masha Chlenova, a curatorial assistant.

This is the kind of sweeping historical survey of a big chunk of modernism for which the Modern is justly celebrated, and in many ways it is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the type, the pioneering “Cubism and Abstract Art” show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s effort sprawled over 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Ms. Dickerman has tightened the stylistic brackets and the time frame considerably and, perhaps in keeping with the Modern’s current performance-centeredness, deftly insinuated early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries.

She has also added American artists to the mix, and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women. As a result, it is at once more focused and more inclusive.

Ms. Dickerman places new emphasis on abstraction as a great collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several mutually influencing art forms, from the hands of players who often knew one another. She gets specific, adorning a wall outside the exhibition with an immense chart dotted with the names of the show’s 84 artists, all connected by radiating lines that represent relationships between correspondents, friends, spouses and collaborators. (The most connected, catalytic creators, highlighted in red, include Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky and Alfred Stieglitz.) No artist is an island, the chart seems to say.

The first artist we encounter in the show itself is Picasso, represented by a stark Cubist painting from 1910 that — free of his characteristic legible details — flirts with total abstraction. It was a rarity for him, and is the only Picasso here; he left it to others to carry Cubism to its logical conclusion.

Next comes a key moment of cross-fertilization: The Munich concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s music, in January 1911, that inspired Kandinsky to broach abstraction, after pondering it for years. Two comical sketches of the event, with figures and instruments clearly visible, are here (along with its music, in both written and piped-in form), and so is the semi-abstract and rather Thurber-esque painting that resulted, “Impression III (Concert).”

From there the show has an urgent pace, its rhythms set by constant shifts and pivots in scale, medium, locale and style, as well as by different notions of form, space and even speed. Startlingly large canvases by Frantisek Kupka, Picabia, Morgan Russell and David Bomberg punctuate the proceedings, proving that the Abstract Expressionists were not the first to scale up abstract painting — it was born that way.

Equally stunning are clusters of small works, foremost a small gallery where 11 paintings by Piet Mondrian show him progressively flattening and magnifying the Cubist grid to reach pure abstraction, and a wall of nine Suprematist paintings by the Russian master Kazimir Malevich. In one of the show’s more astute juxtapositions, Malevich’s drifting, implicitly spiritual geometries confront three relatively crowded, boisterous German Officer paintings by the American Marsden Hartley, a canonical arriviste; their face-off is refereed by the earthy severity of an early, nearly seven-foot-tall version of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.”

The show has flaws and omissions. Paul Klee is absent because of a reneged loan; also missing is Joan Miró (too Surreal?), who might have brought a breath of whimsy to its sometimes earnest tone.

But there are numerous compensations, among them the sight of so much substantial work by women. We see not only Robert Delaunay but also his formidable wife, Delaunay-Terk, represented by her daring illustrations of the poetry of Blaise Cendrars and one small, radiantly prismatic example of Orphism — Guillaume Apollinaire’s name for a color-saturated, aggressively abstract kind of painting that echoed Cubism — that outshines her husband’s four works.

We see Hans Arp’s sly biomorphic wood relief next to the needlepoint abstractions of his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Marcel Duchamp’s subversive incursions into art juxtaposed with his sister Suzanne’s subtly recalcitrant painting-collage “Funnel of Solitude,” from 1921.

There are also works by the German choreographer Mary Wigman, the little-known Russian-Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro and the English painters Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Helen Saunders. Georgia O’Keeffe is here too, of course, represented by, among other things, a mysterious watercolor of swirling blue from 1916.

This show is an experiential deluge, and unfortunately the labels don’t always illuminate the connections among artists. But slowing down and considering everything around you at any given point yields immense rewards.

At one of my favorite spots in the show, you can listen to a reading of poems by Apollinaire, abstraction’s first defender, while paging through a rare copy (in digital form) of the modest book in which they first appeared. Shifting slightly, you can peruse the actual book — concocted on a mimeograph-like machine that easily reproduced the poet’s visually eccentric arrangements of handwritten words — in an adjacent vitrine. Or you can take in a wall of paintings and drawings from 1913-14 by Fernand Léger that convert the delicacies of Cubist structure into fields of tumbling black lines and arcs, which are bulked up by brusque touches of white or color.

The Légers culminate in Picabia’s “Spring,” from 1912, a large, roiling abstraction whose blocky forms and terra-cotta tones connote a figureless but fleshlike expanse that seems intended as a response to the angular pink ladies of Picasso’s 1907 “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Adjacent to it are two smaller paintings brimming with splintery forms — more decimations of Cubism — made in Russia in 1912 and 1913, one by Mikhail Larionov and the other by his wife, Natalia Gonchorova.

If you turn around, you’ll face the friendly giant that is Morgan Russell’s 11-foot-high “Synchromy in Orange: To Form,” from 1913-14, with its big fans of bright color and its painted frame, visiting New York from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo for the first time since 1978. To the right is a gallery devoted to the Italian Futurists and their clattering, brittle paintings, and a wall covered with some of their magical language drawings. In the opposite corner, a group of small colored-pencil drawings and a painting by Giacomo Balla might have been made yesterday.

All of which is to say that “Inventing Abstraction” is itself a marvel of a diagram, a creative circuitry variously visual, aural and kinetic, whose radiating lines yield new sights and insights at every juncture. Bravi!

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

art reviewJanuary 6, 2013 9:15 p.m.

Saltz: MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction Is Illuminating—Although It Shines That Light Mighty Selectively

By

Early-twentieth-century abstraction is art’s version of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s the idea that changed everything everywhere: quickly, decisively, for good. In “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” the Museum of Modern Art’s madly self-aggrandizing survey of abstract art made in Europe, America, and Russia, we see the massive energy release going on in that moment. Organized by Leah Dickerman, the show is jam-packed with over 350 works by 84 painters and sculptors, poets, composers, choreographers, and filmmakers. The sight of so much radical work is riveting.

Yet art of this kind still poses problems for general audiences. They look on it warily. Indeed, even we insiders sometimes don’t get why certain abstraction isn’t just fancy wallpaper or pretty arrangements of shape, line, and color. It can take a lifetime to understand not only why Kazimir Malevich’s white square on a white ground—still fissuring, still emitting aesthetic ideas today—is great art but why it’s a painting at all. That’s the philosophical sundering going on in some of this work, the thrill built into abstraction. Insiders will go gaga here. But I wonder whether larger audiences will grasp the way this kind of art thrust itself to the fore in the West, coaxing artists to give up the incredible realism developed over centuries by the likes of Raphael, Caravaggio, Ingres, and David.

For 400 years, starting in what we now call Italy round 1414, a highly codified form of picture-making took hold in Europe. It was based rigidly on perspective, and all subject matter was soon depicted in the same perspectival space. Surfaces got smoothed out; traces of process all but disappeared. Thus came into being one of the greatest picture-making cultures of all time. By the nineteenth century, decadence was setting in. You could see it, painfully clearly, in the sea of stylistically similar salon paintings: frolicking children, middle-class life, society ladies, romantic views of nature and animals, and lots of voluptuous nude women seemingly worn out from masturbating. Constable, Corot, Courbet, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Cézanne, and others loosened the pictorial stranglehold. Yet by the early-twentieth century their painterly perestroika was no longer enough. A total break had to happen. Even Cubism, as radical as it was, wasn’t enough to do the trick: As the painter Robert Delaunay put it, “Cézanne broke the fruit dish, and we should not glue it together again, as the Cubists do.”

Which brings us to the first work in “Inventing Abstraction.” This being MoMA, I don’t have to tell you that it’s by the museum’s macho honcho Picasso. It’s Femme à la Mandoline, an intriguing, dusky-colored 1910 work with cubistic compartments, shapes, and slants. Apart from a curve that could be from a mandolin or a hint of hip, there are almost no defining real-world features. This is Picasso coming this close to pure abstraction. Then he blinks. “There is no abstract art,” he stated. “You must always start with something … even if the canvas is green—so what? In that case, the subject matter is greenness!” He’s right, of course. Even so, the rest of the show is dedicated to artists who didn’t blink.

Some sights that follow overwhelm. A wall of nine 1915 Malevich paintings wows with its all-out commitment to form, shape, and color arranged in ways that will never look like intellectual wallpaper. Back up, so you see these punctuated by Brancusi’s rough-hewn Endless Column, and you’ll witness astral geometric visions through some metaphysical Teutonic timberland. The sight of these two artists going for broke is unforgettable. As is the alcove of eleven Mondrians that lets us witness this Dutchman taking Cubism beyond the nth degree, transforming it into one of the most instantaneously recognizable and clear visual styles since the ancient Egyptians’. Starting with a 1912 rendering of bowing trees, Mondrian moves through fields of waterlike marks to crosshatched grids of wavering space, all the way to pure geometry. Absorb yourself in his infinitely rendered edges; see how your inner eye perceives pings of light (visible, but not painted; they’re all in your retina and your mind) where Mondrian’s lines cross. This isn’t just abstraction. This is the movement of visual elements, micron by micron, in ways not seen since Van Eyck.

A large Picabia from 1912 is so deadpan, ironic, and visually aggressive that you see in it future artists like Polke, Kippenberger, and Oehlen. Not far from there, seven different-colored geometric shapes, each on a white ground, by Russian Ivan Kliun radiate calibration and nuanced surface, and point directly to artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Robert Mangold. The British painters (Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, Lawrence Atkinson) all surprised me by looking better than I’ve ever seen them. They’re still self-conscious to the core, contriving every effect, much as recent British artists do. Even the Futurists like Giacomo Balla and Francesco Cangiullo, whose cartoony ideas about movement can be annoying, look good confined to a small space in small numbers. Their posters and diagrams far outshine their paintings.

The show will still leave general audiences in the dark about why abstraction came into being. But careful observation reveals how powerful abstraction can be, how it is still a tool that circumvents language, disrupts identification, dissolves narrative, delays the crystallization of meaning, and becomes a reality unto itself. These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about. Their work is as boring as it is derivative. The exciting news is that artists are doing away with purist cant, getting rid of academic dogma, dumping Clement Greenberg’s rigid nonsense about “flatness.” Artists are polluting and expanding abstraction in fabulously impure ways, bending its armature into whole new configurations. And abstraction, old and new, can still leave us floored. These days, I am stunned by Uri Aran’s sculptures, which conjure the logic of imaginary maps with objects laid out on tabletops, and by the painter Lisa Beck, who hangs pairs of canvases in corners, one with a mirrored surface that reflects the other; somehow the parts meld, become a whole that seems to act as a telescope into unknown dimensions.

At MoMA, it’s great that Dickerman allows masterpieces to share the stage with lesser-known works. She smartly puts stained glass, needlepoint, wood carving, posters, photos, and illustrated books on equal footing with painting and sculpture. For MoMA, which rarely mixes and matches media in its permanent collection, this is a big, praiseworthy step. Yet even with much to love, there’s something demented, even dangerous about this show. Only an institution this besotted with its own bellybutton would title a show “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.” Abstraction wasn’t invented in the West in those years. Abstraction has been with us since the beginning. Westerners discovered it, or rediscovered it. In many cases, it soon became insular and overpurified. Consciously, conceptually, purposefully, fervently. Abstraction is there in the caves. It’s been practiced ever since, all over the world. All two-dimensional art is abstract, in that it’s a representation of something in the world rather than the thing itself. Neolithic stone sculpture and Chinese scholar rocks are as abstract as Brancusi’s Column and Vladimir Tatlin’s tower monument. Missing at MoMA are visionaries like Adolf Wölfli, whose manic abstraction can make Kandinsky look tame; George Ohr’s biomorphic ceramic configurations; Rudolf Steiner’s cosmic diagrams; and Olga Rozanova, who was making Rothkos and Newmans of her own. What about Antoni Gaudí, who’s about as out-there abstract as it gets, on a giant scale? All would have dovetailed perfectly with the wild-style work here by Nijinsky. The American sculptor John Storrs is MIA. Ditto Hilma af Klint, who was making fantastically abstract paintings as early as 1906. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. There’s an empty gallery devoted to music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and others: Fine. But there’s no Scott Joplin! No Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Jelly Roll Morton. All are as original and as “abstract” as these Europeans.

Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful ­bellybutton, alone and forever.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Museum of Modern Art. Through April 15.

*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

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NEW YORKER MAGAZINE
The Art World January 7, 2013 Issue
Shapes of Things
The birth of the abstract.
By Peter Schjeldahl

2013_01_07

 

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Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich, and Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column, version 1” (1918), at MOMA.
Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich, and Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column, version 1” (1918), at MOMA. Credit Photograph by Raymond Meier

In “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” a splendid historical survey at the Museum of Modern Art, the most beautiful work, for me, is “Vertical-Horizontal Composition” (1916), a small, framed wool needlepoint tapestry by Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Rectangles and squares in black, white, red, blue, gray, and two browns, arranged on an irregular grid, generate a slightly dissonant, gently jazzy visual harmony that is pleasantly at odds with the tapestry’s matter-of-fact, nubbly texture. The work bespeaks a subtle eye, a sober mind, and an ardent heart. If you could make something like that, you would drop everything else and do it. You wouldn’t need any great reason. I was mildly shocked by how unshocking Taeuber-Arp’s work is, amid rooms of strenuous sensations from the epoch of abstract art’s big bang. But, in a show that raises the question “Why?” at every turn, I kept coming back to it.

What possessed a generation of young European artists, and a few Americans, to suddenly suppress recognizable imagery in pictures and sculptures? Unthinkable at one moment, the strategy became practically compulsory in the next. Many of the artists had answers—or, at least, they cooked them up. The trailblazing Wassily Kandinsky and the bulletproof masters of abstraction, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, doubled, tortuously, as theorists. They initiated what would become a common feature of determinedly innovative art culture to this day: the simpler the art, the more elaborate the rationale. That’s easily understood. We need stories. When they are banished within art, they re-form around and about it. But most interesting to me are the early abstract artists’ personal motives.

The Swiss Taeuber-Arp and her husband, Hans Arp, from Alsace, were Dadaists in Zurich during the First World War. They seem to have been excited by the prospect of a passably pure, toughly modest aestheticism that jettisoned the traditions of a Europe gone mad with slaughter. Arp was making sprightly geometric and free-form collages and reliefs, often composed by games of chance—for example, shapes in colored paper dropped onto sheets of white paper and glued down more or less where they fell. The couple took comfort and delight in carefully irrational, morning-fresh ways of creating. Abstraction, for them, was a haven and a test of character. Little else in the show makes such humanly grounded sense, though there’s no gainsaying the appeal of the abundant flavors of an international aesthetic cuisine: French color, Italian locomotion, Russian tectonics, Dutch severity, American pep. There are more than three hundred paintings, drawings, prints, books, photographs, films, and music and voice recordings, but they barely summarize the phenomenon’s fantastic variety.

The invention and contrariety of that brainstorming age—in a rewarding introduction to the catalogue, the show’s curator, Leah Dickerman, cites “cars, photography, relativity, and the death of god”—conferred a special prestige on creators, in all of the arts, who dramatized the effects of change. Music led the way, as is often the case when cultural foundations shift; the composer David Lang, one of twenty-five essayists in the catalogue, tracks the abandonment of “functional harmony” from Wagner to Debussy and then, with a lurch, to the atonal Arnold Schoenberg. Analogies to music enabled painters to escape from the logical stylistic developments in their field—at the time, mainly Cubism, which Picasso and Braque derived from suggestions in the work of Cézanne. An ecstatic mess of a painting by Kandinsky, “Impression III (Concert)” (1911), registers his response to a Schoenberg concert, with sketchy hints of audience members assaulted by shapeless floods of black and yellow. There is something forced, a hysteria of the will, about the work, as there is about the drive of the Italian Futurists to represent motion, which stumbles on the fact that paintings hold dead still. But the intensity of ambition of the Futurists and of Kandinsky batters misgivings.

The show opens with a surprise to me: Picasso, as a closet inceptor of abstraction. He painted “Woman with Mandolin,” and a few similar pictures, in the summer of 1910. It is a typically early-Cubist, dun-colored congeries of arrowing lines and shaded planes, nudging in and out of shallow pictorial depth. But it lacks any visible subject matter: no discernible woman, nary a mandolin. It is, in a word, abstract. So, it seems from Picasso’s own testimony, were at least some of his later Cubist works, before he added what he called “attributes”—a bottle, a mustache—to make them still-lifes or portraits. This fleeting episode in his career is obscure, because he would never take credit for conceiving non-figurative art, an idea that exasperated him.

Picasso’s arguments against abstraction still carry weight. He reasoned that there can be no such thing as non-figuration. “All things appear to us in the form of figures,” he said. “A person, an object, a circle are all figures; they act upon us more or less intensely.” (One early term for abstraction, “non-objective,” is especially fallacious in this light—as if any function of the human brain, let alone a work of art, could evade subjectivity.) Picasso also said that, without reference to things we experience as real, art sacrifices its one indispensable quality: drama. Such was the challenge for artists who embraced the racy new looks: how to make the manipulation of circles, say, or of fugitive marks seem to matter. A few—certainly Kandinsky, by fits and starts; Malevich, for a torrid spell; and Mondrian, with steadily growing command—faced down the Spanish basilisk. They did it by activating a figure outside the work: the viewer.

The MOMA show, though exquisitely selective, is unconcerned with rankings of quality. It aims to inform. Mere coincidence in time puts grandly scaled but clumsy painterly cadenzas by the Czech František Kupka, the Frenchman Francis Picabia, and the American Morgan Russell on an undeserved equal footing with Kandinsky. Pretty-good color compositions by Robert Delaunay—which the dashing poet-propagandist Guillaume Apollinaire fancifully termed “Orphism,” after the mythic bard—are no match for Fernand Léger’s joyously tumbling forms in red, white, and blue. A wonderful sequence of Mondrians—from a 1912 picture of semi-abstracted trees to the dawn, in the early twenties, of his mature manner of taut horizontal and vertical black bands, and of blocks of primary colors, all keyed to a physical sense of gravity—far outshines the designy efforts of Theo van Doesburg and his colleagues in Dutch Neo-Plasticism.

Just one movement, that of the Russian avant-garde, after it was cut off from Europe by war and revolution, achieved something like collective genius. A stunning array of Malevich’s thumpingly material, lyrically gravity-defying Suprematist paintings affirms him as the first among equals, including Vladimir Tatlin, who is memorialized by a reconstruction, from 1979, of his gigantic maquette for the “Monument to the Third International” (1920). It is a symbol, like none other, of twentieth-century aspiration and tragic folly. Striking works by Liubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Ivan Kliun, and other Russians make for a superb cameo survey within the show.

Dickerman and her curatorial crew have worked up a flowchart of affinities and influences, along the lines of the famous chart that MOMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., created for the modern movements, circa 1936. Neuron-like webs converge on “connector” individuals, socially adept Pied Pipers who fostered the formation of the time’s avant-gardes. The prime artists include Picasso, Picabia, and Léger, in France; Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova, in Russia; and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in Italy. There are two poets, Apollinaire and the Dadaist honeybee Tristan Tzara, and one dealer, New York’s Alfred Stieglitz, the shepherd of the native modernist painters Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and of the photographer Paul Strand. The chart is an effective aid to memory, a free-fire zone for disagreements, and fine intellectual fun.

On the point of intellect, the show makes an awkward but compelling case that Marcel Duchamp stands centrally in the history of abstraction. Some of his jarring provocations—including a film he made with Man Ray, “Anemic Cinema” (1926), in which spinning, optically disorienting patterns alternate with punning French wordplay—share a room with works by Americans, in the Stieglitz orbit, on whom he exercised a catalytic influence. Dickerman, in the catalogue introduction, analyzes Duchamp’s mordant take on the problem, which bedevilled early abstraction, of finding meaning in art that had no recognizable subjects. Far from trying to close the gap, he made it abysmal. His readymades give meaningless objects meaning-laden titles—most notoriously, the urinal called “Fountain” (1917). “The readymade was thing plus text,” Dickerman writes. With abstraction as the hinge, Duchamp opened a trapdoor at the bottom of Western thought and feeling.

Between Picasso’s conservative critique and Duchamp’s radical one, abstract art was sternly tested. This returns me to Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s humble, radiant tapestry, which obliterates all skepticism. The proof of any art’s lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it’s something that a person needed to do and which awakens and satisfies corresponding needs in us. Such a payoff remained intermittent in the abstract art of the period covered by the MOMA show. It came to full fruition later, in the singing expanses of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and other Abstract Expressionists. But that’s another story. ♦

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LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

At MoMA

Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial, Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuilt Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Avant Garde Without Borders: Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

by Kevin Kinsella

Back-dated art works, Picasso’s frustration, and the transnational creation myths of Abstract art.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 19101925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

According to Gabrielle Buffet, her husband Francis Picabia invented abstract art in July 1912 on a drunken drive across France with Claude Debussy and Guillaume Apollinaire. Mix equal parts artist, composer, and poet in a car at the dawn of the modern age, let it bump around for a while, then throw the doors wide, and out pours a brand new cocktail of color, space, and time.

Of course, Vasily Kandinsky might have begged to differ—and he did. An often-told anecdote has it that the Russian-born painter and critic had stumbled upon Abstract art as far back as 1896. One evening, just after arriving in Munich, Kandinsky saw one of his own paintings leaning on its side in his unlit studio. He couldn’t make out the subject of the work in the darkness, but the forms and colors before him nonetheless struck him—an event sparking the revelation that “objects harmed my pictures.” Despite this epiphany, it took Kandinsky nearly 15 years to bring an abstract painting into the light of day, so to speak. It is perhaps more illuminating that this story started going around in 1913, just as the same lightbulb seemed to be switching on in everyone’s head.

Everyone, it seems, wanted to be associated with abstraction’s creation myth—and some went to extraordinary lengths to secure their positions, including going so far as to backdate key artworks as proof of their having been there since the very beginning. For example, an untitled piece from 1913 by Kandinsky was given a new birthday in 1910; Robert Delaunay’s Soleil, Lune, Simultante 2 (Sun, Moon, Simultaneous 2), which was originally shown by the artist in 1913, was reassigned to 1912, as well as Le Premier Disque (The First Disk). The Russians seemed particularly sensitive to their own role in the development of abstraction, with pieces by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich all receiving reverse facelifts to suggest that their works were anywhere from two to five years older than they actually were. Given the geographic and political barriers at the time faced by these Russian artists, one might understand their insistence that they receive a handicap when it came time to assigning credit for what Leah Dickerman, curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 exhibition, calls the “greatest rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance.”

Abstraction is now so central to our conception of art that it’s hard to imagine a time before the idea of an abstract artwork. But until 1911, it was impossible for artists and the public to let go of the long-held notion that art is supposed to describe things in a real or imaginary world. So, when examples of nonreferential artworks started popping up about a hundred years ago by the likes of Kandinsky, Picabia, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, and Fernard Léger, observors didn’t know what to make of them. With such unexpected and dazzling glimpses into the Fourth Dimension, these early exhibitions in the so-called real world were felt almost immediately. Within five years, other artists from across Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the United States—Hans Arp, Vanessa Bell, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Arthur Dove, Goncharova, Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, Mikhail Larinov, Malevich, Franz Mark, Piet Mondrian, Hans Richter, Wyndham Lewis, and more—were producing abstract artworks. Things happened so suddenly that comparisons with the past were impossible.


Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½”.© 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

Inventing Abstraction, which runs at MoMA until April 15, 2013, explores abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. But while it is tempting from a historical perspective to nail down just who “invented” it, the story of the movement’s sudden proliferation may have something more to say about the nature of innovation itself. Abstraction was not the inspiration of a single artist working in isolation, rather it was, according to Dickerman in her introduction the show’s catalogue, “incubated, with a momentum that builds and accelerates, through a relay of ideas and acts among a nexus of players, who recognize and proclaim their significance to a broader audience.” Indeed, the central tenant of the exhibition is just how much the phenomenon of abstraction was the product of ideas moving between artists and intellectuals working in different media and between far-flung places. If abstraction was “invented,” it was “an invention of multiple first steps, multiple creators, multiple heralds, and multiple rationales,” says Dickerman.

From its start in the years immediately before World War I, Abstraction was an international phenomenon. With less-restrictive passport regulations and increasingly porous borders, people were traveling internationally more than ever before. And when they weren’t traveling, the availability of telegraphs, telephones, and radios kept them in touch and up to date with cultural and scientific developments across Europe and the Atlantic. Within the art world, specifically, the notion of a borderless avant garde was fed by the flourishing of artistic and literary journals—in Paris alone, some 200 “little reviews” of art and culture were being published in the decade preceding the war.

Accordingly, Inventing Abstraction takes a transnational perspective. Surveying key episodes in the movement’s early history, including works made across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, the exhibition explores the relationships among artists and composers, dancers and poets, in establishing a new modern language for the arts. It skillfully brings together a wide range of art forms—paintings, drawings, printed matter, books, sculpture, film, photography, sound recordings, music and dance footage—to draw a rich portrait of this moment that brought us that hopelessly frustrating question: “Yes, but what does it mean?!”


Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Untitled (Triptych), 1918. Oil on canvas on board, three panels. Photo courtesy of Kunsthaus Zürich, © ARS, New York/ProLitteris, Zürich.

Above the entryway to the gallery, visitors are confronted with the central question of Kandinsky’s seminal theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art, which first appeared in 1911: “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” It’s almost a cue to brace oneself before entering the gallery, which isn’t a bad idea when one is about to step into a whirlwind of color, space, and time.

Of course, one can’t confront art at the beginning of the 20th century without first paying respect to Pablo Picasso, represented by the starkly Cubist Girl with a Mandolin from 1910. A rare flirtation with total abstraction for the Modernist master, one is left with a sense that he wasn’t particularly serious about it. And Picasso was the first to admit it, announcing at the time: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something”—a statement which appears on the painting’s label. In the end, Picasso pronounced the painting unfinishable and so too his experiment with abstraction.

With Picasso out of the way, visitors are free to move on to Kandinsky. Without himself realizing an abstract painting in 1910, Kandinsky had described Picasso’s early foray into abstraction as, “splitting the subject up and scattering bits of it all over the picture,” an effect that was “frankly false” but nonetheless an auspicious “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” According to Dickerman, “Kandinsky could theorize abstraction before he was capable of doing it. Picasso, on the other hand, was dissecting the mechanics of identification, when he came to abstraction, he was horrified by it.” But things came together for Kandinsky after attendng a performance of composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet on January 2, 1911.


Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Concert), 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 × 39 9/16 inches. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München.

Impression III (Concert) depicted Kandinsky’s first encounter with the Austrian composer’s pioneering atonal compositions. Two sketches for the painting, though with figures and instruments clearly visible, demonstrate that Kandinsky was depicting neither the particular concert he had experienced that fruitful evening nor a particular composition; rather, the pictures portray his overall impression of a musical performance. The dominant contrast of the picture is apparently the clash between two color masses: black (the piano) and yellow (the audience). Completely lacking in depth, the yellow is bold, a typically “worldly color,” as Kandinsky described it in a letter to Schoenberg. Black, on the other hand, “is the most soundless color to which any other, including the weakest one, would therefore resound more powerfully and more precisely. . . Bright yellow contrasted with black has such an effect that it appears to free itself from the background, to hover in the air and to jump at the eyes.”

From there, the pace and progression of the show suggests that as soon as Picasso and Kandinsky helped work through the initial theoretical kinks, abstraction gained viability as a movement. The 400-odd works on view include numerous paintings—a majority from outside the museum’s collection—as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. At once open and intimate, the layout reveals a panorama of works of varying scale and media installed in different galleries, giving the impression that the ranging artworks are part of a single rich moment or narrative. The effect can only be described as dizzying.

A bit down from Kandinsky, visitors encounter Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars’s stunning text-image collaboration La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, 1913) The book, illustrated in loose and sensual geometric shapes of blues, yellows, orange, and black, features a poem by Cendrars about a journey through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1905, during the first Russian Revolution, printed on an abstract picture by Delaunay-Terk. Cendrars himself referred to the work as “a sad poem printed on sunlight.”


Kazimir Malevich. Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas, 28 × 17 1/2 inches. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

Pushing on, the grouping of Marcel Duchamp’s broken glass painting, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918), his kinetic sculpture, Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), the wooden objects of his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914) and his oil and pencil on canvas Network of Stoppages (1914) demonstrate the Frenchman’s vaunted range. In these quirky works, it’s as though meaning is excised from the objective world. For instance, in 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp challenges the French metric system as an intellectual construct rather than an universal absolute by undoing the metric standard through a random placement of three meter-long threads. In Network of Stoppages, he complicates that idea, by reproducing each one of the three threads three times and positioning them in a diagrammatic arrangement on a previously used canvas (a sketch for his ongoing The Large Glass). By painting over the threads and the images of a female figure and a somewhat mechanical drawing from the earlier work, the visible and semivisible layers oppose three systems of representation: figurative, chance, and the diagram, which maps the world without picturing it.

The Russian wall, a tribute to the earth-shattering 1915 exhibition 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting, where Malevich introduced geometric Suprematism to Petragrad, and so the world, is a show in and of itself. Dickerman and assistant curator Masha Chlenova went to great lengths to bring together the original works to recreate as close as possible the original wall, including the iconic Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, White on White and Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions. Placed opposite French-born Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s oak Endless Column, version 1 (1918), consisting of a single symmetrical element, a pair of truncated pyramids stuck together at their base, then repeated to produce a continuous rhythmic line that suggests infinite vertical expansion, it offers one of the most arresting views of the exhibition.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

And just around the corner looms a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s staggering Monument to the Third International (1920) a work whose original-yet-unrealized plans called for a structure taller than the Eiffel Tower and made out of steel and glass to show the transparency and modernism of the new Soviet party. Still, anchored confidently among El Lissitsky’s cathedral-like Prouns, MoMA’s scale model, itself is a soaring temple to the future, and a near-religious experience to behold, which could be said for much of the exhibition itself.

In many ways, Inventing Abstraction is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the types of exhibitions for which MoMA is so well-known: the pioneering Cubism and Abstract Art show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s show covered some 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Dickerman’s is tighter yet also more ranging, including early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries. Another difference is that she also included American artists (Hartley, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand), and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women.

Dickerman also places new emphasis on abstraction as a collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several art forms, from artists and intellectuals who knew and influenced each other. The story of the origins of abstraction is about relationships, of collective participation. The network through which abstraction spread is suggested in a diagram, made with a nod to the famous chart that appeared on the cover of Barr’s catalog for Cubism and Abstract Art. Visitors are confronted with Dickerman’s own diagram before they enter the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery. Vectors link individuals who knew each other, suggesting the unexpected density of contacts among the movement’s pioneers, by turns casting shadows and throwing light upon those who claimed to have invented abstract art.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator (from Russian) living in Brooklyn. His latest book, a translation of Sasha Chernyi’s Poems from Children’s Island, is now available through Lightful Press.

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THE NEW REPUBLIC

Art

January 19, 2013

The MOMA’s “Inventing Abstraction” is Exhilirating, Challenging, and Completely Wrong

By

It has been a long time since I saw museumgoers as fully engaged as the crowds moving through “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” the visual and intellectual banquet at the Museum of Modern Art this winter. Visitors are wide-eyed, attentive, quietly exhilarated. And why not? They are having the kind of full-out artistic experience on which the Museum of Modern Art built its legendary reputation, but which it has rarely managed to produce in recent years. From the first work you see, Picasso’s austere Woman with Mandolin (1910), through to the final room with its wealth of work by Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and László Moholy-Nagy, this is a show that electrifies through its sure-footed presentation of the early abstract avant-garde in France, Germany, Russia, England, and the United States. Leah Dickerman, the MoMA curator who organized the exhibition, knows how to install works of art, and that’s a far rarer talent than is generally acknowledged. The grace with which Dickerman juggles a wide range of material is thrilling to behold. She never allows the many extraordinary books and more ephemeral items on display to detract from the explosive power of gatherings of paintings by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Léger, Mondrian, and Malevich. “Inventing Abstraction” is almost too good to be true. And that’s where the trouble begins. Dickerman has achieved this end-to-end visual coherence by denying the dizzying heterogeneity that characterized the early years of abstract art

“Inventing Abstraction” is packed with tremendous works and formidable ideas. That the exhibition is also, at least in my view, deeply wrongheaded does not in any way detract from its importance. “Inventing Abstraction” is so forcefully, lucidly, and persuasively wrongheaded that it achieves its own kind of intellectual glory, instantly recognizable as the latest in a great Museum of Modern Art tradition of shows that make arguments that practically beg to be contradicted. “Cubism and Abstract Art,” the legendary 1936 MoMA exhibition with which “Inventing Abstraction” has much in common, was in its day said to be wrongheaded by many people, including Meyer Schapiro, at the time a very young art historian. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art who organized “Cubism and Abstract Art,” would most likely have agreed with Leah Dickerman when, in the opening wall text of the present show, she declares that “Abstraction may be modernism’s greatest innovation.” I certainly agree. The trouble begins when Dickerman goes on to define abstract art as an art that “dispensed with recognizable subject matter.” And the trouble only deepens later in the show, when in a wall label for Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, we are told that “the emergence of abstraction spelled the demise of painting as a craft and its rebirth as an idea.”

As Dickerman tells the story, abstract art is a prescription rather than a permission. This is a terrible mistake. She is fascinated by work by Mondrian and Malevich, where at least for a time it seems that abstraction is a way of limiting and thereby intensifying the possibilities of painting. She banishes from the exhibition Paul Klee and Joan Miró, two seminal figures whose profoundly abstract visions did not exclude “recognizable subject matter.” What Dickerman cannot admit is that abstraction in fact released painters to approach experience in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.

Dickerman weaves so many fascinating strands into her story that some museumgoers may not even notice what has been left out. She has found a remarkable early abstract painting by Vanessa Bell, a compact composition of rectangular forms that has a blunt, pragmatic integrity. And although she could have perhaps done with a little less Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, Dickerman is right to emphasize how early and how forcefully American artists come into the story. The trouble with the way Dickerman tells this story, however, is that abstraction becomes too much of an absolute. She emphasizes the nobility of artists who were either on the verge of entirely banishing recognizable subject matter or had already done so. But abstraction, which arguably originated with the symbolist impulse in late-nineteenth-century art, was always less a matter of banishing reality than it was a matter of creating new realities, each of which had its own relationship with what the painters who in the nineteenth century set up their easels out of doors referred to as reality. In order to maintain the scheme of “Inventing Abstraction,” it sometimes seems that Dickerman is forced to willfully ignore the evidence before her eyes. If Miró and Klee have been excluded for the sin of recognizable subject matter, then why is it that Léger’s Les Disques, with its evocations of machinery and wrought iron, makes the cut? If “recognizable subject matter” has been banished, how is it that so many of the works in the exhibition contain letters or numbers, which are recognizable to any child?

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The absolutism that this exhibition imposes on abstract art is not an absolutism that many of the artists embraced, at least not for very long. Arp, one of the heroes of Dickerman’s story, spent his later years carving abstracted human torsos in marble, neoclassical visions that owed as much to Ancient Greece as to cubism and abstract art. Mondrian in the 1920s and 1930s did paintings that excluded pretty much all associations with the recognizable world, yet when in his later years he titled paintings Place de la Concorde, Trafalgar Square, and Broadway Boogie Woogie, I think you can certainly argue that he was encouraging his audience to recognize some fundamental relationship between abstract form and particular local realities. If Duchamp was a critical figure in the history of abstract art—and this is the formulation of Dickerman’s that strikes me as most wrongheaded—what does she make of the readymade, which is arguably the most realistic of all works of art?

As for Klee and Miró, the two most egregious absences from this exhibition, they believed that abstraction liberated the artist to embrace nature—or “the nature of nature,” as Klee put it—in a whole new variety of ways. Dickerman would perhaps file Miró under Surrealism, which many would say is itself a form of abstraction. And she did apparently intend to have one Klee in the exhibition, his Homage to Picasso, although the truth is that Klee should have been as central a player in this exhibition as Léger, Malevich, or Arp. The longer I consider the exclusions of Miró and Klee, the more difficult they are to comprehend. Some will say that “Inventing Abstraction” reflects an old orthodoxy at the Museum of Modern Art, where sometimes (although by no means always) abstraction has been regarded as a one-way street leading to ever increasing purity. But if MoMA’s vision of abstraction embraces the work of the Abstract Expressionists, then it makes no sense whatsoever to exclude Miró and Klee, whose richly poetic understanding of the content of abstract art left such a deep impression on the American avant-garde in the 1940s.

Leah Dickerman’s enthusiasm for the work that she embraces here is so heartfelt that it can’t but be infectious. When she places the dark silhouette of Brancusi’s Endless Column before a wall of preternaturally lucid paintings by Malevich, she produces a theatrical effect that museumgoers are going to remember long after this show has closed. And it is pure dramatic genius to set Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International under a skylight, so that the thrusting form seems to be taking off into the stratosphere. Yet in this instance the brilliance with which Dickerman puts together an exhibition—and we have seen it before, with her involvement in exhibitions devoted to Dadaism (when she was at the National Gallery) and to the Bauhaus and the murals of Diego Rivera (at MoMA)—tends to tie the story all too neatly together. The technique of dedicating parts of galleries or entire galleries to work done in particular geographic localities, which brought coherence to heretofore chaotic material in her great Dada show, makes the story in “Inventing Abstraction” look more logical and seamless than it really was. At times, by shifting from one country to another, she seems to be trying to draw our attention away from what might be uncomfortable thoughts. Léger, one of the heroes of her story, would be painting figure compositions well before Dickerman’s closing date of 1925, but before we can even consider that uncomfortable fact we’ve been whisked off to Russia and Malevich’s abstractions. And so it goes.

Considering that many of the artists Dickerman includes had at best a passing interest in her definition of abstract art, you might think Dickerman herself would have begun to ask a few questions. The problem begins at the very beginning of the show, when in the label for Picasso’s Woman with Mandolin, Dickerman quotes Picasso’s famous statement: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something.” For Dickerman, these are fightin’ words, dividing the non-abstract artists (beginning with Picasso) from the abstract ones. Interestingly, Dickerman does not include Picasso’s next line, which in fact complicates the story because what he says is that in the end “you can remove all traces of reality.” In a catalogue essay, the well-known scholar Yve-Alain Bois makes the same point even more aggressively, proclaiming Picasso’s “loathing of abstract art.” My feeling is that both Dickerman and Bois are drawing the lines a little too sharply. Picasso was quite evidently fascinated by Mondrian’s most radically simplified compositions of the 1920s, a fascination reflected in the white expanses, black lines, and primary colors in his Painter and Model series of the late 1920s. And as for the revolutionaries who are the subject of “Inventing Abstraction,” as I moved through the show I found myself coming back to Picasso’s statement, because more often than not the artists were precisely “begin[ning] with something.” If Dickerman really believes what she says, why on earth has she included photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, which merely look at recognizable sights in a fresh way?

As for the interesting emphasis that Dickerman places on the art of dance—with vintage footage of modern dance performances toward the end of the show—this also raises serious questions about the exhibition’s basic assumptions. Modern dance, with its dramatic reconsideration of the human body’s potential for movement, might be said to be the most realistic art of all, grounded as it is in an exploration of immediate physical experience. Perhaps the point of modern dance was not to regard the body abstractly, but to regard the body in a radically different way than classical ballet, which is arguably the more abstract art in that it imposes on the individual an ideal order, a physical discipline in many respects highly impersonal. By comparison, the modern dancer Mary Wigman, seen here in a performance from 1930, establishes a veritable cult of personality—a naturalism or an expressionism, take your pick, grounded in her own private reality. Dickerman is on far more solid ground when she turns to the relationship between the visual arts and music, a theme at the very beginning of the exhibition, where Vasily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg are paired. It is true that music is the most inherently abstract of all the arts, and certainly provided a model for many painters, going back to Fantin-Latour in the nineteenth century. But even here the situation is more complex than Dickerman may allow, because the avant-garde interest in music was also an interest in the Wagnerian unity of the arts—in Gesamtkunstwerk—and even as this encouraged the abstractness of the visual arts it encouraged new forms of symbolic storytelling and image making, which deeply affected the subject matter of Klee, Kandinsky, and many others.

The more I think about “Inventing Abstraction,” the more I find myself arguing with its fundamental assumptions, but the pleasure of the argument is grounded in the intricacy and solidity of Dickerman’s work. Like the great Museum of Modern Art shows of the past—like “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936), “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage” (1968), “Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” (1984), and “Picasso and Portraiture” (1996)—“Inventing Abstraction” challenges us to think our own thoughts. I am left thinking about how often the will to abstraction returns us to representation of one kind or another. I am left thinking that a broader definition of abstraction—a definition that fully embraced the achievements of Miró and Klee and the later work of Kandinsky (which with its symbolic forms may strike Dickerman as insufficiently abstract)—would make it easier to see the art of the twentieth century as a whole. And I am left thinking that a more honest and inclusive view of early modernism would render irrelevant all the talk of postmodernism, because so many of the values we tend to associate with postmodernism—narrative, symbolism, heterogeneity—are in fact aspects of early modernism. As for Picasso’s comment that “you always have to begin with something,” this may reflect not so much a rejection of abstract art as a rejection by this supremely pragmatic and skeptical artist of the spiritual longings that were so often associated with abstract art. The fact is that every artist in “Inventing Abstraction” began with something, even if that something was only a rectangular shape. The invention of abstraction was not about replacing something with nothing or craft with idea (as Dickerman would have Duchamp telling us). Abstraction was the new reality. Apparently we are still catching up with that reality.

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Abstract Critical
14 February 2013

Inventing Abstraction

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

‘The movement of abstract art is too comprehensive and long-prepared, too closely related to similar movements in literature and philosophy, which have quite other technical conditions, and finally, too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems. It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.’ Meyer Shapiro, Nature of Abstract Art, 1937

‘The answer to the question “How do you think a truly radical thought?” seems to be you think it through the network’. Leah Dickerman, Inventing Abstraction, 2012

© 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

The first quote is taken from Meyer Shapiro’s response to the vision of abstraction put forward by Alfred Barr in his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1936. The importance of Shapiro’s objection, or indeed Barr’s formalism, bear little repeating here – both  trace long and embellished histories across the last 75 years of art historical thinking. Upon crossing the five-storey high bridges of the new MoMA to enter into the show Inventing Abstraction, however, one might be forgiven for questioning where exactly this last 75 years has led us – aside from across a narrow gangway towards attendant vertigo.

At the entrance one is confronted by a diagram that looks like the remnants of a secret service briefing on Al-Qaeda cells (minus the mug-shots), or a potential app for Facebook: in fact the now forgotten ‘friend circle’ on said social networking site is pretty much exactly what it is. The roughly geographical diagram, connecting individual names (or nodes?) by confusing yet impressive webs of red lines is central to the conception of an exhibition whose subtitling claims to present ‘How a Radical Idea [Abstraction] Changed Modern Art’: ‘How do you think a truly radical thought?… you think it through the network’ asserts curator Leah Dickerman (backed up by social scientists) in the perhaps understandably sweeping tones of the catalogue introduction. This explanation might carry in the context of a secret service briefing, or a study of group dynamics. For the purposes of exploring the genesis of abstraction, however, it seems wildly deficient.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

This is particularly evident if we place the diagram (as we are invited to do) in contrast to the famed diagram Alfred Barr presented on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the aforementioned exhibition. From Barr’s perhaps simplistic, but nonetheless reasoned, exploratory and propositional map of formal influence are reduced to a geographically inspired dot-to-dot.

The absence of an axis of time and the exclusion of any attempt to penetrate the ideas that flowed through the maze of red communication channels are troubling. If Shapiro could criticize Barr’s model for excluding the myriad historical factors external to formal progression, what are we to make of this presentation, where surrounding cultural and historical influence is reduced to an annotated who’s who of abstract practitioners. It is – one might say – a very cogent embodiment of the loss at which, one hundred years after the advent of abstraction, the art world finds itself. Isolated and distanced from both historical and formal analysis, enthralled by the pretences of postmodern social sciences and encumbered by the uncritical trappings of the cult of celebrity we seem unable to form a cohesive historical framework; and are left facing an infographic.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

It would be unfair to unfold an entire analysis of the exhibition on the basis of this diagram alone (although as with Barr’s it may yet stand as the most permanent visual reminder of the historical vision proposed). It is a relief, therefore, after the vertigo of the entrance well, that the exhibition presents one of the more impressive and complete displays of early 20th century abstract painting that is likely to have been compiled anywhere in the world (though Paul Klee is notably absent owing to a failed loan). Accumulated are a huge range of breakthrough works from Arp, Dove, Duchamp(!), Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka, Leger, Picabia, Popova, O’Keeffe and many more besides. Laid out in an unfolding succession of roughly geographically grouped rooms, this breadth, and much else, makes the exhibition worthy of repeated visits (difficult, of course, from this side of the pond).

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½” (342.9 x 308.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

If far from all emerge as heroes, grouping together so many artists makes apparent the incandescence of fifteen years of production which witnessed what the exhibition’s organisers and many more before have described as ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’. Looking through the works I was struck by how many of the formal enquiries of the succeeding century were prefigured in that brief period. Picabia’s The Source (1912) and Morgan Russell’s Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14) put pay to the myth that abstract painting owed a monumental scale to Abstract Expressionism (the suppression of scale surely, therefore, falling at the feet of early 20th gallerists); Carlo Carra and Robert Delaunay were, albeit tentatively, raising the possibilities of shaped canvasses some half century before Richard Smith and Frank Stella; and right across the rooms we see multiple investigations into surface tactility, grids, colour theory, deep space, suppressed space, frontal composition, word images and hermetic attempts to forge abstract languages.

For all this vitality, I could not help but feel distanced by MoMA’s presentation. In their attempts to emphasise abstraction’s commonality and novelty they have excluded its historic roots. Whilst a 1910 Picasso (‘abstract in all but name’) bars the entrance wall to the exhibition, its inclusion is intended to attest to abstraction’s ‘conceptual impossibility in 1910’ rather than its artistic lineage. (A usage which conveniently sidesteps Picasso’s continued assertion of abstraction’s conceptual impossibility). And throughout the show works have been selected and organised not to show the evolution and continuity of ideas – the multiple paths which led towards abstraction – but to emphasise the drama and commonality of the conclusions. The Futurists, Leger and Delaunay appear stripped of their evolving interests in simultaneity, urban experience and light and are presented as in some manner homogenous with Kandinsky’s spiritualism. The Americans are presented as Parisian voyagers or strange floating nodes in the network and Dada’s assaults on rationality appear uncritically alongside O’Keeffe’s floral close-ups and Matissean Bloomsbury paintings.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

It is unfortunate that the extensive and beautifully produced catalogue (in which a unifying introductory essay is followed by a series of specific studies) does little to underpin and investigate the foundations of these often quite distinct explorations. Whilst the now standard references to the linguistic experiments of sound poetry, non-Euclidean geometry, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, parallel editing in film and breakdowns in subject / object relations in psychology are all present, they are awkwardly pushed into the background by the continued insistence on viewing abstraction as a monolithic invention, pulled from the rib of the network. In this worryingly ahistorical model we are left with very little idea as to the proposed relation of these wider events to the works on display; very little concept of the extent to which such ideas constituted the fabric of the artists’ interests or communications; little to no idea, in short, of the multiple contexts in which the move to abstraction was sown.

Paradigmatic of this approach is the emphasis on cross-media exchange as an apparent source of abstraction. Time and again we are presented with moments in which this exchange is said to have spurred abstraction; be it in the form of Kandinsky’s reaction to a Schoenberg concert or a car journey involving Francis Picabia, Apollinaire and Claude Debussy. But rather than a consideration of the common interests aired in such exchanges we are more often than not left with reductive parables: ‘Put a modern artist, a poet and a composer in a car, rumble along, and what do you get? Abstraction’ states Dickerman. In placing emphasis on such moments without exploring the wider discursive frameworks which informed them, the actual contents of the exchanges remain shrouded in mystery, even as the concept of cross-media exchange (and indeed exchange of any kind) is exalted. As such, for all the attempts to channel music into the gallery (far fewer than I had, in fact, anticipated), we do not move far beyond the problems which Shapiro identified in Barr’s model: for whilst the definition of artistic endeavour is broadened, ‘The history of modern art is [still] presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.’ (Shapiro)

The contexts in which abstraction came to flourish are of course diverse and complex. Nonetheless, by shortcutting them I cannot help but feel that we move towards reinforcing myth rather than understanding and leave abstraction as a fragile and awkward edifice. In investigating these roots we are not aided by the dissolution of the Marxist certainty that underpinned Shapiro’s analysis nor (and perhaps more disruptively) by the distance which has emerged between the comments and thoughts of so many of the pioneers of abstraction and our own time. It is striking that whilst so many of the formal concerns of the last hundred years seem prefigured in these early works, the pronouncements of many of the leading figures now seem hopelessly distant. Take Kupka’s thoughts on straight lines, ‘a taut cord, energetic beyond nature. Solemn, the vertical is the backbone of life in space’, ‘the horizontal is Gaia, the grandmother’, or Kandinsky’s general spiritual waffle.

František Kupka. Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II). 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 6’ 6 ¾” x 6’ 4 3/8″ (200 x 194 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Whilst the current catalogue’s writers (and many art historians before) have attempted to push Kandinsky and Kupka into a contemporary framework by casting their spiritualism as a matter of secondary importance, it seems clear that these spiritual interests provided an essential context for several of the artists who pushed towards abstraction. Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian all referred repeatedly and explicitly to the influence of Theosophy on their adoption of abstraction. That these three, coming from different countries and different backgrounds – and not directly connected by the network chart – should all find inspiration in a hybrid form of Eastern mysticism which cast the material world as an illusory fiction seems to offer a more concrete and illuminating path of enquiry into the genesis of abstraction than a million unexplained lines on a diagram. Yet it has been consistently ignored and sidelined.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

In presenting the case for abstraction as a ‘radical’ product of the network without acknowledging the heterogeneity of wider interests surrounding the network, the curators belittle the truly radical aspects of abstraction and the exchanges upon which it was built. For whilst Theosophy does not, of course, offer a comprehensive handle by which to approach all of the artists grouped in this exhibition, the shattering of the long-dominant modes of Western thought, which Theosophy’s popularity across Western Europe points towards, surely does. It seems self-evident that, ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’ did not spring magically from the internal logic of the network, but from an equally dramatic shift in social conditions. Ironically, in their obsession with the social scientist’s network theory the curators have, in fact, veiled the influence of a much wider social exchange in which non-Western concepts of spirituality and an increasing familiarity of non-Western modes of art had a transformative role in the evolution of European art.

Writing in his introduction to the third edition of his landmark 1906 study Abstraction and Empathy Wilhelm Worringer described ‘the one-sidedness and European-Classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art’ which his study attempted to redress. It is a contribution which has made his study a key text of the period – paralleling as it does a similar shattering of historical conceptions across the arts. Be it through Picasso’s study of African sculpture, Leger’s enthrallment with urban experience or the Russians’ pursuit of a ‘non-objective’ painting, time and time again we witness the artists of the period pulling away from the model of representational aesthetics which had become predominant over the preceding half a millennium. It is a withdrawal which is at once distinct from and bound up in abstraction, a wider centrifugal movement in which abstraction formed a vector. In their vague attempts to present abstraction as the transformative Invention and Idea of the age, however, the curators have lost sight of this context, disembodying abstraction from its wider historical sources and producing a hollowed structure in which diverse experiments are reduced to a series of amorphous and clipped exemplars of abstraction’s networked rise.

The most jarring and perhaps explanatory example of the dismembering of abstraction from the wider contexts of modernity comes at the end of Dickerman’s catalogue introduction. Here she presents Duchamp as the rightful heir of abstraction, the figure who more than anyone else has ‘played out the implications of abstraction in his practice’. She continues: ‘In its inscription of artwork as idea, its expansiveness across media, and its divided structure in which work and text are integrally linked but held apart, and the artist is a producer of both images and words, its implications are vast. In all of these senses, abstraction is a form of ur-modernism: it serves as a foundation for what follows. Today, when we see an obdurate object, an encompassing media installation… text presented as image, or a conceptual script, we see the legacy of the invention of abstraction’.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Here Dickerman reveals the underlying motives of a context stripped focus on abstraction as an ill-defined Idea. In merging abstraction with the wider pull away from ‘historical conceptions of art’ of which it was a part, she attempts to brand abstraction as the progenitor of the conceptual movement. To do so overlooks the fact that Duchamp’s ‘anti-retinal’ work is, at best, only tangentially aligned with the wider logic of abstraction. For whilst Duchamp was undoubtedly a product of the same historical movement away from tradition, his assaults upon visuality (often launched through playful modes of representation) were by no means intrinsic or central to the wider moves towards abstraction. In merging abstraction with Duchamp’s legacy, whilst stripping it of its wider relations to society, Dickerman disinherits much of the greatest artwork of the previous century, condemning its visuality and social relevance as anachronisms.

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 is on at the Museum of Modern Art until the 15th of April. You can download Meyer Shapiro’s Nature of Abstract Art here

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Wild Things: What Was Abstract Art?

MoMA’s monumental exhibition recalls the time when abstraction affected people like love or revolution.
By
Barry Schwabsky
February 19, 2013

Sometime around 1912, painting changed. Artists from Moscow to Westport, by way of Munich and Paris, began making abstract works. “Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory,” Leah Dickerman writes in the catalog for “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” the monumental exhibition she has curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, on view through April 15. This saut dans le vide, she notes, was “accompanied by a shower of celebratory manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established.” It also brought a deluge of labels: “pure painting,” “nonobjective painting” and many more, with “abstraction” being merely the stickiest. In the century since then, the squalls of talk haven’t stopped, with art historians and cultural critics joining artists, their promoters and detractors in worrying at the meaning of abstraction. That so much has been said about abstraction has itself become a topic of discussion. In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe dismissed contemporary art as mere illustrations of art theory—which some of it has been. What’s more striking to me, though, is that after 100 years of abstraction, no one has been able to state conclusively just what it is.

Sometimes I think that indefinability is the defining feature of abstraction: if you can identify what a painting depicts, then it’s not abstract. The problem is that this notion excludes a good deal of the art normally categorized as abstract. I can say that a Josef Albers painting depicts some squares or a Gene Davis painting shows some stripes, and this ought to disqualify them from being called abstract—just as much as my being able to identify a Philip Pearlstein painting as showing some nude models or one by Rackstraw Downes as depicting an industrial landscape would rule out those works.

At other times, I think the opposite. Although abstraction may have been a thrilling venture into the unknown, it could not remain so. Falling in love leads to marriage; there are no permanent revolutions. In the long run, far from being ineffable, abstraction is an artistic genre like any other, like still life or history painting. If a definition is hard to come by, the general parameters are not: abstraction means paintings of things like squares and stripes, brushstrokes and drips, the basic elements of pictorial form and painterly activity.

* * *

I don’t much care for this second definition, but it’s hard to avoid. The virtue of ”Inventing Abstraction” is that it seductively reminds us of the time when abstraction was still a leap, when it affected certain people like love or revolution. And more like revolution than love, for it was a group effort instigated by a determined, committed few, a pivotal fact that “Inventing Abstraction” gets wrong. “Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking,” announces the opening text panel. This seems to promise a new outlook on what is, after all, a pretty familiar history, of which MoMA has been the central proponent for many years. The problem lies in trying to realize it through the evocation of “network thinking,” a trendy concept that tends to downplay the importance of agency—and not only of individuals, whether or not they are “solitary geniuses,” but also of organized groups, movements, coteries. Many of the key nodes of Dickerman’s proposed network are, as she says, “editors of little reviews,” thanks to their ability to connect far-flung artists and writers. Boosters of networking seem to assume that it is always advantageous to accumulate more and more “weak ties,” as they are called—but the classic avant-gardes who contributed to the invention of abstraction valued intense connections and decisive action. As Renato Poggioli pointed out long ago, “the avant-garde periodical functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle.”

For all the trendy lingo, MoMA is repeating the story about abstraction it has always told, only with a few of the details filled in differently, and with a concerted effort to point out connections to parallel developments in music, poetry and dance rather than cordoning off the visual arts as a self-contained realm. Dickerman’s appeals to “network thinking,” and her borrowing of terminology from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell—Guillaume Apollinaire as “connector”—are more decorative than transformative. And despite abjuring “solitary genius,” Dickerman begins the story with Picasso, Mr. Genius himself, where MoMA’s tales of modern art so often begin. Picasso, as is well-known, periodically flirted with something like abstraction but consistently pushed it away, even denying its existence: “There is no abstract art,” he once said. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger, because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”

Yet beginning with Picasso does make sense, and especially with one of his early Cubist paintings from which the “appearance of reality” has been so successfully effaced that, if not for its title, Femme à la mandoline (Woman With Mandolin; 1910), we could not make out its subject—or is it just that we imagine we can discern it? In any case, our effort to reconstruct the image helps us see the painting as a whole. Such paintings, as well as slightly later ones like “Ma Jolie” (1911–12), which Picasso endowed with a few more visual cues about the possible subject, are still amazing: solidly constructed and entirely evanescent. As Yve-Alain Bois explains in the exhibition catalog, “Each facet, each plane, whether included in the grid or contravening it, is lit and shaded independently, to the effect that no solid is depicted in the round yet at the same time a sense of depth”—and, I would add, a sense of concreteness—“is conveyed.” The wonder of these paintings is not just that the real-world referent has been nearly expunged, but that the painting itself has been endowed with such a distinct sense of presence.

For painters across Europe, Picasso proved that a different kind of painting was possible, one that would no longer have to “start with something” other than the gestures and materials of painting. Even Arthur Dove, in relative isolation in Westport, had seen in New York City a Picasso drawing that Edward Steichen described at the time as “certainly ‘abstract’ nothing but angles and lines that has got [to be] the wildest thing you ever saw.” Yet these painters continued to look to real things as inspiration for paintings that would no longer depict real things. Consider a painting from 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky, who knew Picasso’s work from photographs; he thought that something about the Spaniard’s paintings was “frankly false,” but also constituted a “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (Impression III [Concert]) announces its subject in its subtitle, yet that clue proves insufficient. It takes a comparison with a sketch Kandinsky made that year at a performance of Schöenberg’s music to see how literal a transcription the work really is: the large black shape that rises toward the upper right is nothing other than a piano lid; the oval blobs and fingerlike forms below it are members of the audience. Unlike Picasso’s painting, Kandinsky’s gains little from being sourced; on the contrary, it seems stronger if seen entirely as an implacable assertion of the force of color and texture. Kandinsky needed an abstraction that would no longer have to “start with something,” and having gone this far, he would reach that goal soon enough, for instance in his Komposition V (Composition V), also from 1911. Note not only the lack of subtitle, but also that the musical reference (this is not a depiction of a concert) is conveyed not visually but structurally. Just as, in the nineteenth century, Whistler had given his paintings titles incorporating words like “symphony” and “nocturne” to suggest that his real subject was not the depicted scene but pure form, Kandinsky invokes a musical analogy to tell the viewer not to look for a depicted subject, but rather the relations between the various “notes” of color.

The pairing of Picasso and Kandinsky presents in a nutshell all the dilemmas of abstraction. Whether starting from something already seen was better than starting with the materials of painting was a new problem for painters, but it didn’t spare them the old ones, such as the age-old conflict between the primacy of drawing (as seen in Picasso’s early cubism) or of color (as with Kandinsky). And that’s only the start. Does abstraction, by eschewing pre-established conventions, offer an expression and celebration of “those things that make us individually different and separate from each other,” as MoMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe once claimed? Picasso might have been pleased to father an art of this sort, just as he would probably have smiled on hearing Vanessa Bell describe a visit to him, in 1914, as one in which “the whole studio seemed to be bristling with Picasso”—where each thing, however unfinished, presented its maker back to himself. But abstraction can also be the herald of whatever is common and universal, as Kandinsky must have believed when he later threw in his lot with the Bauhaus. On this view, the point of abstraction was not just to level the old academies but to supplant them with a new one propagating the new shared values.

In an all-too-contemporary fashion, the metaphor of the “network” allows Dickerman to finesse such disagreements. A network is not an individual, but it’s not a collective either. It is a function neither of inner will or insight nor of shared decision-making. And it lacks discrimination, tending to accept far more than it rejects. But by the same token, Dickerman’s LinkedIn approach makes the exhibition—as Willem de Kooning once said of art itself—seem “like a big bowl of soup,” because “everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you.” At the same time, through its density and the way so many unexpected differences and similarities are provoked, the exhibition communicates something of the giddiness that artists must have felt upon realizing that the rule book was being torn up and would possibly be pieced back together differently. The galleries hum with the feverish mood of a gold rush.

* * *

All the marquee names are here: not only Picasso and Kandinsky, but also Malevich and Mondrian, Duchamp and Léger, Arp and Schwitters, Albers and Lissitzky. They may not have been solitary artists, but that’s no proof they weren’t geniuses. Some play a bigger role than might be expected. Because Francis Picabia gets routinely associated with Dada and Giacomo Balla with Futurism, we may not remember them as great proponents of abstraction. This exhibition tells us otherwise. It also cogently charts the way abstract painting gave birth to abstract sculpture—not so much because sculptors imitated what painters were doing, but because abstraction drew the attention of painters toward the tactile substance of their materials, which turned many of them into sculptors.

But as an exhibition on this scale should do, it also offers surprises. I didn’t know that abstraction had found a toehold in Bloomsbury as early as 1914, when Duncan Grant created a long, scroll-like Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting With Sound and Vanessa Bell made several abstract paintings—including one, with floating rectangles of various colors against a yellow surround (now in the collection of the Tate), that is far more thoroughly reduced, flat and frontal than anything anyone else, even Mondrian, had made at that time. Yet Grant and Bell must have found these experiments unsatisfactory (I certainly do), because they soon returned to making figurative art.

Also from 1914 is a striking Chromatische Phantasie (Chromatic Fantasy) by Augusto Giacometti, cousin of the far more famous Alberto Giacometti. The very few of his works I’ve seen before have been landscapes and still lifes of a broadly post-Impressionist stamp, and no more abstract than a work by Gauguin or Bonnard. But this piece—made, it seems, by roughly dabbing colors onto the canvas with a palette knife—is not only resolutely nonrepresentational but also an abstraction of a sort that seems out of place with anything else in the show, and out of time. With its confident formlessness, and the way touch and color become one, I’d have guessed it to be the work of a tachiste of the 1950s.

For a contrast to Giacometti’s cultivation of the near-random-seeming placement of quite physically distinct bits of paint, there are three drawings by Wacław Szpakowski. Made in 1924, they describe patterns formed by continuous black lines undergoing incessant movement, though always at right angles: the line is always moving either horizontally or vertically, but the patterns created include diagonals. If Giacometti is an unheralded precursor of tachisme, then I suppose Szpakowski plays the same role in relation to Op Art, which makes much of similar optical effects. But as with Giacometti, what’s exciting is not that Szpakowski anticipated a later development; it’s that even within his own time, there is something inexplicable about his having done what he’s done. Using ideas and information similar to those of his peers, he’s arrived at something that is abstract in the strong sense of remaining somehow uncategorizable and even, in a deep sense, unknowable—abstract in a way unlike anything else in “Inventing Abstraction.”

Unfortunately for an exhibition goer who wants to know how Giacometti came to make his Chromatische Phantasie or why he didn’t continue along this line, there’s not a word about him in the catalog. In Szpakowski’s case, one can learn from Jaroslaw Suchan’s contribution that he “was drawn to abstraction by his fascination with the mathematical laws observable in nature” and that “he developed his work not just in isolation from the Polish avant-garde but in complete indifference to the art of the time.” You might find his drawings difficult to distinguish from the kinds of mathematical, scientific or even spiritualistic images that Dickerman insists “are not art at all” because “they were intended to produce meaning in other discursive frameworks.” But that is part of what makes his drawings unsettling and strong. Szpakowski died in 1973, and his works were first exhibited in 1978. The network isn’t everything, and isolation can be necessary even to those who may not quite be geniuses. Szpakowski wasn’t concerned, as Picasso was, with expressing his own anxiety; he was searching for impersonal patterns of universal order. Yet his art was distinctly personal, with a flavor peculiar to itself. Perhaps this is the great lesson of abstraction: that sometimes it can overcome its own antinomies.

* * *

For curators, the inconsistencies between an exhibition and its catalog can be hard to overcome. Anyone who has seen Dickerman’s previous blockbusters for MoMA—on the Bauhaus in 2009 and on Dada in 2006—knows that she is adept at organizing complex exhibitions with scads of material in a lucid way. The same is mostly true here: only the attempt to integrate music into the story falls flat. However, such exhibitions have a particularly symbiotic relation with their catalogs, which need to fill in and give perspective to the historical narrative. In this respect, “Inventing Abstraction” is a disappointment. Perhaps in deference to her fascination with networks, Dickerman’s substantial but fairly succinct introductory essay is followed by thirty-six brief texts on various topics by twenty-four authors (including herself)—not only art historians but luminaries from other fields, such as the composer David Lang and the historian of science Peter Galison. As a result, there is insufficient mediation between her overview and the multitude of details it ought to encompass, and which have been parceled out to the various contributors, who do not always agree with each other or with her.

In her introductory essay, Dickerman seems to take at face value Picasso’s assertion that his first Cubist paintings were done more or less as “pure painting, and the composition was done as composition,” with any identifying “attributes” added only as an afterthought. But in his entry, Yve-Alain Bois refutes this, concluding that Picasso’s interlocutor, Françoise Gilot, had either misunderstood the painter or that he had been indulging in some kind of “convenient” fib. At times, for that matter, Dickerman’s introduction doesn’t even agree with the exhibition. She ends her essay with a brilliant stroke, by claiming Duchamp’s readymades as products of abstraction, and she’s right—but then why isn’t one of them on view? I don’t normally think of Duchamp as a great painter, but really, it’s good to be reminded that Le passage de la vierge à la mariée (The Passage From Virgin to Bride; 1912) is as ravishingly painted as anything in the show. Even so, the inclusion of his Bottle Rack (1914) or his snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), would have shown another outcome of his interest in abstraction altogether. Like much of the best abstraction, those works are at once paradigmatic and almost inscrutably idiosyncratic.

Georg Baselitz: “Only in Art is the World Whole.”

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THE SPECTATOR – LONDON

Upside down and right on top: the power of George Baselitz

The British Museum’s immaculately presented ‘Germany Divided’ shows the strength of its headline act. Plus two more German shows – Renaissance Impressions at the Royal Academy and Strange Beauty at the National Gallery

‘Hercules Killing Cacus’, 1588, by Hendrik Goltzius

‘Hercules Killing Cacus’, 1588, by Hendrik Goltzius

Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation

British Museum, until 31 August

Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

Royal Academy, until 8 June

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance

National Gallery, until 11 May

It’s German Season in London, and revealingly the best of three new shows is the one dealing with the most modern period: the post-second world war era of East and West Germany and the potent art that came out of that split nation. In Room 90 is another immaculately presented British Museum show of prints and drawings, focused this time around Georg Baselitz (born 1938). Of the 90 works on display, more than a third has been donated to the BM by Count Christian Duerckheim, the remainder lent by this assiduous collector.

The show begins with Baselitz’s contemporaries and I was surprised to find myself quite liking some things by Gerhard Richter, currently the most overrated artist in the world. Not his traced-from-photos Pop Art drawings but four watercolours, his first in the medium, together with his smudgy graphite drawings of a hotel and pedal-boat riders. A flat cabinet of Sigmar Polke’s drawings comes as light relief and a series of blue watercolours by A.R. Penck is more expressionist and direct than his usual cybernetic stick-figure language. Marcus Lüpertz comes across strongest here, with savage drawings of helmet heads and a richly structured gouache entitled ‘Monument — dithyrambic’ (1976), slightly reminiscent of John Walker. This is art with real bite.

On this showing, the only good thing about Blinky Palermo is his name, but the star of the show is Baselitz, who is given the whole of the second half of this large gallery. Whatever you think of his characteristic upside-down imagery (which he initiated in 1969, conceiving, composing and executing his work thus thereafter), his best work is deeply affecting and often uncomfortable. Baselitz was inspired by Renaissance chiaroscuro woodcuts, which he began to collect and emulate, and various of these — by Urs Graf, Ugo da Carpi and Hendrik Goltzius — are exhibited beside his own efforts. These are certainly worth studying but of greater import are the more abstract images, the eagles and upside-down landscapes from the Sixties and Seventies. A show to savour.

In the RA’s Sackler Wing are more of the chiaroscuro woodcuts that exerted such a powerful influence over Baselitz, including a number from his own collection, augmented by works from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. More than 100 prints are on display in what is a valuable, if rather dry, exhibition. Anyone interested in technique will find it fascinating, but for the non-specialist the variants and repetitions may become tedious. A film of the painter and printmaker Stephen Chambers (born 1960) making a contemporary chiaroscuro woodcut helps to explain the technique in very practical terms, and this is shown in a booth off the first room of the exhibition. Essentially, this revolutionary but short-lived technique of 16th-century colour printing is all about modelling through the interplay of light and dark, with unprinted areas of the paper used for highlights.

‘Man on a Tree Downwards’, 1968/69, by Georg Baselitz
Ein neuer Typ (‘A New Type’) by Georg Baselitz, 1965 

The exhibition has been thoughtfully designed with prints in the first and last rooms hung both on the wall and displayed on angled tables beneath, affording easy access for study. Here are woodcuts by Cranach and Hans Baldung Grien, as well as Hans Burgkmair and Hans Wechtlin. I particularly liked Cranach’s ‘St Christopher’ and Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’. Famous paintings are reprised, such as Raphael’s ‘Miraculous Draught of Fishes’, done in red by Ugo da Carpi. (The same artist’s ‘Nymphs Bathing’, after Parmigianino, is rather beguiling.) The print is a cheap way of disseminating sculpture as well as paintings: see the Giambologna versions of Andrea Andreani. There is a lot I didn’t respond to, but among my favourites are the two architectural woodcuts by Erasmus Loy, the landscapes by Hendrik Goltzius, and Beccafumi’s ‘Group of Men and Women’, an engraving with woodcut tone.

I’m all in favour of showing familiar paintings in new contexts to enable us to look at them afresh, but the current show in the Sainsbury Wing charges a hefty admission fee for an exhibition of works drawn mostly from the National Gallery’s own collection. Admittedly, it is beefed up by a number of loans from the V&A, the British Museum and other owners, but these are almost entirely works on paper. The public is actually being asked to pay to see works that are usually on display for free. Nevertheless, on the day I visited there was a pretty good attendance at the show. Perhaps this is because the NG is so mobbed by crowds these days, to pay for the privilege is the only way to see pictures in relative peace.

The thinking behind the show questions accepted notions of beauty in historical and contemporary terms, and the patterns of taste that dictated the NG’s own collecting. Much has been made of the reconstruction of the Liesborn altarpiece (c.1470), for instance, yet all we are shown here are the panels the NG owns and some poor photos of the other panels, which are scattered through the world’s museums. Better, if you do decide to visit this show, to trawl for great paintings and not worry about themes or curators’ justifications. There are plenty of wonderful pictures here, from the oddly dramatic Paulus Potter cattle in the first room to everything by Hans Baldung Grien (especially ‘Portrait of a Man’, 1514), the Holbeins, the Altdorfer landscapes, all the Cranachs, and of course the Dürers, but most particularly ‘St Jerome’ (c.1496). There is no catalogue, but the NG has published a handy little paperback (at £9.99), crisply written by Caroline Bugler, on the German Paintings in the National Gallery. But, however much I love and support the NG, the recent habit of charging for exhibitions largely drawn from the permanent collection is undeniably a diabolical liberty.

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is selling a superb collection of 15 paintings by L.S. Lowry (1887–1976), assembled by A.J. Thompson over a 30-year period and sold now after their owner’s death last year. Subjects include a beautiful small painting of Peel Park in Salford, the trees and areas of grass reminiscent of Mark Gertler’s early landscapes, and two vivid renditions of Piccadilly Circus. There are plenty of hurrying figures and mill buildings (‘After the Fire’ is a particularly fine if bleak example), and the tall chimneys Lowry loved. The sophistication of this supposedly artless painter is everywhere apparent: viewing daily (except Saturday) until the sale on 25 March at 6 p.m.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

 ABSTRACT CRITICAL
13 March 2014

Baselitz – Farewell Bill

Written by Dan Coombs

Willem raucht nicht mehr, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Originating in inarticulacy and failure and pushing themselves to the brink of collapse, the heroic gestures in Baselitz’s paintings become an absurdity. In their intermingling of creativity and destruction his paintings appear a big joke at the expense of positivistic ideals. With his new paintings at Gagosian, he tries to burst his own bubble with a series of mock-heroic, upside-down monumental self-portraits, that depict his head, topped (or rather, bottomed) by a white baseball cap emblazoned with the word ZERO – apparently the brand name of his paint manufacturer. His recent “remix” style resembles giant versions of pen, ink or watercolour, the drawing delineated in filigrees of broken, Pollock-like black inky lines, the colour sploshed in with the abandon of a monstrous toddler. Both the philistines and the formalists are right – the painting is absurdly incompetent yet highly sophisticated and nuanced. The repetition and emptying out of established motifs allows Baselitz to approach the formalist condition, the illusion of art created out of nothing, emptied of meaning and being about nothing but itself. He seems to be going for a kind of pure painting, but even in such a hallowed place a nauseating sense of chaos pervades even the most decorative elements.

Untitled, 2013, India ink and watercolor on paper, 26 x 19 13/16 inches / 66.1 x 50.3 cm (unframed) © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The show is entitled Farewell Bill in homage to Willem de Kooning, who Baselitz describes as a “mentor”. Baselitz was held largely in contempt by the international art world until 1981 when Norman Rosenthal hung Baselitz opposite de Kooning in “The New Spirit in Painting” show at the Royal Academy. Baselitz is an obvious correlative with de Kooning as de Kooning was responsible for extending the force of the gesture in post-war painting. Drawing on the work of Soutine, de Kooning found a way to hook up bodily energy to a Picassoid cubist structure, that extended the dynamic of gesture beyond anything in European painting. As gestures became more distant from the composed armature the overall structure seemed to melt. De Kooning talked about “slipping glimpses” as though little figurative references were woven into his compositions. There is a significant difference between de Kooning’s gestures and Baselitz’s. De Kooning’s fluid strokes always seem to turn on some spatial illusion, as though the edges of his marks define bodies and nature. Baselitz’s strokes are anti-illusionistic and his gestures function more like a form of carving; he treats his canvases as opaque fields that the figure has to be separated from, rather like a sculptor who removes the excess wood to reveal the figure inside.

Baselitz’s paintings are of a piece with his sculpture, and in many ways his work has moved forward through a dialogue between the two mediums, as though he is painting sculpture and sculpting paintings. Much is revealed about Baselitz’s approach to painting through his sculpture. In the eighties he really cracked open the language and found his own space as a sculptor by employing a chainsaw to carve wood. Often the brutal speed of the process gives way to a poignant delicacy, a good example being Dresdner Frauen / Women of Dresden,1989.The cuts of the chainsaw travel across the concave faces of the women with a subtlety analogous to actual facial expressions, though they seem frozen, stoical and scarred. Baselitz’s sculptures can be remarkably abrupt. Joseph Beuys thought his contribution to the 1981 Venice Biennale, Modell fur eine Skulptur / Model for a Sculpture, 1979 -1980, was not even worthy of a first year art student. Beuys may have been embarrassed by the image – a stranded pathetic seig-heiling golem whose lower half is still encased in its block of wood. Animating the surface of the sculptures with paint, the sculptures epitomise the tragi-comic; ludicrously awkward, abrasively physical and focusing solely on conditions of human failure , but with an animating spark that has translated recently into sculptural figures that are funnier than Jeff Koons. Koons’s art is a solemn affair compared to a work like Volk Ding Zero or Dunklung Nachtung Amung Ding (both 2009) or the earlier Meine neue Mütze / My New Cap, 2003. These monumental carved figures wear white caps, blue shorts and chunky shoes. The recent sculptures are absurd and hilarious and yawping, though there is the sense of him teetering over the abyss, fighting the urge to throw himself in.

Licht wil raum mecht hern, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

It seems that he’s only achieved such energetic fluency in both painting and sculpture by tying himself to the things that consciousness would normally shove aside. His achievement is shadowed by the abject realities he has had to tie himself to. Baselitz is an artist who cannot avert his eyes. He forces himself to look when he wants to turn away, perhaps a way of dealing with the scenes of terror he must have witnessed as a boy when his family, like thousands of others, had to flee the Russian army who were closing in on the apocalyptic landscape of bombed-out Dresden.

Baselitz grew up in the ground zero of post war Germany, and from the get-go the demons refused to loosen their grip on his psyche. Rotting foetal dumplings , masturbating dwarves, hideously sprouting genitalia, the creatures of his early work exist within a dead black vacuum whose claustrophobic emptiness is matched only by David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. Later on he created the Heroes, with their action man heads and ridiculously encrusted leiderhosen – they seem to want to topple out of the painting, squashing the viewer. Baselitz through the late sixties pushed his paintings towards greater crudity, greater flatness. Even here he intuits that he has to push against pictorial illusion, toward the actual condition of the paintings’ flatness, not for aesthetic effect but to concretise the motif. The idea of painting images upside down came in 1969, a marvelously blunt rejection of pictorial coherence, like a rejection of rationality itself. The idea is absurd, and seemingly doomed to failure, yet he set about trying to master the idiom with initially quite realistic images, almost from the life room, of himself, his friends and family.

Untitled, 2013, Pen and ink, watercolor and ink on paper, 26 x 20 3/16 inches / 66.1 x 51.2 cm (unframed) © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Turning images upside down makes them appear more complicated than they actually are. So for Baselitz, painting the motif upside down forces a greater simplicity and directness in order to compensate for what would normally induce a physical and perceptual confusion. In the eighties, the figures of his paintings, such as the terrifying Nachtessen in Dresden  / Supper in Dresden, 1983, which communicates directly the moment of a bomb’s impact – are pushed up against the surface of the painting, like creatures trapped beneath ice or frozen within the tableau of a medieval frieze. Baselitz dredges up motifs from Catholic Medieval Art, from Munch, from mannerism in a nightmarish mash-up of the human condition. Yet by the end of the decade, the space of his work has opened up even more, achieving even greater actuality- he starts to work on the floor, and the motifs no longer seem to have one particular orientation. Almost like a performative version of cubism, Baselitz is able to come at the painting from any angle, he can stomp and dance in his paint spattered trainers across the painting’s surface and paint his pictures by walking on them.His images from this period seem to want to stay close to the earth, like the squawking riot that is Where is the Yellow Milkjug Mrs Bird?, 1989, or Folkdance (Melancholia), 1989. These are pictures that barely want to rise above the earth, and one can feel the ground pressing through their surfaces. They were part of a highly memorable exhibition at Anthony D’Offay gallery in 1990, which still seems like a pinnacle of Baselitz’s career. It’s hard to define what makes the works from this period so special. They do not reach for the sublime, like a lot of American painting – they point in another direction, downwards. Even the folkdance which seems to take place on a blue sky is rooted to the floor. They seem not so much to create space as to give painting its own sense of place, measured by the foot.

Raum licht wiln echt mehr, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The recent paintings at Gagosian are, in keeping with the “remix” style, much lighter than earlier work. Baselitz likes to leave a lot of the canvas empty and draws on it as though its paper. In some ways it’s very appealing that Baselitz has lightened up so much but the paintings are still operating as they always did. Gesture’s function is to carve and separate the figure from its ground, and even here, where the figure seems on the brink of dissolution, colour function to pull the form forward out of the canvas towards us. One painting has dissolved entirely back into an all-over dirty white ground, but the other paintings seem to leer or wince or laugh or cry out at us. Where Baselitz’s art seems grounded is within matter itself. The paintings operate by holding pictorial space in tension with materiality, but always allowing material to threaten to overwhelm any coherence. The pictures themselves embody the self in the process of dissolving back in to matter. This acceptance of the inevitable downward pull of matter generates, in opposition, an exhilarating burst of gestural energy. Each painting is the result of a clash of these dramatically opposing forces, one that takes place in real space.

Farewell Bill is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 29th of March

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Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

October 25~2013

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents, in the Paris Pantin exhibition space inaugurated in October 2012, a comprehensive exhibition with new monumental sculptures and paintings by the German artist Georg Baselitz.

“What is Germany, really, in regard to traditional sculpture?” In a recent interview, Baselitz looked back to questions he asked himself in the 1970s: “The last thing I could think of in the way of pleasing or characteristic German sculpture after the Gothic period was the group Die Brücke, including Schmidt- Rottluff, Kirchner and Lehmbruck. When I finally arrived at this idea, I took a piece of wood and started work” (Georg Baselitz, 2011).

Baselitz’s first sculpture was shown in the German Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Since then he has made only a few.

After Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Max Ernst chose a readily malleable material when they had reached the limits of painting. Baselitz stands in this tradition of painters who leave their medium. He finds sculpture “a shorter way than painting”, to tackle certain problems; it is “more primitive, brutal, not as reserved […] as painting can sometimes be”, and “less cryptic than pictures, far more direct, more legible” (Georg Baselitz, 1983). Besides this recourse to Expressionist sculpture, an important field of reference for Baselitz’s sculpture is the fundamental nature of African sculpture, where specific basic types have been developed over a long period.

Baselitz works exclusively with wood, negating both the idea of doing justice to the material and that of the stuffy, conservative reputation of wood sculpture. “Any appealing form [..] any arty- crafty elegance or deliberate construction is taboo” (Georg Baselitz, 1987). With great physical effort, he hacks, stabs and saws the block of wood, taking no account of the grain. “For a sculpture to take shape, the wood has to be forcibly opened” (Uwe Schneede, 1993).

For the past ten years, Baselitz has cast limited editions of his wood sculptures in bronze at the long-established Hermann Noack fine art foundry in Berlin. Here the finest details of the sculpted wood are reproduced and burnished in black by the artist. On Baselitz’s black, unreflective surfaces, John-Paul Stonard remarks in his exhibition catalogue essay: “They betray the light absorbing wood from which they were originally carved; memory falls into them, rather than drama out of them.”

Georg Baselitz’s new bronzes include Sing Sang Zero, a standing couple with arms interlinked, and three fetishistic sculptures – Marokkaner, Yellow Song, Louise Fuller – showing a humanoid figure enclosed in rings. Louise Fuller is a gentle parody of the American dancer famous for her act with veils.

The monumental BDM Gruppe revives his childhood memories of three parading girls in his native town of Deutschbaselitz. John-Paul Stonard writes: “These village beauties […] could not be further from the Three Graces of antiquity, shown most famously in smooth white marble by Canova, or with classical restraint by Raphael. So much has been lost or transfigured. What has survived, from a memory that must have been filtered a thousand times, is the motif of the linked arms. Not hands held, but arms linked; a rare motif in the history of art.”

In the past months Baselitz has been working on a new series titled Black Paintings. After Blackout (2009) and The Negative (2012), the series in black would seem to be a logical step. Expressive representations of birds and human figures may be discerned in these pictures, though the shades Baselitz uses render them almost invisible. The figuration is revealed more through the highly structured surface of the heavy layers of black, dark blue and brown. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Michael Semff writes: “The artist surprises us with a radically new pictorial concept which, in almost minimalist reduction, aims to eliminate all visible contrasts. […] Time seems to have stopped here – not in the sense of standstill, but of exhaustion, calming ‘after the battle’.” Semff points out that twenty years before he created these Black Paintings, Baselitz already described his approach to painting, which still holds today: “I try to work without experience, without training, in a way I myself don’t know. I don’t want continuity … I set great store by waking sleep.” For his new series, shown in Pantin for the first time, Baselitz goes beyond this idea, confessing: “I dream of painting an invisible picture”.

.

at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

until 31 October 2013

.

Above – Louise Fuller, 2013

.

Yellow Song, 2013

BDM Gruppe, 2012

Flunkler Deck, 2013

Feite dunzkeleit, 2013

Rikschornfabstein, 2013

Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” installation view at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris.

Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat; Jochen Littkemann.

   

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Sep 11, 2013

The Dark Side

The Dark Side

‘Le Côté Sombre’ (‘The Dark Side’) brings together Georg Baselitz’s latest painting and sculpture at Thaddaeus Ropac’s sprawling new space in Pantin, a couple of miles north east of Paris.The monumental sculptures, cast in bronze after wood carvings, are less violent than Baselitz’s previous works. His signature axe and chainsaw cuts are not softened – the rough surfaces reveal the creative process of angular hacking and gauging. But their black patina gives them a slick gloss, which befits their modish surroundings.BDM Gruppe is the most striking sculpture of the new series, three black faceless figures, androgynous but for some crudely sculpted high-heeled shoes. The inspiration (and title) come from Baselitz’s childhood memories of the parading Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), in his village of Deutschbaselitz, Saxony. As with much of his work, the grim spectre of Germany’s recent history is ever present. Baselitz’s primitive technique is testament to his roots, drawing on Volkskunst of Saxony, as well as art brut and African sculpture from his own private collection.The same sculpture was recently on display in the John Madejski Garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum and comparisons drawn with Antonio Canova’s Three Graces. BDM Gruppe is The Three Graces in negative. We recognise the three standing figures with arms intertwined, but instead of the graceful, smooth white marble of Canova’s sculpture, they are clunky, jet black textured giants.The idea of the negative, the inverted, is shot through Baselitz’s oeuvre since he first produced an upside-down canvas in 1969. In his new series, Black Paintings, the idea of the negative translates into the desire for an entirely black canvas: Baselitz claims to ‘dream of painting an invisible picture’.

The Dark Side

Black Paintings give us more than opacity. In some, colour is mixed into the black, which might recall a child’s experiment to see what colour you get when you mix all the colours together (answer: blackish). In certain lights the form of an eagle emerges, perhaps turned upside down, perhaps nose-diving into gloom. The contrast between eagle and surroundings is an almost imperceptible change of texture, a glossy shape emerging from a matt canvas of broad, sweeping strokes. In places, touches and streaks of white pierce the canvas. Between figurative and abstract, the paintings are reduced to subtle shifts in colour and texture. They are sombre, but meditative rather than anguished.

September’s first wave of vernissages in Paris revealed the traditional slew of medium sized oeuvres packed into small white cubes. Baselitz’s new works would not fit through the door. But in Ropac’s new, 2000 square-metre space they are strangely diminished, dwarfed by the new trend for über-galleries on the city peripheries, designed to showcase large-scale trophy art.

‘Georg Baselitz: The Dark Side’ is at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac: Paris Pantin until 31 October 2013.

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Q&A wtih GEORG BASELITZ : Portrait of an Artist Still Trying to Grow

October 14, 1995|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The exhibition of work by Georg Baselitz opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers Angelenos a comprehensive look at one of the most influential artists to emerge from post World War II Germany.

Best known, perhaps, for making paintings with images that appear upside down–a strategy he began using in 1969 to drain objects of their meaning and transform them into shapes–Baselitz has hammered out a consistently experimental and distinctive melding of abstraction and figuration. The show, which comes here from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, draws from 30 years of Baselitz’s career.

Interviewing the 57-year-old artist through a translator in one of the LACMA galleries where his work is hung, one encounters a beautifully dressed man who’s remarkably amiable considering that he just completed a long plane ride that left him with a severe headache. An in-depth conversation about various brands of aspirin preceded the following discussion of his work.

Question: In a recent interview you made a point of identifying yourself as a specifically German artist. What about your sensibility is recognizably German?

Answer: For years people said that about me, so I finally thought about it and realized it’s true. With artists there really are differences that have to do with nationality and I am German–I have no sense of myself as a citizen of the world.

Q: How did growing up in the shadow of World War II shape your sensibility?

A: I was 7 years old when the war ended, so my childhood took place in a climate of fear. The primary thing then was survival–how do you get some soup? Now that I’m older, I’m beginning to look at the larger implications of that war–and Germany itself finally seems ready to address its past. The German people feel great shame about the war, and as to whether that wound of shame will ever heal, I think what will happen is that it will be replaced. Events in the world and another peoples’ shame will supersede it. The human race seems to be evolving in not a good direction.

Q: What drove you as a young artist that no longer seems so important?

A: Early on, I felt it necessary to be explicit, crass and dramatic in trying to make clear what I wanted to do. I was also intent on rejecting the dominant styles of that period–Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism–but that’s part of the coming-of-age of every young artist. In this kind of rejection you make mistakes, but you must make them to find your freedom. I no longer feel required to work that way, and my work is less and less a reaction to the outside and to what other artists are doing. Rather, I find myself looking to my own past, repeating, correcting, deepening. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to wander through my past, and I find myself developing a more responsible attitude toward my work. I want to work more consciously.

Q: The American art world has an image of you as something of an aristocrat. How do you feel about that?

A: Me? An aristocrat? I don’t understand that at all because in Germany I’m a farmer! During the war my father had to go through the family records in order to prove his lineage to the Nazis, and believe me, there were no aristocrats in the family. My ancestors were all middle-class, bourgeoise priests and teachers.

Q: You’re not an aristocrat, yet you live in a castle with 120 rooms?

A: Well, that’s what is available in Germany. Nobody really wants to live in them, so artists often end up with them.

Q: In the catalogue for this show, when you discuss artists you consider your peers, writers you admire and artists who’ve influenced you, you don’t mention a single woman. Even all your dealers are men. Do you consider yourself a sexist?

A: If you have a specific example, I can respond–actually, I have a very good example. When I was a student I saw work by an artist named Joan Mitchell and I loved him a lot. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Mitchell was a woman–and I thought nevertheless, the work is good!

Q: How old were you when you began to have a sense of yourself as an artist?

A: Fourteen. My parents were both teachers and my father spoke several languages, so I was raised in a fairly intellectual environment. In Germany, when you turn 14, you must decide whether to go to a trade school or go on to university, and it was then I decided to be a painter.

Another change took place then too. My uncle was a priest and I was raised a Protestant. As a child there’s no way to reflect on what you’re being taught because it’s all you know. But at 14 I began to wrestle with the question: Should I run away from the church, or should I embrace it? I found the milieu of the church frightening, and so I escaped. Another problem was that I don’t believe in God.

Q: In a recent interview you made the comment: “I don’t understand Christian paintings–people flying around in fairy-tale clothes. I don’t know what it means and it has no importance for me.” Why have millions of people over several centuries chosen to embrace this belief system?

A: There are powerful religions, and there are less powerful religions that fail. There is a conflict between Germans–particularly Germans north of the Alps–and Christianity because Germanic folklore revolves around pagan things that emanate from under the earth. In Christianity, things come from above. I’ve always felt that if there really is such a thing as freedom–which is what people are looking for in religion–that it won’t come from the sky. I believe it will come from the earth, and that is where my work is rooted.

Of course, every imperial religion has denounced the pagans because they had other gods, and unfortunately, the pagans disappeared and everyone became Christian. But this is where artists come in–they bring all things of the past to light again. Every artist functions as a medium, and it’s not something they’re in control of because it’s too valuable and sensitive to be controlled.

* Georg Baselitz’s paintings will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Sunday through Jan. 7. (213) 857-6000.

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Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

October 25~2013

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents, in the Paris Pantin exhibition space inaugurated in October 2012, a comprehensive exhibition with new monumental sculptures and paintings by the German artist Georg Baselitz.

“What is Germany, really, in regard to traditional sculpture?” In a recent interview, Baselitz looked back to questions he asked himself in the 1970s: “The last thing I could think of in the way of pleasing or characteristic German sculpture after the Gothic period was the group Die Brücke, including Schmidt- Rottluff, Kirchner and Lehmbruck. When I finally arrived at this idea, I took a piece of wood and started work” (Georg Baselitz, 2011).

Baselitz’s first sculpture was shown in the German Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Since then he has made only a few.

After Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Max Ernst chose a readily malleable material when they had reached the limits of painting. Baselitz stands in this tradition of painters who leave their medium. He finds sculpture “a shorter way than painting”, to tackle certain problems; it is “more primitive, brutal, not as reserved […] as painting can sometimes be”, and “less cryptic than pictures, far more direct, more legible” (Georg Baselitz, 1983). Besides this recourse to Expressionist sculpture, an important field of reference for Baselitz’s sculpture is the fundamental nature of African sculpture, where specific basic types have been developed over a long period.

Baselitz works exclusively with wood, negating both the idea of doing justice to the material and that of the stuffy, conservative reputation of wood sculpture. “Any appealing form [..] any arty- crafty elegance or deliberate construction is taboo” (Georg Baselitz, 1987). With great physical effort, he hacks, stabs and saws the block of wood, taking no account of the grain. “For a sculpture to take shape, the wood has to be forcibly opened” (Uwe Schneede, 1993).

For the past ten years, Baselitz has cast limited editions of his wood sculptures in bronze at the long-established Hermann Noack fine art foundry in Berlin. Here the finest details of the sculpted wood are reproduced and burnished in black by the artist. On Baselitz’s black, unreflective surfaces, John-Paul Stonard remarks in his exhibition catalogue essay: “They betray the light absorbing wood from which they were originally carved; memory falls into them, rather than drama out of them.”

Georg Baselitz’s new bronzes include Sing Sang Zero, a standing couple with arms interlinked, and three fetishistic sculptures – Marokkaner, Yellow Song, Louise Fuller – showing a humanoid figure enclosed in rings. Louise Fuller is a gentle parody of the American dancer famous for her act with veils.

The monumental BDM Gruppe revives his childhood memories of three parading girls in his native town of Deutschbaselitz. John-Paul Stonard writes: “These village beauties […] could not be further from the Three Graces of antiquity, shown most famously in smooth white marble by Canova, or with classical restraint by Raphael. So much has been lost or transfigured. What has survived, from a memory that must have been filtered a thousand times, is the motif of the linked arms. Not hands held, but arms linked; a rare motif in the history of art.”

In the past months Baselitz has been working on a new series titled Black Paintings. After Blackout (2009) and The Negative (2012), the series in black would seem to be a logical step. Expressive representations of birds and human figures may be discerned in these pictures, though the shades Baselitz uses render them almost invisible. The figuration is revealed more through the highly structured surface of the heavy layers of black, dark blue and brown. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Michael Semff writes: “The artist surprises us with a radically new pictorial concept which, in almost minimalist reduction, aims to eliminate all visible contrasts. […] Time seems to have stopped here – not in the sense of standstill, but of exhaustion, calming ‘after the battle’.” Semff points out that twenty years before he created these Black Paintings, Baselitz already described his approach to painting, which still holds today: “I try to work without experience, without training, in a way I myself don’t know. I don’t want continuity … I set great store by waking sleep.” For his new series, shown in Pantin for the first time, Baselitz goes beyond this idea, confessing: “I dream of painting an invisible picture”.

.

at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

until 31 October 2013

.

Above – Louise Fuller, 2013

.

Yellow Song, 2013

BDM Gruppe, 2012

Flunkler Deck, 2013

Feite dunzkeleit, 2013

Rikschornfabstein, 2013

Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” installation view at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris.

Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat; Jochen Littkemann.

– See more at: http://moussemagazine.it/gbaselitz-thaddaeus-ropac/#sthash.FTKNWfe7.dpuf

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/postmessageRelay?parent=http%3A%2F%2Fmoussemagazine.it#rpctoken=371513799&forcesecure=1 – See more at: http://moussemagazine.it/gbaselitz-thaddaeus-ropac/#sthash.FTKNWfe7.dpuf

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1995 interview

ART

New Again: Georg Baselitz

By Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Deborah Gimelson

Photography Richard J. Burbridge

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ABOVE: GEORG BASELITZ IN INTERVIEW, JUNE 1995. PORTRAIT BY RICHARD J. BURBRIDGE.

Georg Baselitz would like you to know that he embodies individualism. Rarely has another artist shirked categorization as surely and as vehemently as Baselitz. When we interviewed the German artist in June 1995, he was awaiting his very first retrospective exhibit on American soil at the Guggenheim. Now in his 70s, Baselitz hasn’t stopped creating, and his work has been exhibited in the US 105 times since then. Next week, on March 29th, Baselitz’s latest exhibition at the Gagosian in London will come to a close. Titled “Farewell Bill,” the show focuses on a series of upside-down, mirror-image, and perspective-jarring self-portraits, painted in bright strokes of color as homage to the late artist Willem de Kooning. The twin desires that Baselitz displayed to us in ’95—to be unpredictable and to shock—are clearly still at the forefront of his aesthetic ideology. Much of the chaos of Baselitz’s early paintings is still there, but they are both simpler and more complex in their characteristic distemper.—Kenzi Abou-Sabe
Raw Nerve Art
By Deborah Gimelson

As a German artist born during the time of Hitler’s Germany, Georg Baselitz has had to struggle with history itself to find his own way into history. He has taken the repression that came with the aftermath of the war and exploded it in his work. He is one of those artists who is essentially still unknown, even if his work is famous. The image of his work is imparted in the minds of all who have seen it, but the reasons for the work, and the man’s background, have not yet truly been discovered in this country. His retrospective, which just opened at the Guggenheim Museum, is one of the first real chances we’ve had in America to seriously discover what this tough, anxiety-producing art is really about. Here, in a two-part interview, an American art writer, Deborah Gimelson, takes on the heavyweight and finds out some of the answers and some of the mysteries.

Part One
Georg Baselitz seems almost too affable for a guy whose art—from eagles to men to dogs, much of it upside down—has torn through the fabric of traditional German painting and sculpture. His canvases and sculptures have managed to imprint their agitated, often tortured residue on the consciousness of contemporary art—a consciousness the artist is all too aware is not always accepting of his uncomfortable vision. His response to viewers finding his work ugly follows the line of reasoning he has adhered to from early in his career. If he is affecting someone so strongly and negatively, if they remember what they saw, says Baselitz, he must be doing something right.

After a successful, three-decade career on the Continent, Baselitz is having his first bona fide American retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, from May 26 through September 17. Although it appears to have taken a long time for a retrospective of his work to reach our shores, that is not the kind of problem that engages Baselitz, as he made clear in the interview that follows.

DEBORAH GIMELSON: I wish I spoke German, but I don’t. Can we try it in English, with translation, and see how it goes?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. O.K. [Editor’s Note: In the first part of this interview, conducted via telephone on March 22, the interpreter was Mr. Baselitz’s assistant, Detlev Gretenkort.]

GIMELSON: All right. Congratulations on the upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim. You’ve had enormous success in Europe for many years, and I wonder why you think it took so long to have a show like this in America.

GEORG BASELITZ: I don’t have the feeling that it took such a long time.

GIMELSON: Even though we tend to give retrospectives to people in their thirties and forties in America?

BASELITZ: Lichtenstein was much older than I am when he got his first retrospective in Europe.

GIMELSON: [laughs] Uh-huh! O.K. What do you think the differences are between showing in Europe and showing in America?

BASELITZ: For me, America is a big unknown situation. I don’t see art as entertainment, so I don’t know exactly how to react.

GIMELSON: Because you don’t see art as entertainment? I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at. Do you think that American audiences view art as entertainment more than as art? Is that what you’re saying?

BASELITZ: Most of what comes from the States to Europe has something to do with entertainment. I can’t imagine artists in the United States having the same kind of isolated position that we have here in Europe. I have a feeling one lives more publically in the States.

GIMELSON: Hmmm. Anyway, I know you’re from Eastern Europe. I wonder what it meant to you to grow up in the postwar East. What kind of opportunities and what kind of obstacles were put in your path?

BASELITZ: When the war ended in 1945, the place that had been our home, which had been in the center of Germany, became and still remains a part of the Czechoslovakian border and the Polish border. I was seven years old. I grew up in the Eastern Zone, which became the German Democratic Republic in 1949.

GIMELSON: I’m trying to get at what it was like for you. In America there is, and has been, a resistance to German art of your postwar generation. I’m not so sure that this resistance only has to do with the idea of Nazism, which was happening while you were growing up. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that certain kinds of art have been associated with fascism—for example, expressionism. You’ve been referred to as the greatest living neo-expressionist. How do you react to being called that?

BASELITZ: I became an artist because of the possibility it gave me to develop in another way, because I didn’t want to follow the same lines the others around me did. I was educated in the former German Democratic Republic, which meant that an individual figure had to be… like a soldier in the army, you know?

GIMELSON: Part of the bigger picture.

BASELITZ: Yes, part of the bigger picture. First, they tried for about a year to make me understand that I had to make a contribution to this system. Then after a year, they found out that I was too crazy for such things, and they dropped me out of school. [Gimelson laughs] So that was how I started at the Academy [of Fine and Applied Art] in East Berlin. Then I went to West Berlin and continued to study there.

GIMELSON: When did you go to West Berlin?

BASELITZ: That was in 1957. And there I found out that Germany is a kind of province. I didn’t know anything about expressionism, about the Bauhaus and Dada and surrealism. I was uneducated, so to speak—and everybody else was more or less uneducated, too. At the art school [the Academy of Fine Arts] in West Berlin, the great influences were coming from Paris. Those kinds of people didn’t exist anymore in Germany, because they had all gone into exile. I got sort of interested in this French thing, but I soon found out that existentialism was not congruent with my thinking. Then, in 1958 at the art school, there was a great American exhibition. It was a very big exhibition that was organized by MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art], with all these paintings by Pollock, Motherwell, and Rothko.

GIMELSON: The abstract expressionists.

BASELITZ: Yes. It was travelling all through Europe. It was the biggest and most powerful exhibition I had seen so far, and immediately I found out that even what I saw at this exhibition didn’t work for me, because I didn’t want to be colonized. So I forced myself to think about where I come from, and what has meaning for me.

GIMELSON: At that point, who did you identify with as an artist?

BASELITZ: I did not always trust my teachers, because I found them too weak. I was looking for something that could take me in a new direction, for things that I could admire. And because it was so hard to find this, I became a sort of outsider. That’s why I began to identify with the insane, “outsider” artists.

GIMELSON: The outsider artists in Germany, you mean?

BASELITZ: Not only in Germany, everywhere.

GIMELSON: Who were some of these people, specifically? Did they have names, or were they anonymous?

BASELITZ: Many of them were known, like Carl Fredrik Hill and August Strindberg, for example, and many others. There is a book that was written by Hans Prinzhorn and published in 1923 called The Artistry of the Mentally Ill, where you can find some of them.

GIMELSON: Ummm, all this is very interesting, but I want to get back to the subject of being a young artist for a minute. Do you have any contact with younger artists who are coming up today?

BASELITZ: Yes, I’m a professor at the art school in Berlin.

GIMELSON: And do you find that many of the obstacles you confronted as a young artist are similar to those that these young artists have to deal with today?

BASELITZ: I have always been aware of different movements and directions in art. But, in general, I’m always bored by any kind of generalization when it comes to artists. I think that there are just single individuals, who are valuable, and they work outside of any group.

GIMELSON: You mean those who develop as great artists.

BASELITZ: Yes.

GIMELSON: In some circles you’re well-known as a collector of African art. I wonder how those images, or that primordial energy from them, filter into your work. Can you describe the transaction between the two things, your collecting and your own work, and why collecting is so important to you as an artist?

BASELITZ: I have always had the feeling that other people are too stupid to discover interesting things. That’s why I do it myself. I think of collecting as a way to show that I understand what’s important better than others do.

GIMELSON: How many pieces are in your collection?

BASELITZ: Oh, I have collected so many different things.

GIMELSON: I’m sure, and for many years, right?

BASELITZ: Yes. At first, I started collecting my artist friends, artists like myself who nobody had yet noticed. I believe that I was the first to collect the very early [A.R.] Penck paintings. In everything, all I am collecting, so to speak, are my friends—artist friends. Right now, I’m focusing on African sculptures more or less from the Congo area. I’m also collecting 16th-century prints from the Ecole de Fontainebleau. Nowhere in my collection do I, say, have a Renoir painting. Because everybody knows that this is a good painter without me having to demonstrate it.

GIMELSON: I’d like to talk now about some people who have been intricately involved in your career. You met Michael Werner [who has continuously represented Baselitz since the beginning of the artist’s career and was influential in introducing his work to America] very early on. I’d like to know what the atmosphere was like in German art circles at that time, and what you think you and Werner saw in each other to forge such a strong and long-term association.

BASELITZ: We were from the same generation and the same nationality. Nobody had one penny in their pocket then. It was a very difficult time, economically speaking. When Werner saw a painting of mine, such as Die grosse Nacht im Eimer [“Big Night Down the Drain” 1962-1963], which back then nobody wanted and everybody thought was ridiculous, he realized that this was the right provocation, that it represented the feeling of the times in the right way.

GIMELSON: Do you have any specific stories about how you and Michael worked together?

BASELITZ: Michael was the first person I worked with who had something to do with art dealing. This was in the early ’60s. I remember that Michael told me about a famous collector, and Michael set up an appointment for us to meet. This man looked around the room and at my pictures. Then he said, “Young man, why are you doing these horrible things? Look out the window. There are nice girls out there. It’s springtime. Look at how beautiful the world can be. You’ll ruin your health by smoking so much and doing such tortured things.” The he left, embarrassed, without buying anything. And half an hour later, Werner came over, and I told him what had just happened. We agreed that this meeting had been a success.

GIMELSON: What do you feel is the absolute best situation, the optimal physical structure, for your work to be seen in?

BASELITZ: If my images stick in peoples’ heads, if they know the image without even looking at the image.

GIMELSON: Well, we should probably stop for now, since we have a second meeting for this interview in person when you come to New York next week. You know, I’ve seen you in Berlin a couple of times. You winked at me on the street once. [to the translator] Don’t tell him that! [translator tells Baselitz]

BASELITZ: On what occasion?

GIMELSON: The “Metropolis” exhibition four years ago.

BASELITZ: Are you sure it wasn’t somebody else? Because I don’t have a beard any longer.

GIMELSON: No, it was you. See you on Monday.

Part two
Curious to see what the dynamic of the artist who has made so many dynamic images is like in person, I sat down with Baselitz face-to-face in Interview‘s wood-paneled library to resume our talk. Baselitz drank espresso doppio and sometimes got up between translations of his responses to look at the selection of books on the library shelves; the first thing he did was make sure there was something about Baselitz on the shelves. Dressed in a well-made, wide-wale dark blue corduroy suit, dark shirt, and expensive silk tie, his current image is hard to reconcile with the Baselitz who reputedly, in his youth, hung out in Berlin bars with the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. Now more country squire than social revolutionary (he spends most of his time in a castle in Derneburg, where his studio is in a series of connecting, high-ceilinged, 17th-century rooms), he still wages an aesthetic war with his stark, volatile, and often primitive images. [Editor’s note: The following interview took place on March 27 in the Interview library. On this occasion, the interpreter was Waltraud Raninger, a translator who works with the Guggenheim Museum SoHo.]

GIMELSON: I want to begin this part of the interview by asking you about Francis Bacon. Now that Bacon is dead, many people consider you the most important artist of senior stature working in Europe today. How do you feel about this?

BASELITZ: I don’t know who made up this sort of greatest-hits list for artists. If one artist isn’t moving forward anymore, then it’s assumed another one is going to take their place. With Bacon’s death, a whole genre of art died. Does that mean now that I’m the next one to die?

GIMELSON: [laughs] I hope not.

BASELITZ: So do I.

GIMELSON: Can you talk a little bit about what you think neo-expressionism, a term that has often been used to describe your work, means in Europe, and what it means in America, and how the two notions of this genre differ?

BASELITZ: First of all, I am not a representative of anything. When art historians or critics or the public put somebody in a drawer like this, it has a tranquilizing, paralyzing effect. Artists are individuals. They have ideas, and the conventions for one’s self as an individual are not for a group. There are always those who follow the group, but they belong in the margins. I refuse to be placed within, or added to, one particular school.

GIMELSON: Why do you think it is then that people have tried to slot you into that neo-expressionist mold?

BASELITZ: I don’t know. When I began as an artist, I already did not like expressionism, or abstract expressionism, because abstract painting had already been done. I did not want to belong to any one group or the other, and I’m not one or the other.

GIMELSON: Where do you think the main impetus was coming from in your work when you were in your twenties, as opposed to now, when you’re in your fifties? What were the forces working on you then, and the obsessions, and what’s different about them now?

BASELITZ: These forces are biologically different now than they were then. In the beginning, the energy involved to create came from my reaction to the work of other artists. The force behind this was aggression. The art that I saw was great, but I had to reject it, because I could not continue in the same direction. So I had to do something entirely different. It had to be so different, so extreme, that those who loved pop art, for instance, hated me. And this was my strength. Later, it again worked in a biological manner. But in no way was it just my reactions against things.

GIMELSON: I am wondering how you would like this exhibition at the Guggenheim to represent your work.

BASELITZ: In a place like the Guggenheim, I would like to be a representative of arte povera. This would be my ideal. Unfortunately, God had something else in mind. I’m a painter, and this space is completely inappropriate for my work. But in the end, maybe this is also an advantage, because we have seen so many exhibits in recent years where the exhibition design was aesthetically beautiful. In this case, if someone wants to get something out of the exhibit, they must neglect the aesthetics and look at my pictures.

But I do not have a philosophy about retrospectives. Of course, I cannot change what I have done. What I am doing today, this I can change, in view of whatever I have done before. My retrospectives are like a series of ghosts. And for me to see my work collected like this is like entering a haunted house.

GIMELSON: You have spent your career defying tradition and structure, constantly remaking yourself or your art through your various paintings and sculptures. Yet in other aspects of your life, traditional structures, like family, are very important. Can you talk about this?

BASELITZ: As a human being, I am a citizen, but as an artist, I am asocial. A citizen sticks to conventions, does whatever is social. Artists, of course, must reject all conventions. I see no differently in reconciling the best of both of these worlds.

GIMELSON: If you met somebody who’s never heard of you or seen your work, how would you describe what you do every day?

BASELITZ: I would say I am somebody who builds furniture like a carpenter with canvas and color. No, I would say I build buildings or houses like a bricklayer with canvas and paint. This is a very good question.

THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1995 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

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GOETHE INSTITUTE GERMANY

Georg Baselitz Rebellion by Standing Reality on Its Head

Special exhibition
Special exhibition “Georg Baselitz: Nature as Motif” | © Picture alliance

Painting motifs upside-down became his hallmark. Georg Baselitz is less concerned with the recognition factor of his technique and far more with depicting the world as he has experienced it: an upside-down world.

There are artists and writers who struggle with a theme throughout their lives, returning again and again to the same motifs and wrestling with that which eludes depiction. Many soon end up stagnating and become uninteresting. But those however, who continually take different perspectives, discover unconventional means and thereby illuminate their themes in new ways – these artists’ works never cease to ask interesting questions. Kafka was such a writer, Georg Baselitz is such a painter.

The process of painting as process of insight

The fact that Baselitz is not concerned with an interpretation of his subjects, but with the process of painting itself, can be seen in his works: his canvases appear unfinished by means of paint can edges, shoe prints and over-painting. Baselitz rejects clear-cut contours and cleanly-painted figures, since the foreground is taken up by the how and not the what. His first sculpture, which he presented in 1980 in Venice, was entitled Modell für eine Skulptur (Model for a Sculpture), half of which still remained un-carved in the wood block. The “how” enables us to follow the progress of the work and Baselitz’s thought process, which among other things leads to the insight that the “what” can be assertion pure and simple, and therefore absolutely must be called into question.

A German-German-German biography

Even as a child, Baselitz experienced the arbitrariness of such claims to truth. He was born into the Nazi dictatorship as Hans-Georg Kern on 23 January 1938, in Deutschbaselitz in Saxony. His parents were teachers – he remembers the schoolhouse where he lived with them: “A banner was stretched around the building with ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ (‘one people, one empire, one leader’) written on it.”

The next truth was presented to him in the form of GDR socialism. In 1956 he began studying art in East Berlin and concentrated on Picasso, but not the way his teachers intended. When after two semesters Baselitz submitted “his” Picassos of the war years in Paris, they saw only the decadence of the west. Baselitz was expelled from the academy on the grounds of “social immaturity” and continued studying in West Berlin.

But the West also confronted him with “truths.” Pollock and de Kooning were the new heroes, but however much they impressed Baselitz, he was not inclined to emulate them. Baselitz, for whom being a follower had a bad aftertaste, encountered the truths of this world with distrust. Someone that sceptical is compelled to find his own truth – and Baselitz, young and aggressive, set off in search of it. In 1961 he changed his name to Baselitz after his birthplace.

Rebellion without penalty

In 1962 he married Elke Kretzschmar and began to do something that “simply no one wanted at all,” he says. No recognition, not exactly a pleasant time, Die große Nacht im Eimer (A Big Night Down the Drain) had come. In 1963, the picture of a man masturbating was confiscated from the Galerie Werner und Katz in Berlin, as was the painting Nackter Mann (Naked Man) that shows a nude with an oversized, erect penis. Baselitz was prosecuted. He was forced to find another way of expressing his scepticism if he was to avoid getting into trouble with the state prosecutor’s office each and every time he rebelled. In 1969 he created his fracture paintings (Frakturbilder): figures he cut up into strips and put back together in displaced order. The irritating effect of madness ultimately led to his upside-down take on reality, which was to become his hallmark: in that same year he painted an upside-down motif for the first time – Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Forest Upside-Down). Rebellion by turning reality upside-down, and it worked: formally, Baselitz overcame concrete meaning and thereby created his own, personal alternative to the ideologically charged debates over realism and abstraction. He turned reality on its head and thereby rendered it abstract – it was this idea that made him famous.

“Strangely upright”

Baselitz knew he was on the right track. Starting in 2005, he began to revise his work and at the same time to deepen it. He then sometimes paints “strangely upright”, as he puts it. He also now finally feels stable enough to quote the great American artists of Abstract Expressionism and squeezes his figures out of the paint tube onto the black canvas, Action Painting without splattering. Negative images arise with reversed brightness values and the black eagles that convey the depressing aura of an oil-tanker accident. On the occasion of his major retrospective exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Baselitz, now 76, finds succinct words for his revisions of the past: he considers his works over and over again and understands that “it could all have been done differently.” And because Baselitz doesn’t stop at this insight, he goes and does things differently.

A survey of Baselitz’ work Back Then, In Between and Today – Damals, dazwischen und heute is offered by the exhibition of the same name in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 1 February 2015.

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nytimes

Photo

Georg Baselitz in his studio. Credit Martin Müller/Gagosian Gallery

LONDON — In the autumn of 1958, an East German art student ventured into an exhibition of American paintings and was staggered by what he saw. Hanging on wall after wall of a West Berlin academy were works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists.

“I found those pictures so overwhelming, so totally unexpected, so different from the experience of my own world at the time that I felt totally desperate, because I thought I’d never stand a chance of doing well compared to those painters,” Georg Baselitz recalled in an interview at the Gagosian Gallery here.

“The dimensions, to us, were just huge: an expression of freedom,” Mr. Baselitz said, speaking through a translator. “Our canvases felt pathetic, tiny.”

More than a half-century later, Mr. Baselitz carries that experience with him. Now 76, he is being honored with three London exhibitions: “Farewell Bill,” a tribute to De Kooning is at Gagosian through March 29; “Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation,” through Aug. 31 at the British Museum, features more than 40 of Mr. Baselitz’s works on paper; and he has lent some 16th-century prints to the Royal Academy of Arts’s “Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts From the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna,” which runs from March 15 through June 8.

Photo

One of the artist’s works that is part of  “Farewell Bill,” a tribute to Willem de Kooning. Credit Georg Baselitz/Jochen Littkemann, via Gagosian Gallery

For much of his life, Mr. Baselitz has created work around one central theme: the pain of growing up in the ruins of Nazi Germany. He has produced raw and sometimes shocking art to express it.

His Gagosian show is full of large, jubilant canvases covered with messy swirls of bright paint that resemble 1970s de Koonings. Most are upside-down self-portraits in which the artist wears a baseball cap marked “Zero” — a reference to his brand of paint, but also, according to the catalog, to “Zero Hour,” a phrase used in post-1945 Germany to indicate a clean slate.

“As a German, by definition, you’re always linked to the Holocaust, linked to the Nazis,” Mr. Baselitz said. He added: “I was only 7 when World War II was over. Yet people nowadays still associate my generation with the past.”

Along with Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Mr. Baselitz is part of a group of German artists who “took it upon themselves to reinvent a broken culture,” said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner of the Michael Werner Gallery in New York, which represented Mr. Baselitz until 2008. Although Mr. Baselitz has never been an auction darling on the scale of Mr. Richter, he is an influential post-war painter. The Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who represents Mr. Baselitz in Continental Europe, said he could not imagine “any other artist who confronted Germany with its own past the way Baselitz did.”

The past has never been absent from his work. Mr. Baselitz’s father, a primary-school teacher who fought for Germany in the war and lost an eye, was banned from teaching in what became East Germany. Their relationship was tense. “If your father was a Nazi and a perpetrator, the problem between the two generations becomes even more serious,” Mr. Baselitz said.

He started to express this aggression. In 1963, he completed a painting of an ugly, masturbating male called ‘‘Big  Night Down the Drain.’’ It was included  in his first gallery show, which drew  public attention, and was promptly confiscated (with another work) by the district attorney.

In the late ’60s, Mr. Baselitz started to develop what would become a trademark motif — depicting subjects upside down in a style that appeared both figurative and abstract.

“He found his perfect solution by inverting,” said Stephen Coppel, the curator of the British Museum show. You recognized the work’s subject, he added, but were also made to “look at the marks by which it was created.” The British Museum show includes drawings and prints of upside-down figures, eagles and trees.

Notoriety came at the 1980 Venice Biennale, when Mr. Baselitz exhibited his first sculpture — a totemic figure with a raised arm — that some viewed as depicting Hitler. Since then, he has continued to sculpt as well as provoke.

Age has not made Mr. Baselitz less blunt. In January 2013, he told Der Spiegel that women “don’t paint very well,” though they excelled at disciplines such as science. The remarks caused a stir, with journalists, academics and women in the arts accusing Mr. Baselitz of sexism, accusations that have resurfaced on Twitter, along with the original interview.

Asked in the interview at the Gagosian here to comment, Mr. Baselitz replied that while “the most beautiful women are those created in art by men,” female artists depicted unseemly subjects. The 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, for instance, showed men being “castrated and decapitated,” he said, while contemporary artists like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas made everyone, including women, “look extremely ugly.”

“It could be that in the future things will improve,” he concluded.

Norman Rosenthal — who organized a Baselitz retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2007, and ran the exhibitions program there at the time — said Mr. Baselitz was, like Pablo Picasso, someone who “doesn’t care about being politically correct, cares about his own private, personal obsessions, and expresses them magnificently in painting and sculpture and printmaking.”

Gagosian’s London director, Stefan Ratibor, said the gallery had staged seven previous Baselitz exhibitions in New York, London and Rome.

“We wouldn’t do a show on this scale if we weren’t confident in his market,” he said. “Of the artists we work with, he’s one of the greats.”

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SPIEGEL ONLINEBaselitz also wasn't too thrilled about the art market in Germany.

01/25/2013 06:36 PM

German Artist Georg Baselitz

Baselitz also wasn't too thrilled about the art market in Germany. ‘My Paintings are Battles’

By Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knöfel

German painter Georg Baselitz has made a name for himself — and a fortune — by being provocative. In a SPIEGEL interview, he stays true to form by bashing Germans and their museums and saying that the best artists have less talent and can’t be women.

The house of Georg Baselitz, one of the world’s most important painters, is hard to find. It’s on the waterfront of Ammersee, a lake near Munich, and hidden behind other villas. Designed by Basel architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it’s probably one of the most beautiful residences in Germany. Fearing architecture tourists, Baselitz doesn’t allow journalists to photograph his house. The 75-year-old meets with SPIEGEL in his studio next door. Much of what he says seems cantankerous, but he clearly enjoys his tirades, which he delivers with a mischievous smile.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, you’ve just turned 75, and you’ve been famous for the last 50 years. At the beginning, you were the painter with the wild and dangerous works, and the police even confiscated some of your paintings. Now you are lionized, and your works are coveted around the world. What’s harder for an artist to deal with, rejection or recognition?Baselitz: First of all, I seriously doubt that what you say about recognition is true.

SPIEGEL: Gallery owners and collectors are both crazy about you, and museums are constantly singing your praises.

Baselitz: But not the media.

SPIEGEL: Come now, you’re written about often.

Baselitz: Is that so? I’ve had some major exhibitions abroad lately, and yet there was hardly a word in the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), for example. And that was only because I had previously said that the relevant editors at the FAZ suffered from pandemic mental enfeeblement.

SPIEGEL: What makes you say that?

Baselitz: I received the graphics prize at Art Cologne three years ago. Before that, it had been awarded to people who undoubtedly deserved recognition, such as Sigmar Polke. But, in my case, the FAZ wrote that it was a petty cash prize.

SPIEGEL: The prize money is €10,000 ($13,400), which is a paltry amount when compared to the sums your paintings fetch.

Baselitz: The prize money is the same each year, but when I get it, it’s called “petty cash.” I think that’s contemptuous and insulting to the people who award the prize and to the graphics medium.

SPIEGEL: You’re one of the most famous and expensive painters in the world. But you seem to notice your critics more than your acclaim.

Baselitz: For me, it’s about more than that; it’s about Germans’ relationship with art. For instance, in Germany, we often hear the absurd complaint that museums don’t have the money to buy paintings. Of course, I’m not talking about me and my paintings. There are, after all, more popular painters in this country.

SPIEGEL: Only one of them is more expensive: Gerhard Richter.

Baselitz: Much more expensive. And he certainly pays more taxes than I do. Despite all the taxes people pay, there supposedly isn’t any money in this country for art. Of course, this makes an artist ask himself: “Well, then, what are you doing with the 100 million I pay each year? What happened to that money?” And he doesn’t get an answer.

SPIEGEL: Now you’re no longer complaining about the media, but about museums.

Baselitz: Yes, I am grumbling a bit. The Rhineland was once the center of art in Germany. Then it was Berlin, but now things have become quiet there, as well. Still, Berlin has the National Gallery, a name that suggests that the museum ought to be there for national art. There are similar museums all over the world, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the MoMA in New York and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. They all fulfill their purpose and do what has to be done.

SPIEGEL: And what’s that?

Baselitz: They collect what’s important in their respective countries. In Berlin’s National Gallery, however, this isn’t the case. They’re interested neither in me nor the other usual suspects. It’s simply a German reality.

SPIEGEL: What do you attribute that to?

Baselitz: To the directors and the mood.

SPIEGEL: What mood?

Baselitz: Spending money on art has always been frowned upon in this country — even earlier, when my and others’ paintings cost almost nothing. Something is always more important. The people in charge are always peddling reasons that others seem to accept. Those who don’t drink and aren’t crazy, or who don’t attract attention with how they behave in public, aren’t noticed in art.

SPIEGEL: You sound furious. We were actually planning on discussing whether the situation in the art world isn’t better than ever.

Baselitz: That’s a justified question seeing that everyone apparently has the feeling that that’s the case. There’s a market for art, and things are indeed going swimmingly, especially for German artists. But everything takes place in America and in London, where there are quite a few wealthy, engaged people. What motivates them to buy art is a different question, but they do.

SPIEGEL: These collectors are also buying your art. What more could you ask for?

Baselitz: That things were also better here, and that we weren’t just dealing with know-it-alls.

SPIEGEL: People in this country are very interested in art. The museums are reporting record visitor numbers.

Baselitz: I’ve painted, but I’ve also done graphics since as long as I can remember. So even people with little to spend could afford it. But even the graphic works are only bought by those who buy the big, expensive paintings. I think that’s troublesome.

SPIEGEL: Why do you say that again?

Baselitz: Because everything is drifting apart, and because everything is moving away from the ordinary public.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain the many visitors to museums?

Baselitz: The museums! They say that people are going there. I had two big exhibitions in Dresden, but no one went. There are plenty of tourists on the street in Dresden, but they’d rather go to the Green Vault (museum) or to see the Old Masters. Other contemporary artists have had the same experience. And look at music. Alfred Schnittke was an important contemporary composer, and he lived in Germany, but no one here has heard of him. Everyone has heard of Mozart, and many believe that he can still be found in that little house in Salzburg, which is why people stand there in line. I think that our music and our art belong to our era. If the public doesn’t show up, it must be stupid.

‘Talent Seduces Us into Interpretation’

SPIEGEL: Perhaps artists and composers have also distanced themselves from the public.Baselitz: Wrong. The public has distanced itself.

SPIEGEL: And yet artists themselves could be to blame. Writers participate in debates in entirely different ways. Durs Grünbein writes political essays, and Martin Walser has often gotten involved. Günter Grass wrote a poem about Israel. You don’t have to approve of (the poem), but everyone was talking about it.

Baselitz: Painters just don’t live to draw attention to themselves in that way. Walser sells his books because people go to his book-signings and readings, where they buy a copy for €20 and take it home with them. He has to sell thousands of books. We painters don’t need that. I’ve never been on a talk show. I used to say to (now-deceased German painter) Jörg Immendorff: “Don’t do it. It’ll just hurt you, and it’ll make you unhappy.” But he couldn’t leave well enough alone because he was an agitator by nature. Writers have to do it. TV is their medium for selling books.

SPIEGEL: Sometimes it’s just a question of speaking up. In your works, you certainly do grapple with the country you live in.

Baselitz: Exactly. But no one on the other side of society is interested in that. We’re called “painter princes,” but it’s meant derisively. All German painters have a neurosis with Germany’s past: war, the postwar period most of all, East Germany. I addressed all of this in a deep depression and under great pressure. My paintings are battles, if you will.

SPIEGEL: Do you prefer not to address current affairs?

Baselitz: At least not the way Günter Grass does. And that would be terrible. Instead of sitting down and writing another “Tin Drum,” he writes a poem about Greece.

SPIEGEL: You find this reference to the here and now embarrassing?

Baselitz: Extremely embarrassing. There are also painters who do this sort of thing, but we’re not going to name them.

SPIEGEL: Why do you have trouble treating culture here with indulgence?

Baselitz: I think Günter Grass is truly awful. So is Walser, and so is (Hans Magnus) Enzensberger. Just read the diary of Hans Werner Richter, the head of Group 47, to which they all belonged. Read what he says about these people, and it’ll make you feel very depressed. I also feel that way because, after all, they were our role models, our heroes. Your magazine was the voice of these people. And their contribution? Zero. Reading Walser is unbearable. I call him “the bubble of Lake Constance.”

SPIEGEL: Oh, come on.

Baselitz: It makes me furious. I’m disappointed with philosophy. I just saw an opera, a premiere by … what’s his name, our professor from Karlsruhe? The one with the hair?

SPIEGEL: Peter Sloterdijk.

Baselitz: He wrote the libretto for “Babylon.” My God, is it awful.

SPIEGEL: Do you also pay attention to what your fellow painters are doing?

Baselitz: I live a secluded life. I live, in a sense, a lonely life. But I do pay very close attention.

SPIEGEL: The art-selling business has gone crazy. The gallerists who sell your works — including Larry Gagosian, the world’s most successful gallerist — must be constantly asking you for more paintings. Is this a dilemma for someone like you, who demands quality and depth?

Baselitz: No. It’s not a dilemma, and why should it be? It’s really an ambition. I want to be part of it, to be young and belong. That has always been what I wanted.

SPIEGEL: But Richter tops the list of the most expensive living artists. Do you like him?

Baselitz: I’m always happy to listen to someone from (the eastern German state of) Saxony. Most Saxony natives are offended when you address them in the Saxon dialect. Gerhard never is.

SPIEGEL: Aha.

Baselitz: Don’t forget that, as an artist, I have been a risk-taker. And I’ve done a lot of different things. I don’t make it easy for people. Identification is difficult. One doesn’t recognize my art right away.

SPIEGEL: Turning motifs upside down, as you do it, is a unique characteristic.

Baselitz: Actually, no one who looks at my paintings can see whether a painting is upside down or not anymore. I’ve made or developed so many image models that some people have given up trying to keep track of me. But others have only one or two ways of doing things and are successful with that.

SPIEGEL: It’s been said that you have painted all-black paintings or even painted over existing paintings with black paint. What is the point of that?

Baselitz: I don’t paint over my paintings with black paint. I paint black paintings. It isn’t because I’m sad, just as I didn’t paint red paintings yesterday because I was happy. Nor will I paint yellow paintings tomorrow because I’m jealous.

SPIEGEL: There are a lot of lone wolves in your generation. But there’s apparently enough room and money for you, Richter and Anselm Kiefer.

Baselitz: There are surprisingly many lone wolves, and they all run across the finish line as winners. Of course, when we got started, they were saying that panel painting was dead. But then came people like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, as well as Richter, Kiefer and me. When I painted my first painting, still right-side-up, my teacher told me that it was an anachronism. I had to look up the word. Then I said: No, no, I’m an avant-gardist. What I do is quite aggressive and quite mean-spirited.

‘Women Simply Don’t Pass the Test’

SPIEGEL: You started painting in East Germany, but you left early and continued to study in the West. Nowadays, the art market largely ignores the artistic legacy of East Germany, including the painters who received all the attention and promotion, the ones you referred to as “assholes” after German reunification. Is it delayed justice?Baselitz: As always, the market is right.

SPIEGEL: Always? The market only embraces a few women. There are hardly any women among the most expensive artists.

Baselitz: Oh God! Women simply don’t pass the test.

SPIEGEL: What test?

Baselitz: The market test, the value test.

SPIEGEL: What’s that supposed to mean?

Baselitz: Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. There are, of course, exceptions. Agnes Martin or, from the past, Paula Modersohn-Becker. I feel happy whenever I see one of her paintings. But she is no Picasso, no Modigliani and no Gauguin.

SPIEGEL: So women supposedly don’t paint very well.

Baselitz: Not supposedly. And that despite the fact that they still constitute the majority of students in the art academies.

SPIEGEL: It probably isn’t a genetic defect.

Baselitz: I think the defect actually lies with male artists. Male artists often border on idiocy, while it’s important for a woman not to be that way, if possible. Women are outstanding in science, just as good as men.

SPIEGEL: Women certainly aren’t as loud and obtrusive when it comes to how they present themselves. With its desire for the sensational, the market isn’t very forgiving of that.

Baselitz: Don’t you know who Marina Abramovic is?

SPIEGEL: She doesn’t paint, but she’s an important performance artist, someone who shows that a woman can come a long way.

Baselitz: She has talent, as do many women. But a painter doesn’t need any of that. In fact, it’s better not to have it.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying it’s better to not be talented?

Baselitz: Yes, much better.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Baselitz: Talent seduces us into interpretation. My sister could draw wonderfully, but she would never have hit upon the idea of becoming a painter. I never had that extreme talent.

SPIEGEL: For centuries, art was a craft, an almost physical labor that was performed by men. Men were also the first art historians. Everything was male, and it’s simply stayed that way.

Baselitz: That has little to do with history. As I said, there are certainly some female artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Cecily Brown and Rosemarie Trockel.

SPIEGEL: The latter is German, and she currently has a big show in New York. She is also well-regarded worldwide.

Baselitz: There’s a lot of love in her art, a lot of sympathy.

SPIEGEL: That doesn’t sound like praise. So what does she lack, and what does Modersohn-Becker lack, to make you not rank the two of them among the great artists?

Baselitz: Let me qualify that. There is, of course, quite a lot of brutality in art. Not brutality against others, but brutality against the thing itself, against what already exists. When Modersohn-Becker painted herself, she looked very unpleasant, and extremely ugly…

SPIEGEL: …and nude, at a time, around 1900, when it was completely taboo for women to portray themselves in that way.

Baselitz: Exactly. But she hesitated to destroy others, in other words, to really destroy Gauguin by going beyond his art. Men have no problem with that. They just do it. But you must know that I do love women.

SPIEGEL: Of course.

Baselitz: Yes, I’m constantly in love — with my own wife.

SPIEGEL: Does Jeff Koons — another expensive contemporary artist — have the necessary brutality? He supplies the world with sculptures of tulips and hearts.

Baselitz: The most unpleasant works of Jeff Koons that I’ve seen are those fuck paintings with Cicciolina. Just the fact that he made those paintings while at the same time talking about love and fathering a child … I think it’s dreadful.

SPIEGEL: So Koon’s early art did have that brutality you demand.

Baselitz: I don’t demand it. I just know that it has to be that way.

SPIEGEL: So, it has to be that way if you want to be a big artist?

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Published 10/06/2007

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Georg Baselitz

Royal Academy of Arts, London
22 September–9 December 2007

Georg Baselitz is a powerful and rebellious painter who admits to being a painter of ‘bad pictures’. He has refused to fit into mainstream art since bursting onto the art scene in the 1960s, yet he has become universally admired. His overbearing preoccupation is Germany’s ugly wartime legacy. Baselitz is celebrated in a major retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, this autumn. Featuring over 60 paintings together with a significant number of drawings, prints and sculptures, the exhibition offers a comprehensive survey of Baselitz’s most important work. In 1981, Baselitz was included in the seminal exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘A New Spirit of Painting’. This introduced his work to the British public; he is an Honorary Royal Academician.

Baselitz was influenced in his early years by the artistic works and writings of influential artists and theorists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett and the French writer and artist Antonin Artaud. Baselitz later became involved with the work of the mentally ill and other outsider artists. He is a collector of African art and influenced by French and Italian Mannerist painting. Printmaking in the German tradition has also played an important role.

When the Allied Forces bombed Dresden in 1945, the young Georg Baselitz witnessed the horrors. One can be forgiven for having a love/hate relationship with the work of one of Germany’s most uncompromising artists, whose self-advertisement and self-aggrandisement exist in parallel with poignant, albeit extraordinarily ugly, images. Every work in Baselitz’s show refers to war, whether it is the black mood, fractured presence or specific references. Waldemar Januszczak finds it hilarious.

Baselitz is as compelling a painter as he is because the ultimate absurdity of war seems never to escape his attention. Even his most notorious painterly act – the ridiculous policy of painting everything upside down – strikes you as perfectly reasonable when compared with Germany entrusting the nation’s destiny to the Führer.1

He considers that Baselitz tackles the overwhelming problem of being German and being loathed, ‘with a fabulous combination of urgency and insolence’. Known as the artist who turned painting upside down at the end of the sixties, literally, he irritatingly has not put it right since. He appears to work in the eye of the storm freed of the spell of artistic icons, and yet he continues to work in traditional media: painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. He has taken risks to the point of recklessness, yet still chooses still life, portraiture and landscape. His are ‘unequivocal declarations of an attitude’, rather than ‘examples or components of a style’.2

In 1963 at his first solo exhibition in Berlin, two of his paintings were seized by public prosecutors on the grounds of obscenity. In 1969, he began to paint his figures upside down. In 1980, he shared the Nazi-era German pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Anselm Kiefer. The sculpture he showed there was crudely modelled, block-like and primitive in style, and it appeared to be making a fascist salute. It caused an outrage. Although the human figure is central to his oeuvre, he never uses a life model. The twisted, distorted, fractured human forms from the 1960s onwards are as shocking in their perception of humanity as those of his forebear in the northern tradition, Hieronymus Bosch. Baselitz, however, endows his work with elements of the absurd.

Georg Baselitz was born in 1938, the son of a primary teacher, in the small village of Grossbaselitz in Saxony, which later became East Germany. His name was Hans-Georg Kern, which he changed to Georg Baselitz when he left East Berlin in 1957. When he was seven, the town of Dresden just 30 km away was heavily bombed by the Allied Forces. The small school where Baselitz attended was also bombed, in spite of having the Red Cross flag on it. The children experienced the horror, huddled in a bomb shelter. The girl who later became his wife was from Dresden. They claim to have talked about the bombing every day since. The tragedy and horror of the Second World War and the aftermath under a Communist regime have obsessed Baselitz ever since. It forms the core of his experience and his art. David Sylvester describes his career as like no other European painter in that his creativeness has been sustained decade after decade.

The outstanding importance of his role seems to me to reside in two attributes, both of them rare. One of them – rare only in our time – is that his work seems free of any theoretical or polemical foundation or justification. It is a delight to wonder and to behold; it is not a notable stimulus for verbal investigation. The other quality – and here is probably unique – is that he is an artist who uses a harsh Germanic iconography (the hunter, the dog, the woman with a whip, the bird of prey) to produce paintings whose succulent, tactile surfaces seem the prerogative of French paintings.3

The work of Baselitz nonetheless presents images of a world possessed, a dreadful fracturing of human values, the collapse of civilisation itself. He distorts the human form itself and in doing so, creates works that are physically disgusting. The paint itself is applied as excrement, pushed and shoved around the canvas with apparent contempt. The contempt is in Baselitz’s scheme of things, disdain for the world, a comment on human nature itself, a searing comment on war and the state of the world: whether it be Vietnam or Iraq, nothing has changed.

What Baselitz could not escape was Germany and being German. Januszczak continues:

Baselitz’s Heroes are said to evoke Germany’s battered spirit in the post-war years. Their shirts are ripped. Their flies are open. Their bits are dangling. It has also been suggested that these are self-portraits, particularly the image of a one-legged soldier holding a palette and brush that is actually called Blocked Painter. But what I like most about these clumsy losers is their air of comic meladrama… If Baselitz is looking back on his pitiful national inheritance, then he is doing so with an explosive mixture of sadness and scorn.4

Thrown out of his first art school in East Berlin in 1956 on the grounds of ‘political immaturity’, Baselitz moved to West Berlin prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. There he saw ‘The New American Painting’, which had a profound impact. In fact, he still refers to the experience of first seeing Phillip Guston and Jackson Pollock. Baselitz instinctively understood the observation made by de Kooning of Pollock, that Pollock had broken the ice. Pollock indeed shattered pictorial space. Guston was represented in ‘The New American Painting’, by works from the mid and late 1950s. They were neither abstract nor figurative, they were elusive and the discernable images fluctuated in focus and dissolution. In this Baselitz was greatly affected. He eventually rejected abstraction as such, but like many American artists was influenced by jazz music, the disruption of underlying rhythm, the dislocation of melody. Baselitz’s work has an affinity with jazz in the sense that many harmonies, sidetracks and levels of meaning all contribute to an art that can be experienced on different levels. Baselitz’s paintings of the late 1950s share much in their structure and woven surfaces, their energy, with Guston and de Kooning especially. He was not impressed nor taken in by the iconic simplicity of Pop Art and he rejected both the Social Realism of the Communist regime in East Germany and the universal purity of abstraction. In doing so, Baselitz became an outsider on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He had an irreverent sense of humour, and was more interested in the art of the insane than of modernist Europeans. He was drawn to the grotesque works of Grünewald’s ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’, Chaim Soutine’s fleshy distortions and Gericault’s studies of hands and feet. Baselitz also depicted feet – ugly, distorted images; he described his position at the time as ‘anti-classical’.

The Northern tradition of the ugly and grotesque drew Baselitz naturally. His first exhibition was described as ‘obscene’, ‘pornographic’, ‘revolting’. The titles themselves were provocative: ‘Sex with Dumplings’ (1963) where paint and bodily fluids were shown as interconnected. The painting ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’ shows the artist masturbating in an isolated dark space. The male ego is exposed by Baselitz as a pathetic, solipsistic performance, in which he masquerades as painting itself, the very medium that through history has been perfected to emulate human beauty and perfection. Norman Rosenthal, who organised the Baselitz exhibition, says that:

Exposure of the body and its more embarrassing functions has never been a problem for Baselitz, and this highly charged self-portrait about masturbation has a sense of tragic inevitability. The artist was not making a scandal for its own sake, but, rather, confronting postwar Germany – which he had found too ready to hide behind bland abstraction, too keen to avoid societal and psychological issues – with his own reality.5

Baselitz uses oil paint as if it were shit, and it did not do him much good in the process. Melancholia and illness characterised his personal experience.

Baselitz made images of the hero/soldier which inevitably created loathing in many viewers.

While it is not hard to see these images as referring to Germany’s desperate condition following the war – hulking single figures rise over their defunct landscapes like survivors of a great cataclysm – they could also be seen as surrogate self-portraits, reflecting Baselitz’s self-mocking ambition to reenergize German painting. These heroes, who carry palettes, a symbol of creative freedom and forward-looking energy, find their hands immobilised in animal traps. The ruined landscape could speak of war or the aesthetic debris left in the wake of the stylist onslaught of second – and third-generation abstraction. The Hero paintings posit the contention that if the twentieth century began with elimination of the figure through abstraction, it would end with the re-emergence, but that re-emergence would require anti-heroes who follow unpredictable paths.6

Baselitz’s hulking great figures have massive bodies, small heads and large hands. Michael Auping states that, ‘Baselitz’s further contortion of these characteristics creates an artist protagonist that is as deranged and bold as he is voluptuously pathetic. Contructed from rich accumulations of thick brushstrokes, he presents a tragic-comic Beckett-like character waiting for the painter’s next move’.7

The ‘Fracture’ paintings of the late 1960s reveal Baselitz’s keen interest in forests and trees and the motifs and imagery that have historically been associated with them. In fact, Baselitz considered a career in forestry and had applied to the state forestry school in Taranth. Rural landscapes peoples with woodsmen and hunters are depicted with an earth palette. They are part fantasy and part appropriation; they are divided into segments so that the imagery can be reorganised pictorially. Dividing the picture plane into segments conveyed the fracturing of Germany by the war. Pre-war and post-war Germany and East Germany and West Germany represented the divided national psyche. Fracture paintings represent the violent ruptures and break from historical continuity; they reveal the distress and destruction of Germany’s history. The next move was to turn the image on its head. The first completely inverted picture was ‘Wermsdorf Wood’, based on a painting by the von Rayski work of 1859. The loosely rendered image of the wood was seized on by critics as having political connotations – upside-down trees were seen to represent a country that had been culturally uprooted. The Nazi ban on ‘degenerate’ modernist art indeed created a rupture in German art history, in Baselitz’s words ‘a severing of memory’ from a figurative tradition. What followed was dislocating, ‘It was like one day waking up and abstraction had become the authority’.8 Inversion enabled Baselitz to bridge the gulf between the figurative tradition, stopped in its tracks by the Nazis and abstraction that came to dominate art by the 1950s. Baselitz describes his method:

The object expresses nothing at all. Painting is not a means to an end. On the contrary, painting is autonomous. And I said to myself: if this is the case, then I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait, and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content.

The hierarchy which has located the sky at the top and the earth at the bottom is, in any case, only a convention. We have got used to it, but we don’t have to believe in it. The only thing that interests me is the question of how I can carry on painting pictures.9

Portraiture is central to Baselitz’s oeuvre; he has been making portraits of family and friends since the late 1960s. Elke, his wife of thirty years, is often the subject; she claims this is largely due to her availability and the fact that they have always lived very closely. On one hand then, there is the pictorial calculation required to construct and execute an inverted portrait, and then there is the inevitable emotional content, as a consequence of the long-term close relationship, of sitter and artist. Conflicted feelings seem to characterise the majority of Baselitz’s work – nothing is as straightforward as the artist’s comments about them. Auping observes:

His portraits are about the fact that experience itself is not a pure process, revealing a narrative of distinct and logical episodes. The picture may be upside down, and references to the visible world may or may not be present in a specific picture, but that does not make such a picture any more or less faithful to its subject. There are moments in life when feelings exceed perceptions, when the world inside takes precedence over the world outside; every moment in every life is a confrontation, a meeting of inner and outer, an encounter between self and the thing observed or felt. What makes Baselitz’s inverted imagery so intriguing is the way in which it resists simplification and has the weird naturalness and ungraspability of experience itself.10

Baselitz’s portraits one at a time are disconcerting; en masse they assume a different level of existence. They are powerful and remarkable. The issue of portraiture in the post-photographic world was given profound impetus by Picasso almost 100 years ago. Any portrait since Picasso inevitably addresses the psychology of the sitter and the relationship between artist and sitter. It is important to be aware that Baselitz does not paint a work, and then turn it upside down. He holds the photograph of his sitter in one hand and paints with the other. If an inverted portrait is put the right way up, they simply do not work. Gerhard Richter understood Baselitz’s method when he observed that, ‘Nonsense has been written about Baselitz: by being turned through 180 degrees, his figures are said to lose their objective nature and become “pure painting”. The opposite is true: there is an added stress on the objectivity, which takes on a new substance’.11

Arguably, the most remarkable of Baselitz’s portraits are those of Elke in linocut. Baselitz found the traditionally low status of linocut attractive, as had Picasso and Matisse. The energy that can be achieved in linocuts is achieved by its direct and uncompromising method. The actual cutting and scooping of the lines, and the clear contrasts achieved when it has been inked and printed is both exciting and satisfying. So too are the methods of execution of Baselitz’s sculptures, which he began to make in the 1970s. His preferred carving tool is the chainsaw – primitive, energetic and roughly hewn. David Sylvester observes that unlike Baselitz’s paintings, his sculpture was always wholly Teutonic. ‘They are magnificent frames, rough-cast yet subtle, energetic, robust and moody. He has used these weighty, brooding forms to contain and offset some of the most tenuous and fragile looking canvases he has ever painted, creating a perfect integration of sculpture and painting, the coarse and the delicate, the massive and the vulnerable.’12

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Baselitz increased the scale of his work, making his imagery bolder. Although numerous of Baselitz’s images are overwhelmingly egotistical and male, he produced a remarkable image of Elke in 1994, ‘No Birds (Picture Twenty-Eight)’, in which she dwarfs the surrounding landscape, indeed becomes the landscape itself. Painted with hands rather than brushes, the figure is sculpted in paint; the figure is mother earth, a matriarch, an earth figure who floats across the vast canvas (290 x 450 cm). Flowers that have a myriad of associations are introduced by Baselitz as a kitsch wallpaper, a folk art addition to an already valid image. Teetering between the acceptable and artistic suicide, Baselitz teases his viewers, as only a self-styled loner-cum-self-publicist would. Baselitz is maddening in his audacity as an artist and as an individual. He is incredibly difficult to explain, and while there is very great support for his work in Germany and internationally, he has not inspired an actual following. He is a loner in all respects. In the 1990s his work became more accessible, with the introduction of more lyrical drawn lines in paint, with decorative elements of flowers, and a richer palette. The individuals look more plausible, less mythological, friendlier and more ethereal too. Baselitz is many things at any given time in his career.

Drawing is central to the painting of Baselitz and in certain respects his vast sculptures too. The linocuts especially show the powerful immediacy of the drawn line, and many paintings, especially recent works, resemble amplified versions of small works on paper. Baselitz describes drawing as encouraging an exceptionally ‘… fluid type of space … [where] you can break any kind of order or convention, quickly and precisely’. Recent works resemble vast pen and ink drawings amplified onto canvas.

The curator of this exhibition is Norman Rosenthal, who has long championed the work of Baselitz. It seems a little too apologetic to write the catalogue essay for a major retrospective at the Royal Academy ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, but that in fact was based on the title of the artist’s own manifesto in 1966, ‘Why the Painting “The Great Friends” is a Good Picture!’

Standing within the long tradition of German art, and using time-honoured media, Baselitz has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history, to make them new and fresh in a manner that can only be described as heroic; heroic because his art has consciously gone against the grain of fashion, while always remaining modern. For Baselitz, the artist must be always an outsider, a worker and also, in a certain sense, a prince. Although he is rooted in a German – specifically Saxon – background, Baselitz has succeeded in engaging with art from all around the world. Through both learning and empathy he is able to bring to life traditions quite alien to his experience. He can be read as a highly conservative figure within modern art, but this makes him no less radical, even provocative.13

The Royal Academy exhibition of Georg Baselitz is a most successful one in terms of the hang, wall text and scholarship. The most dramatic galleries are where the ‘45 series’ and ‘Women of Dresden’ were displayed. The ‘45 series’ is a sequence of twenty paintings on wooden panels of equal dimensions. They are powerful images en masse, all produced over a four-month period. The physical feat is most impressive: the wooden panels are incised like wood engraving blocks, or etching plates, but the scale involves an aggressive and rebellious act. Oil and tempera have been applied to the surface, which is then chiselled, in a dynamic manner, not unlike the way Baselitz sculpts with a chainsaw. The geometric carving of the wooden panels reveals the raw untreated wood beneath the paint. The wood is lacerated, like torn flesh; further images are applied in a crude series of splodges, which allude to images of women. The series was made in 1989 to mark the 45th anniversary of the end of the war. As a series, they reveal Baselitz’s aesthetic concerns that were abandoned in many works. ‘Women of Dresden’ (most of the men were at the front when the city was bombed) is a homage to the suffering of women and children in the war, but without any of the profound compassion of Kathe Kollwitz. The crude sculptures resonate with references – from the Expressionist work of the Die Brücke, to the German tradition of wood engraving. They are layered with references to history and art history; they are angry but not moving. Rosenthal has succeeded in presenting a tough body of work, inexplicable in the first instance, in a convincing and enlightened manner.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1 Waldemar Januszczak. Turning the art world on its head. The Sunday Times 23 September 2007. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/ tol/arts_and_entertainment/ visual_arts/article2499962.ece (last accessed 3 october 2007)

2 Andreas Franzke. Georg Baselitz. Munich: Prestel, 1989: 7.

3 David Sylvester. Paintings in Carvings. In: Georg Baselitz: outside. London: Gagosian Gallery 2000: 13.

4 Januszczak. Op cit: 18.

5 Norman Rosenthal. Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter. In: Georg Baselitz. London: Royal Academy, 2007: 3.

6 Michael Auping. Detlev Gretenkort (ed). Georg Baselitz: Paintings, 1962–2001. Milan: Alberico Cetti Serbelloni Editore, 2002: 16–18.

7 Ibid: 18.

8 Ibid: 20.

9 Ibid: 20.

10 Ibid: 22.

11 Ibid: 22.

12 Sylvester, op cit: 13.

13 Rosenthal, op cit: 1.

Baselitz: Who wants to be a small artist?

SPIEGEL: You simply wanted to be different from others yourself.

Baselitz: I was always on the outside. It was the worst when I still wanted to be a professor, having to deal with colleagues and students, and having to listen to all that academic nonsense. It’s really just a haze that keeps them busy. But all of that is fortunately over now, once and for all. Everything ended happily.

SPIEGEL: Wait! Georg Baselitz is happy?

Baselitz: Absolutely! Completely! It’s fantastic! I can even be happy about my own paintings.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knoefel; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

===

Georg Baselitz

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen



T his spring Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac hosted the opening of the exhibition of the new works by Georg Baselitz. The show includes a series of Baselitz new monumental sculptures, paintings and a number of works on paper.
Mart Engelen: When you started as a young artist,
do you remember the first thing that inspired you?
Georg Baselitz: My first inspiration was not as a
professional, because I was very young. I remember
that I saw an artist painting an oak tree in the countryside.
He was an unknown artist and the oak tree
looked so explosive! It was painted in the method
of ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’. I was only 13 or 14 and
thought: “What is this?”
ME: When you later entered the Academy of Art,
what did you specifically like?
GB: At the time in Germany it was a total different
situation than for instance in Amsterdam or Paris.
Just after the Second World War it was very difficult
for us. Germany was destroyed. There was no
hierarchy. There were no people you could believe
in, everything had been taken away also education
wise. I did not know who Kirchner was or Paul
Klee. I didn’t know anything. All of that changed in
1958. When I was twenty there was for the first time
at the Art Academy a big exhibition about American
Expressionism with Jackson Pollock and many
more contemporary artists.
It was so impressive, wonderful, but also astonishing
that you did not have a chance as a young artist
to create modern art. Because, for instance, De
Kooning was more understandable for the Europeans
than Pollock also Sam Francis. I thought: “this
is so great and surprising!”
I had a total different idea about America , so I said
to myself: “you have to do something totally different.
You cannot follow this. It was another time, another
world, another quality.” And then we heard
that there was an important museum in Amsterdam,
an important director and we heard about the COBRA
group.
So, many hitchhiked to Amsterdam. The first trip
I made together with my wife was to Amsterdam.
That was in 1958 or 1959 and we stayed in a little
hotel in the Red Light District for 5 Dutch guilders
a day. Separate. So we visited the Stedelijk Museum
but did not know anything about modernity,
Bauhaus and so on. I saw for the first time work of
Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Malevich. For us
German artists Holland was actually the beginning
of our German career. Many of my colleagues had
exhibitions in the beginning of their careers at the
Stedelijk Museum of Eindhoven. After that followed
Amsterdam, France and the United States.
The Stedelijk Museum in Eindhoven had at that
time a very active director named Rudi Fuchs.
ME: What does Art mean to you these days?
GB: Well, it has changed a lot. Before, Art was determined
by certain doctrines, also styles. To give you
an example. When I started out, they said: “The image
of a table (“tafelbild”) is dead. You cannot paint
that anymore”. Then we have had the photographers,
after that the conceptualists, minimalists and
so on. Now nobody talks about that anymore. For
me, who always believed in this métier, I must say it
is an interesting development. Now you have a much
bigger audience. In the old days people were not interested
in Art. It was a small elite who were interested
in Art and who visited exhibitions. The group
who bought Art was even smaller. Nowadays there
is a big interest. You have many visitors of contemporary
Art shows. There are many collectors. It has
totally changed. By the way, the name of the Hotel in
Amsterdam was Elen.
ME: Never heard of it.
ME: You once said: “you cannot deny your origins”.
When we look at young artists today, I am tempted
to say that they are loosing their origins because of
globalization. What do you think about that?
GB: I don’t know, I cannot judge that. They always
ask me why are German artists so interesting? Well,
they all shared the same history: the Second World
War. And many were born in the DDR and lived
there. They also shared the feeling of being despised
by the whole world. That altogether appears to be a
good base to create Art.
We cannot say this of today’s new generation artists.
But some things will never change. Today we still
have German Art, American Art, Dutch Art. Even
when a German artist today will make pop-art, people
will see that it is made by a German, just like people
will recognize work that is made by an Italian or
a French artist.
ME: So there is still origin?
GB: Yes. I don’t know what it exactly is but I assume
a combination of roots and tradition.
ME: Your generation artists could find provocation
and inspiration through the Second World War.
How do today’s artists inspire themselves?
GB: I think they orientate in Art towards Art. When
you are an artist you have an incredible ambition.
What you believe is right, you have to pursue it. This
process is connected all the time with a lot of discipline
and aggression. They have to defend their Art,
so you have to be a provocateur. Otherwise it does
not work.
ME: When you want to become a great artist should
you then also play the role of ‘the great artist’?
GB: There are many ways. You can say the artist is
ill, that’s why he produces only one artwork a year.
Or, this artist is so introverted and precise he can only
produce one work a year. They say a lot of things
about artists just to manipulate the market and it is
seems all legitimate, but it is wrong of course. You
know there is a book about Rembrandt that explains
to us the entrepreneur Rembrandt. He totally manipulated
his own market. And today this happens
even more so.
ME: How can artists become good artists?
GB: First of all they need of course passion. They
have to own a sensitivity towards images more than
normal people. They have to suppress the feeling that
they just can
“do it like that”, because Art has nothing to do with
interpretation. With music, when you are talented,
you can play wonderfully a part of Chopin without
losing yourself.
In art that is impossible. You cannot paint like de
Kooning then you are not an artist. You are an interpreter.
We don’t need this in Art. That’s why a lot of
Art, what we see these days, is so diffuse. And you
think: “Why?”
ME: Do you collect Art yourself?
GB: Yes, I collect Art between 1500 and 1600. Specially
Parmigianino and his contemporaries. Apart
from that I also collect African Art, especially from
Congo.

 

Articles on Joseph Beuys

===

 

Joseph Beuys on the cover of Der Spiegel 5 November 1979
Joseph Beuys, on the cover of Der Spiegel, 5 November 1979

Joseph Beuys is considered by some as the most important of the post-war period – a sculptor, performance artist, teacher and political activist who shifted the emphasis away from the artist as ‘object maker’ to focus on his opinions, his personality and his actions. To others he was a conman and a showman. Francesco Bonami explores how contemporary artists have both borrowed from and developed his approach

Mechanical failures have often inadvertently shaped art history. Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956 and Pino Pascali’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1968 immortalised the two artists. When Joseph Beuys’s Stuka plane crashed in the Crimea in 1944, he survived. A group of nomadic Tartars found him and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm. It was a story that not only defined the source of his artistic materials, but also one that became an integral and enduring part of Beuys’s legend.

However, the creation of a personal mythology is not without its dangers. One of the most melancholic images in the history of modern art is the Joseph Beuys two-part multiple Enterprise 1973. The right-hand section is a photograph set in a metal box that shows the artist and his three children at home watching an episode of Star Trek on TV. The room is bare: they could be in any nondescript American motel. Despite that, they look relaxed and comfortable – except Beuys, who sits uneasily behind them, his gaze not fixed on the TV, his thoughts elsewhere, perhaps ruminating on how the future would judge his own contribution to the world.

Even after his death in 1986, at the age of 64, Beuys remains an influential and complicated figure. He used the framework of artistic practice to build a style that mixed politics, anthropology and Celtic and Christian mythology, through which he presented a loose philosophy manifested in his many installations, performances, lectures and sculptures. As a result, by the end of his career he emerged as an activist, a ‘social sculptor’ intent on sociopolitical reform.

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

© Tate 2005

His methods were never conventional. The most poignant example of this was his work as a political activist. He was involved in establishing the German Student Party in 1967 and later, with Joschka Fisher, the Green Party. Both groups were very active and highly visible, and in line with this Beuys felt the need to construct a powerful aesthetic around his actions and his performances, so that they would be remembered – a sensibility that he wanted people to regard as almost spiritual in nature. He believed he could single-handedly change the world, as well as influence the entire future of art.

Over the decades, Beuys’s ‘religion’ and his political goals never had the impact he would have wished. But his approach to art did have an effect. Breaking the boundaries of artistic practice, he allowed a more fluid definition of what an artist was and what an artist did. Today, a wide number of artists, working in a variety of ways, have inherited – if that is possible – aspects of the Beuys sensibility, though in each case for very different ends.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work often has a social agenda with a political undertone. His 2002 Bataille Monument at documenta 11, the international exhibition in Kassel, saw residents of a German suburb build, install and invigilate a series of eight makeshift shacks, including a library with a topography of Bataille’s work, a television studio and a snack bar. Like many of his team-based projects, the emphasis was on social investigation, leading an audience beyond that of the gallery-attending public to find out about art for themselves, using Hirschhorn’s ideas as a framework. He has said that his approach to the political within his work is ‘a tool by which to experience the time in which I am living’. There are echoes of his predecessor’s practice, but Beuys favoured the tactics of loud, visible campaigning and protestation, hoping to attract a type of following normally enjoyed by influential political leaders. Hirschhorn’s preferred modus operandi is explicitly as an artist: rather than promote himself, he promotes the work. As he said recently: ‘I am an artist, not a social worker.’

While Hirschhorn’s stance works as a form of social participation, Maurizio Cattelan upturns the Beuys myth of the artist shaman and plays games with his legacy. The clearest example is Cattelan’s sculpture La rivoluzione siamo (We Are the Revolution) of 2000, in which a cast of himself, wearing a shrunken grey, felt suit, hangs from a coat hanger. It is a simple and witty reference to one of Beuys’s iconic works – Felt Suit 1970. Cattelan’s suit sad-looking figure suggests, somewhat contentiously, that Beuys has become a footnote in art history.

Beuys’s ambition to play a larger role in society is seen by Cattelan, and many of his colleagues, as delusional. As director and screenplay writer David Mamet suggested, art cannot really change the world, but it can prompt you to think about the world from a different angle, which, once you step out of the fiction of art, may help to make some changes in your life and eventually to the world. That’s a view today’s artists seem to share, which is perhaps why Beuys appears more as a conservative character than an innovative one: a born-again artist, we could say; someone who trusts only his own strong interpretation of his faith and his language, and holds on to the notion that his art could and would directly change the world.

Cattelan has made a career out of lampooning the behaviour of the art world, and his work thrives on account of his humour – in this case, at the expense of Beuys. In contrast, Beuys was a serious artist, who took himself very seriously, and whose work (unlike that of his contemporary Marcel Broodthaers) certainly lacked a sense of humour. He concentrated, perhaps too much, on spreading his word and on his Salvation Army-like strategy within an art world that in the 1970s was crippled by political schizophrenia. And his relentless self-promotion and determined politicisation of his words and actions became inseparable. For Beuys, the politics surrounding his work were much more clearly designated and driven by the difficulties inherent in post-war Germany.

When Beuys was alive, there was a belief that people could change things. He believed, somewhat paradoxically, in the idea that ‘everybody is an artist’, while his art was a one-man show. Succeeding generations have been very careful to clarify their positions as artists. For example, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gabriel Orozco (both of whom have borrowed his focus on the active involvement of the viewer) are very clear in their minds that their role in society is one of an artist not political activist.

Beuys knew that he was an artist (and in some ways a very conventional one), who used his materials in a very classical way. Yet he understood, ahead of time, that the political storm and social transformation that arrived with the 1960s student revolutions would not have allowed him to play the artist any longer. As a member of an elite – the art world – Beuys did not see any possible survival in a political mood that was going to crush any kind of elite, be it economic, political, or religious. In a proactive move, he transformed himself into something else: a creative conman, a visual preacher, a political candidate – whatever was necessary to cross that moment in history and to emerge with a charismatic aura. And he succeeded by disguising himself as a man of economics. Under his new persona he tried to theorise an economic system by which to regulate the world through art. He knew it was not possible, but in the 1970s, an age delusionally attempting to subvert the economic rules of the Western game, he understood that he could utilise his gimmicks to perform an ambiguous role within his own defined community.

It is questionable whether any artist today could try the same approach – particularly the political preaching – without being ridiculed. And his physical appearance – the trademark hat, the fishing waistcoat – now looks like part of a strategy that belongs in the past. Integrating with the rest of society is now a better way for artists to infiltrate the communication channels, open up a dialogue and define their identity through the specificity of their artistic language.

The Polish artist Pawel Althamer, who we could name as a Beuys of the twenty-first century, has diluted the heroic and epic mood of Beuys’s days. A sculptor, performance and action artist and creator of installations and video art, he reflects upon the role and place of art, in particular in large cities. Himself a resident of a vast housing block in the Bródno district of Warsaw, he observed, collected and documented examples of the spontaneous artistic activities of his neighbours. He has also organised projects in co-operation with them, including the action Bródno 2000, during which the people living at 13 Krasnobrodzka Street created a vast ‘2000’ sign by turning on lights in specific windows. If Beuys’s ambition was to move through the darkness of life with a full-blown torch, today’s artists, such as Althamer, seem to be more interested in looking into the simple, but mysterious corners of daily life with the help of just a light bulb.

Pawel Althamer, The Dancers 1997 Video still

Pawel Althamer,
The Dancers 1997
Video still

© Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Beuys’s spectacular myth-making addressed a powerfully charged historical moment. He showed great contempt towards post-war Germany’s concentration on monetary recovery by adopting an artistic language of signs and symbols, characterised by his deliberate use of earthy, organic materials, including fat, felt, coal, olive oil and blood. He used these with precision to give grave symbolic meaning to his many vitrine installations and actions – and to provide his art with an enduring and immediately recognisable signature for which he would be remembered.

If there is one artist today who embraces Beuys’s love of myth and symbols, then it is Matthew Barney. In his cycle of films, the Cremaster series, he creates a parallel world of signs and actions, with a myriad of seemingly unconnected events taking place in strange, architecturally spectacular and surreal environments. As with Beuys, there is a strong focus on the physicality of the materials, often unspecified – such as the seeping white liquid mess (perhaps a descendent of Beuys’s fat?) that one of the protagonists finds himself stuck in. But Barney’s personal mythology is so opaque that we are not given any clues as to where he is going with his imagery. While Beuys deliberately ensured his art had the aura of a shrine, Barney uses the moving image to keep his work away from any semblance of reality.

The public role that Beuys played in his life seems less effective as a way of working in the twenty-first century. He liked the action and the polemics. He liked gigantic projects. His 7000 Oaks in 1982 at documenta 7, for example, took five years to complete, and saw him planning and implementing the planting of 7,000 trees, each paired with a columnar basalt stone throughout the city of Kassel. He intended this to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to extend across the world, as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change.

Francis Alys When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 Video still

Francis Alýs
When Faith Moves Mountains 2002
Video still

© Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchman, Zurich

Many of today’s artists seem more tame, if no less convinced that their role in society is as seminal and pivotal as that of their predecessor. They are more likely to respond with a symphony of whispers, a concert of hushed proclamations. Francis Alÿs’s Peruvian project When Faith Moves Mountains 2002, in which 500 people supplied with shovels moved a 1,600ft long sand dune four inches from its original position, was the kind of work, however grand in scale, that didn’t necessarily demand that anyone actually witness it.

Beuys’s sense of the physical belongs more to a modern sensibility than to a contemporary one. He is maybe the last member of a Brancusian family tree, rather than the first in a contemporary art lineage. The energy he talked about was that burned by the body in order to survive the effort of living. The Italian student movement of the time called for the harnessing of the power of the imagination, but that was never really an option for Beuys. Now artists such as Carsten Höller, Olafur Eliasson, Suchan Kinoshita or Koo Jeong-a have learned they cannot rely on the physical experience of our reality, and have chosen to search for the alternative energy of the mind, soul and feelings; to activate the power of our imagination to survive and succeed, maybe not in the Caucasian tundra, but more safely and peacefully in our no less uncertain times.

The Fat is on the Table
Maurizio Cattelan on Joseph Beuys

beuys is dead
beuys is also uniting love and knowledge
beuys is more present in a desert freak
beuys is sponsored by museum für moderne kunst
beuys is appointed professor of sculpture at the düsseldorf academy of art
beuys extends ulysses by two chapters at the request of james joyce
beuys is surely not a sartre follower, but of course there are many parallels
beuys is mentioned next to steiner
beuys is back in town
beuys is back in belgium, in berlin, US, active in germany
beuys is the contemporary artist responsible for the popular notion that politics is an aesthetic activity that anyone can engage in
beuys is inspired by steiner
beuys is not so reactionary as to deny the existence of the entire art history repertoire
beuys is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential post-war german artists
beuys is the identification with everything from mythological figures and historical personages to writers and artists
beuys is a mythical figure in the art world, however
beuys is particularly significant in the light of his introspective research on the possible reunification of human and natural life
beuys is in the creation of the social sculpture
beuys is either loved or hated
beuys is considered one of the most
beuys is widely regarded as one of the most important german artists since world war II
beuys is demanding sun instead of rain/reagan
beuys is more like an evangelist
beuys is famous for an extraordinary body of drawings
beuys is such an obvious candidate; he started making art following a breakdown that was a result of his experiences in world war II
beuys is represented in depth in dia’s permanent collection
beuys is
beuys is among the most famous of today’s artists
beuys is one of the most famous performance artists
beuys is valid because wolfgang laib shares his belief in the transcendent power of art
beuys is another sculptor that
beuys is one of the major figures in post-war german art
beuys is known for his shamanistic artist’s persona
beuys is among the world’s most comprehensive
beuys is in these digital photographs represented not by him directly
beuys is a real people’s artist understood by a professor
beuys is megjelent a kövek mellett és hamarosan heves vita bontakozott ki közte és a közönség között
beuys is a 1972 lithograph in which the essential feature is that of beuys as everyman
beuys is elvesztette
beuys is átvett és ami interszubjektiv jellege miatt nem volt
beuys is called to account by his presumptive offspring
beuys is veel materiaal verdwenen
beuys is questioned by the activities of maclennan
beuys is instructive
beuys is very important in mail art
beuys is understandable
beuys is known to
beuys is not completed by his death
beuys is i was never secure and happy in the world of galleries from the very beginning
beuys is and how it is pronounced
beuys is cleverly recontextualised in
beuys is of course enormously interesting
beuys is l’eminence grise of community building as an art form
beuys is interested in the proportions between crystal and amorphous states
beuys is able to evoke the experience of the past
beuys is a magnificent
beuys is based on three stages
beuys is a special case because of the build-up of a curious sense of obligation to respond positively
beuys is the generation of my father
beuys is talking about the much wider concept of creative potential
beuys is regarded as one of the most significant personalities of the past
beuys is steeped in the struggle of world war II
beuys is a big influence right now
beuys is unavoidable
beuys is purely a decorative artist
beuys is hype
beuys is cited as the great collaborator of the twentieth century because
beuys believed everybody was a potential artist
beuys is on e-bay
beuys is a mythical figure in
beuys is one artist i wanted to ask you about
beuys is one of the biggest art world phonies of recent years
beuys is probably unique in the history of art
beuys is supposed
beuys is a very controversial sculptor
beuys is grounded in a tradition of narrative sources that is often absent in american art of the same period
beuys is hardly a household name in the history of twentieth-century art
beuys is the great shaman of twentieth-century art
beuys is represented with his monumental work created shortly before his death, lightning with stag in its glare
beuys is best known for declaring “everyone an artist”; koons seems to declare that everyone is a consumer

Für Joseph Beuys
Tag seines Todes –
Von Rebecca Horn

Als Gegebenheit
die ewige Wunde
sie schützen bedecken sie isolieren
den Tropfenfluß in einem selbstgewählten Pumpsystem bewahren
daraus die Energie gewinnen
sie leiten
die bläulich gewonnene Materie
in einen Kreislauf binden
und ihm in einem gegenläufigen Konzert
zum Tanz des Sternenregens folgen

For Joseph Beuys
The Day of his Death –
By Rebecca Horn

As a fact
the eternal wound
protecting covering isolating
collecting the drip flow in his chosen pump system
extracting the energy out of it
conducting
the bluely extracted matter
connecting into a circulation
following him into a concert in reverse
to the dance of showering stars

Translation: Fiona Elliott with Rebecca Horn

The Spirit of Change
By Keith Tyson

When I first came across Joseph Beuys’s work, I thought it was impenetrable, because I was looking for something specific. But to fetishise his work, to see it as relics, seems like a sin to me, considering that’s not where his primary activity was. He was a polymath, who was interested in everything from language to physical energy systems. He saw the world as one homogeneous soup, one big whole through which we have to navigate the most compassionate route. Ultimately, I think an artist can do no more than that. He had a primitive view of being an artist, in that he was a shaman, a visionary. He was the same person who would walk in and say: ‘We need to build a huge new church in this clearing, so we need to invent a new type of buttress, so we can get a massive spire.’ It is nutters like that who can change society.

The idea that things are both real and symbolic, while part of a wider system, and that all that thought and action has a consequence, is the best form of consciousness to assume. Although I may fumble in my steps, that is what I try to do. I’m trying to look at a wider picture. When people criticise my work, it’s usually because they want to see some beautiful painting or amazing sculpture, but really all my work is a signpost to something else. So I have a lot of time for Beuys in that respect.

He called society a ‘sculptural structure’, one that needs healing from itself. He was trying to cause a change and give a gift back to his fellowman through the action of a lecture or an artwork. I do find some of it problematic though, such as the deep mythology he invented, which becomes more of an adoration of the freakish than being a truly communicative vehicle. Then again, it was necessary because he was trying to tap into something essential. I realise it’s a nebulous idea. Marina Warner got it just right when she was contrasting Warhol and Beuys. She said: ‘While Andy Warhol copied things, saying he wanted to be like a machine, Beuys intervened, communicated his dreams, and wanted to change the world.’ But for some reason the art world seems to have taken the other path, the Pop art Warhol path, just reflecting back culture’s mechanics, and not questioning them, not talking about them, not investing them with any power, choosing instead to act in irony and with cynicism, and using those things to instigate change. But those things don’t produce change; they are just a narcissistic response to culture.

Beuys, on the other hand, no matter how bizarre his methodology, was essentially a positive artist, which is interesting when you remember that, at the time when he was working, people were extremely jaded – what with the Second World War and Vietnam. He didn’t have an optimistic environment in which to act: people looked to the empowerment of the 1960s and the failure of the associated movements, and thought that there was no point.

The notion that he believed his actions and those of any one man could transform the world is a misreading of him. His was not the idea of an individual Übermensch striding out into the landscape. He understood that the activity he was contributing was catalytic. It required everybody to make changes. He offered the possibilities, and tried to do it in the most expansive way. He understood that it had to be an integrated, group effort.

frieze magazine

Issue 101 September 2006 RSS

Class Action

Joseph Beuys set up more educational institutions and political parties than most people know jokes. Was he, as has been claimed, aspiring to be the last Modernist visionary or seeking to undermine the role of authority figures by becoming one himself?

image‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art’, said Beuys in 1969.1 He had a point. Beuys’ persona has arguably come to be perceived as one of the most iconic embodiments of the artist as teacher in postwar art. As a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1960s, in his political activism of the 1970s and in his performances and lectures Beuys incorporated the role of the teacher to great public effect and in various guises, ranging from progressive art instructor to political agitator to self-styled spiritual educator and messianic healer.

One major consequence of the way Beuys foregrounded teaching in his artistic practice was that his work has come to be interpreted predominantly on the basis of the theories that he himself taught. It seems no coincidence, however, that Minimal and Conceptual artists in the US at the same time were also discovering critical writing as a means of preparing the ground for the reception of their work. In fact a certain ‘pedagogical turn’ seems to mark the historical developments of the 1960s as artists, through teaching and writing, increasingly began to integrate theory into their practice as a tool to produce their own discourse and effectively also steer the interpretation of their work.

The nature of these theories is, of course, where the similarity between Beuys and his American contemporaries ends. While the lesson of Minimal and Conceptual art is analytical in essence and implies that art should reflect and change its material conditions, the teachings of Beuys are a syncretic brew of Modernist myths and endorse art as the cure for alienated humanity through the release of its primordial creativity. As a result of this disparity, the generation of American critics then writing for Artforum and later for October succeeded in developing the analytical momentum of Minimal and Conceptual art into a fully fledged contemporary art history, whereas Beuys’ interpreters and disciples never really managed to unravel the murky belief system underpinning his teachings. What makes it so difficult to engage with Beuys today, therefore, is that the work is still wrapped in a thick cocoon of ideology just as his pedagogical practice continues to be overshadowed by the mythical persona of spiritual guide that he later assumed. Yet just as new perspectives on Minimal and Conceptual art have in recent years been opened up through the highlighting of aspects and positions that had previously been sidelined by the canonical self-interpretation of these movements, so it could now be productive to penetrate the Beuysian ideology and perhaps uncover some of the complexity, irreverence and even humour of his artistic and pedagogical work.2

An alternative approach to reading Beuys as the ultimate authority when it comes to the interpretation of his work could be to look closely at how he dealt with the issue of authority itself in his work and teaching. In effect, I want to argue that Beuys’ historical relevance lies not, as has often been said, in the fact that he was the last to claim the authoritative position of the Modernist visionary (before Pop and Postmodernism rendered such a position obsolete), but that, on the contrary, in his work and teaching he subjected this model of authority to a process of scrutiny and gradual erosion. This is not to suggest that Beuys ever fully crossed that threshold and abandoned the myths of Modernism as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter did – both of whom were students in the Dusseldorf academy in the 1960s while Beuys was teaching there, albeit in a different class. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that Beuys was not only affected by, but played a very active role in, the political and cultural upheavals that the Fluxus and student movements instigated at that time. One of the most pivotal issues at stake in these upheavals, particularly in postwar Germany, was precisely the critique of the old models of authority that had remained in place in everyday life and institutional routines throughout the 1950s despite the official ‘de-Nazification’ of the country. In the light of these struggles Beuys’ performances and approach to pedagogy could indeed be seen as a purposeful if largely intuitive attempt to performatively dismantle the role of artist and teacher as a figure of mythic authority in the process of staging it.

The accounts of Beuys’ students collected in Petra Richter’s study Mit, neben, gegen: Die Schüler von Joseph Beuys (with, next to, against: the students of Joseph Beuys, 2000) confirm that a highly ambivalent attitude to his authority as a professor marked Beuys’ teaching style from the moment he took over the sculpture class at the Dusseldorf academy in 1961. On the one hand his approach was radically anti-authoritarian; he rejected teaching art according to a curriculum (which most of his colleagues still did) and instead helped students to develop their work individually, spending up to ten hours a day in the classroom. On the other hand, his critiques of students’ work are reported to have been (at times) uncompromising and delivered with the full force of his professorial authority. In fact Beuys’ reputation for being both too progressive and too provocative initially led every student bar one, Hede Bühl, to leave the class when he took over. The second student to enter the deserted class was my father, Walter Verwoert. My mother, Elfi Weimar, joined some time later as one of a generation of students that included Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff and Rainer Ruthenbeck. So I am writing from the implicated position of being quite literally a child of the idealist spirit of that moment.

My father remembers many situations in which Beuys’ critique of students’ works was highly confrontational. He told me about the time Beuys physically attacked a well-executed realist ceramic sculpture of a monk, slapping its face flat with a broad knife and then drawing a smiley in the flat clay. On another occasion, when the same student, Bonifatius Stirnberg, had sculpted a Crucifixion scene, Beuys put a wooden board in front of it, hiding everything but the heads of the figures, before explaining that religion was after all about mystery. In the same way my father recollects having learnt about the effects of negative volume through Beuys simply carving a big chunk out of the clay sculpture he had just finished. Yet my father says he found these interventions very liberating and in tune with the spirit of the moment. The rough but precise treatment of material that Beuys taught was the same approach he found inspiring in, for instance, Arman’s Accumulations, glass boxes crammed full of numerous identical everyday objects (shown at that time in the Dusseldorf gallery Schmela) or in the performances staged by Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris at the academy in 1964 (an event financed by Schmela but hosted by the Beuys class). On the whole, my father recounts, the break with the conventions of craft that the materialist aesthetics of Beuys, Nouveau Réalisme and American Minimalism all implied, created an overwhelming sense of, as he puts it, ‘Anything goes. Just go for it.’

However, this sensation of potentiality, my mother tells me, was at times also mixed with an oppressive feeling of turmoil. For instance, she recounts Beuys locking the doors during a performance at the academy by John Cage, thereby granting the students no release from the experience. She describes this physical sense of being locked in a space full of people and forced to undergo an event of an utterly unpredictable nature and duration as the closest she ever came to reliving the nights she spent in a bomb shelter during air raids as a child. Probably the best-known example of actual violence erupting in such a situation is the Fluxus event ‘Festival der neuen Kunst’ at the College of Advanced Technology in Aachen in 1964, when local students were so upset by the onslaught of absurdity unleashed by the performers that they stormed the stage and started a fight. What survived from this clash is the iconic portrait of Beuys with a bloody nose and a commanding stare, one arm raised in a Roman salute and the other stretched out, holding a cruxifix.3 What makes this image so fascinating is that it epitomizes precisely Beuys’ ambivalent relation to authority in this historical moment of change. One the one hand he instigates a provocation that results in chaos; on the other he contains that chaos in a dramatic pose of authority. This pose contains chaos in both senses of the word. It stops the violence through a powerful gesture, yet it also incorporates the clash of forces since Beuys is simultaneously hailing the victor and displaying the martyr in a disturbingly contradictory pose that casts him as both perpetrator and victim.

Beuys indeed had a talent for striking poses that contain chaos. In the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967), for instance, he staged his public persona as a professor in just such an ambivalent manner. During an official matriculation ceremony at the academy he greeted the new students carrying an axe and uttering inarticulate sounds into the microphone for ten minutes. Beuys adepts will tell you that these noises are supposed to symbolize the secret nature of the creative act – namely, the gradual transformation of the formless into the formed. Be that as it may, I believe the local tabloid Express was nearer to the mark when it reported, ‘Professor barks into microphone!’ This is what happened. Beuys intentionally turned his professorial authority into a laughing stock, but in doing so he pushed humour to the point where it becomes painful. By holding an axe he in fact posed as a lictor, the guard of the Roman magistrates, who, as a symbol of authority, carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of sticks – the so-called fasces. This is where the term ‘fascism’ comes from. It has been observed that Beuys never really addressed the Nazi past in his talks and teachings. I would argue, however, that it was precisely on the level of how he both staged and dismantled mythic authority in his performances that he continuously brought it into play.

A compelling example of this is the performance Der Chef / The Chief. Fluxus Gesang (Fluxus Song), put on in the basement of the René Block gallery in Berlin in 1964. As the entrance to the space was blocked, people could only watch the event through the door. Beuys spent eight hours wrapped in a felt blanket, making inarticulate noises into a microphone linked to a PA system. On each side of the blanket lay one dead rabbit. Among other paraphernalia a copper rod wrapped in felt and patches of margarine and fat were installed in the space. At times a tape of a composition by Danish Fluxus musicians Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen would be played. After the working day of eight hours was over, Beuys got up and, as my father recounts, took everyone to Block’s flat to cook the rabbits for dinner.5 With laconic directness the title pinpoints the subject of the performance to be authority. In German Chef means ‘boss’, but in colloquial use the word can also serve as a cheery form of address, just as the Spanish jefe or the American ‘boss’ can just mean ‘dude’. In performing the Chef Beuys surely plays the boss by commanding the attention of the viewer and showing off how heroically he gets a tough job done. But by doing the shitty work of grunting into a blanket for half a day Beuys also plays a dude, the fellow worker you sympathize with, and the dude, the man of the moment you admire for putting on quite a show with only a few crappy props.

Walter Benjamin observed that aura is produced through the simultaneous suggestion of distance and proximity. This is the trick Beuys pulls off here. By at once casting himself as the boss and the fellow sufferer, the hero and the martyr, the invisible figure at the centre of attention, he generates an aura around his authority. The auratic Chef therefore is also the Führer, the Duce, the fascist leader. Beuys taps into the mythic source of authority and mobilizes the energies of fascination that constitute auratic leadership. But in so doing he also exorcizes them by exposing the material workings of the ceremony of their invocation. In the process of the performance the auratic effect of Beuys’ theatrical presence is constantly set against the sheer absurdity of a guy in a blanket making inarticulate sounds for hours. Through these noises and the grungy artefacts littering the space the performance produces an excess of physicality that is similar in its effect to an illusionist destroying the illusion by fiddling around with too many props. Der Chef is not about the triumph of auratic authority; rather, it dramatizes the futile desire to make its magic work. It casts the mythic leader as a tragically comic magician not entirely unlike the one played by Tommy Cooper.

It’s hard to say if this deconstructive drive in Beuys’ actions is the manifestation of a conscious effort or of a more intuitive need to work through the mythic grounds of authority. There clearly is an almost compulsive dynamic in the way Beuys returns to, and in his very own way repeats, the ritual of staging auratic leadership that had put Germany, Italy and Spain under its spell. Looking at ÖÖ-Programm, however, you also cannot deny the humour if not glee with which Beuys publicly pushes the ciphers of authority to the point of absurdity. He seems provocatively to incorporate the crisis of authority to act it out. Yet, it is equally clear that he also remains spellbound by its myth and neither as a teacher nor artist ever entirely abandons it. Allegedly because of this, Fluxus pioneer George Macunias, for instance, broke with Beuys as early as 1964 and tried to exclude him from the Fluxus circuit.4 Likewise, Petra Richter observes that Beuys’ position towards the anarchy that his students began to create with increasing intensity towards the end of the 1960s was also ambivalent. He supported the political agitation of Jörg Immendorff and Chris Reinicke, whose activities with the ‘Lidl-academy’ led to a police intervention and the temporary closure of the Dusseldorf academy in 1969. But apparently he strongly disapproved of actions by students who sought cathartic release through pure destruction.

Still, there can be no doubt that his relation to the institution of the academy remained antagonistic. Tensions came to a head in 1971, when Beuys repudiated the official routine of entrance exams and instead offered the rejected applicants unconditional access to his class for a one-year probationary period. As a consequence he was sacked the following year. The postcard multiple Demokratie ist lustig (Democracy is Fun, 1973) shows a photo of his eviction from the academy. Beuys is leaving the school framed by policemen, wearing an old army coat and a broad, knowing smile on his face, again never at a loss for a good pose. Beuys’ dismissal happened only days after the end of Documenta 5, where he had spent the 100 days of the exhibition talking politics with the visitors in the office of the ‘Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum’ he co-founded in 1971. This organization grew out of two others Beuys had set up previously: the ‘German Student Party’ in 1967 and the ‘Office for Political Public Relations’ in 1970. During the struggles at the academy in 1971 Beuys and writer Heinrich Böll also published a proposal for a long-term project to establish a ‘Free International University’. Finally, in 1979 Beuys was also a founder member of the German Green Party.

Like his artistic cosmology, Beuys’ political theory is largely based on the teachings of the founder of the Anthroposophy movement, Rudolf Steiner. The ideal society is thought to be composed ‘organically’ of three spheres governed semi-autonomously according to their own principles, so that there is liberty in culture, equality in law and solidarity in the economy. Instead of political parties, workers’ councils and direct referendums are to represent the interests of the people. Benjamin Buchloh once gracefully summarized these theories as ‘simple-minded Utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality’.5 Objectively speaking, that’s what they are. And judging Beuys by his own intentions to enter into politics proper, this verdict is probably unavoidable. Even the Greens got weary of his missionary zeal and sidelined him early on. Yet there is something about the hyper-intensity of Beuys’ political commitment that puts it in an entirely different league. Like the excess of physicality in his performances, his passion for politics and education is just too much. In his life Beuys dreamt up as many political and educational institutions as, say, Aleister Crowley inaugurated occult places of worship. In the same way as we are now beginning to uncover some of the more disruptive moments behind the canon of Modernism, I would suggest that we look at Beuys as an unruly Modernist who set up parties and schools the way others invented religions or avant-gardes: out of the spirit of the moment, out of the realization that this is part of what an artist can do, and perhaps also out of a certain exuberant humour.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Insitute in Rotterdam. He has recently published a book Bas Jan Ader – In Search of the Miraculous (Afterall Books/MIT Press 2006).

1 Beuys in conversation with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, no. 4 (1969), p. 44.
2 Among the few books that propose a re-reading are the excellent anthology Gene Ray (ed.): Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy (D.A.P., New York, 2001) and the sceptical study by Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys. Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Reimer, Frankfurt am Main, 1999).
3 The iconic pose is at times referred to as being part of the performance Kukei, akopee – Nein! (1964), although it was more likely simply a spontaneous reaction to the riots.
4 See Joan Rothfuss, ‘Joseph Beuys. Echoes in America’, in Ray, op. cit., pp. 37–53.
5 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Beuys: The Twilight of the Idols’, first published in Artforum in 1980. Here taken from Ray, op. cit., p. 201.

Jan Verwoert

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DW.de

Culture

Joseph Beuys — Artist Who Expanded Art’s Boundaries

Joseph Beuys is considered one of the most important and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century. Always on the cutting edge, Beuys thought artists had a central role to play in society.

A current exhibition provides a photographic record of Beuys’ working life

Those who know Joseph Beuys often think of two things when they hear his name: fat and felt. These were two materials that he often used in his works that were unsettling to some, simply incomprehensible to others.

On the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death, the Kunst Palast museum in Düsseldorf is holding an exhibition called “Joseph Beuys in Action: the Healing Powers of Art.” The exhibit features some 100 from different photographers who shot the artists at different phases of his career. They show Beuys in his different manifestations: teacher, political activist, withdrawn introvert or fighter for environmental causes.

Beuys was also involved in German politics and helped found of Germany’s Green Party. His experiences during World War II led him to become a pacifist and he was active in the pace and anti-nuclear movment.

Born in 1921 in the town of Krefeld, Beuys served in the German air force throughout World War Two. In 1943, his plane was shot down over the frozen Crimea. Those who found him tried to restore his body heat by wrapping him in fat and an insulating layer of felt, which is likely the origin of the recurring materials in his sculptural works.

After the war, he studied sculpture at the state art academy in Düsseldorf, where he taught from 1961 to 1972.

Ritual

During that time, starting in the mid-60s, Beuys worked with the avant-garde art group known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to stage “actions,” where he would perform works in a ritualistic way. One of the best known of these was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe with felt on its sole, another soled with iron. He walked through an art gallery for two hours, explaining the art hanging there to a dead hare that he carried.

Joseph Beuys in 1980

But it was in the 70s and 80s that Beuys was most active on the international stage and his works were displayed around the world, from Vienna’s Biennale to New York’s Guggenheim to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Photographer Bernd Jansen accompanied Beuys in 1970 during his “Friday action, First Class Fried Frishbones,” which presents the bones of a fish displayed in a wall-mounted box as if they were a saintly relic.

“The fish is a sign for Christ,” said Jansen. “Beuys often dealt with Christian themes and this ‘Friday action’ was also a religious act, if you will.”

Beuys’ better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days. In the sculpture Fat Corner, Beuys piled fat into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.

For those who prefer their art to be sofa sized and depict idyllic landscapes or quaint country roads, Beuys’ art generally induced a good deal of head shaking.

New definition of art

But for Beuys, every person was an artist; every action a work of art. His expanded definition of art caused both sensation and fierce debate during his life. For him, works of art were as fleeting as life itself. He didn’t want to create eternal works, but to start people thinking.

Pictures taken during the art work named ‘Action in moor’ in August 1971

Beuys not only mounted fish bones on walls and ceilings, he also put them on a pair of his own jeans. That pair is now owned by Hinrich Murken, a medical historian and collector of Beuys’ works. Murken admits that his passion for Beuys was not always met with understanding.

“When I bought the Beuys jeans in 1971, it wasn’t easy for my immediate circle and my family to get why I brought home a pair of old jeans as art,” he said. “And then a pair that had fish bones on it. But the bones were what make the work really mysterious and puzzling and gave it the aura that it now has.”

Art, science and healing

The connection between art and the natural sciences, between art and medicine was something that Beuys discovered by looking at Leonardo da Vinci. He conducted research into nature and explored the topic of healing in his works like no other artist. Many of his works, drawings, actions and lectures contained motifs and allusions from the worlds of healing and medicine.

“The Temptation of the 20th Century” by Beuys

In his final creative period, the artist devoted much thought to shamanism, which for him was a natural philosophy which invoked a primordial world where all being lived in harmony.

“No other artist has such a variety of references in his work,” said Murken. “Beuys’ work continues to lives from this openness, from the fascinating variety of interpretations that are possible.”

DW recommends

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Hans Dieter Huber
The Artwork as a System and its Aesthetic Experience.
Remarks on the Art of Joseph Beuys

(This article was given as a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, at the University of South Florida, Tampa and at the University of Texas at Austin in September/October 1989)

I

The art of Joseph Beuys in many cases provoked his audience as much as the media. He enraged people wherever he appeared. He was viewed as a madman, a charlatan, or a messiah. The intensity and emotionality of the public discussion about him and his works, which he consciously encouraged and his enormous influence on the arts, contrast strangely with the ignorance of his achievement in German art history. German scholars still have great difficulty comprehending the specific nature of his artistic conception and its aesthetic effectiveness. Beuys himself on the other hand, was always highly critical of the academic system and the lack of involvement on the part of university scholars in social processes and social evolution. (1)

Only in recent years have students and scholars recognized his fundamental influence on the visual arts, despite all the negative reaction. They have begun to reconstruct the historical processes and to discuss his conception of art and its aesthetic and social effects. As scholars we still stand at the beginning of a historical understanding of his art.

In the case of Beuys, it is often difficult to define which parts belong to the artwork and which do not. Traditional concepts such as unity, integrity, harmony, proportion, composition, scale etc. are of little assistance. So we are obliged to develop a new descriptive vocabulary and a new theory of interpretation. His various showcases illustrate the problems involved in identifying the objects and placing them into a significant relation with the other ones. In most cases it is unclear whether the objects are individual or different elements of one larger work. The problem of individuation and identification is central to any attempt to construct a new method of describing and interpreting his work.

II

General Systems Theory is especially suited for the description and analysis of such complex installations by contrast with many concurrent models, because it is able to account for the complexity and interdependence of all phenomena, the intense entanglement of all things, properties and relations internal to the work, as well as its relationship to the environment, including space, time, viewer and society. (2) Systems theory also permits an interdisciplinary and problem-oriented approach. But first it seems necessary to make certain distinctions in order to rule out possible misunderstandings.

Each object in the world and each relationship between objects in the world can be conceived as a system. Which object one conceives as a system and which not, depends only on one´s scientific interests and not on “objective” properties of the world. Contrary to Niklas Luhmann I hold that systems do not exist outside us in an independent reality. Systems are descriptions of the world, and the world is not describable without description. (3) The conceptual logic of Systems Theory employed as a descriptive and explanatory tool has an especially high heuristic value.

A system is generally defined as follows: It consists of elements ( which can be things, objects, components, parts, members) with certain properties. Elements are linked by relations (which can be references, correlations, connections, bonds, linkages, couplings). Despite differences of definition according to scientific discipline the fundamental constituents “elements”, “properties” and “relations” remain the same.

First. The elements of a system can be of any sort of physical entity, atoms, cells, things, individuals, or complete social institutions, and they need not to be homogeneous like the elements of a class. What functions as an element within one system, can be a complex subsystem within another system. So atoms are treated as elements in the chemical system and as complex subsystems in nuclear physics. What is defined as an element within a given system, depends on the choice of the basic units of that system. And this choice depends on the scientific interests at hand. (4)

Second. The only properties of an element taken into consideration are those relevant to the scientific enterprise. Others, non-relevant properties of an element are neglected. These significant properties are disposed into certain functional groups defined by our everyday experience of the same objects in different contexts and situations. The different object properties and employments are stored in our brain by a systematic semantic structure, the so-called semantic field.

Third. The relationships between the elements of a system can also vary in kind and number. They can be one-sided or double-sided, mutually dependent, active or passive, real or ideal, time/space-dependent or independent and they can have a certain history. The relevance or irrelevance of relations among elements of a system again depends on the scientific point of view. From the relations between the elements, we can make inferences about the specific properties which are operative only in these specific relations. This is a very important insight. The properties are established through relations. Only in a certain relation is a certain property of an element active or dominant. Unused, but still existent, properties of an element can be activated through relations. We must keep this in mind in discussing Beuys because the activation of potential properties through a setting-into-relation is one of his main strategies. To bring different elements together in order to activate certain properties of each is a central aesthetic method in his sculptural work.

Fourth. The wholeness of all relations which exist between the elements of a given system makes up the structure of that system. Anatol Rapoport says:

Structure is a description of the interrelations among the components of a system: the arrangement of its parts and the potential influence which they may have upon each other. (5)

Fifth. General Systems Theory has introduced the concept of the environment as an equivalent notion to the concept of the system itself. As far as I know, Systems Theory is the first scientific approach, which is not only concerned with the internal conditions and relations of its objects, but also with the exchange between the system and certain external conditions, which influence the system in parts and as a whole. On the other hand, possible influences of the system on the environment can also be specified and described.

In the art of Joseph Beuys the viewer is at least as important as the sculptural system itself. The concept of the environment of a system allows the interpreter and observer to turn his attention towards important influences and effects. He is enabled to take into account certain influences, which cannot be explained from the internal functions of the system. Taking into account the specific environment, the context or situation in which such a sculptural system operates, prevents us from artificially restricting our investigative focus. All elements or objects within one of Beuys’ sculptural systems at first refer to the beholder, who has to constitute actively the aesthetic meaning during his perceptual participation. The sculptural system together with its viewers forming part of the environmental conditions constitute the field of aesthetic effectiveness.

The works of Beuys are explicitly designed for and concerned with an exchange of energy from the sculptural system into the social environment, first to an individual as a representative member of the human community and then second to the whole community.

III

First, the material elements of an artwork can be substances such as blood, paper, plaster, marble, bronze, metals, glass, fabrics and so on.

Second, because all physical substances or materials are composed, their specific composition yields their specific form. Plaster for instance can be sculpture, architecture or wall decoration, depending on how it is composed. The difference between a wooden plank and a wooden beam is not a difference of material, but a difference of form. It is a syntactic difference. Composed physical materials make up the syntactical elements of an artwork such as form and color. They are complex physical subsystems, which are composed in a specific way. If their internal organisation, their physicality is of no interest,and only the relations to other elements are significant, the syntactical subsystems can be treated as elements.

Third, objects and things make up the semantic elements of an artwork. They are defined by labeling through verbal concepts. If a viewer or interpreter names an object or an element with a linguistic concept, this element functions as an instance of that concept. It exemplifies that concept, if the labeling was correct. The named element can no longer be seen without that linguistic concept. For instance,if I label these two bottles as containers for blood, they are from this point on always seen through this concept. If I alternatively label them as Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist one would always see them through these names and within the semantic field of a certain biblical story. If I describe the pieces of paper as particles of a newspaper, where fragments like “effective increase”,”balance”, “debt”, “decreased” are readable, these elements are seen in the semantic field of economics.

These few examples indicate how our perceptions are influenced by the concepts and labels, we use to describe objects and how it becomes difficult to separate these linguistic labels from our object perception. Through the process of naming every element of an artwork and every part of it becomes a semantic element. This conception allows us to interpret each material, syntactic and semantic element as meaningful, insofar it has been labeled linguistically.

Equipped with these linguistic tools, let us now turn our attention to Beuys and try to describe a relatively small sculptural work. It consists of five elements. Two melting pots for bronze casting are coated with cinnamon red pigment. In the right hand melting pot a plastic tube for blood infusions is arranged together with clamps, connections, a regulator and an infusion bag. A Jacob´s shell with blue copper sulphate is laid inside. It is a strange and hermetic arrangement which does not “speak” to the viewer. At first glance no coherent meaning is extractable from the structure of the system.

The viewer has to work hard in order to constitute the specific interrelations of the objects and to fill in the indeterminacies, which result from the unusual arrangement. The hermetic structure of the system, in respect of its environment, is revealed as an intentional strategy to force the viewer participate actively, to react , to use his imagination to constitute the relatedness of the elements as an aesthetic image.

To constitute the aesthetic meaning of these elements we must first ask for the semantic context in which the single object normally functions. This happens by labeling. Through the cognitive activation of the semantic context of the elements, their history as a history of linguistic use becomes available for epistemic appraisal. The semantic context of the infusion instrument is that of hospital, of life-saving after an severe accident, as an important instrument to support the forces of life. The bloodstream of the human organism is one of the most important systems of life maintenance. The Jacob’s shell normally contarns an animal,a creature of nature. Today it is one of the most endangered animals as the result of environmental pollution, since it needs extremely pure water. The creatures collect toxic substances like heavy metals in their flesh and thereby accumulate their toxicity. Copper sulphate is a very poisonous substance which kills microorganisms such as bacteria and plankton.The shell is already dead, having been killed by the dangerous chemical. The two melting pots stem from the semantic field of industrial production, of smelting of ore and the refining of metal. It belongs to the inorganic sector of the world. But it also has to do with artistic production, for it is a tool for modelling ,for giving amorphous melted substances stable form through casting and cooling down. The red coating gives the melting pot an active power, a force of life, of heart. The right hand melting pot functions as the heart of an organism, the plastic tube as a symbolization of the blood circuit.But the organism is endangered. The shell as the receptive organ is blinded. It has been poisoned by chemical substances. The blood does not circulate anymore, it has coagulated and is also dead. The state of the system is alarming. Hence the title “Alarm II”.

In this process of mentally constituting the semantic interrelations of the elements, their relevant properties become apparent. Step by step the work of art opens itself up to the active viewer. Parallel to the aesthetic constitution of meaning questions arise about the state of environmental polution and the toxic processes of our present social systems. We cannot hold back these thoughts nor exclude them from the aesthetic exerience. On the contrary, this stimulation of thought is the clear intention of the artist, as we shall see later. The artwork functions as a trigger for the shaping of thoughts about our contemporary life and society. This is one of the stated aesthetic strategies of Joseph Beuys.

IV

The beholder’s aesthetic experience can be divided into two stages. First, the constitution of aesthetic meaning through an active process of perceiving and thinking and secondly the processing of the experienced aesthetic meaning. These are two totally different cognitive processes with different epistemic functions.

Let us turn to the first part and ask how aesthetic meaning is constituted. During perception the artwork functions as a trigger for certain cognitive processes. The elements of the sculptural system are transformed into the subjective realms of knowledge and experience of a certain person. Through the process of naming and classifying the art object is set into relation with our own epistemic network of concepts and beliefs. This is the moment when the object begins to affect us. The viewer himself as a complex and dynamic organism is part of the environment of the sculptural system. He is equipped with sensory surfaces, which allow him to extract information from the environment and process this input in the upper regions of his brain. This capacity of the human organism to extract information from his environment,to process it, to store it, to retrieve and recall it, is the ability for mental representation of the world. Human thinking is a complex system for the symbolic representation of information, which functions in a certain medium: its entire biological and physical organism.

When a person comes into contact with a sculptural installation of Joseph Beuys the artwork opens up a dialogue in which the art object and the beholder are equivalent partners in a situation where both function as independent systems which mutually refer to each other. Without this basic interrelation or dialogue no artwork can ever be experienced. For each kind of aesthetic experience this interrelation between viewer and artwork is a necessary condition. Without this there is nothing to observe, describe or interprete.

In consequence we have to differentiate between the art object “itself” and the process of its apprehension, its “concretion”. (6) Each percepted artwork contains many indeterminacies. Not everything is represented that would be necessary for a precise identification of the meaning of internal elements or relations. As beholders we are therefore in a certain state of disinformation in front of the artwork and the intentions of the artist.

Let us take an example.I should like to show you the sculpture “Snowfall” from 1965. Three pine trunks are covered by layers of felt. We cannot perceive how far the pine trunks reach under the felt layers. This is a very simple case of indeterminacy which we tend to fill up, “to concretize” as Roman Ingarden would say, through our own imagination and thinking. A more complex indeterminacy is the relation between the felt layers and the three pine trunks. Why do they lie on the floor horizontally and not stand upright as usual? Why are they covered with layers of felt as if they were sleeping? The trunks are dead and rotten, still they seem to emanate or transmitt energies out of the center of the felt as if the whole were a transmitting station. Surely we can produce answers and we do produce them from our perceptual questions. But, what I intended to show was that this always happens in a subjective, unverifiable way which goes far beyond every verifiable basis of what is actually there. This is the crucial point of the argument.

Each color, each form, each figure, each material, each element, each interrelation can contain numerous loci of indeterminacy. These points signify no weakness of the artistic system. On the contrary they are the cardinal points in the process of unfolding the work’s aesthetic effectiveness. In the process of concretion we tend to overlook these indeterminacies and to fill them in with arbitrary and subjective determinations, which are not at all justified by the artwork itself. At such points we go beyond the given system without being conscious of what we are doing in our imagination.

Subjective concretion is the essential turning point where the artwork is transformed into a mental representation by a subjective being. This is the first part of the perceptual process which I have called “the constitution of aesthetic meaning”. To the second part, “the processing of aesthetic meaning”, we shall turn later.

V

Let us turn back to the work of Beuys. One of his most significant ensembles is “The Capital Space 1970-77”, now permanently installed in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. It is a complex system with different elements, complex interrelations and different histories. The whole is installed more as an open working situation of individual parts than as a closed unit. The viewer until recently was able to walk around the individual parts and to look at them from a close distance. The “Capital Space” is only perceivable step-by-step, in a selective focus.

One rather homogeneous subsystem of elements is formed by the group of blackboards, on which diagrams, sentences, formulae, words and drawings are written with white chalk.They hang from the wall, lie on the floor or lean against the back walls. Another subsystem is defined by its connection to electricity. Two 16 mm projectors are standing with two empty filmspools on a projection shelves. They are plugged into the electrical system by a white cable. Two tape recorders with empty spools and headphones are standing next to them on the floor. They are plugged in to the electrical system by a black cable. A microphone-stand with a microphone is connected to one of the tape recorders. The tape recorders themselves are connected to an amplifier and two loudspeakers. A quite separate subsystem is formed by the zinc bathtub filled with water, white linen and two flashlights attached on the handles. A zinc watering can, a white enameled dish with a piece of soap in it and a towel are placed nearby. Between the microphone-stand and the bathtub lies a tin lid with a heap of gelatine. A ladder with gelatine pieces is standing in the corner of the room. The installation is completed by a piano, a spear and two felt covered wooden laths.

The relationships between these elements prove to be opaque to the viewer, so that an active effort is required to observe the aesthetic connections among those elements and to construe their aesthetic meaning. We are familiar with most of the objects of the installation from our everyday knowledge. It should therefore not be difficult to infer the internal coherence of the different elements.

In this work of art we are confronted with a collection and recollection of different media which all have something to do with the process of creation and of forming. Film for instance can be used as an artistic medium for the representation of actions, of events and of time. The projectors and the screen stand in the installation, as if they are waiting to be switched on and to show what they have to show. They are standing around as a potential, which can be used if necessary. The projecting system stands as as a symbol for visual transformation. It symbolizes the capability of visual storage and visual recollection.

The acoustic system serves for the sound recording for example of the human tongue, for language, singing and other sounds and for the reproduction of the recorded signals by the connected speakers system. In artistic use, it also is a system of representation, a medium for the creation of acoustic forms. The acoustic subsystem is therefore, like the projectors, a potential element and symbolizes the process of information extraction from the environment, the extraction of sound waves and their transformation into electric impulses. It symbolizes its storability and its reproduction. Like the human brain it is a system of transformation, storage and recollection. The written blackboards represent the linguistic medium of information storage and exchange.

The said elements are all different systems of representation, different visual, acoustic, linguistic media. They are able to represent different cross-sections and experiences of the world. In the installation they are presented as possible elements of creation and transformation. Hence the title “Capital”. Capital is a potential (of money), with which something can be achieved, can be designed or formed.

The ladder, the spear, the axe,the watering can, the soap and the dish in its most general meanings are tools for achieving certain results through action. All the objects in the installation are embraced, as we already know, by their semantic context. They are perceived through the semantic properties of their concept. But the semantic context is modified and transformed by the unusual relations in which these objects stand.

The objects are imbued with their own history, of how they have been used and how they can be used., of the process of thinking that went into their form and material. They carry a collective and an individual history of use; the history of how Joseph Beuys used these objects. These two histories, the general more than the individual, always envelop the object, even in this installation. The collective and individual fields of functioning are always more or less present for the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

One part of the elements are relics of an action, others, especially the blackboards on the walls, are the results of lectures and workshops, which Beuys gave on various occasions. Nearly all elements which occupy the floor space of the installation stem from two performances: the first with the title “Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony”, which he performed together with the Danish composer Henning Christiansen at the Edinburgh College of Art, twice a day, from 26-30 August 1970. (7)

In the photographs several elements of the installation are to be seen. in action and in use. The projectors, the tape recorders, the microphone-stand, the axe, the gelatine, the piano, the spear and the felt angle.

The two systems of blackboards, which hang from the wall and which Beuys has added to the installation, result from his discursive activites during the two documenta-exhibitions of 1972 and 1977 at Kassel The drawings, notes and diagrams function as a visualized representation of collective language and thinking processes. Explanations, notations and diagrams can be seen which came into being during discussions, lectures or workshops. They form a close network of related concepts and ideas, which overlap the single blackboard and make up a manifold simultaneity of ideas. They directly lead the beholder into Beuys´ complex theories of social sculpture and of the transformation of creative energy, which is the real human capital, into society. The blackboards altogether form a system of visual ideas and collective thinking processes.which otherwise would have remained at an abstract and nonvisual, verbal level. The system symbolizes the multiplicity and continuity of such a teaching method. They are carriers of thinking energy, which is stored and preserved in visual form. Like the other media, it is a system of representation, storage and recall of collective thought processes. The system of the blackboards generally signifies the work of the collective, whereas the objects and the instruments stand for the work of the individual. Collective sculptural processes as represented by the blackboards are contrasted to the individual creation and human capability, as symbolized by the single objects and tools. The relation between wall and floor is analogeous to the relation between society and individual. (8)

The whole installation therefore can be comprehended as a potential model for the creative transformation of individual human energies into collective social processes for the evolution of the whole social fabric. The installation as a model fulfills a mediating function between the theoretical ideas and concepts of Joseph Beuys and the visual objects, which can be observed by the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

VI

The model functions as a transmitter of concepts about the creative transformation and evolution of society. How does this mechanism work? At a former stage of our argument we made distinction between the constitution of aesthetic meaning in a situation of indeterminacy and the processing of aesthetic meaning which means the integration of the evoked thoughts into one´s own system of beliefs.

Our experiences of the world are not arbitrarily stored in our memory, but they must have, for functional reasons, a systematic structure. Because we are able to find a single recollection in our memory,to retrieve and to work with it, it is necessary that our experiences have a systematic and hierarchical structuring. Social psychologists have therefore postulated the existence of so-called mental reference systems or categorial systems. (9) They are hypothetical descriptions of how our brain manages to store, compare and recall sensory input systematically .

The conception of a mental reference system means that a single experience is always related to a individual framework of storage. During the course of life such mental reference systems become more and more differentiated and refined. Knowledge-based categorial systems function as stable decision and evaluation frameworks. They are cognitive background systems, which normally function inconspicuously and unpretentiously. But surely there are situations of experience, where their existence immediately becomes conscious. This may be caused by a certain strain between a single,new experience and its inability to be classified or the occurrence of a totally new, never hitherto preceived situation. Here the lack of present knowledge systematization suddenly becomes apparent.

My argument is that the epistemic function of art precisely affects this cognitive mechanism of a beholder´s knowledge systematization. The cognitive background of aesthetic perception – our systems of knowledge organization-, suddenly becomes itself the object of perception by a certain tension between a single stimulus and its inability to be classified. The whole system is turned inside out. The systems of knowledge organization suddenly become transparent and accessible to observation. (10)

Caused by a conflict in mental processing, they themselves become the subject of observation against a background of impulsion towards adequate adaptation to and consistent ordering of the external world. Here we come into close touch with a specific structure of aesthetic experience. Because of the tension between an aesthetic experience, triggered by a relatively new and unknown work of art and his own well-known, but insufficient systematization of knowledge and belief, the beholder must seek a restoration of equilibrium.

In their epistemic function works of art bring the beholder into a cognitive dissonance (11) with his own beliefs and attitudes. He must reduce this dissonance by either adapting and therefore distorting the single experience to a preexistent reference system, or by adapting the whole categorial system to the new aesthetic experience which seems to be for me the only appropriate way.

VII

When we turn again to the art of Joseph Beuys we are able to describe the cognitive effects of his installations on the belief systems of different beholders. The installation “The Capital Space” exhibits turned-off machines and objects not in use but with a certain productive potential. The whole system is potential capital for creation. This character of potentiality is incorporated into the title, because capital in its first function is a potential for production. But the specific account of capital, as it is embedded in the various elements is a very different one from that which we would normally associate with the concept of capital. As beholders we have therefore to adapt and refine our categorial system of capital knowledge to understand this unaccustomed model.

In a programmatic essay in 1972 Beuys called for the transformation of the essential concepts of thinking, action and sculpture:

Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.
This most modern art discipline -Social Sculpture/Social Architecture- will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptur or architect of the social organism. (...) Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn it into a politically productive force, coursing through each person and shaping history.
But all this, and much that is as yet unexplored, has first to form part of our consciousness: insight is needed into objective connections. We must probe (theory of knowledge) the origin of free individual productive potency (creativity). We then reach the threshold where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievements (work of art), his active thinking, his active feeling, his active will, and their higher forms, can be apprehended as sculptural generative means,(...), and then recognized as flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future. (12)

The first step is the “revolution of concepts”, a notion which Beuys took from Eugen Löbl, the political economist of the Prague Spring. Beuys writes:

Only through the 'revolution of concepts', through a new revision of the basic relations of the social organism, does the way thereby become free for a revolution without constraint and arbitrariness. Because a far-reaching practice is always connected with concepts, the kind of thinking about states of affairs is decisive for how one handles these states of affairs and - firstly: how and whether he understands them at all.(13)

In this context Beuys speaks of the "remelting of indurated conceptions and theoretical approaches". (14) What is required for the process of transformation of aesthetic experiences into social-evolutionary practice is a new quality of thinking and of action. He sets up the question whether the actions of man, his information, his informing character (to give something a form) is a process of free decision, an expression of the freedom of that human being.

With this character of impression we have reached a point, at which a sculptural process is addressed. The impressing of an action into material. In this action a sculptor is hardly differentiated from a printer. In this character of impressing the sculptor differs not at all from the mechanical engineer, who applies his impressing character through his forming will to mechanical-motor tasks. Therefore it can be proved in this action, whose impressing character can be perceived immediately, that still another sculptural process precedes this sculptural process.
It can be traced back by reflexion, description and unbiased perception of what happens in this sculptural character of impression by human action, by bodily organs, from where the decision for the design of this impression character stems. The revolutionary can trace back the process up to that form, which he has first of all developed in his thinking or in his imagination.
When he carries that out and looks at all of his forces, which are effective and alive in himself, he will experience that he is already able to ascribe this sculptural character to thinking itself. It then comes into the world as a character of impression by his bodily organs and other tools and into a form, which informs, being information as a product, or which also conceives information as news, which the other is willing to receive.(15)

Thinking in itself is an invisible sculptural process, which becomes visible by impression into material, into form. The material sculpture functions as a model or as a transmitter of these unobservable sculptural qualities of thinking for a human receiver, who is able to apprehend the material model. The physical substance as materialized thinking energy is able to trigger the perceptual and thinking capacities of another person. A transmission takes place in this model, a flow of sculptural energy from one point of the world to another.

Through this epistemic mechanism the aesthetic perception is transformed step-by-step into new thoughts and questions about social interrelations, the contemporary state of the social organism, and the evolution of a future human society. The installation functions as the transmission model of those thought energies.

VIII

Artistic models have a representative function. They allow for the visualization and illustration of theoretical thoughts and conceptions. An artistic model such as the “Honeypump at the workingplace” does not manifest all the properties and relations of the theoretical conception it is a model of, but only some of them. It links several of the theoretical relations, which are taken as relevant and essential in this model, with other observable features, which have to be explained through the theory.

“Honeypump at the working place”, executed in 1977 for the documenta 6 at Kassel, was conceived as a model for the energystream of society.

With Honeypump I am expressing the principle of the Free International University working in the bloodstream of society. Flowing in and out of the heart organ - the steel honey container- are the main arteries through which the hones is pumped out of the engine room with a pulsing sound, circulates round the Free University area, and returns to the heart. The whole thing is only complete with people in the space round which the honey artery flows and where the bee´s head is to be found in the coiled loops of tubing with its iron feelers.(16)

In the sump of the engine room the three maior principles of Beuys´ theory of sculpture -thinking, feeling and will- are represented in a seemingly scientific model. Beuys explains:

Will power in the chaotic energy of the double engine churning the heap of fat. Feeling in the heart and bloodstream of honey flowing throughout the whole.Thinking powers in the Eurasian staff, the head of which rises from the engine room right up to the skylight of the museum and then points down again. (17)

Unobservable elements of Beuys´ Theory of Sculpture like ” will”, “feeling”, “thought”, “bloodstream” or “society” are represented by a model which takes as its elements industrial machinery like ship engines, drive shafts, plastic tubes, fittings, fuses, switches, low pressure pumps, natural products like honey and margarine and three archaic clay pots standing besides. But these objects are not taken for themselves, but they refer to a complex theoretical conception of evolution and transformation of human creativity into future society. The elements of the installation build up a system, which because of its specific type of reference is a visual model. It functions as a visual bridge between the theoretical concepts and the observational capacities of the beholder.

That we are in close touch with the thinking and the ideas of Joseph Beuys and do not deviate from his central premises, is clearly indicated by the following statement which he published separately to the installation of the “Honeypump”. It is entitled “The model of the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (‘Honeypump’)”.

'The Honeypump at the working place' shall refer to the fact that something has to be brought near to all working places, which presently is mssing them - and thus is something new. (...) Therefore to begin with, this deficiency shall come into appearance as honey, which is a precious nutritive substance -and namely in the sense, that it circulates and supplies all manufacturing plants with precious nutritive substance and connects them like in a circulation system, where everyone is mutually dependent from one another.(18)

The natural product honey serves as the essential model substance for the flow of a positive thinking energy, which is able to trigger and to support social transformation processes.

IX

As a last example of that evolutionary model character of the sculptural work I would like to present the project “7000 Oak Trees”, executed from 1982 to 1987.

As his contribution to the ‘documenta 7’ in 1982 Joseph Beuys ordered the planting of 7000 oak trees inside the city limits of Kassel. Beside each tree a basalt column was to be erected as a sign marking the historical moment, when people began to bring their lives into line with the transformation of the whole social organism.

As a first visible sign and a preliminary model for the abstract and inconceivable quantity of 7000 trees, Beuys arranged 7000 stones in the center of the city opposite the Museum Fridericianum as a wedge-shaped triangle. For each planted tree one basalt stone was taken from this sculptural arrangement so that as the work progressed the basalt triangle progressively diminished and finally disappeared. Being asked about the exact number of trees he replied:

I think this is a kind of proportion and dimension,firstly, because the Seven represents a very old rule for tree plantations. You know that from already existent places and cities. In the United States there is a very large city, called Seven Oaks and another in Great Britain. You see that Seven as a number is in some way organically connected with such an enterprise and it also fits with the seventh documenta. I said to myself that it is a very small decoration, seven trees. Seventy does not bring us to the idea of that, what I call in German "Verwaldung" [afforestation]. This suggests the idea of making the world into a large forest, making cities and environments wood-like. 70 would not signifiy the thought, 700 on the other hand was not enough. So I felt, 7000 was something, which I could do in the existing time, for which I could bear the responsibility of completion as a first step. Thus '7000 Oak Trees' will be a very strong visual result in 300 years. So you can imagine the dimension of time ... (19)

Through this process which lasted from 1982 up to 1987, and whose completion Beuys did not live to see, the inanimate, crystalline basalt sculpture underwent a transformation of site and state into a living element of a spatially distributed, collectively executed and socially effective charged potential which discharges its powers over the period of the next centuries, as long as an oak tree takes to grow. Thus this sculptural project proved to be a paradigmatic model for the whole body of a social sculpture and his theoretical conception of transformation of creative thinking energies into the deadly sick social organism.

It is a new step in this working with trees. It is not a really new dimension in the whole conception of a metamorphosis of all this on earth and of the metamorphosis of understanding of art. It deals with the metamorphosis of the social body in itself, to bring it into a new social order for the future in comparison with the existent private capitalistic system and the centrally governed communistic system.(20)

It is extraordinary difficult to define that project in terms of a work of art and of aesthetic experience. I am convinced that this paradigmatic model we are confronted with is a totally new concept of art, where individual aesthetic experiences are transformed into collective evolutionary forces which most directly affect not only the self-consciousness of an individual beholder, but also the orientation of the whole social organism. ( in this case a whole city). This project has absolutely nothing to do with land-art projects. The whole intention is totally different. It is not a work of art which is transportable like a painting and which could be shown in museum exhibitions. It is not autonomous, but dependent on the situation and the site for which it was created. It is therefore a site-specific work. It cannot be possessed by a single proprietor, but it belongs to nearly 3000 persons from all over the world who have donated one or more trees. For these reasons, it also cannot be sold, so that the accumulation of economic capital through speculation with art objects in this case is not possible. It is also publically perceivable to everyone who walks, bikes or drives through the city; even if he or she does not know that it is a work of art. For the aesthetic and social functions of the work it is no longer necessary for the beholder to know whether it is a work of art or not. The art character has dissolved into a direct social effectiveness benefitting the inhabitants and citizens. In contrast to traditional works of art, it is also a very useful one, because the leaves of the trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, they filter tons of dust out of the air by their immense surface, cool the surroundings and so on.

X

All in all, we still have great difficulties with this very new type of a socially effective art work. Our methods of description and analysis still derive in great part from the 19th century art theory which deals with categories like harmony, autonomy and the closedness artistic systems against thier environment. Out of the confrontation with such radical developments, taking place in the visual arts at present, we have to rethink the traditional concepts and theories with which we describe and explain historical change. Because our scientific language is necessarily a verbal formulation of our ways of thinking, an externalized model of our theoretical conceptions, we first have to transform our scientific strategies of thinking and of knowledge systematization. We have to expand, through dialogue with contemporary artistic developments, our notion of science to include human creativity as the basic capital of all enterprises. Affecting the social organism through the infusion of thought energies into this circulation system, must be the scientific goal of our future art historical work.
Footnotes:
1 Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Knut Fischer und Walter Smerling, (= Kunst heute Nr.1), Köln:Kiepenheuer&Witsch 1989, p. 26
2 A more detailed discussion can be find in my book “System und Wirkung. Rauschenberg – Twombly- Baruchello. Fragen der Interpretation und Bedeutung zeitgenössischer Kunst. Ein systemtheoretischer Ansatz”. München: Fink 1989, S.39-52
3 And if that description is true, it is also true that the described objects in fact are systems. See also: Hilary Putnam, Realism and Reason,in: Meaning and the Moral Sciences,London 1978, p.138
4 Nelson Goodman: The Structure of Appearance,(1951),Boston 1977, p.99-106
5 Anatol Rapoport, Systems Analysis: General Systems Theory, in: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (ed.) David L. Sills, Bd. 15,1968, p.454
6 Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerkes,Tübingen: Niemeyer 1968, p.49-55
7 Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, London:Thames and Hudson 1979,p. 190
8 JOSEPH BEUYS und DAS KAPITAL. Vier Vorträge zum Verständnis von Joseph Beuys und seiner Rauminstallation “Das Kapital Raum 1970-77” in den Hallen für Neue Kunst, Schaffhausen…, Christel Raussmüller-Sauer (ed.),Schaffhausen 1988,p. 81
9 See for instance Wolf Lauterbach/Viktor Sarris: Beiträge zur psychologischen Bezugssystemforschung. Huber: Bern 1980, p.15-55
10 Huber (1989),p.78f.
11 Leo Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1957
12 Tisdall 268f.
13 “Aufruf zur Alternative”.First published in Frankfurter Rundschau, 12/23/1978. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, Soziale Plastik. Materialien zu Joseph Beuys,Achberg 1976,p. 131
14 “Eintritt in ein Lebenwesen”. Lecture – given during the Free International University-Project, at the documenta 6 at Kassel on 08/06/1977. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.135
15 Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.125
16 Tisdall 254
17 ibd.
18 Johannes Stüttgen/Joseph Beuys: Das Modell der FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (“Honeypump”), p.1
19 Interview with Richard Demarco; in: Fernando Groener und Rose-Maria Kandler (Hrsg),7000 Eichen-Joseph Beuys, Köln: König, 1987, p.16
20 Groener and Kandler, p.18/19


designed by Hans Dieter Huber


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e-flux

Jan Verwoert

The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image

To be certain, art offers answers. Its strength, however, often lies in its unresolved problems. In his statements about his own work, Joseph Beuys absolutely inundated his listeners and readers with answers. As a consequence, the inner tensions and unanswered questions at the heart of his oeuvre are scarcely recognized. An unconditional acceptance of Beuys’ interpretive authority over his own practice has caused the discourse surrounding the oeuvre to fail to touch on a central unresolved question within it: the question of authority itself. In order to understand the significance of Beuys’ work in the context of the artistic and political debates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, it is crucial to grasp the inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions that run through it, as well as the way Beuys publicly performed the role of the artist with regard to this question of authority. On the one hand he incessantly attacked traditional notions of the authority of the work, the artist, and the art professor, with his radical, liberating, and humorous opening up of the concept of art with regard to what a work, an artist, or a teacher could still be and do beyond the functions established by tradition, office, and title. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the presentation of his own interpretative discourse, Beuys regularly fell back on the very tradition of staging artistic authority with which he was trying to break.

While he abolished the common understanding of the artist’s role and demonstrated in his own practice that an artist could be not only a sculptor or painter but also a performer, politician, philosopher, historian, ethnologist, musician, and so on, he nonetheless had recourse to a traditionally established role model when projecting an image of himself to the public through the role of a visionary, spiritual authority or healer in full agreement with the modern myth of the artist as a messianic figure. While at one moment he provoked free and open debate through perplexing, if not deliberately absurd, actions that left himself open to attack as an artist, at the next moment he would bring a discussion on the meaning of these provocations back to orderly paths by seeking the seamlessly organized worldview of anthroposophy as an ideological justification for his art practice. On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths.

That Beuys sought such a role is affirmed in the artist’s own words. The style and content of his programmatic statements—the ceaseless explanation of his art, the world, its problems, and their solutions—appear to be consistent with the image he projects of himself as a shamanistic healer: he speaks with the authority of a man who knows all the answers, and in doing so consolidates his auratic authority as an artist with his message of salvation. Orthodox interpretations of Beuys’ work accept this authority without reservations, and this makes a critical understanding of his work more difficult, if not impossible. In the following section, I will use the example of one such orthodox interpretation to delineate the artistic and political impasse that inevitably results from such an understanding of Beuys’ oeuvre. In contrast to this, I will subsequently try to develop an approach to understanding the problem of auratic authority in Beuys’ work and self-image through a close reading of selected works. Using several performances as examples, I intend to argue that the artistic quality and historical significance of Beuys’ work are not, as the common view would have it, based upon a realizing of his declared intentions, but rather upon his staging of an unresolved conflict between the urge to demolish authoritarian definitions of what artists are traditionally supposed to be and the need to recoup certain aspects of fascination with the auratic authority of the artistic act and the artist’s role.

1. The Questionable Authority of the Artist as Healer

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.

Kuspit then proceeds to interpret National Socialism as an expression of exaggerated faith in technocratic rationality (and hence as an exemplary symptom of modern alienation), arriving at the conclusion that recovery from the pathologies of this strain of rationalism can only be achieved by liberating a Dionysian creativity of the very sort Beuys claimed to have released. Kuspit writes: “The Germans had to be cured of their pathological belief in the authority of reason, which they readily put before life itself.”4 Beuys, the shamanistic healer, is thereafter portrayed as the antithesis of Hitler, the technocratic dictator: “Beuys was warm where Hitler was cold.”5 This interpretation is bizarre. Nevertheless, it unfolds the logical implications of the concept of healing that Beuys established. The figure of the healer is messianic in nature, and is therefore of the same ilk as the messianic leader of men. A direct comparison therefore seems obvious. On somewhat closer inspection, however, this juxtaposition necessarily leads to a result that directly contradicts Kuspit’s interpretation. The messianic goal of healing modern man of his alienation by tapping primordial forces does not distinguish Beuys from Hitler but links them. The assertion that the German people could be cured of the maladies caused by the decline and decadence of modern culture through the rediscovery of their mythical, pagan (allegedly “Aryan”) creative powers was, after all, the core of the ideology by which the National Socialists justified their claim to power. The motto “Am Deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (The German spirit shall heal the world) was taken to articulate the association of the idea of healing with just such an ideology.6

However, the fact that, in the course of history, the idea of healing came to be associated with this particular ideology does not discredit Beuys’ approach to it per se. The motif of mythical healing—the notion that a rediscovery of a mythical creativity would offer a cure to the alienations of modern society—has occupied a central position in modern social criticism since early Romanticism (at the latest).7 In this form and function the motif can be found in the work of many modern thinkers artists, including (as Rüdiger Sünner has shown) Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche, as well as Helena Blavatsky (one of the key figures of modern occultism, the founder of theosophy, and an inspiration for Rudolf Steiner).8 If Beuys was enthusiastic about Celtic myth, for example, and saw James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be the expression of the buried mythical, spiritual creativity of—as he literally says—“Indo-Aryan” culture, it is certainly reasonable to assume that his use of the term stems from authors such as Blavatsky.9 Channeled through authors such as Adolf Lanz and Guido von List, Blavatsky’s teachings were, however, also a source of inspiration for Hitler and Himmler, who developed the racial doctrine implicit to some extent in theosophy into a justification for their “völkisch” (racist and nationalist) doctrine of national recuperation.10 One application of the concept of healing cannot be directly reduced to the other. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, seen in the context of the history of ideas, the idea of modern culture’s return to the supposedly mythical powers of a premodern culture was the impulse behind both Romantic projects to reform life and National Socialist ideology. That this ideological aspect is never really questioned or even acknowledged by Beuys and his orthodox interpreters (such as Kuspit) exposes the limits of the interpretive discourse Beuys established: he never submitted his own key concepts to a critical, historical analysis.

While he frequently dipped into the history of ideas for his discourse, Beuys did not apparently feel compelled to consider the fact that ideas have specific histories—ones that, in certain instances, might make it necessary to reject them, and the traditions they have come to stand for. In his artistic practice, however, the critical reconsideration of traditional forms was at the heart of his approach. The postcard work Manifest (Manifesto, 1985) offers a poignant slogan for this. In handwriting it reads: “Manifesto the error already begins when someone is about to buy a stretcher and canvas. Joseph Beuys, November 1, 1985.” The absence of a similarly critical approach to tradition in Beuys’ use of theoretical concepts may not ultimately be that problematic in terms of the content of the particular ideas he cites. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power. However, if Beuys’ liberating approach to conventions of sculpture and to the possibility of art in general is understood as evidence of a critical attitude, it seems only fair to assume that the creation of such an unquestionable power position can hardly have been his primary concern. In positioning himself as a speaker, then, it would even appear integral to Beuys’ practice to distance himself from the power mechanisms at play.

No doubt, the desire for healing was an important motif in Beuys’ oeuvre. The question is whether the specific way in which he dealt with this desire in his work does indeed have a considerable artistic and historical significance, not because Beuys succeeded in being or becoming the healer he purported to be, but precisely because he (whether consciously or not is hard to say) allowed the inherent contradictions of the concept of messianic healing to become manifest within his work. One example to start with is Beuys’ complex interpretation of the motif of the Messiah in Zeige Deine Wunde (Show Your Wounds, 1976). In the Christian tradition, the act of showing the wounds is the gesture by which Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the resurrected Messiah. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can only be one person who is entitled to show his wounds: the Savior himself. The title of the work, however, is an appeal addressed to another person. Beuys here effectively changes the monologue of messianic revelation into a dialogue and thus multiplies the available speaking positions: anyone who feels addressed by the appeal is here invited to adopt the messianic position. This moment of multiplication is in fact also the primary formal characteristic of the installation. All of its elements are doubled. The central elements in the work are two stretchers on wheels, underneath each of which a zinc box and an empty glass vessel are placed. Anyone who encounters death or healing here does not do so alone. Death or convalescence is presented as an existential experience in which our lives come to mirror each other. The claim to uniqueness associated with the role of the Messiah is thus eroded linguistically in the title and literally in the space of the installation.

2. The Problematic Reversal of the Roles of Perpetrator and Victim

Admittedly, there may not be many more examples of Beuys so openly breaking away from the exclusive singularity of the Messianic role. Still, the way in which he deals with the notion of the Messianic in his artworks never lacks complexity. In fact, he continued to dwell on one particularly irresolvable ambiguity at the heart of the Messianic: to the extent that the Messiah of the Christian tradition redeems humanity by taking its suffering upon himself, he becomes both victim and savior, both sufferer and healer. It was precisely this double role that Beuys took on in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me of 1974. The performance began (if the reports are to be believed) with Beuys being picked up at the airport in New York by an ambulance and transported to the René Block Gallery. There he spent three days with a coyote and, wrapped in a felt blanket and holding a walking stick upside down like a shepherd’s crook, played the shamanistic healer and messianic shepherd. As the patient or victim of an unspecified accident, he had arranged to have himself delivered to a space where he would then turn himself into the healer.

Again, the crucial question is: who is claiming to heal whom of what (and by virtue of what authority)? Since patient and healer are the same person, one obvious way to understand the performance is as an attempt at self-healing. In this sense, Kuspit’s interpretation of Beuys trying, as a German, to heal German culture by tapping mythical sources of energy (represented here by the coyote) would seem justified. However, the highly problematic question that this interpretation leaves unanswered is: by what right does this German claim to be not only healer, but also patient and sufferer (if not even victim)? Victim of whom? Why would a German—in the historical wake of Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and its instigation of two world wars—ever be entitled to play that role on an international stage? Beuys’ statements on the performance are no help: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”11 (The symptoms of the American trauma, according to Beuys, manifest themselves in the alienated culture of capitalism, represented in the performance by issues of The Wall Street Journal spread out on the floor on which, as he recounts, the coyote urinated now and again.) Despite the change of geographical context the problem with this scenario of trauma and healing remains the same. By interpreting the trauma of the genocide committed against the Native American population as a trauma for the modern United States caused by this genocide, Beuys essentially declares perpetrators to be victims. In this picture, the supposedly painful alienation of the United States from its roots is given the same status as the suffering of the victims of genocide, which fall out of the picture entirely. Though surely unintentional (and nevertheless effective), murder is equated with a regrettable destruction of nature. The historical victims have no voice here. The coyote cannot complain.

Almost inescapably, one feels compelled to read this constellation as a parable of the German situation and the exchange of roles as the expression of Beuys’ notoriously unclear position in relation to the historic role and guilt of his own generation. Benjamin Buchloh articulated this criticism with all possible harshness. In his essay “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh in principle accused Beuys of deliberately blurring the historical facts by mythologizing the concepts of suffering and healing, thus of avoiding the question of responsibility.12 The evidence that Buchloh offers of Beuys reversing the role of perpetrator and victim is a particular passage from Beuys’ often-cited wartime anecdote in which he describes his rescue by Tartars after his bomber had been shot down over the Crimea in winter 1943. Canonical interpretations of this story focus on the detail that, as Beuys recounts, the Tartars rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to warm him, and therefore these materials (and warmth in general) came to stand for the mythical principle of healing found in his work. However, a crucial turn in this narrative that Buchloh concentrates on is the Tartars’ proposal that Beuys remain with them: “‘Du nix njemcky’ [You not German] they would say, ‘du Tartar’ [you Tartar] and persuade me to join their clan,” Beuys reported.13 In this story, Beuys not only changes his identity from being a bomber pilot to a victim of the war; part of his healing is the absolution from his origin offered by the members of a mythical people. Buchloh reads this scenario of absolution as the symptomatic expression of a certain emotional condition in postwar Germany, namely the need of the German people to acquit themselves of their recent crimes and of an unscrupulous readiness to do just that: “In the work and public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known.”14

If we take the messianic role adopted by Beuys at face value, this criticism touches a sore spot. Surely, one could object that both Buchloh and Kuspit assume Beuys was acting as a representative for an entire nation, whereas for many years his actions de facto stood in crass contradiction to the dominant cultural climate in Germany, which was aggressively hostile towards him. This objection, however, would immediately have to be countered by observing that, when he adopted the messianic role, Beuys simply conferred on himself the mandate to express collective needs. This position was affirmed first (as Kuspit’s book demonstrates) by his international reception as an exemplary German artist (which also consolidated after some time in German academia). Against this backdrop, it would indeed seem justified to see Beuys’ oeuvre and the way he chose to play the role of an exemplary German artist in public as indicative of a struggle to come to terms with German identity. It remains nonetheless problematic that neither Buchloh nor Kuspit makes any distinction between his public image and his oeuvre, considering Beuys’ position instead as an integrated whole. They do not take into consideration, however, that more often than not in his work Beuys fails to fulfill the programmatic claims that he asserts in his commentaries, as his works always remain, in their crude material specificity and inner tensions, at least partially resistant to conclusive interpretations. This specific failure is so crucial because it makes clear (if one is prepared to see it) that Beuys did more in his art than simply illustrate, and thus consolidate, preexisting ideologies.

I Like America and America Likes Me stands as an example of such a failure. Upon closer inspection, one would have to admit (despite Beuys’ own statement that he successfully touched on a point of trauma) that his ritual of healing has carnivalesque, exaggerated features. The old European is delivered to a New York gallery incognito and proceeds to emphatically perform obscure ceremonial gestures, posing as a pagan sorcerer wrapped in felt as if wearing a complete carnival outfit. Meanwhile, the coyote, unmoved, just does as coyotes do—Beuys’ meaningful posing does not concern him; he inhabits a different world. This clearly delimits the allegorical meaning of the performance. Through everything he does, the coyote demonstrates his utter indifference to the artistic allegory being constructed around him and, in doing so, destabilizes it. The photographic documentation of the performance is somewhat misleading in that it makes the animal look as if it were an integral part of one single overarching allegory. If, however, the performance is understood as a performance—that is, as a process that unfolds in space and time—then this picture falls apart. It is only then that the particular fascination and comedic quality of the coyote’s presence during the performance begins to emerge. The comedy lies in the situation: two unequal characters, for whom communication constantly fails, somehow find a way to deal with each other and with the failure of their communication simply because they live together in close proximity. Anglo-American sitcoms about modern family life function in much the same way. This comedy of living with the failure of communication, however, also has its tragic aspects. It demonstrates the impossibility of a symmetrical exchange between two divided worlds of experience. Yet still, a trace of utopia resides in the pragmatism of the arrangement: what collective violence destroys, one person alone cannot heal. At best, one small thing or another may be resolved on the level of daily coexistence, but only if one side is prepared to face and live with unclarified conditions.

The fact that Beuys exposed himself to, or provoked, such unclarified situations could be understood in this sense to be precisely what makes up the quality of his art, irrespective of its program. The fact that the boundaries between the role of the perpetrator and the victim also remain unclarified is impossible to deny. Yet, if one is prepared to see this confusion not simply as a desperate attempt at self-vindication, it could in fact also be read as a sign of the times. Consider for example the complex implications of the iconic pose Beuys adopted at the end of the out-of-control action Kukei, akopee—Nein! (Kukei, akopee, no! recorded in an eponymously titled photograph by H. Riebesehl): during the Festival der Neuen Kunst in the auditorium of the Technische Hochschule Aachen on July 20, 1964, a group of students (whom Caroline Tisdall has described as right-wing) stormed the stage to put a violent end to the Fluxus performance Beuys was engaged in; during the ensuing scuffle Beuys received a bloody nose. His reaction to the violence was to strike a pose in which he provocatively embodied both victim and perpetrator. With a defiant stare and bloody nose, he holds up a small crucifix to the audience in his left hand while he extends his right arm in a Roman salute. It is not necessary, though possible, to see this gesture as a variant on the Nazi salute.

In one sense, Beuys’ pose has an accusatory character: he holds a mirror up to the students, interprets their violence as tendentially fascist, and presents himself as their victim. In another sense, however, the pose is also clearly triumphant. In combination with the Roman salute and the defiant gaze, the crucifix in his outstretched arm conveys the message that Christ shall be victorious. In the end, the martyr, here embodied by the bleeding artist, will prevail. Beuys thus intuitively drew on several registers of body language at the same time to produce an impromptu pose of auratic authority, presenting himself as accuser, victor, and martyr all at once. The impromptu character of the pose, in turn, shows how Beuys, through free improvisation, managed to orchestrate the chaos that he had himself provoked. The example of the events in Aachen thus demonstrates impressively the extent to which Beuys’ artistic practice is based on his intuitive ability to improvise freely in unclarified situations, to absorb the energies released in the situation, and manifest them in strong—if contradictory—gestures. Yet, the example also shows that the gestures he uses to manifest the absorbed tensions are taken from a repertoire of postures for the staging of auratic authority. One possible explanation of this may be that, when improvising, Beuys intuitively fell back on familiar gestures of authority that enabled him to control the situation for the moment. If, however, we take into account the observation that Beuys was not just displaying his own emotions but in fact reflecting the tensions inherent in a given situation, this suggests another conclusion: namely, that Beuys channeled the violent energies of collective conflict over the foundation of authority that was in the air at the moment.

The art of provocation lies in forcefully bringing about a debate over the legitimation of authority. Fluxus cultivated this art of provocation as a method. So did the incipient culture of student protest in its successful attempts to expose and dismantle the authoritarian structures on which the National Socialists based their power, and which had not really disappeared from daily life after the collapse of the regime. The conflicts at the Fluxus festival in Aachen thus marked a historical juncture in which particular artistic tendencies coincided with general political developments. The contestation of the legitimacy of traditional structures of authority and the question of the origin of fascist power were on people’s minds. In a commentary on the event in the Aachener Prisma newspaper that year titled “Eine gutgemeinte Panne” (A well-meant mishap), the author Dorothea Solle accordingly interpreted the events as a flaring up of fascist violence brought on not only by the rampaging students, but equally by the aggressive irrationality of Fluxus performers’ actions.15 Still, it would be too simplistic to interpret the outbreak of violence as a moment of cathartic release. This interpretation would suggest that something had been resolved in the situation when, ultimately, the reverse seems to have been the case. After the festival had ended, Beuys apparently discussed what had taken place with students until two in the morning.16 It seems unlikely that they arrived at a conclusion. Nevertheless, a collective experience had been articulated. On the one hand, Beuys’ actions therefore need to be seen in the context of the critique of dominant structures of authority that the Fluxus performers gathered at the festival put into practice by destroying the conventions of authoritative (in the sense of being awe-inspiring) musical stage performances. On the other hand, Beuys’ martial poses also reflected the desire of the rioting students to see authority restored. They got the Führer-savior they wanted, if only in the form of a reflexive, inherently contradictory theatrical pose.

If one takes the Fluxus festival in Aachen as exemplary, one could argue that the manner in which Beuys made his contribution to the historically powerful critique of traditional structures of authority was more intuitive and improvisational than most. The quality of this contribution could then be understood to lie precisely in his capacity to improvise in unclarified situations and, in this process, to evoke, absorb, and manifest the prevailing tensions. This surely is not an excuse for his mythmaking and the afore-cited confused statement concerning the trauma of the perpetrators (in the North-American context). Still, it might help to explain the role Beuys may have played for his generation by articulating in a similarly improvisational way its collective experience of not being able to determine the relationship between their own share in the blame and their trauma suffered during the war. Beuys was equally incapable of resolving this problem. Whether it has ever been resolved, or if it can be resolved at all, remains doubtful. One might actually go so far as to argue, with Buchloh, that not only was the mythologizing of war trauma an expression of the desire to grant oneself absolution, but that, mutatis mutandis, the German postwar intelligentsia’s emphatically conscientious manner of reckoning with the past may have equally been such a technique, as if serious reckoning would enable one to make a clean break with the past and switch from the side of the accused to that of the accusers. A real effort to grapple with the experience of the victims of the crimes this is not. In general, it worth exploring at what point exactly German artists and intellectuals began to go beyond self-criticism and self-mirroring and instead actively confronted the outside perception and critical assessment of German history and identity in other countries. Beuys’ later travels and discussion workshops in Europe and America may have offered a forum for precisely that. But whether he listened long enough to others in these discussions to absorb their experience or simply propagated his own truths is a different question altogether.

3. The Strategic Debate over Interpretive Authority on the Threshold of a New Understanding of Art

Seen in its historical context, Beuys’ position marked a crucial threshold precisely because of its inner contradictions: politically, Beuys found inspiration in the incipient culture of student protest to challenge the attitude of his own generation and to attack the structures of mythical authority that made Nazi Germany possible, though without being able to overcome them entirely. Artistically, he also stood at an epochal threshold that he was never really able to fully cross. Buchloh describes this set of problems very accurately as well. In “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” he locates Beuys’ work in the context of the decisive artistic developments of the 1960s—by incorporating everyday objects and industrial materials into his repertoire, Beuys, parallel to Minimal and Pop art, took a step toward the radical materialist aesthetic that would influence contemporary art from the 1960s onward. At the same time, however, as Buchloh convincingly demonstrates, Beuys did not draw the same consequences from this step that his contemporaries did. In finally realizing the implications of Marcel Duchamp’s use of the readymade, Buchloh argues, Minimal and Pop art contributed, in the spirit of a critically reductionist positivism of Anglo-American provenance, to the disenchantment of the work of art and dismantling of myths—myths that, in the tradition of Old Europe, had ensured art’s aura. Yet it was precisely this tradition that Beuys revived by tapping its mythologies in order to provide his art and persona with their magic. About to cross the threshold to the present, Beuys, it seems, turned his back to the future and stepped back into the lost past of Old Europe.

Buchloh thus takes the nature of Beuys’ self-interpretations as evidence of a reactionary position within the framework of the artistic developments of the 1960s: instead of developing a contemporary analytical understanding (based on Duchamp’s findings) of how artifacts obtain significance in art via the context of their presentation, intertextual cross-references, and the open play of their interpretation, Beuys, according to Buchloh, restored the traditional one-dimensional model of the authoritative attribution of meaning through the declaration of the artist’s intention: “[Beuys] dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymade by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naive context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”17

This criticism of Beuys’ interpretive discourse is no doubt completely justified. Again, however, the question remains: to what extent does the problematic character of Beuys’ self-interpretations truly affect his artistic practice? One could even go so far as to accuse Buchloh’s own critique of clinging, in a sense, to the very same one-dimensional model that he attributes to Beuys. After all, Buchloh himself also presumes an identity of intention and artwork when he dismisses the work in the name of Beuys’ stated intentions rather than subjecting the work to a more precise reading irrespective of what the artist may have said.

This is by no means an isolated problem. In relation to the artistic practices of the 1960s, the relationship between artists’ statements about their work and the actual work has generally not been investigated as critically as it probably should be. Beuys is far from being the only artist who intentionally sought to impose a certain meaning on his work. In fact, particularly in the context of early conceptual art, artists aggressively used interpretation as a strategy. The interpretative practice of Art & Language and the artist Joseph Kosuth, who was for a time associated with the group, is symptomatic in this regard. The performative contradiction between the content of their statements and the way they relate them to their work is even more flagrant than it is in Beuys’ own practice. Kosuth and Art & Language legitimized their work and imbued it with an awe-inspiring air of authority by citing not myths, but the entire tradition of analytical philosophy (of language), only to declare—in utter contradiction with the complex semantic models that this tradition offers—a one-to-one correspondence between this philosophical content and their art’s meaning.18 They identified critical theory with the literal meaning and the content of conceptual art with the same naïveté that Buchloh detects in Beuys’ discourse.

If anything, the crude Neo-Platonism that Kosuth propagates when he claims in his essay “intension(s)” that conceptual art can make an artist’s intentions immediately transparent can certainly be considered naive.19 At the same time, the insistence on the authority of the artist to determine the meaning of his or her work is, for Kosuth, part and parcel of a critical reflection on the power politics of interpreting art. He identifies the practice of artists making statements about their own work as a strategic practice geared towards disputing the interpretive authority of critics and historians and shifting the power balance in the artist’s favor. Kosuth writes: “art historians and critics play an important role in the struggle of the work’s ‘coming to meaning’ in the world. But that is the point: they represent the world. That is why a defining part of the creative process depends on the artists to assert their intentions in that struggle. One of the greatest lessons defending the primacy of the intention of the artist, and the increasing importance of writing by artists on their work, is provided by this period of the sixties.”20

Motivated by power politics, the main reason for artists to offer their own interpretations would thus be in the interest of eliminating the middleman. In this spirit, Kosuth quotes one of his own statements about the work of Art & Language in the journal Art-Language from 1970: “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary.”21 It seems fair to assume that Beuys—perhaps less consciously, but all the more effectively for that reason—realized the historical opportunity which Kosuth articulates to use the propagation of his own interpretations as a means to reinforce his own position of authority vis-à-vis critics and historians. The increasing media interest in (his) art offered him (and not only him) an excellent platform for that.

Against this backdrop, viewing Beuys’ practice of interpreting his own work as a strategic gesture can perhaps enable us to more accurately describe its function in relation to his other artistic activities—namely, as a praxis in its own right. As such, it is not situated on some meta-level but on the very same level as the other manifestations of Beuys’ work—as a parallel practice. In this context, Beuys’ participation in the founding of various political initiatives and utopian institutions, such as the Free International University he cofounded with Heinrich Böll in 1971, for instance, could equally be seen as a gesture that matters in its own right—as an expansion of the concrete possibilities of artistic practice irrespective of any ideological program.22 Founding institutions thus becomes one artistic medium among others. Seen in this light, Beuys’ practice of speaking publicly should be treated not as a metadiscourse on his art but as an artistic medium sui generis. Beuys’ statements could therefore be regarded as having the status of material that he produced in parallel with other material. The chalkboards with scribbled lecture notes strewn on a stage constructed of wooden pallets in the installation Richtkräfte (Directional forces, 1974–77) offer a graphic example of this. Discourse becomes material, loads of material. And, because of the sheer number of chalkboards and the simple fact that some boards cover others in the pile, the sheer accumulation of material makes it partially illegible. The fascination with the material then could be seen to lie less in its ideological content than in the immanent tension between its legibility and its opacity as material.

Of course, this defense of the installation contradicts Beuys’ own interpretative discourse and declared intentions in its application of a concept of material derived from the school of Anglo-American criticism. Against the backdrop of Kosuth’s reflections, this interpretation could surely also be read as a critic’s strategic attempt to reclaim some ground in the battle for the authority to interpret a work. If interpretation is understood as an antagonistic practice, then indeed no speaker’s position within this field is neutral. It therefore seems necessary to explicate, if it is not already obvious, the position from which the author of this essay speaks: in contrast to the apodictic gesture of Beuys’ own statements (and the statements of his orthodox defenders and intimate enemies), the gesture of this essay is probably more that of unfolding a form of reflexivity from a position of historical and rhetorical distance. In terms of style, this reflexive speaking position may be typical of a (my) generation, whose experience of the patriarchal artistic gestures of Beuys’ generation is already mediated by the intervening generation’s struggle with the same gestures. In other words, a more distanced reflection seems possible today because the need and necessity to position oneself “with–alongside–against”23 Beuys is no longer as strongly felt as it may have been by the previous generation, which was immediately confronted with his persona. Buchloh belongs to the latter generation, as does my father, Walter Verwoert, who was one of Beuys’ first students. While Buchloh seems to have experienced  Beuys’ manner of embodying the role of the (German) artist in the international art world as unbearably reactionary, my father describes his experience with Beuys as a teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s as radically liberating in artistic, personal, and political terms. The reasoning in this essay is born out of a desire to reflect on these opposed positions rather than from a need to take one side or the other.

The freedom in approaching his work created by the distance of one generation is of a peculiar nature. You could liken it to the situation of the coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me: Beuys is present. That is undeniable. But because the horizon of a common language has disappeared, there is no prescribed protocol for engaging with that presence. In this situation, critique could perhaps be a medium for creatively developing a certain form of conviviality—that is, a way to live in the present with the spectral presence of a figure who contributed decisively to shaping this present but did so without ever fully entering it. This form of conviviality need neither be peaceful nor intimate. Photographs of the action show the coyote biting Beuys’ felt robe and tearing at it in one moment, only to accept his presence in the room and return to going about his own business in the next. Perhaps this could serve as a model for the further reception of Beuys’ work.

4. The Still Unresolved Question of Authority in Artistic Practice: The Boss

Independent of this experience of historical distance, however, certain unresolved questions in Beuys’ work have not lost their relevance, and neither have the artistic means through which Beuys channeled these questions and manifested their problematic implications. The questions concern the foundation for authority itself: have we ever fully understood what generated the fascination with the auratic authority of the messianic leader that made fascism possible in its various manifestations in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain? To what extent have we succeeded in distancing ourselves from a fascination that endures despite all we have learned since? This is a thorny issue not only in art but very much also in intellectual discourse. It could be argued that in this field (even, or perhaps especially, in the tradition of leftist political engagement), the ability to project a certain auratic authority is a basic prerequisite for making your voice heard in the public debate. To the extent that the claim not only to act and speak in one’s own name but to also hope to act and speak for others is a condition of artistic practice and intellectual discourse, this form of practice and discourse as such will necessarily generate an aura of exemplary action or speech. The question of why—by virtue of what authority—someone could legitimately hope to act or speak on behalf of others (on behalf of the general public or simply on behalf of an unknown number of people who perhaps have similar feelings) is therefore a question that persistently haunts artistic practice and intellectual discourse—especially since certain catastrophes of modernity called the legitimacy of auratic authority into question. On a constitutive level, the justification for one’s own practice and discourse as an artist and intellectual is challenged by this unresolved question.

With particularly pointed humor, Beuys acknowledged the implications of this question in the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967). At an orientation event at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he welcomed the new students by taking a stand at the microphone, an ax in his hand, uttering inarticulate sounds for minutes. On the following day the Düsseldorfer Express titled its report on the event “Professor bellt ins Mikrofon” (Professor Barks into the Microphone).24 Short and succinct, that describes the situation.25 By turning the official occasion of an address by the academy staff into an absurd event, Beuys deliberately subjected not only himself but also the office and authoritative speaking position of the professor to mockery. At the same time, however, he also exposed the foundation of this authority: as a professor it was within his power to do such things. By carrying an ax, he intensified this ambiguity even further. If one recognizes the ax as an attribute of power, it is impossible not to see the parallel to the axes wrapped in rods that the lictors (the bodyguards of Roman consuls) carried as a symbol of their authority. The name for these rods—fasces—is considered to be one possible origin of the term fascism. If we also take “barking into the microphone” to be an expression that describes the style of Hitler’s public addresses conspicuously well, Beuys’ action could indeed also be understood as a caricature of the dictator. Rather than deny the structural authority that accrued in his role as professor (for example, by appearing as an emphatically liberal pedagogue), Beuys exposes this structural authority in a deliberately exaggerated way and demonstrates its complicity with forms of mythical authority. Given the obvious absurdity of the presentation, it seems fair to assume that he did it with the idea of pushing his authority to its limits and thus instigate resistance—for example, by provoking laughter.

As its title makes unmistakably clear, the performance Der Chef (Fluxus Gesang) (The Chief [Fluxus song], 1964), was another occasion on which Beuys openly addressed the question of authority, here adding a particular twist. The length of the performance was specified to equal the duration of an ordinary workday, and over the course of eight hours from 4 p.m. to midnight he performed the job of embodying authority. He appeared, rolled up in a felt blanket, in one of the exhibition spaces of the Galerie René Block in Berlin. The space could be looked into, but not entered, from the adjoining room. Hidden inside the blanket, Beuys could not be seen, only heard. He had a microphone with him, and at irregular intervals would make inarticulate sounds that were amplified via a PA system. This noise performance was interrupted periodically by a composition by Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen played from tape. Two dead hares lay at either end of the rolled up felt blanket. Other props from Beuys’ repertoire (copper rod, fat corner, fingernails, etc.) were placed all over the room to identify it as a space for ceremonial activities. In the announcement for the event, Beuys stated that Robert Morris would carry out the same performance simultaneously in New York. To my knowledge, it has never been confirmed that this actually happened. The announcement may well have been a joke made at Morris’ expense, since Morris’ own elegantly sober, analytically self-reflexive use of felt was certainly being undercut here by Beuys, who subjected the same material to a protracted, wearisome, and on the whole not very elegant process.

In accordance with Beuys’ own mythology, the performance could certainly be interpreted as an attempt to relive the experience of his healing on the Crimea. Yet this interpretation neither accounts for the title of the action, nor its time limit based on a workday, nor the central role that the PA system plays in the performance. If we take into consideration the historical resonance that the act of “barking into the microphone” had in the action ÖÖ-Programm, it is perhaps not too farfetched to see a parallel in Der Chef: the performance is centered around the experience of loudspeakers giving the guttural voice of an unseen speaker an uncanny physical presence in a room. This experience effectively resembles that of hearing propaganda speeches on the so-called Volksempfänger, the “people’s radio,” introduced into the German family home by the Nazis, the novelty of which very likely made for a formative media experience for an entire generation. If we assume that the distortion of the speeches by poor radio reception would have been a regular feature of that experience, then the indistinct muffled noises from the PA system (and its irregular interruption by music) would be, phenomenologically speaking, an echo of this experience. The “Chef” is in that sense also the “Führer.”


Der Chef, 1964. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In a grotesque and highly pointed manner, Beuys thus frames the experience of the auratic. Walter Benjamin characterized this experience as one of “proximity with simultaneous distance.” It is precisely this fascinating contradiction that Beuys foregrounds on several levels in his performance: his voice filled the room, while the source was nowhere to be found. The artist was the focus of attention, yet remained invisible, rolled up in a felt blanket throughout the duration of the event. Due to his previous appearances in the media, the Der Chef performance brought a number of visitors to the gallery, according to contemporaneous reports.26 For the duration of the exhibition, these visitors were, however, forced to stay in the neighboring room. They could see what was happening but remained barred from direct physical access to the event. The partial closing-off of the performance space from the space for the audience created distance, and at the same time increased the attraction of the artist’s presence. He was present acoustically and physically as part of a piece of sculpture, but he was also absent, invisible, untouchable, and this staging of simultaneous presence and absence made his stage presence particularly auratic.

The title further reinforced this ambiguity of proximity and distance. On the one hand, it designates the leader at the top of a hierarchy. On the other hand, however, in colloquial German the word Chef—like jefe in Spanish and boss in American English—is equally used to jovially address a coworker. This double entendre lent a humorous quality to the title. Still, it did not really deflate the authority associated with the term Chef but, when seen in conjunction with the performance, rather auraticized it: on the one hand, Beuys was the highlighted artistic personality, art professor, and incipient media star who could only be perceived from afar. On the other, he was also the “coworker” who “did his job” for eight hours and made it known through moaning and groaning noises how hard he was “slaving away.” That was bound to create sympathy and proximity. This simultaneity of distance and proximity gave the artist his auratic authority in his role as “Chef.” Political leaders traditionally create an aura—that is, the appearance of absolute credibility—in an analogous way by presenting themselves as idealized, powerful paternal figures and simultaneously as approachable “men of the people.”

The crucial thing, however, is that Beuys did not simply produce an aura of authority but that he also exhibited the material conditions of its production in all their crudity, and exposed the contradictions inherent in this process in all their obvious absurdity. In this way, Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority. The performance constituted an event. Its eventful qualities were, however, simultaneously also reduced to a minimum—not much happened. A man lay wrapped in a blanket between two dead hares and made strange noises for hours. The scaling down of the performance to an activity that could scarcely be perceived as an activity at all, the stretching and expanding of time, the death rattles from under the blanket, and the overall gravity of the mise-en-scène in general creates a peculiar regressive atmosphere. Very much in line with the analysis of auratic authority that Werner Herzog developed in his films, Beuys here too foregrounds the peculiar regressive pull (Freudians would call it the “death drive”) inherent in the peculiar gravitas of auratic authority—a pull that equally also creates its limitation, in that its own weightiness sooner or later weights auratic authority down and brings it to the point of collapse. And indeed, in Der Chef Beuys staged the mechanisms producing this auratic authority together with the event of its slow collapse.

Der Chef could thus be understood to expose and exorcize, in a pointed manner, the fascination with auratic authority that constituted a crucial historical condition for the possibility of fascism. Admittedly, Beuys did not perform this act of exposing and exorcizing from a distanced position. Rather, he lived through it physically and thus, in a symptomatic way, manifested its unresolved contradictions. Beyond the discussion of historical conditions, however, the fact that Beuys chose an immanent position from which to work through the problems of auratic authority brings us back to the question raised earlier, namely, whether certain structures and contradictions of the auratic are not structurally inherent to artistic practice. A structural feature of art practice, for instance, that Beuys deals with in Der Chef, is not only the adoption of the position of an auratic speaker but also the ascription of that position to the artist through the expectations of the audience: Beuys came to Berlin and people expected an event. By appearing in public, but making himself invisible, Beuys both satisfied and frustrated their expectations. The aura that Beuys generated around himself by virtue of this strategy became a means as well as a medium to both protect himself against and play with these expectations: to throw them into relief and change them.

The fact that this attempt to renegotiate the relationship between artist and audience is, moreover, formalized as an eight-hour workday, potentially turns the performance into a parable of the constitutive tensions between the private and public that define artistic or creative work in general. As is a form of work that traditionally takes shape under conditions marked by extremes of self-isolation (in the studio, at a desk, in nature) and the act of making oneself public (in exhibitions, actions, publications), certainly there are other approaches to art practice based on participation. But experience shows that they too require a certain moment of isolation and concentration that allows for collective action to be planned and forces to be gathered. A fascinating aspect of Der Chef is that Beuys does not in fact treat isolation and publicness as polar opposites, but as inseparable qualities of a single action. The self-isolation inside the felt roll takes place in public. Kept at bay spatially on the one hand, and addressed through the loudspeakers on the other hand, the public is simultaneously excluded and included. In this situation, the microphone and PA system become the medium that establishes the relation between isolation and a publicness. In this sense, Der Chef can be read as a parable of cultural work in a public medium. The authority of those who dare—or are so bold as—to speak publicly results from the fact that they isolate themselves from the gaze of the public, under the gaze of the public, in order to still address it in indirect speech, relayed through a medium. What is constituted in this ceremony is authority in the sense of authorship, in the sense of a public voice. In Der Chef, Beuys stages the creation of such a public voice as an event that is as dramatic as it is absurd. He thus asserts the emergence of such a voice as an event. At the same time, however, he also undermines this assertion through the lamentably powerless form by which this voice is produced: in emitting half-smothered inarticulate sounds that would have remained inaudible without electronic amplification. This performance offers no answers. But it articulates the unresolved crux of a question that deeply concerns both art and politics: by virtue of what authority is it possible to embody a voice in the public and for the public?

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© 2008 e-flux and the author

1 Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1993).

2 Ibid., 93.

3 Ibid., 95.

4 Ibid., 89.

5 Ibid., 81.

6 The motto comes from a line in the poem “Deutschlands Beruf” (1861) by the Romantic poet Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884). Geibel invokes here the spirit of German rationalism as a mediating force he believes can create peace and political stability in Europe. In its later, more notorious application, however, the phrase came to be associated with German colonialism and with the Nazi ideology of racial superiority.

7 The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes very pointedly this modern design for self-healing by tapping a supposedly sovereign creativity of myth formation: “Romanticism itself could be defined as the invention of the scene of the founding myth, as the simultaneous awareness of the loss of the power of this myth, and as the desire or the will to regain this living power of the origin and, at the same time, the origin of this power…. This formulation in fact defines, beyond romanticism and even beyond romanticism in its Nietzschean form, a whole modernity: the whole of that very broad modernity embracing, in a strange, grimacing alliance, both the poetico-ethnological nostalgia for an initial mything humanity and the wish to regenerate the old European humanity by resurrecting its most ancient myths, including the relentless staging of these myths: I am referring, of course, to Nazi myth.” Jean-Luc Nancy, “Myth Interrupted,” in The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 45–46. See 43–70.

8 Rüdiger Sünner, Schwarze Sonne: Entfesselung und Missbrauch der Mythen in Nationalsozialismus und rechter Esoterik (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Spektrum, 1999), 34-35.

9 See Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Work (New York: Barron’s, 1979), 29.

10 Sünner, Schwarze Sonne, 36n7.

11 Quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 228.

12 Benjamin Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” originally published in Artforum 18, no. 5 (1980): 35–43; quoted here from Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed.Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P., 2001), 199–211.

13 Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 17n10.

14 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 203n11.

15 Aachener Prisma 13, no. 1 (November 1964): 16–17, quoted in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 112n8.

16 Ibid., 111.

17 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 206n11.

18 A perfect example of this is to be found in Kosuth’s text “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in which Kosuth, in the best Hegelian manner, declared his art to be the historically necessary endpoint of the history of philosophy since Kant, and his works to be direct, transparent illustrations of these lines of thought; see Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After; Collected Writings, 1966–1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

19 Joseph Kosuth, “intention(s),” originally published in Art Bulletin 78, no. 3 (September 1996): 407–12; quoted here from Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 460–68.

20 Ibid., 462.

21 Ibid., 464.

22 These included the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Students’ Party, 1967), the Organisation für Nichtwähler, freie Volksabstimmung (Organization for Nonvoters, Free Plebiscite, 1970), the Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Organization for Direct Democracy by Plebiscite, 1971), the Free International University (1971) cofounded with Heinrich Böll, and his participation in the discussions of the founding of the German Green Party (1979).

23 “Mit-Neben-Gegen” (With-Alongside-Against) was the title of an exhibition of works by Beuys’ students at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1976.

24 Express (Düsseldorf) December 1, 1967; quoted from Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys: Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Reimer, 1999), n. p., fig. 3.

25 After a lecture on the present topic, a Beuys disciple instructed me (with an authority that tolerated no dissent) that the action ÖÖ-Programm was not in fact about the question of authority but rather, as Beuys himself had said, a demonstration of (if I remember correctly) a Mongolian technique for articulation, and at the same time an illustration of the creative process of forming the quintessentially unformed by articulating the still unformed. The only reaction that occurred to me was a standard line by the Rhenish cabaret artist Jürgen Becker: “Well, you know more than I do there.”

26 See Wolf Vostel’s description of the action in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 120n8. Among other things, Beuys’s provocative statement that the Berlin Wall would have to be raised five centimeters to improve its proportions had certainly made him a media figure by this time. When he left the room at the end of the performance, that statement was apparently the subject of the first question posed by someone in the audience.

Jan Verwoert is an art critic based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor at Frieze and writes regularly about contemporary art for magazines such as Afterall and Metropolis M. He teaches in the Fine Arts MA program at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

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