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Georg Baselitz’s signature style is upside-down figurative painting. But he did not start out painting upside-down figures—he evolved into it. A mostly fantastic exhibition currently on view at the Hirshhorn, Baselitz: Six Decades, documents chronologically how he got to the upside-down—and where he went from there.
While studying art in East Berlin in 1958, Baselitz encountered Abstract Expressionism and the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston for the first time. This was a seminal event for the young painter because he had never seen anything like it. It left him questioning what it meant to be a post- war German painter.
Many postwar European artists began exploring the body as subject matter in response to the war and Social Realism. To solve his own dilemma, Baselitz firmly committed to figuration and, influenced by Abstract Expressionism, to painting the figure expressively. This paradoxical dualism—the abstract figure—proved to be fertile ground for experimentation. It provided a set of variables where X equals the constant, the figure, and Y can be anything. His early figurative paintings displayed in the first gallery, such as “Oberon” (1963), are haunting and decimated and show Baselitz’s burgeoning interest in history as indirect subject matter.
After this first gallery is a hallway interlude of drawings and print materials from the early 1960s, including a copy of Baselitz’s manifesto Pandemonium. These interludes dispersed throughout the rotunda are not as interesting as the paintings they support. Though they function well as a chronological archive and documentation, the interludes and print materials would be better served collectively as a focused gallery rather than materials passed by in order to see the next group of paintings.
Spread across two gallery spaces, Baselitz’s successive series of works over the rest of the decade reflect a torn, divided country searching for a new identity while reckoning with its past. His “Heroes” figures, with their small heads and elongated appendages, are consumed by stark, centralized trees and exaggerated, con- vex landscapes in muddy hues of brown, green, red, and ochre. The “Fracture” series finds him zooming in compositionally, slicing the figure among the trees, and mixing in swaths of blue and black in place of reds and ochres.
By 1969, Baselitz wanted to obliterate any expectation of what a figurative painting or a portrait should be. He inverted the image, painting upside-down. The upside-down figure became the new constant. Over the next decade, Baselitz explored various motifs as subject matter—Elke, his wife; seated figures; portraits; birds; finger painting. The trees eventually morphed into background grid structures. Line and form were looser and more painterly. For the first time his color palette turned radiant with rich yellows, blues, and reds.
The paintings shown in the Hirshhorn’s exhibit from the 1980s are the highlight of the show and a wonder to behold, especially “Orange Eater (IX),” “The Brücke Chorus,” and “Eagle in Bed.” Thankfully “The Brücke Chorus” is given the prominent display it deserves. Because of their historical implications for American painting, the Hirshhorn should have dedicated more gallery space to this era of work— consolidating the previous two decades of paintings on display—to allow for more room.
The same can be said for the ensuing “Remix” series from the 2000s and the survey of large sculptures on display. Because Baselitz’s work from the 1980s is so strong, some of his earlier and later work pales in comparison—or functions merely as a path towards a future and a departure from his past. This is a problem inherent with chronological survey shows. Perhaps the idea of a remix could have been taken a step further and applied to Baselitz’s whole career.
Baselitz says a painter must keep painting and he has recently reached a second peak of work that rivals his work from the 1980s. These recent paintings are a testament to Baselitz’s incessant powers of reinvention and self-assessment. He continues to paint large scale upside-down paired figures but also single figures floating upon a horizontal plane. Some figures are decapitated. He has also begun to paint small portraits. The color palette has been reduced to a translucent mixture of pale whites and reds and yellows dominated by black backgrounds and exquisite chalky textures. After six decades, Baselitz looks in the mirror and astounds us with whispered memories of mortality.
At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Sept. 16. Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.