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.
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.
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.
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.
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