Markus Lüpertz, one of Germany’s most significant artists of the postwar period, has arrived in America.
Why has the 76-year-old, highly prolific artist, with a career stretching back to the mid-1960s and a rebellious reputation in Europe, remained comparatively unknown in the United States? Why is his first major U.S. museum retrospective happening only now?
“I find that a really tantalizing question,” says Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection and curator of that museum’s Lüpertz exhibition, entitled simply Markus Lüpertz (May 27-Sept. 3, 2017). It has to do with art politics, with everything in life including chance, she says.
“But I think, and I feel it so strongly in this exhibit, that it goes back to the fundamental issue of paintings that can grip you by the throat and challenge you to understand what painting's all about. Paintings that are uncompromising. Paintings that take a helmet, a cake form, a straw of grain, a split tree trunk? And monumentalize them, and give them the dignity of the traditional history genre. It's so contradictory, it's confounding.”
For Kosinski, this contradictory, confounding spirit in Lüpertz’s practice is also the source of his allure.
“I think that for me, that is what I feel passionate about in this work is that it's so brazen, it's so muscular, it's so robust."
Cold War Berlin
While the Phillips Collection exhibition, drawing on a major 2015 gift from gallerist Michael Werner of 46 works by postwar German artists including Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff and Lüpertz, covers a broad sweep of the artist’s fifty-plus-year career, the Hirshhorn exhibition, entitled Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History (May 24-Sept. 10, 2017), focuses on the critical early period of Lüpertz’s practice, during the 1960s and 1970s.
This included the still influential Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, whose 1958 exhibition in Berlin impacted a generation of German artists. “And then what happened was that about fifty percent of Berlin artists started painting like de Kooning and the other fifty percent did exact opposite,” Lüpertz told painter Peter Doig in a 2014 conversation.
Avid autonomist Lüpertz sought a third way. In 1963, he began including dithyramb in the titles of many works, signifying a singular approach to his creative process.
The dithyramb, referring in classical Greece to an impulsive, euphoric verse in praise of Dionysus, was revived by nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his Dionysian-Dithyrambs poems, published in 1891.
For Lüpertz, the dithyramb was about asserting the painter’s expressive power over the subject being depicted. Though various objects—some with strong political overtones—emerged in recognizable form in his paintings, for Lüpertz, these forms were mere motifs, drained of a specific meaning by the artist’s treatment of them.
The ambiguous relation between abstraction and figuration has since become a hallmark of Lüpertz’s art. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important,” he has said.
Donald Duck’s Homecoming
Nonetheless, Lüpertz acknowledges a debt of influence to great mid-century American painters including de Kooning, Pollock, and Phillip Guston, who provided a point of departure for both German and American artists of his generation, he says.
Museum-goers should not visit the Phillips Collection or Hirshhorn exhibitions hoping to ‘understand’ Lüpertz’s art. That will only be possible, if at all, with the perspective of several hundred years’ time, according to Lüpertz.
And it would miss the point. "In art, it's so much more beautiful to believe than to know; beliefs cannot be disappointed. That's why you should believe in art."
In any case, as Dorothy Kosinski of the Phillips Collection noted, the viewer’s reaction to these works is often something akin to the dithyramb—a spontaneous, intuitive passion. Kosinski used the German word berauschend—intoxicating.
“[Museum founder] Duncan Phillips would love this,” she said. “He would adore the exhilaration in these paintings!”
By Jacob Comenetz, Cultural Affairs Officer, German Embassy Washington
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