"New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1980-1940," Nov. 16, 2001-Feb. 18, 2002, at the Neue Galerie New York, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
The Neue Galerie has a wonderful ambiance. It's something like a townhouse condescending to open its doors to the public (Friday through Monday -- a long weekend). An ex-mansion that was once home to YIVO, a Jewish research organization devoted in part to documenting the Holocaust, it has now become a museum devoted exclusively to Austrian and German art. It has been baptized with a German name and, as though to rub the irony in, its catalogues and brochures, along with the announcement of the high fees of entry at the ticket desk, are printed in German as well as English. It's as though the cosmetics magnate that sponsored it was nostalgic for the German-Jewish world of his ancestors. The Neue Galerie is a token reconstruction of that world, with no acknowledgement of the anti-Semitic Germany that destroyed it. The museum collects the enemy's art before he became the enemy -- art that the Nazis despised as "degenerate," which today gives it a clean bill of health. Thus the museum is a sort of triumph of will: in a sense, it represents the superiority of the German Jews -- proverbially more German than the Germans -- to those who claimed to be their superiors. The Aryan master race has disappeared, while the German Jew has survived, if in more ostentatious American form. One wonders in fact if the Neue Galerie is not a wish fulfillment: the upper class home its builder imagined his family had in some mythically good old Germany. Showing it off to the public -- the politeness, even deference, of the security guards makes them seem like servants, and makes the cultural tourist feel like an honored guest in a sacred space -- the master of the house proclaims his success by displaying his treasures. Opening a museum -- a haute bourgeois salon of art -- is certainly the ultimate way of showing that one has "arrived." Standing on an expensive corner of Fifth Avenue, halfway between the Metropolitan and Guggenheim Museums, the Neue Gallerie challenges both with its quiet majesty, defiantly devoted to an art that neither of its neighbors displays with any adequacy or conviction. (Will the art of Nazi Germany, which, after all, is part of the German heritage, ever be allowed on the premises?)
The art in fact is magnificent, not because it shares in the magnificence of its surroundings -- in fact, its formal boldness, which brings with it a new sense of emotional candor and freshness, challenges the pretentiousness of the building, which reeks of stale feelings of self-congratulation and bombastic delusions of grandeur -- but because it forces one to re-think the history of modern art, and especially to re-evaluate Cubism, and the significance it has been accorded, that is, the worthwhileness of its esthetics and attitudes. At the same time that the sense of the human was fading from the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the psychological realism of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka in Vienna and of Kirchner and Heckel in Dresden was offering new insights into it. At the same time that Picasso and Braque were moving toward total abstraction but at the last moment repudiating it as absurd -- the moment of the Analytic Cubist portraits of 1910-11 -- Kandinsky embraced it, discovering new esthetic possibilities in gestural formlessness while using it to convey the feeling of "inner necessity" or spirit (the seelisch) that is as essential to human being as the body.
Indeed, just as the Cubist pioneers are losing sight of the body, the Austrian and German artists are repossessing and rediscovering it. Schiele re-asserts it with a vehemence not seen in art since Caravaggio and Goya. Every part of it becomes a psychological terra incognita as well as a sensual discovery. And beyond the body there is the nature to which it belongs: just as landscape is drying up into a dessicated, colorless, sterile remnant -- flayed alive and ground up into planar bones -- in such works as Braque's Houses at L'Estaque (1908) and Picasso's Houses on the Hill, Horta del Ebro (1909), Klimt paints such flourishing, luminous, colorful landscapes as Pond of Schloss Kammer on the Attersee (before 1910) and his House in Weissenbach on the Attersee (1912), Schiele paints Stein on Danube Seen from the South and River Landscape with Two Trees (both 1913) -- to my mind the revelation of the exhibition -- and the German Expressionists are painting their vivid, explosive Sturm-und-Drang landscapes.
What we see in Cubism is a narrowing down of the expressive possibilities of art, supposedly in the name of truth to the medium, while what we see in the School of Vienna, the Brücke, and the Blaue Reiter is an expansion of the medium to new expressive effect. Where the Austrian and German artists explore and study the world around them, including the often nightmarish inner world, as Alfred Kubin shows, and engage the existential reality of life, showing truths that are rarely pictured in art -- Klimt's and Schiele's drawings of narcissistically masturbating girls is the case in point, as are Schiele's drawings of his own unashamed narcissism and curiosity about his body, but even they are not as full of psychological and social risk and challenge as his images of naked women embracing, which show women gratifying each other and so in no need of men (the ultimate threat to them) -- the Cubists reduce art to its supposedly autonomous formal terms, treating them as ends in themselves. Where the Austrian and German artists are emotionally basic with no sacrifice of formal understanding, the Cubists are formally basic at the expense of emotional understanding, not to say empathy. For them, the work of art becomes a construction, explicitly -- an undisguised manipulation of formal terms -- which it also is for the Austrian and German artists, and for that matter the Old Masters, but not at the sacrifice of the lifeworld. When the Cubists reconstruct the world out of their formal building blocks, the result is more an ironical simulation than an insightful representation of lived experience. Comparing Kokoschka's portraits to those of Analytic Cubism, we sense a formal intelligence in the service of tragic humanity rather than formal cleverness apotheosizing itself.
In general, the Austrian and German masters successfully fuse figuration and abstraction -- Klimt's abstractly decorative portraits are the important example -- while the Cubist masters sacrifice figuration to formal procedures that dare not go the distance to the abstraction they signal, out of fear that all reference to reality and with that the idea of the pictorial will be lost, even if reality has been reduced to "so-called" reality, that is, become, at best, an epistemological problem, and as such not exactly experienced. One has to wonder if the Cubists were not unconsciously anti-life. Did the famous "negation" with which they inaugurated 20th-century art spill over into their mood, or is the inner lifelessness of their representations a manifestation of it? It is as though they had to empty art-making of emotion -- overintellectualizing it in the process -- in order to prove that it was simply a matter of organization, that is, that a painting was simply a formal arrangement on a flat surface before it was a picture of anything, to paraphrase the Cubist apologist Maurice Denis. It is certainly not a representation of suffering or pleasure, let alone intimacy, which is what we find in the Austrian and German artists. Cubism certainly seem hostile to life in contrast to the vigorous engagement with life -- sometimes with its morbid underside, sometimes with sexual excitement -- evident in Austrian and German Expressionism. It clearly shows that there is more than one way to re-invent the picture, and, for that matter, representation.
The formal acumen of the Austrian and German masters is most visible in their designs for furniture and tableware, all meant to be part of a total architecture, as the many works by Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Mies van der Rohe indicate. Here they are explicitly abstract, with no sacrifice of the human touch, as several of the clocks -- one with hands ending in a kind of free form heart shape -- make clear. To use the term "beauty" for these objects is to sell them short, just as it is to think of the German Expressionistic works in the exhibition or Schiele's figures as "bizarrely distorted." Excruciatingly sublime is a better way of thinking of them, for they suggest the romance of art, that is, its power to make the inarticulate articulate, to face the irrational without succumbing to it -- to stare ugly human reality in the face without flinching, as Otto Dix does, or to show the self in all its vicissitudes, as Max Beckmann does. The ideas of the Austrian and German designers, architects and Expressionist painters may have become everyday and overfamiliar, but that is a testimony to their staying power. Cubism may have become part of the canon of high art, and as such elevated above Austrian and German Expressionism, which continue to seem like an assault on purity and as such outside the supposed mainstream of modern art, but it seems better to remain a part of life than to have become academic. Indeed, in the end Austrian and German Expressionism is as difficult as life as well as difficult art, while Cubism is only difficult art, indeed, art that increasingly looks pedantic about art.
The debut exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly, 600-page catalogue, New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940 (Neue Galerie, $75).