We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Georg Baselitz”

That the two most prepossessing characteristics of Georg Baselitz’s primarily figurative painting—its loose, “expressive” handling and its topsy-turvy presentation—are to some extent red herrings has led to no small measure of misapprehension on the part of the artgoing public. And no little relief on the part of introductory contemporary art-history students—after all, it’s pretty easy to remember who the guy that does the messy, upside-down stuff is, and red herrings are safely ignored in intro classes.

Baselitz’s Teutonicity has done little to clarify matters. As a sloppy figurationist, he is easily linked to German Expressionism in either its echt or Neo- forms. And coming from the 20th-century West’s most dour, most “meaning”-freighted culture, there simply is no way to invert a picture without having the act interpreted as some sort of grand, perverse gesture—or some sort of ponderous, pretentious gimmick.

At his most stubborn—and his most quotable (“I have no talent,” “I have no sense of humor,” “Even the stupidest person can draw like Raphael; but doing really miserable drawings is very hard because it takes a lot of intelligence”)—he has further muddied the waters. What the Hirshhorn’s current 30-year retrospective reveals, though, is that Baselitz’s chief quest has been for new ways of seeing, ways that expose the viewer’s reliance—in both body and mind—on the conventions of picture-making.

As doggedly as he has pursued figuration, he is no realist; as persistently as he has reinvented his pictorial formats, he is no formalist—and he’s quite a bit too cool to be an expressionist. What Baselitz is, though, can be triangulated from these points—even if at first it doesn’t seem to be on the map.

Baselitz’s first major suite of mature canvases, the “Heroes” (1965-66), depicts large-framed, tiny-headed men, frequently military types, usually with their clothes falling away to reveal a central axis of bare flesh that culminates in some horrible, fanciful, somehow indefinite disfigurement of a penis. Iconographically, the pictures suggest failed saints for a postwar, Freudian Germany, returning soldiers whose trials have resulted in embarrassment and distraction rather than triumph or sanctification. Their inflated, distended, or twisted members somehow suggest the rapacity of their deeds while denying any capacity for procreative redemption. What is perhaps most fascinating about them is the way the broadly brushed application of paint somehow prevents them from becoming fully real. They hover shellshocked in an abstracted, ambiguous, delusive state, their poignancy the result of emotional and formal ambiguity rather than intensification—the product of a kind of anti-Expressionism.

In his “Fractures” (1966-69), Baselitz employed the formal ambiguity of his “Heroes” to tantalizingly disorienting ends—rearranging portions of a picture in stripes, then blending different sections of the scene (or of separate scenes) across single stripes, or fragmenting figure/ground relationships with bizarre lapses and reconfigurations. The most complex, such as the Hirshhorn’s own Meissen Woodsmen (1968-69) create a seamless, painterly analog to the torn-poster found-collages favored by midcentury photographers. If Magritte’s paintings of pictures within pictures were the least bit successful (instead of being cheap, obvious, Escheresque scenes that appeal primarily to math majors, chess fiends, and “literary” advocates of painting) they might begin to approach what Baselitz has achieved in the “Fractures.”

Appropriately, although the sensations Baselitz evokes are guided into being by our everyday visual experience, the pictures and sculptures themselves seem to exist not in the mundane realm but in the network of visuality created by other works of art. When Baselitz introduced his signature inversion in a 1969 landscape, he was attacking the ostensibly natural conception of the painting as a window onto reality. That the traditional conceit and its concomitant rectangular format is an artifact of the geometries of the windows of rationalist Western architecture is a thing easily forgotten. Baselitz accentuated the artifice of such a framing device, highlighting its existence as mathematical idea rather than tangible fact (as well as painting’s role as a process by which fugitive sight is transformed to permanent substance, by which something as sizeless and scalable as the out-of-doors becomes something as finite and measurable as a length of cloth) by submitting the scene circumscribed by the frame to a simple geometric transformation—the 180-degree rotation—that is, merely by turning it on its head.

This metamorphosis was prefigured in The Man at the Tree (1969), in which a man is inverted in a fashion inspired by the depictions of the crucifixion of St. Peter (apparently, during death-metal’s heyday, it was common sport for religion professors to accuse witless upside-down-cross-wearing students of following the martyr). The subject is foregrounded against a vague, shallow space (perhaps he is literally resting on the ground) drawn from the “Heroes,” however, so “proper” orientation is uncertain. In fact, the scene suggests the sort of semidisorientation usually provoked by an aerial perspective (which modernists have readily employed, either literally, as by the futurists, or metaphorically, as by painters of abstract “fields”). By rendering both the figure and its background approximately life-size, which only pictures with no depth of field can do, the picture designates the area it encloses to be not merely the geometric construct of traditional landscape, but actual, measurable, physical area—the edges of a plane that could be inscribed into the earth.

In maintaining this new orientation throughout his career (although he has recently started painting sideways figures as well), Baselitz has provided himself with a format readily adaptable to the subversion of viewers’ ingrained notions of the workings of pictures. Even if you know what to expect, walking into the first gallery of upside-down paintings from the rooms of right-side-up “Heroes” and “Fractures” is likely to produce a roller-coasterlike sensation of having the floor pulled out from beneath your feet. The best of the inverted canvases reconfigure gravity, mocking our dependence on it. A suite of pictures from August 1981 tackles the problem of drinking. The circular symmetry of the tumbler held by Glass Drinker makes the container’s shape read right-side-up even when the hand holding it is inverted. The natural impulse is to predict the flow of liquid from the glass; we are sure the man is about to pour the tumbler’s contents up his nose. Flip the catalog image, though, and it’s apparent that disaster looms no matter which way the scene is held. It is with a certain relief that the Bottle Drinker solves the problem by holding his flask firmly to pursed lips.

In The Gleaner (1978), the silhouette of Millet’s worker is picking at the ceiling. The result is not merely that the direction of her stooping is redirected: The woman’s pained crouch is converted to a listless droop, her form becoming slothlike, her labor turned to sloth itself. In paintings of recumbent persons, such as Woman on the Beach (1982) or the same year’s Man on Red Pillow, the bodies’ bowed upper edges curve precisely because their opposing sides are supported by flat surfaces; but inverted, the same curvatures seem decreed by gravity.

Despite the artist’s disavowal of mirth, there’s a hapless comedy in this, in the way we feel these pictures before we recognize them (thus laying bare the way we, in fact, see and interpret all pictures), in the way that a sixth sense seems attuned to our downfall before we are even aware of its imminence.

By refusing to renounce figuration, Baselitz has insisted on reminding viewers of the myriad unnameable ways in which the actual has informed our seeing. (He is, of course, also interested in how our art-seeing influences our life-seeing.) What Baselitz understands through the figures he has trapped in his visual net—and what makes their appearance in his work necessary—is that the body is as responsible for the intuition of visual perception as the eye is for its immediate apprehension, that the act of seeing is as dependent on soma as on psyche.

While he has frequently had something to say, over the course of his career Baselitz has been preoccupied with having something to see. In an era of nonpainters, of artists drawn to the practice by something other than raw visuality, it is becoming an increasingly quaint notion, but for Baselitz, the world exists to be recreated in paint.

Which is not exactly the same thing as being a formalist—because this time, the form is us.CP