“Joesph Beuys: Jeder Griff Muss Sitzen – Just Hit the Mark, Works from the Speck Collection”
Gagosian Gallery until February 14 (980 Madison Avenue, at 77th Street, 212-744-2313).
“Georg Baselitz: Recent Paintings”
Michael Werner until February 7 (4 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212-988-1623).
Does this career sound familiar? A decorated German ex-serviceman dreams of becoming an artist and ends up in politics. Inspired by folk myths of the artist as a hero who will save his nation, he becomes the subject of a cult following, speaking to the faithful at interminable length. While few follow his labyrinthine thought, charismatic delivery carries the day: Women adore him, in his gray uniform, and he has his image plastered everywhere.
Naturally, I am talking about the artist, Joseph Beuys. But if this résumé reads like that of a more notorious example of German romanticism gone awry, it is not entirely coincidental. Beuys set himself up as a kind holy fool of art, at once prankster and prophet, showman and shaman. The nation he sought to save was both in denial of its own legacy and in the grip of crass consumerism. Beuys was the trailblazer of postwar artists as diverse as Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, and Georg Baselitz: each in their way would remind the newly afluent, liberal German public of their uncomfortable past.
Beuys had a personal myth to rival any Wagnerian hero’s. Shot down as a young Luftwaffe pilot over the Russian Steppes, he claimed to have been saved by a friendly tribe of Tartars who covered his burnt body in fat and wrapped him in layers of felt. Thus fat and felt became symbol-laden materials in his art: Installations, performances, objects produced in multiple revelled in these drab, sinister substances, his tragic trademarks.
For generations of German museumgoers, art history officially culminated in Beuys’s lugubrious Wehrmacht grayness and ominious accumulations of lard- making the kunsthalle a kind of aesthetic death camp. His performances often entailed rambling lectures, and the chalkboard at which he detailed his anthroposophical-cum-ecological meanderings would be preserved as a drawing. Beuys’s subversive objects and inscrutable scribblings would be packaged obsessively, in, prissy vitrines, at once fetishizing these objects and debunking the logic and orderliness of their presentation .
Beuys’s international reputation was phenomenal, but outside his specifically German context the occultism and counter-cultural preaching were taken at face value, and the iconoclastic dimension lost its edge. Really, he was the flip side of Andy Warhol: Where the consumerist banalities of his American friend were ultimately nihilist, his own drabness was, in an odd way, cathartic.
It is hard to know whether future generations, unversed in the myth and ideology that coat the Beuys pill, will swallow it. You certainly have to accept a lot of dogma to make Beuys part of your art creed. His objects and installations rarely have much by way of intrinsic aesthetic interest beyond stylish poverty and self-conscious obscurantism. That said, the collection of Dr. Reiner Speck, on view at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue space, is a palatable introduction. In fact, you’ll never see Beuys looking prettier.
Dr. Speck, a physician, collector, and literary scholar from Cologne, supported Beuy’s work from the 1960s to the artist’s death in 1986. His collection has its share of dada agitprop, including a pair of placards which together read “Dürer, I will personally guide Baader + Meinhof through Documenta V,” as well as chalkboards and table drawings. But it includes many quirky, erotic, or touchingly enigmatic pieces.
A selection of the fabulous early figurines and drawings show a less portentous side of the Beuysian imagination. These drawings, looking to Klimt and Schiele in their kinkiness but to Bellmer and Wols in their spindly, warped forms, could almost have been made to illustrate the degeneracy theories of Max Nordau: They are knowingly feeble and febrile. “Virgin” (1952), a little doll-like torso wrapped in bandage, exposing a wax vagina, and placed coyly on a cushion, is deliciously perverse.
Actually, orifices abound in this collection (the good doctor was obviously unfazed by anatomy), appearing in a bagel-like mandala made from a rubber disk mounted on paper, and in a richly suggestive felt disk, smeared with fat and sporting two fingernail clippings. Ah well, boys will be Beuys.
A band of painters who came to international prominence in the 1980s looked afresh at expressionism, the very style and movement labelled “degenerate” in the 1930s. They courted disaster in a culture still uneasy with the legacy of fascism by revisiting myth, the primitive, and the irrational in art.
The chief representative of this school was Georg Baselitz, a painter originally from East Germany who made his career in the West. His oversized figurative canvases set a high standard of bombast and bravura. His trademark quirk was to place the figures upside-down, or at 90 degrees. His handling and depiction were deliberately slovenly and inaccurate, but all the more richly expressive for being so.
Now about to turn 66, Mr. Baselitz is showing a group of 10 paintings from 2000 at Michael Werner’s elegant New York space, around the corner from the Beuys show (Werner is a German gallerist based in Cologne). These works are the strongest and most engaging seen from this artist for some years.
All take as their starting point a set of drawings the artist had made as a teenager in the early 1950s: rather traditional watercolors of eagles flying among mountain peaks. The year of the original drawing is emblazoned in dots that read like lights, but also recall the obsessive, enigmatic dot motifs familiar elsewhere in Mr. Baselitz’s work. The subject and style of the boy artist’s drawings (reproduced in the catalogue) are sinisterly uninnocent in view of the role of eagles and eeries in Nazi iconography. The reworkings seem to acknowledge this.
Mr. Baselitz brings out the vulnerability of his appropriated motifs through repetition and fracture – not so much in the sense of doing violence to the motif as of exploring and abstracting it in a painterly way. The beefy bombast of earlier Baselitz gives way here to linear variety, painterly delicacy, and luxuriance of color that all suggest an emotional investment that transcends the theatrical. Contemplating the products of his own youth has brought out a new tenderness of touch. These results still acknowledge the troubled nature of history and memory, , but offers beauty as the means of healing.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 15, 2004print