Baselitz's art frees content from image Art review: Show at the Hirshhorn is retrospective on artist famed for upside-down paintings.

February 25, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

His name is Georg Baselitz, and he paints people upside down. His upside-down people are so well-known that even those who don't know the artist's name can remember having seen them.

Some think it's a gimmick to capture attention, and it certainly has done that. Some think it's a symbol of a topsy-turvy world, by an artist born under the Nazis and brought up in Soviet-controlled East Germany. Baselitz calls it "the best way to liberate representation from content."

We have the opportunity to decide what we think of it by going to the major Baselitz retrospective that recently opened at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum. Whatever else the show proves, it clearly demonstrates that Baselitz is much more than just an artist who paints people upside down.

That's only one aspect of the more than 30-year career of a painter, sculptor and draftsman who in his best works combines the worlds of abstraction and representation perhaps as well as any artist of his generation.

In that sense, the artist whom he most closely resembles in the second half of the 20th century is Willem de Kooning. One of the greatest of the first generation of abstract expressionists who gained prominence in the decade after World War II, De Kooning has always been known as an abstract painter even though many of his works contain recognizable images, especially of women.

Almost all of Baselitz's works contain recognizable images. But some of his most powerful and successful works, such as Eagle" (1977) and "Bomb-Site Woman" (1978), are among his most abstract. And even when the image is clear, as with "Coffeepot and Orange" or "Bottle Drinker" (both 1981), we are drawn to the work more as pure painting than for anything it depicts.

Although Baselitz has acknowledged debts to both de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, the highly emotional, aggressive quality of his style, bordering on violence at times, recalls de Kooning far more than Pollock, whose gesturalism is much more lyrical.

Baselitz's upside-down figures are usually associated with the 1980s, the decade when the German neo-expressionists with whom he has been lumped gained international prominence. But he had been inverting figures since 1969 and had been a recognized artist in his native Germany since the early 1960s.

Born in Saxony in 1938, he grew up during World War II and under the oppressive East German regime that followed. But by the age of 20, he was living and studying in West Berlin, where in 1958 he was introduced to the work of the abstract expressionists, including Pollock, de Kooning and Philip Guston.

A period of study in Italy in 1965 exposed him to the artists of the 16th-century mannerist period that followed the high Renaissance. These influences combined in his first major series of paintings, called the "Heroes," of the mid-1960s. If the abstract expressionists can be seen in these works' scale, their gestural brush stroke and their raw power and mannerism contributed to the distortions of the figures, with oversized arms and hands and undersized heads.

The figures in this series, which includes titles such as "Partisan" (1965), "Rebel" (1965) and "A Modern Painter" (1966), have been called both heroes and anti-heroes. In reality, these paintings reflect the modern human in all his confusion, facing a world where good and evil are no longer easily recognizable entities and the individual is forced to decide on values rather than looking to society for them. These are definitely existentialist works of art.

Inasmuch as the men in these works are often depicted with their flies open, the paintings can be seen as having a sexual content. But since we don't glimpse any genitals, it seems more probable that they indicate the vulnerability of the figures.

The most fascinating of these paintings is "Trap," in which the figure sits at the feet of two trees, painted like soldiers in camouflage uniforms, whose branches duel to the point of bringing forth blood that drips on the passive figure. The two trees might stand for the two parts of then-divided Germany. But it's just as possible that, in a world that has created chemical, biological and atomic weapons, this refers to the fact that we have learned to use all the forces of the natural world as agents of war and subjugation.

Diane Waldman, the curator at New York's Guggenheim Museum who organized the show (and where it debuted), states in the catalog that in the "Heroes" series Baselitz "found himself. Painted in less than a year, they have continued to inform all of his subsequent work. Issues concerning the figure, form, color, and line, with which he had experimented since his student days, were resolved in these canvases."

Indeed, it is possible to go further than that: In their combination of forceful image and deep humanity, they are among Baselitz's finest works, ones he has seldom equaled and never surpassed.

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