Monday, March 1st, 2004

Jörg Immendorff: I Wanted to be an Artist

Golden Paley Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design
20th Street and The Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19103
215 568 4515

23 January – 21 March

Jörg Immendorff Ohne Titel (Untitled) 1994 pencil, gouache, ink, 35 x 25 cm Collection Philip Isles, New York
Jörg Immendorff, Ohne Titel (Untitled) 1994 pencil, gouache, ink, 35 x 25 cm Collection Philip Isles, New York

This expert survey of Jörg Immendorff’s career reassesses an artist whose period of notoriety in America lasted a relatively short time in the 1980’s. This was partly a matter of mistaken identity – he was too closely linked with the neo-expressionist and new image (?) bandwagon prevalent at the time. His connection to direct contemporaries who gained mega-celebrity status, Anselm Keifer and Gerhardt Richter, is also shown to be partly incidental. From this exhibition, Immendorff emerges more fully as an original artist of great complexity. This reevaluation also makes distinctions that remove him from convenient generalizations made about the “postmodern” Eighties, the Trans-Avant-Garde, and art generally, and it illustrates thoroughly the conceptual nature of his work.

Born in 1945, Immendorff was of the generation that experienced post-war disillusionment that politicized every waking moment. As a student in the 1960s, he faced the task of examining Germany’s tragic history and its fraught relationship with modernity. This forced him to devise a balancing act between eras.

Immendorff subsequently takes on the multiple roles of jester, storyteller and historian. He actively participates in a self-conscious continuum of twentieth-century German art while simultaneously throwing stones at the powers that be. After running the full gamut of conceptual work á la fluxus, his adoption of painting appears as a sort of purposeful and elaborate bluff. Although this suits his needs, it makes the connection to Ludwig Kirchner and the original German expressionist group die Brücke seem almost superfluous. What comes to the fore instead is a weaving together of political, social and personal myth making. It is the content that matters most, putting him more in line with the social, satirical and metaphorical intents of George Grosz and Max Beckmann respectively.

Immendorf’s early work from the sixties tells of the political upheavals of his days under the mentorship of Joseph Beuys. At that time, with the strong fluxus influence, there existed all sorts of manifestos, sloganizing and politicized minimal art. A petition to end the Vietnam war from 1965 (signed by Beuys and others) serves as a defining historic document here. This section of the show also conveys how Immendorff’s later shift to painting, in all it’s conventionality, is not so much an “about face” as it is a specific strategy-he goes on to combine his well-learned conceptual precepts and his inherent politics with his painterly methods.

The large “Café Deutschland” paintings (1978-83) feign expressionist representation and zeal and move towards a system of complex metaphor which is in some way novel. Although illustrative, viewing these so-called Picabian “bad paintings” is merely the first step one takes in deciphering their meanings. They must be read as “multiple texts” not just formally as paintings. The bars with wooden floors serve as meeting places of mythic characters where the artist and converses with Mao, Marx, Stalin, Beuys and Brecht. Whether conspicuously or not, Immendorff avidly adopts the mantle of Beuys and with it, the ability to fabricate and mix myths with facts.

Beuys’s image appears continuously in Immendorf’s work. A small painting, “Gertrude Stein,” includes a depiction of Beuys piloting his Stuka dive bomber with “Fluxus” written (in typical Immendorff fashion) across the wings. In the large painting, Sun Gate, a diagrammatical outline of his teacher becomes a Beuys’s museum.

Jörg Immendorff Anbetung des Inhalts (Worship of Content) 1985 oil on canvas, 285 x 330 cm Collection John and Mary Pappajohn Art Foundation, Des Moines, Iowa
Jörg Immendorff, Anbetung des Inhalts (Worship of Content) 1985 oil on canvas, 285 x 330 cm Collection John and Mary Pappajohn Art Foundation, Des Moines, Iowa

Eventually, Beuys turns up in Immendorf’s theatrical productions of the 1990s. As the paintings progress, Immendorff both pays homage and mocks, cycling his own personal myths, those of East and West and those peculiar to the art world. This process reaches a natural culmination when Immendorff uses theater — for which he was originally trained — as his canvas. Immendorf’s video production of Stravinsky’s opera Rake’s Progress is ingenuously used as an unlikely channel for German art and society. Key figures appear-Beuys, Penke and Lüpertz -all playing different historical figures in the play. The artist Baselitz plays the Keeper of the Insane Asylum, while Lüpertz becomes Mick Shadow, Rakewell’s alter ego. With Immendorff as Tom Rakewell, one can see a fantastic interweaving of past and present, a confluence of Germanic art historical reference brought to life. Immendorf’s use of Hogarth’s morality tale shows his strange affinity with the English caricaturist and reinforces where Immendorff’s interests lie: in promoting an open-ended dialogue on culture. The fall of the Berlin Wall, so long at the center of his rationale, may have been the reason he went looking for alternative fertile ground to further extend his content and may partially explain his disappearance after his 1980s heyday.

Immendorff promulgates a watertight tautology that runs progressively through his ideas and delivery. His questions about the purpose of art and the conceptualization of the artist’s role are answered by the work itself and indeed, in retrospect, by Immendorff’s own life. His question, “What Can Art Do?” resonates particularly well now as art continues to develop an apolitical global/corporate mind set. This superbly researched show qualifies his unique contribution to art and ensures his enduring legacy.