A painter, printmaker, and sculptor, the German artist Georg Baselitz is a pioneering postwar artist who rejected abstraction in favor of recognizable subject matter, deliberately employing a raw style of rendering and a heightened palette in order to convey direct emotion. Photo: Martin Müller
Richard Calvocoressi is a scholar and art historian. He has served as a curator at the Tate, London, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and director of the Henry Moore Foundation. He joined Gagosian in 2015. Calvocoressi’s Georg Baselitz was published by Thames and Hudson in May 2021.
Appointed director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in April 2018, Max Hollein is responsible for guiding the museum’s artistic vision and all of its programming, research, and collection initiatives.
Katy Siegel is the Thaw Endowed Chair at Stony Brook University and senior research curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her exhibitions include Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967–75. She is the author of Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art.
Richard CalvocoressiWe are celebrating five separate projects related to Georg Baselitz: First of all, his astonishingly generous gift of six of the earliest upside-down portraits from 1969 to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Second, the exhibition of new works, Springtime, at Gagosian in New York this past spring. For the first time in Georg’s career, objects are attached to these canvases, rather like collage. The fact that they’re women’s nylon stockings introduces an erotic or fetishistic element that is also new in his art, although it recalls Dada and Surrealist artists from an earlier period, such as Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and Hans Bellmer. But it has to be said that Baselitz has an obsession with legs and feet going right back to the 1960s, if you recall that extraordinary cycle P.D. Füsse [P.D. (Pandemonium) feet, 1960–63].
Third, an exhibition of new work at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice. This can be seen until November 27, 2022, including the period of that year’s Venice Biennale. It’s a long-term installation in this wonderful palazzo, for which the artist has painted a series of portraits entitled Archinto, inspired by Titian’s two portraits of Cardinal Filippo Archinto, one in the collection of the Metropolitan, and the other, showing Archinto half-concealed by an extraordinary veil, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There were empty niches in the palazzo, and Georg generously created a series of colorful site-specific canvases for them.
Finally there are two publications: a monograph by me—the first in English—based on several years’ research, published by Thames & Hudson; and a book published by Gagosian, reproducing a selection of Elke Baselitz’s photographs of her husband’s painting and sculpture studios in Imperia, Italy, on the Mediterranean. This second book, covering roughly a twelve-year period, from 2007 to 2019, is a unique record of progress on a large number of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper and offers invaluable insight into Georg’s working methods. There are also a few happy snapshots of his family enjoying life in the sun—swimming, eating in a local trattoria, and so on.
Let’s begin with the gift of six portraits to the Met. Max, as the museum’s director, would you take us through how this came about? Perhaps you could also provide insights into the pivotal importance of these first upside-down portraits, from 1969?
MAX HOLLEINIt’s a most generous gift by the artist and his family. Georg made the offer on the occasion of the Met’s 150th anniversary, asking whether we’d be interested in having these paintings in our collection. I could not have been more pleased and excited, of course, not only because they are such landmarks within Georg’s oeuvre but also because they’re outstanding paintings within all of art history. And they find a proper home in the Met, not only in our twentieth-century collection—we have other important work by Georg there—but also in the tradition of portraiture.
These, for me, are outstanding works. Among the first works in which Georg used his strategy of inversion, they also clearly show him pushing himself more broadly, trying to make the process more complicated and finding a new way of painting. Because they’re portraits of friends, it was probably even more challenging for Georg to find a way to ensure that they’re first and foremost about the organization of color and form, and that the picture becomes two-dimensional, less about the motif and more about the surface. They resonate clearly with this deeply rooted idea of figuration, but they find a very different way of expressing a painterly attitude.
RCI think it would be very interesting to hear from Georg about these works and how they came about.
Georg BaselitzI made many different things before I started to paint upside down, and I was never happy with the result. At a certain point I had this idea to bring a completely different and radical point of view to painting: to put the paintings upside down, to get away from the idea of realistic depiction and to focus on painting itself. The first time these paintings were shown, at Franz Dahlem’s gallery at the Cologne art fair, I anticipated a big reaction, but to my surprise, there was no feedback at all. People didn’t even realize what was happening—they thought, It’s a joke, which it certainly wasn’t. For me, there was a deeper meaning and intention behind putting the motif in painting upside down.
As for the decision to give those paintings to the Metropolitan Museum, it’s one of the most important museums in the world, if not the most important museum in the world. And walking through it, you see art from all over the world. That said, my personal impression is that there isn’t a lot of German art in this museum. And you see this omission in other institutions throughout the world as well. So I wanted to know if it’s possible to bring those typical European paintings into the American context, and to see how they will be integrated into this collection.
RCLet’s go back in your career to the Helden [Heroes] paintings of the mid-1960s. Katy, you’ve written very interestingly about the tightrope the artist was walking between abstraction on the one side and representation on the other. In these paintings we begin to see him attacking the figurative tradition, but without totally abandoning it.
KATY SIEGELThanks, Richard. First I want to add, in regard to what Georg was just saying about German art in the context of the Metropolitan, that I think in general, Americans, especially artists, haven’t had as much of a chance to see his work in recent years as they might have. I’m excited there’ll be an opportunity for them to see the earlier work and to understand the radicality of the gesture of inverting the paintings, which is really understood by German painters, younger painters, like Albert Oehlen, but not so much by Americans. So I think in that context it’s really an important and generous offer to American audiences.
About abstraction and representation, Georg’s stance has been to refuse ideological positions, whether social and political—those that surrounded him in the postwar context—or the artistic choices that those positions were aligned with. Over the years he’s found a number of different ways to refuse those positions and find his own way. His earliest strategy may have been the interference of materiality and tactility with stereotypical representational images in the Helden paintings.
RCMax, you organized a very powerful traveling exhibition of those paintings a few years ago in Europe [Georg Baselitz: The Heroes, 2016–17]. What do you think these battered, bleeding, disheveled figures are saying?
MHWell, to reiterate what Georg has already addressed, he doesn’t work with guiding principles, it’s more about the radicality of painting and the radicality that you as a painter can sustain over your entire career. These inverted portraits are really about finding a way to objectify the painting, to almost unlearn some of the ways you would do portraiture and come up with different suggestions or solutions. The gift of that is enormous. With the Helden paintings, which came before the inverted ones, you see an artist going down a path nobody has gone before, and it’s basically a path that I would say nobody would believe in. It’s radical on multiple levels.
First of all, to paint a series of “heroes”—or “new types,” as they were also called—was already at that time a high risk. It was a time in the ’60s when basically nobody was looking for heroes. Tackling that subject in itself was subversive and daring. One has to remember that these works were made by a painter in Germany, a country that had experienced multifaceted destruction—economic and physical destruction for sure, after the Second World War and the Nazi regime—but also ideological destruction, political destruction. It was a country in tatters. It was just about to build itself up during the ’60s, the time of the economic miracle. Everybody wanted to look to the future, wanted to see optimism, wanted to see other art, abstraction, Zero art, anything that would bring them forward and had nothing to do with the past.
So for Georg to paint these types that looked a little like ghosts from the past—as if they were just coming out of the war, reappearing again at a time when everybody was ready to forget all that—was probably provocative for many people. Then if you look at how they’re painted, it’s clear they don’t really have color schemes, it’s all in a brownish palette—they’re actually noncolors, suggesting a painterly attitude running against anything that would traditionally be a representative painting. And these are tattered figures in worn-out battle dresses—while they’re called “heroes,” they’re clearly also about failure and resignation, a certain level of melancholy, and definitely about trying to find a new place, a new way—trying to find out how they fit in.
I don’t know if Georg agrees, but at the end of the day, I also see them as self-portraits. They’re a bit like portraits of a radical artist in a period when you feel you don’t fit in, or never will fit in, and you’re trying to find your way with all the heavy baggage you have to carry. So in that sense, it’s heroism that’s put in question, on multiple levels, in these works, but it’s also painting that’s put in question and the painter, the artist himself, that’s put in question.
RCMany of the works actually show attributes of the painter—a palette, a brush, and so on. Others—Der neue Typ [The new type, 1965], for example—seem trapped or pinned down. There’s a heaviness about them, as if they’re unable to—they can stand upright, but that’s about it.
MHIn that sense they’re dramatic and also contradictory. They’re massive paintings, monumental, and I remember when we initially started to talk about that show, Georg asked me, Do you think people will understand what they are, what they mean, and how they fit in this current time? Basically the exhibition was a test: a) how do these paintings fit in our current time, and b) can they also properly be perceived in different contexts? That was why we wanted to make sure the show traveled: first exhibited in Frankfurt, it then traveled to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. In a sense, the exhibition was trying to see different contexts, not only about history but also about the history of painting in itself.
RCLet’s discuss the so-called Frakturbilder [Fracture paintings], which come between the Helden paintings and the first upside-down portraits. I think it would be appropriate to ask Katy to say a few words about these, where Georg’s attack on the figure, his undermining of the figure, is clearly being carried to greater extremes than in the Helden.
KSThese are the first paintings in which that enormous radicality is completely visible. They’re absurdly incommensurable, in that he’s taking the most traditional genres and settings—portraits, landscapes—and combining them with the most experimental techniques of abstract painting. This combining of supposedly incommensurable categories is a hallmark of Georg throughout his career, in his social attitudes as well as in his painting. You’re supposed to be conservative or else progressive, but he refuses those terms of the debate.
In early 1969, when Georg began the Waldarbeiter [Woodsman] paintings, the figures were turned sideways. And then in June of that year, with the woodsmen and then a series of gouaches, he began to turn the figure upside down. I like these three transitional works very much because they make the gesture so clear: by turning the figure, the artist puts his perspective and his being into a state of absurd conflict with the world around him. One wants to say this is something that Georg himself experienced, a friction with social and artistic conventions of the time. It’s as if he were saying, I see the world differently; I’m in some state of conflict with the accepted view of the world. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s he’s really desynchronized, first with American modern art and then with Pop art in the United States and West Germany.
RCWe might introduce or interject a tiny biographical element regarding these woodsmen: Georg wanted to study forestry, passing his forestry exams in Germany’s most famous forestry school, in Tharandt. He’s always been deeply familiar with woods and forests and plants, and there’s a hint of that in these paintings of woodsmen, foresters, lumberjacks, and so on, with their axes. When an ax appears in a painting, it can often be read as showing the way these figures have been chopped up into body parts and, sometimes, are sent spinning around the canvas. Georg’s origins were in Deutschbaselitz, a village in Oberlausitz, or Upper Lusatia, a forgotten part of eastern Germany—he was a country boy. And these verdant, rural, rustic paintings—at a time, as you said, Katy, when what was fashionable were the bright, shiny, consumer colors of Pop art—must have seemed extraordinary to anybody looking at them: “What on earth is he doing?” But as we now know, they were more radical than people perceived at the time.
Georg, would you like to comment?
GBOne thing is very important: everything I did had to do with my biography. Everything is very personal. In relation to artistic expression, it’s very important to say that I was and still am hypersubjective, always having it in my mind that in Germany people usually ask for objectivism. One might also remember, maybe, that I came to painting on a very naïve path, without any knowledge or education. The very first exhibition that I saw was in West Berlin when I was twenty, a big exhibition of the American Abstract Expressionists, with Jackson Pollock and so on. This had a big impact on me. And I don’t think anybody can really understand what kind of impact this situation had on a young artist of my age.
My life in [East] Germany wasn’t fun, it wasn’t easy, wasn’t what we’d call free, and there was no hope. Everybody was extremely poor, and there were many artists with no success. My parents were very concerned about my future when I was young: “You will never have a chance as an artist. You can be a painter on porcelain at Meissen, or you can go and work in the forest.” There were a lot of forests around where I grew up, and forestry was a big business at the time. So I went to Tharandt to work in the woods.
RCYou told me once that you would have made a very good forester.
GBYes. And I started to go to school to become a forester, but at the same time I was accepted at art school in East Berlin, so I decided on art school.
The other problem when I was starting out was that artists either got stuck on the École de Paris or they jumped over to American movements such as Abstract Expressionism or Pop art. I felt I knew exactly what I had to do. And even if you don’t understand that, you can understand that my strange way of painting had a kind of basis.
RCI’d like to discuss sculpture, given that it’s been such an important part of Georg’s work. The title of the first sculpture that he showed publicly, Model for a Sculpture [1979–80], emphasized its own experimental status. It caused an outcry when it was shown in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1980 for all sorts of associations that it brought, particularly the raised right arm. But I think, as Georg said at the time, the figure isn’t standing to attention, it’s waving rather than saluting, and the prototype was very much the kind of African sculpture that he had in his own collection. As Max was saying about the hero paintings, it signified an attempt to remind people of the past, rather than let them sink into denial or into a kind of obsession with the economic miracle, which at this time had enormously benefited West Germany.
One of the things Georg has always said is that it’s very difficult to escape being a German. However much you try, you come back to your roots. There’s no such thing as a clean slate. I think this is particularly evident in his sculpture and in his woodcuts. In the German tradition, woodcuts and wood sculpture ultimately go back to Gothic art and more recently to Die Brücke, the German Expressionists of the early twentieth century. This sculpture by Georg from the early 2000s, Volk Ding Zero [Folk thing zero], was inspired by medieval Central and Eastern European folk art depicting the so-called Pensive Christ. We see here again this fascination with legs and feet, which I think is echoed in the sculpture itself and also in certain paintings of Georg’s of the period. The work was made crudely, using a chainsaw—it’s a kind of primordial sculpture, if you like, a sculpture that goes back to the origins of shape- and figure-making, way before any tradition of Renaissance sculpture supervenes.
One painting, Sandteichdamm [Sand Pond Dam 1953 (Remix), 2006], connects with what Georg was just saying about the autobiographical element in his paintings, in all his work. The Sandteichdamm was the sand-pond dam or embankment at Deutschbaselitz, the village where he was born and grew up, and which is surrounded by fishponds and lakes. So it’s as if these feet from the later period are moving back into his childhood and the landscape of his childhood.
KSYes, it’s really interesting to connect the way Georg makes art, makes a painting, makes a sculpture, with his biography. He talks, for instance, about making a sculpture as an act of digging. He’s using the chainsaw to dig into the wood and draw up material. The wood, the paint, his memory, his past, are all thick surfaces or materials that he goes down into to pull up an image, he says, like a fisherman’s pail, or like Samuel Beckett’s barrel—a literal container for characters on stage, most notably in Endgame . It isn’t a thin surface we’re talking about. This comes out emphatically in the works where he’s revisiting his childhood and the landscape of his childhood, both in actuality and as it was painted historically. His feet are down on the ground, not up, as they were in the inverted paintings, and Georg talks about putting his head down and looking down into the dark pond of that landscape, those memories. He draws together the act of making and the act of looking into himself—a deep reflection that’s almost metaphysical and at the same time intensely visual and physical as well.
RCI thought it would be interesting to have a look at a new technique that Georg discovered, experimented with, about two years ago, for transferring a painted image from one canvas to another. In Madame Demoiselle , he painted on a white-ground canvas, then laid a black-ground canvas on top of the first canvas and applied pressure with a broom before peeling them apart. The paint transferred from one canvas to the other, and the final work is on the black-ground canvas, which he hasn’t actually touched with his hands or his brush. One has to remember that he’s been painting on the floor for something like thirty years. So he gets very, very close to these images, often so close that he can’t actually see whether they’re working or not. From time to time, he needs to peel them off, or even tack them to a stretcher and place them on the wall, to see whether they work.
Many of these later works have been concerned with his own body and the body of his wife, Elke, naked. There’s a poignancy and vulnerability to many of these late paintings. But I’d like to ask, Georg, what was so important about having a painting in which the artist’s touch is reduced almost to nothing? Is it intended to achieve some kind of impersonal, anonymous painting without style?
GBOne accusation I was always confronted with was my “handwriting,” my personal touch in the paintings—that this was so fierce and was always a big part of my work. And yes, I wanted to escape from it. I tried to find a way in these recent works to confront this challenge. Over the last sixty years I’d done a lot of prints on copper, on wood—a big body of work—and what I experienced with printing was that prints stand alone, they become independent. The personal artistic touch gets lost when you make prints. And for sure, with age there’s a physical problem. So I tried to find a solution to deal with those physical problems, and I actually thought it might become easier with this method of printing, of using two canvases. I made very simple paintings—you could compare them with a child’s painting—in oil on canvas, and I took another canvas and put it on it and made this print, and somehow a beautiful painting came out. So I took the Elke portrait, which you can see now at the Metropolitan, and I painted it very simple, like a copy, very naive, and the outcome, again, was wonderful. So this whole series of Elke portraits is based on this very first one from 1969, which I produced in this manner.
I had this idea in my mind throughout my whole career, but it was the kind of thing I didn’t allow myself to do. I never allowed myself to paint in the manner of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning; I always tried to avoid someone seeing those influences in my work. Now I let myself do it, because I actually didn’t do it. It happened by coincidence.
And Katy, what you said earlier about Samuel Beckett is exactly how I think about it. I really like this idea. What you have, what you’ve experienced in your life, you have it in your pocket. Sometimes you just look at what you have in your pocket, and this is what you carry with you throughout your life. You have to deal with it.
Artwork © Georg Baselitz 2021