Georg Baselitz has mounted an assault on the most sacred tradition of Western art. Andrew Gibbon Williams assesses a major retrospective of his work.

After the war, New York stole the idea of modern art. That‘s not my phrase but it neatly sums up the reality ofwhat occurred. And having stolen our century‘s greatest cultural innovation. Manhattanites upped the value of this amazing prize by bringing to it something peculiarly their own: an ability to make money.

The success of German artist Georg Baselitz, wunderkind of 80s figuration. is very much a result of New York know-how, though with the fashion for all things European which swept through the American art world that decade, it is not surprising that continental galleries connived at it too. By the end of the decade, Baselitz's heavily-worked. antagonistic canvases were changing hands for telephone number prices.

There are those who like this sort of thing and there are those who don‘t; I admit to being one of the former. When I first encountered the work of Baselitz I was entranced: all that paint, all that colour, all that (what looked. at least, like) expressionism. This was masculine, fearless painting executed and the verb seems apt by an artist who was refusing to be intimidated by the possibility of failure.

The more I saw, however, the more disillusioned I became. Baselitz began to look like a paid-up member of the assembly-line syndrome: whatever he chose to paint, the final results all ended up looking the same. Excitement gave way to boredom.

Anyway. I am pleased to be able to say that the

largest-ever Baselitz retrospective to be staged in this country has rekindled my enthusiasm. Baselitz ; is an artist who deserves to be understood en masse. And to understand is to admire.

First there are (to borrow Baselitz‘s title) the ‘partisans‘. These are the military—looking . characters who seem to be wandering lost through 1 some God-forsaken landscape. But examine the way in which they are painted: no regard for form; no attempt at representation. In assembling these figures from areas of densely-worked pigment Baselitz is mounting an assault on the most sacred tradition of Western art.

By the mid-70s, however, Baselitz as still not sure that the battle had been won so he proceeds to strip his figurative vocabulary of all narrative allusion. Now, monumental yet still remarkably sketchy nudes stagger across landscapes of pure paint; the rawness of the spectacle edging the viewer into a visual dilemma: ‘Am I supposed to

be reading a subject or should I be ignoring it and



studying the actual painting?‘ Baselitz’s most scandalous decision the inverting of his pictures was merely meant to further polarize this

. dilemma.

The works of the 803 benefit from the confidence

, ofan authoritative radicalism already established. Great smudges ofbrightly coloured pigment are

scrubbed across the canvases; sometimes a representational ghost emerges, sometimes not.

A picture entitled Dicke Blonde painted in 1987 comes close to de Kooning‘s similar solutions to tackling the female nude. though compared with Baselitz, the abstract expressionist‘s approach now looks feeble and half-hearted. Zweishwarze Baume is a more elaborate exercise in the destruction of the image, its relative prettiness inviting the suspicion that, during the course of the work, the artist’s vigour has been sapped by self-consciousness.



Georg Baselitz’s Dicke Blonds

If this was the end of the story then Baselitz. the East German boy made good, might be accused of having capitalised on the vogue for figuration which was already nascent when he moved to West Berlin in the early The most recent work, however, argues against such cynicism.

In a picture called Gelb No painted only last year, Baselitz resorts to the most primitive method ofobliterating an image. Two up-turned figures— indicated rather than painted have been ferociously erased with savage jabs of paint. The pit of abstraction one suspects lurks nearby; this is Baselitz refusing to be trapped. Only in some subsequent examination of his progress will we know whether or not he has succeeded.

Georg Baselitz: A Retrospective Exhibition 1964—1 991, Gallery ofModern Art, Edinburgh, unti.I IOJul.

SOThe List l9June—2July 1992