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    Being German
by Robert Mahoney
 
     
 
Pullover Oben
1997
 
Lesende Mutter
1998
 
Laktionov die Neue Wohnung
1998
 
Lenin im Smolny I
1998
 
O'Murphy Sister
1998
 
Georg Baselitz
Photo Martin Müller
 
Georg Baselitz, "New Paintings," Sept. 11-Oct. 10, 1998, at PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.

Being German is what Georg Baselitz's paintings have always been about. The last time I checked in with the whole guilty issue of what it meant to be German -- since I have strong German roots -- was in the early 1980s. The cloudburst of loose paint spilled upon Europe and the West, called German Neo-Expressionism, was viewed as regressive by most New York critics, though I lauded it as necessary unfinished business.

I liked them all -- Penck, Immendorff, Baselitz, too. I naturally took Baselitz's gambit of painting everything upside down as a gimmick, signifying angst, in a topsy-turvy world, and in a nation whose moral quest was backwards and upside down: Seeking some sort of peace of mind after the atrocities it committed or enabled in World War II. Now it's 1998, it's been more than 50 years, and now almost ten years since the Wall came down.

I know it may seem philistine to dwell on the fact that Baselitz still paints upside down. I mean, is he incapable of getting up one fine day in his Bluebeard's or Sleeping Beauty castle and, breaking the spell, turn everything right side up? Is this too much to ask?

But the upside-down device still works. Why? Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself in a double mirror, and found it hard to see yourself as others see you? Or, seen yourself in a video camera placed in a store window? Or looked at a loved one lying down, their head perhaps hanging off the side of a bed, and the eyes suddenly assume a position atop a blank forehead: they look like a faceless alien, staring out from behind an empty shell.

Showing things upside down is related to these small, but large openings of alienation in our routine perception of our lives.

Baselitz's device conveys the same sense of loss and alienation, of vacancy and emptiness, haunting our dearest memories. The device still works -- and has not become Baselitz kitsch -- because he has moderated his space. The hazy, purplish, gray space of these paintings suggests fading memories, profounder, more oblique, even shrugged off distances of self from world.

In Pullover Oben (1997), a double image of the artist as a boy grins and spills out the contents of a barely recognizable face like fruit out of an overturned bowl. Who is that boy? You can hear the painter ask.

The nudes -- Lesenden Mutter (1998), Laktionov die Neue Wohnung (1998) -- are clunky, but grasping, as if the image, once so taken for granted (maybe mom walked around naked all the time), sexless, is fading away, and now he wishes it back.

Lenin im Smolny I (1998) shows the great theorist of Communism sitting naked writing a manifesto. Upside down all the energy flows out of the paper, which looks blank, into his head. Red, even scrotumlike, somehow like St. Peter, crucified upside down, forgiven, but not totally: just a man whose ideas spilled a lot of blood, fading into history. One thinks of the KGB file that resolved the Rosenberg case by just passing them off as small potatoes.

And on it goes. Cold War angst resolving into millennial valentines. These soft, soulful paintings show that Baselitz (and maybe Germany) is trying to move on, but hasn't quite done so yet. I guess we'll know that the spell is broken, when he turns those paintings right side up.


ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.