OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 8: Conflicting and Conflicted Identities: The Confusion of Self and Society: The Eighth Decade
. . . human existence straddles the gap between individual and social ways of being from the beginning to the end. . . . individuality emerges from a state of primary oneness, then into a primitive way of relatedness -- at first confined to an I-you relatedness -- which is the primary social unit. One aspect of the dilemma of human identity is that outside a relatedness to another one it collapses. Only by contrasting themselves one to another can human beings become separate, can they acquire or create an identity. . . . This special "existential" imbalance is. . . the motive behind the need for a "support system" for human beings, who must maintain their capacity for separateness, but cannot exist without being embedded in patterns of relatedness. The societal order in which human beings live may constitute this kind of support system. . . . I believe the facts support the assumption that there is a causal relationship between the specific forms of "being human" that develop within a particular societal structure, and the conditions for survival within the environment with which a group has to cope. Thus, under certain conditions, some ways of "being human" become preferred to others.
Every person and every group harbors a negative identity as the sum of all those identifications and identity fragments which the individual had to submerge in himself as undesirable or irreconcilable or which his group has taught him to perceive as the mark of fatal "difference" in sex role or race, in class or religion. In the event of aggravated crises, an individual (or, indeed, a group) may despair of the ability to contain these negative elements in a positive identity. A specific rage can be aroused wherever identity development thus loses the promise of an assured wholeness. . . .
Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals we have a condition of inner disorder, or psychic entropy, a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness. . . . The opposite state from the condition of psychic entropy is optimal experience. When the information that keeps coming into awareness is with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly.
There are two works that seem to me telling of the 1970s: Sigmar Polke's sardonic Carl Andre in Delft, ca. 1968 -- an important year for the counterrevolution against sociopolitical orthodoxy, as the May riots in Paris, the riots provoked by the Chicago Seven, and the Vietnam protests in the United States indicate -- and Judy Chicago's feminist The Dinner Party (1974-79). However different, both rebel against the tyranny of Minimalism, the purest -- and emptiest -- abstract art ever made. For Chicago it was a symbol of masculine as well as esthetic authoritarianism. For Polke it was a symbol of America's absolutist rule of modern art. For both the American female artist and the German male artist Minimalism was the inexpressive dead end of art. Both vehemently attacked it, Polke using irony, Chicago using ideology, to assert a new individuality -- woman's individuality and independence in Chicago's case, German individuality and independence in Polke's case. Thus the oppressed rose up against the art and social establishment. They questioned and demystified -- indeed, discredited and debunked -- the official system of dominance and exclusivity. What had hitherto been uncritically accepted as esthetically and culturally superior was unceremoniously relegated to irrelevance. A supposedly major art was shown to be minor, and the vanquished Germans no longer humbly emulated the victorious Americans. It was a truly great moment in modern art and social history.
For both Polke and Chicago the psychosocial use of abstract art was more important than its formal purity. Its adversarial, critical use counted for more than in its esoteric interior logic. This was undoubtedly revolutionary with respect to Minimalism, but it was an idea that went back to the avant-garde beginnings of abstraction, when formal and critical as well as intellectual and emotional concerns were inseparable. But, ironically, their work also signaled the end of avant-gardism and the onset of postmodernism. Whatever else it is about, postmodernism means that the avant-garde revolution is over. The work of Polke and Chicago does not further that revolution -- it is neither formally nor conceptually innovative, however creative -- but uses avant-garde ideas in the name of social revolution, or at least to raise social consciousness. Polke's ingenious demonstration of the inconsistency -- not to say duplicity and idiosyncrasy -- of perception is essentially Cubist, and Chicago's assertive, inspiring (if also gross) geometry can be traced back to Constructivism. For them the avant-garde had become history: like other postmodernists, they looked backward to it, as a resource, rather than forward to its next stage. It was no longer new, but, if not obsolete, a familiar story, still exciting but no longer incomprehensible.
This was not because its pursuit of enigma and purity had run out of creative steam, nor because it had finally been institutionalized and thus become the victim of its own success. The avant-garde lost credibility and value because it failed in its ultimate mission of esthetic transcendence. It was unable, despite its best efforts, to insulate the individual from history, sparing him the annihilative emotional effects of barbarism by affording esthetic salvation. But avant-garde art left a legacy of esthetic innovation that seemed valuable in its own right. Its ideas and forms could be used for "impure," commonplace -- and communal -- purposes. Thus abstract art, which was understood to be the universal fundament of art -- however much its esthetics dialectically arose out of the historical necessity of defending the individual from historical reality -- began to be used to confront it. If, as Greenberg argued, abstract art developed through self-criticism -- through hyperconscious of its medium -- that critical consciousness could now be directed toward the historical society in which it developed.
The postmodernist use of modernist ideas and forms in the works of Polke and Chicago was what might be called a "soft revolution" against what had become socially reactionary as well as hardened art gospel. This may have been unintentional in the case of pure art, although its advocates proclaimed its superiority to "impure" representational and especially banal social message art. But the view that art made by men -- especially supposedly macho Abstract Expressionist art (conceived as a display of virility rather than raw creativity) -- was inherently superior was inseparable from patriarchal society. For both Polke and Chicago, the assumption that pure art and masculinist art were the "naturally" best art was a conspiracy protecting vested esthetic and social interests. They deliberately went against the grain of what had become ingrained beliefs about the basis of artistic and human significance. Their postmodernist use of modernist ideas and forms stripped them of their inner necessity, indicating that they were not as historically inevitable as they were supposed to be. They became simply another section of the open-ended museum without walls -- an infinitely extendable psychosocial space in which all works are emotionally available and of speculative use to the unprejudiced, open-minded artist -- that art history became in postmodernity. It was no longer a closed system with one high road but an open system with many byroads. In the postmodern museum, avant-garde art lost its privileged position as the decisive break with all tradition. It became simply one tradition among many, all of which could be artistically exploited to satisfy the concerns of creativity.
Polke comically transforms Andre's Minimalist grid of metal plates into painted Dutch tiles, undermining their seriousness. Chicago's huge triangular table has place settings for 39 "great ladies," to refer to the title of the series of paintings of queens that preceded The Dinner Party. Interestingly, Chicago's work, a collaborative effort with craftswomen, also uses tiles: there are 144 on the floor -- the same number that Andre used in his early floor pieces, each a 12 by 12 foot square made of 12 by 12 inch squares (a regular version of Malevich's irregularly placed square within a square, indicating that Suprematism had become standardized) -- in the center of the triangle. But there is a crucial difference: both Andre's metal plates and Polke's painted tiles are square, while Chicago's tiles are equilateral triangles, echoing the shape of the table. For Chicago the triangle is a symbol of the vagina, and it is vaginas -- each monumental, assertive, projecting and vividly colored -- that we see on each dinner plate. Instead of phallic power, we have vaginal power -- or rather phallic vaginas, that is, the mythical vagina of all-powerful, goddess-like woman. These vaginas symbolize the creative achievement, against all social odds, of the women they belonged to, among them the African-American abolitionist-feminist Sojourner Truth and Emily Dickinson, the reclusive poet, as well as Georgia O'Keeffe (she was still alive when the work was made), whose flower forms have been interpreted as vaginal displays. They may have been an inspiration if not direct model for Chicago's more dynamic -- indeed, vigorously Abstract Expressionist and sculptural -- vaginas.
A key moment in Chicago's development was her bold decision, at once political and personal, to call the geometrical center of her abstract paintings a vagina, in effect giving them a gender identity. It was coincidental with her 1970 decision to change her surname from Gerowitz to Chicago in conscious repudiation of "male social dominance," as she said. Her family name was not for her, for it indicated that she had her identity only through patriarchal society. Combining her first name with the name of the place where she was born, like some male artists of the Italian Renaissance -- Leonardo da Vinci, for example -- she made it clear that, like them, she was an autonomous as well as socially representative individual, an individual associated with a collective but not taking her identity from it.
But what is perhaps most interesting about The Dinner Party is not its supposedly didactic feminist point -- not to say its oddly masculinized version of the vagina, turning it into a symbol of power and authority (something like the clenched fist Black Panther salute) -- but rather its appropriation of avant-garde modes usually identified with masculinist authenticity and creativity. If anything symbolizes the triumph of the masculine will to artistic power it is Abstract Expressionism, and if anything symbolizes masculine toughmindedness and highmindedness -- as distinct from proverbial female fickleness and vanity, indicative of her "lower nature" -- it is geometrical abstraction, especially in its Minimalist form. Chicago's appropriation of conceptually sophisticated, emotionally neutered, purist Minimalism, evident in the tiles and the serial ordering of the place settings (each essentially the same however differentiated the vagina on each plate), and of visceral, emotionally primitive, gesturally raw Abstract Expressionism, evident in the vaginas -- to call them decorative is to miss their intensity -- is an important early postmodernist attempt to reconcile apparently irreconcilable high modernist styles, as well as to put them to social if shocking use. The ambitious result is a kind of operatic total work of art, with score -- Chicago's elaborate explanatory text -- as well as visual music, loud and esthetically harsh, for form had become ideologically explicit.
It is not so much the front-and-center placement of the vaginas, and the repetition that makes their presence even more insistent, that makes The Dinner Party artistically shocking and innovative -- and even emotionally shocking and unsightly, for it takes what is usually hidden, in life as well as in traditional art, where modesty is a virtue signaled by Venus' hand blocking the view of her vagina -- but the tense juxtaposition of a three-dimensionalized, activated circle and a passively flat (however "pointed") triangle. If analysis is the name of the modernist game, as has been said, then synthesis -- the reconciliation of seemingly irreconcilable styles -- is the name of the postmodernist game, as different thinkers have argued. Chicago's work suggestively proposes a synthesis -- a new unity of opposites -- without dialectically achieving one. But she has made an important postmodernist point: she has shown that the opposites are part of the same abstract system. They form a socioesthetic unit, as it were, with no loss of individuality. Their particularity is not so much compromised as shown to be part of a larger esthetic whole -- which saves each from becoming an academic cliché, the inevitable fate of even the most innovative style and concept.
So does their emblematic use. In a sense, Chicago fuses modernist formal clichés with gender social clichés to achieve a new revelation of female identity, even more, to suggest the bisexual dimension of all identity. As I have suggested, Chicago's vaginas are as masculine as they are feminine, indicating that neither masculinity nor femininity has emotional and social priority. The aggressivity of the former and the receptivity of the latter are opposite sides of the same emotional coin. One is not inherently superior to the other -- a notion, which Chicago's unconscious seems to have, at odds with her very self-conscious, saber-rattling feminism, declaring the unequivocal superiority of women.
Polke's mischievous, sardonic appropriation of the Minimalist grid brings it down to social, indeed, populist earth, knocking the intellectual stuffing -- not to say conceptual pretension -- out of it. No longer are Andre's metal plates high art, but as banal and marketable as Delft tiles, a kitschy people's art. Like Andre's plates, they, too, are factory produced, if without the pretty ornament -- a sad lack of cuteness which makes Andre's puritanical plates look more important than they are. Also, where Andre stereotypes the Suprematist square, so that it becomes an avant-garde cliché, the Delft tiles stereotypes traditional seascapes and coats-of-arms, making them kitsch clichés. The avant-garde Andre and the anonymous designer of Delft kitsch have more in common than one might suppose. With a deft nihilistic Dadaist twist, Polke calls Andre's bluff: his high class squares are no better than lowdown Delft designs -- and even less attractive, picturesque and expressive, not to say emotionally defective. Thus high and low meet, and the low absorbs the high into it, and cancels it. Polke's tongue-in-cheek innocence -- his witty light touch -- makes it clear that Andre suffers from the Emperor's New Clothes self-deception typical of Minimalist-Conceptual art. Take an ordinary form, clothe it in a concept, and one thinks it has acquired new -- avant-garde -- majesty. But it is the same old form, as naked and dumb as the day it was found. Polke reverses the process: he de-conceptualizes Minimalism by revealing the banality of its geometrical forms, suggesting the bankruptcy and hollowness, not to say meaningless, of abstract art in general. By taking Andre's metal plates at face value he strips them of all artistic significance. Polke's clever piece is a kind of epigrammatic happening, ingeniously blurring the boundary between life and art with a facile economy of means. The punch line is that the slice of life one is left with -- the casually lyric Delft tile -- is more interesting and stimulating than the everyday found form -- the pseudo-epic metal plate -- mystified into boring art.
Polke continues his attack on abstract art in such works as Moderne Kunst, a spoof on gestural painting, and Konstructivistisch, a mock geometrical painting (both 1968). They seem to parallel Roy Lichtenstein's '60s series of brushstroke paintings, which also cut Abstract Expressionism down to ironical size. Like Lichtenstein, Polke uses the so-called Ben Day dots characteristic of commercial printing. But Polke's surface looks much more tacky than mechanically reproduced, as such "Rasterbilder" (Screen pictures) as Kartoffelköppe (Mao + LBJ) (Potato Heads) and Knöpfe (Buttons) (both 1965) indicate. Where Lichtenstein's Little Big Painting (1965) has a charismatically slick all-American surface -- his grand gesture has a pre-fabricated, pre-packaged artificiality, stripping it of its spontaneity and individuality, implying that it is just another manufactured product, however customized -- Polke's Moderne Kunst has a whimsical, insolent, cartoony look. Polke's work is much more subversive, especially because Lichtenstein theatricalizes the expressive gesture into a popular performance -- all his objects become sideshows in a social spectacle -- while Polke reduces it to inconsequential doodling. Also, Polke's Rasterbilder, however representational -- they are derived from newspaper photographs -- are weirdly abstract, giving them an uncanny, perverse aura, while Lichtenstein's Pop paintings are militantly representational, for all their designer abstraction look.
Polke is much more subtle and critical than Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is an old-fashioned painter creating the illusion of an object in space, for all the fanfare of his abstract Ben Day dots -- in effect an ornamental facade in the Potemkin Village that Pop art is. In Polke the journalistic image -- an image made for mass consumption, and pretending to be socially realistic -- and abstract pattern ironically interpenetrate, turning the social image into a mirage-like illusion on the verge of dissipating. He thus uses the abstract underpinning that informs the image -- indeed, out of which it is constructed -- to debunk it. He in effect renders it meaningless by suggesting that it is far from the social truth, however factual and realistic it seems to be. Thus Polke uses abstraction -- a kind of abstract if mechanical process -- to punch holes in the representation of social reality -- the dots are so many holes undermining the image they form -- suggesting that it is a mass deception. Lichtenstein never achieves the ironic unity -- perverse simultaneity -- of pure abstract form and everyday mechanical representation that Polke does, which is why Polke's works remain enigmatic and tense for all their "superficiality" and "transparency." Lichtenstein's works are instantly comprehensible and formally simplistic in comparison. Polke is more influenced by late Picabia, as Liebespaar I (Lovers) (1965) and Frau im Spiegel (Woman at the Mirror) (1966) make clear, than by American popular culture realism, with its homage to the familiar and roots in mass culture spectacle.
Two works make Polke's ironical appreciation and debunking use of abstraction particularly clear: Höhere Wesen befahlen (Higher Beings commanded) (1969), a mock geometrical painting (it resembles one by Blinky Palermo, Polke's friend) with a sentence typed on it, and Weiser Obelisk (White Obelisk) (1968), which sets a geometrical structure in a field of skulls and bones. In the first work Polke mocks the pretension of abstraction: if all the higher beings command is that the upper right corner be painted black, then they aren't as inspired as they are supposed to be. Thus Polke turns abstraction into a kind of joke -- a simpleminded exercise in conventional form -- undermining its claims to transcendence and superiority. The second work is more devastating: an impossible choice is proposed, between purity, represented by geometrical perfection, and death, a powerful force in German history. Emblems of eternity and transience -- the geometry looks like a grand illusion, the skulls and bones are grimly realistic -- are juxtaposed in an unresolvable dialectic. The split between mystical perfection and human ugliness -- between the sublime and the morbid -- is a constant of Polke's art. Both are treated with Dadistic irreverence, rage and manic despair. Thus the sublime mixes with the ridiculous. They are impossible to distinguish in his art.
They mix with particular anguish in two of Polke's largest, most apocalyptic, confrontational works, Das Grosse Schimpftuch (The Large Cloth of Abuse) (1968) and the series of delirious paintings -- an uncanny mix of all-over abstraction and irrational representation -- called Die Fahrt auf der Unendlichkeitsacht (The Voyage to Infinity Outlawry) (1971). Both works are uninhibited self-portraits, as it were -- highly emotional dream works of an outlaw artist, apparently insane (certainly anti-social) or at least possessed by a disturbed daemon. The former, an expressionistic conceptual piece -- the text is handwritten, personalizing it -- hurls scurrilous insults at the spectator. The cloth is completely filled with bold black words, as though to overwhelm the spectator -- imprint themselves on and blot out his mind.
The latter, a vision -- or is it nightmare? -- of profane figures and sacred geometrical structures in boundless, engulfing space, conveys profligate, wanton union with the devilishly divine, symbolized by the oddly cartoony face (sungod?, man in the moon?) in the center of the third picture. Polke offers a pataphysical explanation of the voyage, which resembles that of Rimbaud's Drunken Boat in its dissolute mysticism and savage exhilaration, but the space, paradoxically centrifugal and centripetal at once -- there is an auratic circular center in the midst of the mess of magical, hallucinatory images, however displaced from the literal center of the huge field -- is mythic and cosmic. It is as though we are looking at what Breton called Leonardo's paranoid wall gone crazy. It has become a dream screen tattooed with absurd images. These works, explosively maximalist, catalyzed the German, and more broadly European, rebellion against American Minimalism. They unite abstract surrealist fantasy and Dadaist nihilism -- the Dadaist sense of catastrophe and the Surrealist sense of the power of the unconscious -- in a way not seen since Max Ernst's late paintings. They signal the return and revitalization of the avant-garde visionary art that the Nazis had suppressed, and that, in its domesticated and dissected American form, all but lost its existential originality and authenticity, not to say human relevance.
Whatever else it is about, Polke's art, like so much of the German art that emerged in the '70s, regenerated the social contrariness and emotional bizarreness that had been declared degenerate and taboo by the Nazis. The new German art not only broke the taboo against irrational, perverse imagery -- imagery that resonated with unconscious meaning ("pandemonium," as Georg Baselitz called it) -- but against sociohistorical consciousness in art. American pure art had declared both irrelevant to the true, higher purpose of art. In their different ways, Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, among others, use modernist methods to convey the depressing effect of the disaster Germany brought upon itself in the Second World War. Both are what might be called culturally narcissistic artists. They hold an artistic mirror up to the unconscious of their society, faithfully mirroring its self-destructiveness. They show its wounded body and broken spirit, reminding postwar Germany of what it would rather forget. They picture the ruins of German greatness, suggesting that it was never more than a myth. They are refreshingly if morbidly emotional in a society reluctant to acknowledge the suffering it has caused. They are the first truly tragic artists who appeared in any country after the Second World War. Their art, like that of other postwar German artists -- some young, like the Berlin Heftige Malerei (Vehement Painting) and the Cologne Mühlheimer Freiheit (a street name, suggestive of the social and expressive freedom they wanted), some older, like Horst Antes, Baselitz, Jörg Immendorf, Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, A. R. Penck and Gerhard Richter -- transformed German negative identity into an optimal art experience. It is worth noting that Judy Chicago did the same with female negative identity: The Dinner Party transforms it, and the rage it arouses, into a positive identity and optimal experience of being human.
Adorno once wrote that "Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death," adding that "absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone." The basic form of this negativity is "the indifference of each individual life that is the direction of history": "the individual has nothing but this self that has become indifferent." Nonetheless, "perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems."(4) Adorno had previously written, with a certain bitter irony: "Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."(5) This is like saying that to make love because there is death in the world is unethical. It also unwittingly implies that poetry must become a barbaric scream -- Whitman's "barbaric yawp?" -- to be authentic. Only suffering is authentically human, and only its expression -- as intense and unsettling as suffering itself -- is artistically valid. In 1895, writing Strindberg, Gauguin noted "the conflict between your civilization and my barbarism. Civilization from which you suffer; barbarism which is for me a rejuvenation."(6) It seems that after the barbarism of Auschwitz became public in 1945 poetry had to become barbaric again -- as barbaric as civilization had shown itself to be -- to rejuvenate itself. Art had to deal with annihilation to be genuinely creative. Paradoxically, the enemy of creativity became its only source. Adorno seems to be calling for the revival of Expressionism, with its "screaming images,"(7) as the only authentic art. Kiefer's expressionistic pictures answer the call, illustrating Adorno's ironical dialectic of poetry and barbarism: their black surface is the indifference -- and seductiveness -- of absolute negativity in plain sight, and his imagery, much of it dealing, however obliquely, with the barbarism of the Holocaust (Kiefer tends to associate the destruction of the Jews with the self-destruction of Germany, as though their fates were inseparable) -- is nonetheless poetry: tragic poetry.
It is epic poetry with many bizarrely lyric passages of raw texture. Kiefer's works are at once sweeping and intimate, theatrical and passionate, melancholy and sardonic, visionary and ironic, excruciating and ecstatic, ruthless and perverse. They are secular altarpieces -- mystical and social allegories, indeed, plays about the German mystery -- dealing with heaven and hell, juxtaposed in uneasy balance, suggesting their perverse relationship. Thus the wooden staircase to the closed door of heaven rises from the dead German forest in the ironical Resurrexit (1973). Similarly, the wood of the sacred space of Father, Son, Holy Ghost (also 1973) is cut from the leafless trees of the forest beneath it. Raw wood's vivid grain, with its gestural complexity and evocative power -- it suggests the unconscious energy of self-reflexive automatism -- has been a staple of Expressionism since the woodcuts of Munch and Nolde. Kiefer is a modernist historical painter -- a critical commentator on modern Germany nationalism, using the field painting as a battlefield, a mock sublime space in which death alone triumphs. It is the battlefield after the battle is over, its barrenness -- more gruesome than the twisted bodies in Otto Dix's trenches -- emblematic of inhumanity. Absence haunts Kiefer's paintings, stalking the field in search of human presence. But there is none. The few figures that appear in Kiefer's pictures are scarecrows in all but name, for they represent ideas rather than suffering. With the victims of history dead and buried in the morbid German soil, only the gleanings of thought remain.
Blackness is the absence of light, and while there is light in Kiefer's paintings -- he is the holy Man in the Forest (1971), holding a dead branch miraculously unconsumed by the fire that envelops it, flames rise from the ghostly wooden chairs in Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and rows of torches line the walls of the great wooden hall in Germany's Spiritual Heroes (1973) -- it is not exactly the light that brings life. Indeed, the green of organic life rarely makes an appearance in Kiefer's works. The best that we can hope for are the dried leaves that symbolize the Women of the Revolution (1986). Each pathetic leaf, on its twig, is in a memorial frame, and each frame is, implicitly, a page of the book in which the leaves are pressed. There are more frames than leaves, suggesting that the memory of the women has faded. They have become the ash of oblivion, as the gloomy grayness -- sometimes haunted by ghostly light, indeed, the ghostly afterglow of vanished light -- suggests. As everlasting as blackness, this archetypal German grayness appears again and again in Kiefer's art, especially in his brutally charred books. They allude to the burning of books by the Nazis, symbolizing their anti-intellectualism and ruthless censorship. Indeed, the burning of the books was a prelude to the burning of the bodies of the people of the book, the Jews. It signaled the systematic slaughter -- organized murder -- of anyone whose existence contradicted the Nazi myth of Aryan purity. Anyone deemed alien was exterminated as though to deny that they had ever existed. Individuality was automatically alien -- nonconformist -- in the Nazi world of mass conformity and emotional homogeneity. Kiefer's works enact Nazi nihilism, and, more subtly, connect it with Germany's vision of the nothingness of individual existence implicit in its philosophical infatuation with the vast empty spaces of the sublime. His art conveys the sublime scale of Nazi inhumanity, ironically revealing its metaphysical import, that is, the metaphysical grandeur of mass extermination.
Clearly Kiefer's smoky light is not the light of reason -- of liberating enlightenment -- nor is it the eternal flame, however much it sanctifies the dead, suggesting their immortality by lighting the way to the underworld. For Kiefer's light is deeply informed by darkness, suggesting its inherent ambiguity, and uncertainty about whether darkness or light will prevail. It is never a pure, convincing light, but a light contaminated by demiurgic forces that are as eternal as it is. It is a light whose flaming up may be a flickering out -- the last efflorescence of a fading ideal. Faith, Hope, Love (1976) makes the point clearly: the cardinal virtues grow in shadowy soil, their luminous appearance tainted by it. It is not clear whether they are crawling with black expressionistic snakes or glowing with fresh life. They are stuck on the boundary between life and death. Similarly the dry yellow straw that represents the luminous figures of the Meistersinger and the golden hair of the German Margarete (both series 1981) is an ironical breath of life in a field of black death. The point is decisively clear in Nuremberg (1982), where the mass of dead straw represents the ghosts of all those who paraded in the Nazi rallies that were held there. Ironically resurrected as so much chaff, they are part of the dance of death. They have realized their destiny: the rallies were a feudal spectacle of death -- a pledge of homage and fealty to death. Death was the real Nazi ideology -- death for the enemies of Nazi Germany, which unexpectedly ended with its own death, along with the loss of many good Germans. Did Kiefer realize that he was illustrating the Allied battle cry in World War II: "the only good German is a dead German?"
Kiefer is a gnostic. Germany's life and death struggle, and its conscious commitment to death -- epitomized by the "Scorched Earth" paintings, in memory of Hitler's scorched earth policy, the ultimate symbol of the Nazis' devotion to death, their relentless drive towards death (declared in the skull and bones insignia on the SS officer cap and the deliberate murder of millions of Jews and Russians and other Untermenschen) -- becomes emblematic of the eternal existential struggle between spiritual illumination and blinding darkness. It is the absolute darkness in which there is no light to see, which is the state of damnation. But darkness is never complete in Kiefer's pictures, if only because they must be seen by their own subtle light. Nonetheless, it seems clear that darkness is more likely to be victorious than light in the conflict between them, although it will never end. The tends to be tantalizing -- out of reach in the surrounding darkness -- suggesting that Kiefer is not in purgatory, however hard he tries to purge himself of his German heritage by acknowledging its horrors, but rather in a hell of history's making.
It is worth noting that the scorched earth policy, a masculine effort to uproot life itself -- annihilate the life-giving power of Mother Earth -- extended Nazi ethnic cleansing to an absurd extreme, but ironically backfired, for cauterizing the earth rids it of dead old growth, thus preparing the way for its regeneration. For Kiefer the dialectic of degeneration and regeneration -- the wasting away and rebirth of life -- is a Gordian knot which not even the Alexandrian sword of his ambitious art can cut, however hard it tries to. It is the basic alchemical problem of his art, indeed, for Kiefer the mystery of art in general: how can -- does? -- art transform the prima materia of death (lead, impenetrable darkness, catastrophe, guilt) into the ultima materia of everlasting life (gold, pure light, resurrection, absolution), indicating that death is reversible however inevitable? Kiefer does not solve the problem, but re-thinks it in work after work, each at once manic and depressive, dynamic and deadened. With relentless curiosity, he digs up its tangled roots, only to have them disintegrate when they are exposed by art -- represented. The representation of the dialectic is itself informed by the dialectic. That is, art seems to degenerate -- exhaust itself -- in the process of regenerating life by representing it, and regenerate -- become freshly intense and imaginative -- when it represents life at its most degenerate, namely, as the living death the Nazis made it for those they conquered. Nonetheless, Kiefer shows that the confusing dialectic informs everything -- not only German history and eternal art, but the perennial conflict between nature and society, the collective and individual, civilization and barbarism (society at its best and worst, cherishing life or indifferent to it). In Kiefer's art it is especially visible in the tension between formless, primitive expression, strangely articulate in raw texture -- a kind of absurd hieroglyph, at once oracular and perplexing, beyond interpretation yet utterly convincing -- and the abstract forms and mythic images that contain it. They brings it under the control of civilization and afford the measure of esthetic security necessary to meditate on the annihilation Kiefer represents. The spectator of Kiefer's pictures becomes a participant observer in their tragic space, an enigmatic presence witnessing the death of Germany, apparently as enigmatic as that of Christ.
Kiefer's Sick Art and North Cape (both 1975), picture the opposites of degeneration and regeneration. The former shows a blemished Norwegian landscape. The northern lights are misshapen pink pustules, with a sickly yellow nucleus, suggesting that the sky is diseased, perhaps even "plagued." The latter shows the same landscape with freshly bright lights -- radiant, full-bodied red corpuscles, with clear rather than distorted boundaries, self-contained rather spreading like cancer cells -- and inscribed with the handwritten words "die Kunst geht knapp nicht unter." That is, art doesn't just disappear: the sacred lights of the aurora borealis continue to glow over the sickly black earth. (No Northern forest, dead or alive, in either picture -- we are above the timberline.) Kiefer seems to be addressing the Nazi view that avant-garde art is degenerate -- an unhealthy symptom of social as well as artistic decadence. Sick Art shows degenerate art, North Cape shows healthy, regenerated art. And a healthy Northern landscape: it was a favorite theme of Northern Romantic art (including German Expressionism) as well as German ideology, and Kiefer restores it to artistic credibility, suggesting that Romantic Germany can be rehabilitated. There is something healthy and existential in Northern nature worship, especially when it involves worshipping raw nature -- nature in which the conflicting forces of life are vivid and self-evident, and thus nature which is a revelation of the inner self. Nonetheless, Kiefer suggests that regeneration -- the revitalization of nature and art (another ironical expression of the dialectic) -- is difficult, for signs of degeneration abound in his art, as though to suggest the futility of regeneration. It is never sustained.
There is a paucity of images of unequivocal regeneration in Kiefer's oeuvre and innumerable images of unregenerate degeneration. There are many more unhealthy art landscapes than healthy ones. One of the many paradoxes and ambivalences of Kiefer's art is his unconscious identification with such degenerate artists as Hitler and Nero in the act of despising and mocking them. It is as though, despite himself, he envies their imperial power -- an imperious power that they perversely used for destructive purposes and that the imperious artist in Kiefer tries to put to constructive, soul-searching use. The abuse of power, squandered on delusions of grandeur, is as much a theme as fascination with its grandeur, indeed, awe at its intimidating absoluteness. Thus, in a 1969 conceptual series of photographs, Kiefer shows himself making the Hitler salute at various places the Nazis occupied. It is a mocking but also triumphant gesture, suggesting a certain pride in Hitler's military accomplishments in the act of turning them into farce. It was in fact Hitler who was a degenerate artist, not the avant-garde artists who revealed the degeneration of humanness in modernism. The degenerate traditionality of Hitler's youthful paintings -- they did not even get him admitted to the conservative Vienna Academy -- as well as the degenerate classicism that became the Nazi ideal makes this clear. Nonetheless, Hitler made art history as well as social history by remaking the map of Europe, as several of Kiefer's works suggest. Nero Paints (1974) indicates that Nero, like Hitler -- the artist-emperor is symbolized by the blood-red outline of a palette that seems to map the entire field of blackened earth on which it is superimposed, becoming an ironical abstract picture within the larger realistic picture (the field has lightning-like furrows, suggestive of the Nazi Blitzkrieg; the palette's four brushes are also ironically tipped with "spiritual" flames) -- had an artistic temperament that made destructive history, as the burning houses of imperial Germany-Rome in the background indicate.
Hitler wanted Germany to be a new thousand-year empire, like ancient Rome, and Hitler made art while Germany burned, as Nero made art while Rome burned. Indeed, both perversely regarded destructive burning as creative art, a point clearly made by Kiefer's Painting=Burning (1974). A ghostly palette encompasses the entire terrain of a charred Germany, burned completely to death except for a lone tree. It is a more consummate image of death than Nero Paints, where a row of green trees remains on the horizon next to the burning homes. Again and again Kiefer dismantles Nazi fantasies, showing their pathology but also their real effect on history. However much Kiefer's landscape remains diseased or dead -- however emblematic it is of the misery and nightmare of German history, writ large as an existential paradigm of world-historical trauma -- he breathes imaginative dialectical life into avant-garde as well as traditional ideas and styles that have become reified, particularly avant-garde process art as well as conceptual art and traditional history painting as well as landscape painting. Again he shows his postmodernist attempt to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. Neither sense and intellect nor history and nature are mortal enemies for him, although they are not always on the best terms. Their parallel lines meet in the infinity of Kiefer's sublime space -- the space in which being dialectically emerges from nothingness. A masterful postmodernist, Kiefer has encyclopedic knowledge of art history, mourning for the historical art he uses while suggesting that it still has expressive potential, especially when it is put to trenchant contemporary use. Art does not commit suicide in Kiefer -- formal as well as expressive suicide -- as it does in Minimalism, but reveals the suicide that is German history, less protracted than Rome's suicide, and more dialectical, for the Nazis committed suicide with open-eyed self-deception.
The dialectic of degeneration and regeneration -- usually unresolved -- takes many forms in Kiefer's art, perhaps most obviously the mythic conflict, cosmic in scale (like Kiefer's works), between the serpent Nidhoff, who appears in Resurrexit, and Yggdrasil, the tree of life with roots in hell and the kingdom of the giants -- they rule the underworld, punishing those who never repented their guilt -- exist. Both serpent and tree appear in many pictures. They are featured in the Norwegian Eddas -- a Nordic saga -- but the battle between them occurs in every cosmic myth. Before the Eddas there was the biblical tree of life around which the snake of temptation twisted, spoiling paradise. There was also the struggle between the Titans and the Olympians. The latter are victorious, but the former, imprisoned deep in the earth, threaten to rebel -- erupt in instinctive violence. Both Hebrew and Greek mythologies convey the same universal psycho-ethical conflict. It is also evident in the battle between the Christian St. George and the devilish Dragon, which Albrecht Altdorfer placed deep in the German forest. Kiefer is replaying -- restaging -- the age old, archetypal drama: a destructive dragon always gnaws at the roots of the tree of life, and Kiefer -- an artist warrior, as it were, wise to the ways of the bizarre snake and aware of the existential stakes of the battle -- tries to slay it. But the snake has already won the battle of the German forest, for all the trees are dead. This is clearly the case in the very black Varus (1976), Ways of Worldly Wisdom (1976-77) and Ways of Worldly Wisdom -- Arminius' Battle (1977-78). All deal with the German chieftain Hermann's famous slaughter of the legions of Varus, stopping the Roman advance into Germany. In the 19th century the mythologized event became a symbol of German nationalist pride. Like all pride it comes before the fall, as Kiefer shows, especially when it becomes brutal arrogance -- the Nazis' will to absolute power and total dominance.
Kiefer is a latter-day Symbolist. The objects and images in his pictures are emblems of enigmatic states of mind as well as relics of historical reality. That is, like a Symbolist, he uses outer reality to express inner reality. Social history is the objective correlative of emotional truth, to use T. S. Eliot's term. Like dreams, Kiefer's pictures call for interpretation, and like dreams they offer cultural clues to deeply personal meanings. Perhaps nowhere is Kiefer more the symbolist than in his approach to Auschwitz. The railroad tracks that brought the Jews to Auschwitz -- I don't know whether Kiefer has visited Auschwitz, but he probably knows the famous photograph of the tracks that lead to its entrance -- begin to appear in his work as early as 1977, where they are associated with Siberia, another huge concentration camp. Iron Road (1986) is the climactic picture: the tracks unmistakably lead into oblivion -- the negativity of death. At Auschwitz it was an everyday event -- the abnormal was normalized -- and railroad tracks are an everyday means of transportation. Again and again Kiefer shows that everyday roads lead nowhere. They disappear on the horizon, where all is lost in the unknown -- the unforeseen. All of his roads lead to the reality of Auschwitz, final proof of profound indifference to life. Even the furrows are roads to oblivion and ignorance. They march in order, obedient even in death, like good German soldiers. A road appears on the deserted Mark Heath (1974), as though there was a way out of its history -- a way to recover the Mark Brandenberg, lost to Germany forever as punishment for the sins of the Nazis. Each of the many roads in Ways: March Sand (1980) is an illusory Appian Way in a German empire that no longer exists. They disappear in the sand of time, which has run out for Germany. Each is the same road of destiny -- of futile, lonely destiny. For Germany lost credibility for all time at Auschwitz -- lost its soul. It will always be haunted and tainted by Auschwitz -- the dirty fly in its ointment, the fatal flaw in its identity, suggesting that its great music and philosophy were all in vain, glorified expressions of hubris -- even when the Nazis have faded into the past. But they will never be forgotten. They will survive as symbols of absolute darkness, which is what they have become in Kiefer's art.
The New German Expressionism revives figuration and painting at a time they were discredited by the American version of abstraction and language art, otherwise known as conceptual art. (It begins with Duchamp, whose work incorporated language and lived in an aura of theoretical language, especially his own. He was the puppeteer of his own works, which needed to be pulled by the strings of theory to come to life.) Kiefer's paintings contain few figures, although figures are suggested -- ghostly figures appear in a number of works, their insubstantiality confirming that the figure is more a morbid memory than a living presence -- but the figure is front and center in the works of other German artists. It is always in sharp focus, however distorted its appearance. Sometimes it is schematic and obviously symbolic, as in Penck's so-called Standart works, at other times it is rendered with a kind of social realism, as in Immendorf's Café Deutschland paintings, and at still other times it is weirdly and violently visceral, as in Baselitz's pictures. From the beginning of his career, in his so-called pandemonium paintings (1961-62), his troubled, often grotesque figures, wounded yet virile, set the vigorous pace of the New German Expressionistic figuration. Baselitz revitalized the Old German Expressionistic figure by conceiving it in abstract expressionistic terms. But in his hands gestural energy conveys the pressure of history as well as emotional intensity. His figure seems to disintegrate under both inner and social pressure, even as it remains stable, solid, and intact -- a symbol of integrity as well as suffering, heroism as well as defeat. However much it is defeated by powers greater than Germany, it also suffers from German self-defeat. Baselitz's figure is a strange mix of splendor and pathos, grandeur and ruin -- a triumphant victim, as it were, at once arrogant and self-pitying. His figures have a certain affinity with those of Francis Bacon, as well as Lucas Samaras's Autopolaroids (1971). All are inwardly disturbed and outwardly distorted: the distortion makes the disturbance explicit. Angry and emasculated at once, they seem to tear themselves apart in the act of asserting themselves.
Baselitz's figures and scenes are famous for being upside-down. He has said that this makes them abstract. We presumably attend to their form and handling rather than their meaning. But the figures remain very particular and human, as Male Nude (1975) and Elke V (1976) -- a self-portrait and portrait of his wife -- make clear. Nonetheless, something has clearly changed: a world upside down is an absurd, insane world. It is a world in which the apocalypse is occurring: judged a failure, it is in the process of being annihilated. It is a world that has been devalued -- a world whose values have been discredited, a world that has been shown to be anti-life, which is why it must be destroyed. Baselitz paints the ancient metaphor of the world turned upside down -- the world disintegrating in apocalyptic chaos. It is the German world, as his use of such German themes as the eagle and forest make clear, and it is a world that has come to an abrupt apocalyptic end. It ended in the big bang of a world war -- signs of its destructiveness are everywhere in Baselitz's paintings, evident even in their texture -- rather than a whimper of cultural exhaustion. Baselitz has said that his idea derives from the image of St. Peter crucified upside down, implying that Germany was also crucified upside down, as though to mock its faith in itself. Chaos is evident in his gestural handling -- an even more violent gestural delirium than in Pollock's all-over paintings, which have also been thought of as chaotic -- and morbidity in the blackness, however alleviated by dramatic flashes of color and light. They highlight a figure that seems more dead than alive, that seems conscious of its death, indeed, to live death, as Bomb-Site Woman (1978) -- bloody woman and the apocalyptic explosion that created her grave fused in one grotesque figure -- suggests. She did not escape death, and while Baselitz's other figures have they remain infected by it -- diseased by the thought of it, by near death experiences in the war, by living in the dregs of a country that has died, spiritually as well as literally. The Hand -- The Burning House (1964-65) makes the fatal point succinctly, suggesting that Germany has its apocalyptic fate in its own hands.
Just as Kiefer's empty landscapes and abandoned buildings are worlds of death, so Baselitz's figures are personifications of death, indeed, embodiments of death-in-life. They may be heroic, but they are also wounded, like The New Type (1965). A monumental, conspicuously masculine figure -- probably based on the statues of soldiers, memorials to the war dead as well as sculptural paeans to victory, that proliferated in Communist East Germany, where Baselitz grew up -- he bears the sign of the stigmata on his left hand, suggesting that he has been socially stigmatized as well as crucified by history. Like many of Baselitz's epic figures, the new type of man -- an ironical synthesis of the new man Communism hoped to create as well as the old type of German epic hero who suffers and dies tragically -- is a valiant victim, isolated in the wilderness that Germany had been reduced to by war. He remains brave and strong, suggesting that his German identity is intact, and he may still be able to have an erection, out of all proportion to his body, confirming his power. But his penis, however gigantic, is grotesquely misshapen, as though diseased, like the famous penis -- it looks like a piece of whittled wood, suggesting that it is a prosthetic device, that is, the dildo of a eunuch -- of the diseased little human monster in The Big Night Down the Drain (1962-63). (This seminal work, censored by the German police when it was first exhibited, shows the strong streak of satire in Baselitz's works.) Baselitz's figures are a critique of German masculinity, even as they mockingly endorse it.
In my opinion all of his figures, particularly the fragmented figures -- figures divided against themselves, such as The Hunter, The Hunter (Four Stripes) and Four Stripes Idyll (all 1966) -- are representations of the narcissistic injury Germany has suffered by its defeat. Baselitz's gestures may look like dueling scars, but they also resemble streams of dirty tears. They are self-pitying as well as harsh. His figures are proud abortions -- arrogant anomalies -- suggesting his disillusionment with Germany. They are as vulnerable as they are tough. Nonetheless, he seems to admire Germany's fabled barbarism, strength and authoritarianism, as his brutish if wounded and oddly castrated figures -- epitomized by the deceptively fairytale-like allegorical Tree I (1965-66), bleeding from its amputated limbs -- suggest. (The tree is, implicitly, the dead, barren one on which Christ was crucified in German medieval myth. It is pictured in Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, undoubtedly an influence on Baselitz as well as on other German Expressionist masters of modern suffering and horror.) According to Adorno, in a statement that hyperbolically privileges art, "It is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice. . . without being immediately betrayed by it."(8) This is a German expressionist idea, giving art human purpose, indeed, finding human purpose in its formal revolution, as Adorno argues. It suggests the reason for the revival of German Expressionism -- amplified by American Abstract Expressionism, with its sublime sense of scale and gestural fantasy -- in the postwar period. But the suffering Baselitz boldly voices is the suffering of Nazis, or at least of people who once served the Nazi cause, passively or actively.
There is a lightness to Baselitz, for all the gravity of his figures and themes. The lively, iridescent reds and greens of the figure in Ornamental (1966) make the point clearly. This colorful painting has been connected to his interest in folk art and primitive art, and more broadly the decorative art of Eastern Europe, more particularly, Slavic culture. It is also, however indirectly, a homage to Fauvism as well as Kandinsky. As many other paintings do, Ornamental reminds us that Baselitz grew up in the east, and that Germany once extended far eastward, long before Hitler conquered Poland, eastern Russia, and the Baltic states. Lurid splashes of red -- they're at once erotic and aggressive, traces of blood as well as quixotic desire -- ornament such neo-primitive limewood sculptures as Elke, The Eccentric and Female Torso (all 1993). (There is a tradition of limewood sculptures in Gothic Germany.) They are carved with gestural energy, as the slashing cuts that cover them indicate. Deep gouges invade the bust titled Women of Dresden -- The Heath (1990), painted in bright yellow and perhaps the ghostly portrait of the spirit of those who perished in the firebombing of Dresden in World War II.
Going against the Constructivist concept of pure, unpainted geometrical sculpture -- the modernist belief that one cannot combine different mediums without destroying the autonomy and integrity of each -- Baselitz restores the figure, freshly expressionistic, to its place as the fundament of sculpture. He restores wood carving, and integrates forceful gesture and monumental figuration. Sometimes he flattens objects, so that they become shadowy silhouettes -- for example, the bottle in Still Life (1977) -- and sometimes he uses pure geometry, as in the case of the white square in Eagle (1978). One wonders whether Baselitz was familiar with Hans Hofmann's late paintings, which also embed simple geometry in a gestural matrix. The work is a homage to Malevich's Suprematism, just as Supper in Dresden (1983) is a homage to the artists of Die Brücke, which originated in Dresden. In both works vivid color and deep black merge to dramatic effect.
Baselitz's paintings and sculptures can in fact be regarded as series of homages to the modern tradition as well as traditional German art, restoring and integrating their ideas in a postmodern dialectic. Thus the nostalgic look of his paintings, for all their nihilistic intensity. The sense of "no more hope" that he described in his Pandemonium manifesto remains, however much "the sexual fantasticality" he also mentioned increases. "Instead of an abstract idealism we claim a sincere nihilism," he and Eugen Schönebeck, his companion in Pandemonium, wrote, but his sincere nihilism became idealistic, and was always abstract. Baselitz's art is in fact an art of memory and mourning, a melancholy archaeological art, but it brings the bones of the past to life. He has great faith in art, indeed, restores the faith in itself -- more particularly, its will to expression -- that it seems to have lost in Conceptualism. Minimalism, with its loss of faith in the expressive power and adequacy of art -- that is, its ability to tap the resources of the unconscious, making it manifest in the process -- was a prelude to that complete loss of self-confidence and self-respect. Thus art once again becomes the religion it was for the Postimpressionists and pioneering abstractionists -- another sign of his traditionality. Baselitz in fact grounds his originality on tradition -- like a traditional artist -- rather than assuming that it is an automatic consequence of breaking with tradition, as many avant-gardists had convinced themselves it was. In fact, there was more continuity with tradition in their work than they cared to acknowledge.
There is a sense of déja vu in Baselitz's art, but also the sense that familiar ideas have been reworked to fresh existential effect. All Expressionism is fundamentally existentialist. Baselitz's expressionistic figures are no exception. Indeed, they renew, even deepen, the sense of existential urgency once original to German Expressionism, the edge of emotional conviction and power that seemed to have been dulled when it became a standard mode of artistic operation, a fate that befell every avant-garde art once it was no longer a novel breakthrough. Perhaps more than his gestural complexity, the manneristic character of his figures confirms their existential character. As Arnold Hauser argues, Mannerism, with its sense of contradiction and absurdity -- dialectic and paradox -- was the beginning of the existential sensibility inseparable from modern self-consciousness. Baselitz takes us back to a beginning that has not yet found its end. (He was in fact influenced by Mannerist prints, which he collected.)
Baselitz's work is a masterful union of bleakness and sensuality, mirage-like illusion and direct abstract painting, intensity and irony, introspection and irrationality. His works are grimly historical as well as personal confessions -- socially as well as humanly authentic. Above all, they are that difficult and rare thing, an uncanny, dynamic mix of ugliness and beauty, vulgar in their perfection and perfect in their vulgarity. They have a kind of graceful, lyric crudity, transforming what Cézanne called "vibrating sensation" into grotesque, "Gothic" sensation. The series of 6 Beautiful, 4 Ugly Portraits (1988) -- sublime and infernal, noble and grisly, disintegrated and re-integrated, estranged and haunting, intuitive and urgent - -makes this very clear.
Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between the German sense of identity and the American sense of identity is to compare Werner Büttner's expressionistic Self-Portrait Masturbating in the Cinema (1980) and Chuck Close's Photorealist Self-Portrait (1976-77). Büttner is what Baudelaire called an "imaginative," Close what he called a "positivist." That is, Büttner paints a subject, Close paints an object. Close is matter-of-fact and emotionally empty, Büttner is grim, explosive, hostile. He points to his penis with a certain mocking anger, as though saying "I dare you to stop me," while Close has no sexuality worth speaking of, and no sense of the body in which it is embedded. Büttner portrays himself in a dangerous situation -- performing a private act in a public situation, he may be discovered and arrested -- while Close is safely in the studio, copying a photograph of himself with pseudo-scientific precision. Büttner's self-portrait is a visceral fantasy, probably based on real experience, while Close's self-portrait, however self-conscious, is not based on lived experience of the self. The difference is stark, and extends to the handling. Close meticulously records the details of appearance, with a naive trust in verisimilitude, while Büttner paints with bold, sweeping gestures in order to convey the emotional truth, in all its turbulence, behind ordinary appearance. Like the German New Objectivists of an earlier generation, Büttner is a master of body language, particularly the expressive language of the hands and face -- the language of the self at its most unguarded. He renders the changing movement of the hands and the mercurial expression of the face with a similar primitive, agitated realism, and with an even greater show of emotional violence. Close's realism is dehumanizing in comparison, not only because it is based on mechanical reproduction, but because indifference is built into it. It may be a technical tour de force, but it lacks conviction.
Walter Benjamin believed that mechanical reproduction would eliminate expressive aura, which was in any case obsolete in modern society, but Büttner's self-portrait shows that aura is existential in import, and will continue to exist as long as sexuality and aggression do. Aura has more to do with emotional than social reality -- the emotional reality that underpins and informs social reality. Thus Close depicts the facade of himself, enlarged into a media spectacle, while Büttner goes behind the social facade to the existential reality of the self, charged with instinctive sexuality and aggression. Perhaps Close is superficial because he has nothing to hide -- or else he has hidden his inner life so well he doesn't know how to find it. He is not so much dispassionate, as lacking in passion. Büttner couldn't be superficial if he tried, because he has never learned to hide his passion behind any social identity. Like Baselitz's pictures of men with giant, grotesque penises, Büttner's phallic self-portrait is implicitly anti-social, while Close enlarges himself into a celebrity -- they're often shown full face and in-your-face in media close-ups -- although not as glamorous and ingratiating. Yet the raw, tough, unpleasing face is also a Hollywood stereotype. And, like Baselitz's various portraits of the artist, Büttner's painterly self-portrait as artist indicates indicates his engagement with the emotional and existential fundamentals of life -- indeed, his presence is formed by them and expresses them, with as much forcefulness and directness as possible (all the more so because he ironically suggests that painting is sublimated masturbation) -- while Close depicts himself as a facile, banal narcissist.
A similar comparison can be made between Rainer Fetting's Self-Portrait as Indian (1982) and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's notorious 1978 self-portrait in leather, with his back to the audience -- and he clearly wants an audience. The handle of a whip -- doing double duty as the symbol of a penis -- sticks out of his anus, and he turns his head to look at the spectator, eager to see his reaction. Both artists are homosexuals, but Fetting presents himself as an ironically heroic grand personage, his body as transcendentally blue as Franz Marc's famous horse -- Fetting's body is theatrically painted in mock preparation for war, as the obsolete weapon of bow and arrow suggest, and he stands alone in a dark landscape, with a blazing sun (klieg light?) behind him -- while Mapplethorpe presents himself as a pervert. Both strike poses, but they're somewhat different. Fetting's self-portrait has an allegorical aura, perhaps alluding to homosexuality -- his figure belongs to the tradition of what might be called the high male nude, involving fascinated fixation on the beauty of the muscular body -- while Mapplethorpe's portrait repackages the tired cliché of the aberrant homosexual, defiantly exhibiting his outrageous behavior.
Mapplethorpe does not so much come out of the closet as bring the spectator -- presumably heterosexual -- into the closet, hoping to shock him, perhaps in acknowledgement of his unconscious homosexuality. But what he sees is not exactly shocking, for it confirms his assumptions: in its flagrant, offensive homosexuality, Mapplethorpe's picture lives up to social expectations, while Fetting's picture deftly sidesteps them, suggesting a subtler defiance of social norms -- emotional defiance as distinct from sexual defiance. Mapplethorpe reduces the obscene to another everyday scene, while Fetting makes the scene esthetically seductive, ingeniously suggesting its absurdity as well as perversity. It is the Three Penny Opera strategy of Weimar Republic art -- of Beckmann, Dix, Grosz and German Expressionist film: the scene presents itself as inherently obscene. The normal is abnormal, the abnormal is normal -- and both may be a pretense. What looks uncensored may be make-believe. Thus the boundary between public spectacle and private experience -- acting a role and compulsive enactment -- blurs. Mapplethorpe is playing to the audience as much as he is fucking himself. It may be a way of telling the public to fuck itself. He is not simply satisfying a perverse need, but telling the public it is perverse to watch him do so. Reducing himself to a sexual performer, Mapplethorpe loses credibility as a person -- he has little or no self apart from his performance -- while Fetting is clearly a person, emanating strength and autonomy, whatever his erotic aura. Indeed, Fetting's portrait is about the subtlety of eros -- is it an ironical self-representation as Cupid? -- rather than explicit sexuality.
Fetting's self-portrait has less to do with homosexuality than with art. It is an ironical image of the artist as outsider, at once poseur and transgressor. But we know it's all amusing theater -- while Mapplethorpe's picture, however theatrical, is deliberately provocative, all the more so because of its journalistic realism. It is though Mapplethorpe thinks he's newsworthy, or that perversion is newsworthy, instead of commonplace. Fetting's self-portrait in flamboyant Native American costume -- it's as though he's ready for carnival -- is an ironical update of Gauguin's noble savage. In Fetting, all the sensationalism is in the handling -- in the stark contrast of colors, the flashes of brightness in the dark landscape, the ingenious juxtaposition of the curves of the sun and bow, the upright figure and the steep diagonal behind it -- while in Mapplethorpe it is in the subject matter. And yet, as I have suggested, it is an ordinary subject matter. Once exposed -- once the exhibitionist exhibits himself (without shocking anyone) -- it fades into insignificance. What remains convincing is Mapplethorpe's backward glance not his sadomasochism. That tells us more about his psyche -- and is in fact more perverse -- than his behavior. It reveals his dependence on the spectator. Mapplethorpe loses his identity as pervert once he catches the eye of the spectator witnessing his behavior. He can then pick up the tools of his sexual trade and leave the stage: the performance -- which has something comic about, no doubt because, like a bad little boy, he's looking for the spectator's approval as well as trying to unsettle him -- is over.
Fetting's psyche is much more complex. His face is an obscure painterly blur, half dark, half light, suggesting inner conflict. Similarly, his loincloth is a luminous painterly patch between two shadowy thighs, suggesting a conflict about sexuality. Color becomes an aura around his body, making him humanly as well as sexually mysterious. There is an aura of enigma about him -- a sense of indwelling intensity, conveying some obscure depth of feeling. Fetting's painting also has a tenebristic quality -- the figure looms out of the darkness -- adding to its mystery and spiritual import (like the blue). There is a peculiar poignancy to Fetting's self-portrait -- it seems self-questioning as well as self-assertive, as though he was perplexed by his identity -- which Mapplethorpe's self-portrait lacks. This has nothing to do with the difference between painting and photography -- the photographic manipulation of shadow and light can be as expressive and emotionally evocative as painterliness, and as fraught with existential import -- but rather with attitude. Like Close, Mapplethorpe is a positivist, even at his most imaginative -- an observer rather than a fantasist. He never abandons empirical detail to make an expressive point, as both Büttner and Fetting do. Mapplethorpe may be declaring his homosexuality, but he does so in a way that suggests that it has no deep meaning for him, just as Close's self-portrait -- also straightforward -- implies that he has no deep emotional life. Mapplethorpe's emotional life also seems rather limited -- more exciting than Close's, but limited to one emotion. His self-portrait enacts his limitation -- his entire identity seems subsumed in his homosexuality -- while Fetting's self-portrait has more depth and emotional dialectics. So does his famous Large Shower (Panorama) (1981) -- also a display of male flesh -- which for all its homoerotic import suggests a troubled sense of self, as its overwhelming blackness (typically German) suggests. Bodies flicker in the darkness, which seems less a place for sexual activity than a kind of emotional hell.
Unlike the German artists, American artists aren't given to self-dramatization, but rather to social drama. And their expressionism seems lukewarm in comparison: Philip Guston and Susan Rothenberg look superficial next to Büttner and Fetting. Their figures -- cartoony in Guston's case, ghostly horses in Rothenberg's -- lack the expressive tension of Buttner's and Fetting's figures. Next to Helmut Middendorf's flamboyantly anarchistic expressionistic paintings, the "Bad Painting" exhibited at the New Museum in 1978, much of it quasi-expressionist, looks like a bad joke. Duane Hanson's banal figures are more to the American point: they carry Social Realism to a depressing extreme. Shedding the bumptious sentimentality and innocent propaganda of '30s Social Realism, they show a side of American life -- a mood -- rarely represented in American art. Hanson's figures are dazed by life, indeed, terminally depressed. They live life, but their lives are at a stand still. What strikes me about Hanson's figures is their frozen quality--the outward expression of their inner deadness. They convey the inner lifelessness of everyday American life, for all its outward busyness. Their existence and identity are completely defined and circumscribed by their social situation. Hanson's sculptures are a profound critique of everydayness, suggesting its emptiness. His people are ordinary, but the emotional state of ordinary Americans is not usually represented in American art, certainly not with Hanson's directness. His sculptures strip the big lie from American life, exposing its hollowness. It is a dazzling achievement, all the more so because his mannequins are completely descriptive, down to the last detail. But their matter-of-factness is as manufactured as the lives it records. Hanson uses a deceptively plain-spoken realism to convey the morbid inner reality of America.
Hanson's Security Guard (1975) is in a dead-end job with no future. He's an existential vacuum, like all of Hanson's figures. They're puppets on a social string, even in their introspective moments. Hanson's work is a devastating critique of American society, a pathetic place full of lost souls. Hanson is a social existentialist, as distinct from the personal existentialism of the German expressionists. For him human existence is determined by social function and role rather than instinctive force and inner conflict. Both society and instinct may be enslaving, but instinct offers the promise of creative rebellion from society -- in the act of revealing its character -- while Hanson's Americans have lost their instinctive nerve and are far from creative. They are monstrously commonplace -- frighteningly banal.
The difference in attitude between German identity art and American identity art is a constant of seventies art. It is the difference between the sculptural figures of Markus Lüpertz and John de Andrea, the geometrical abstractions of Imi Knoebel and Brice Marden, the hallucinatory imagery of Karl Heinz Hödicke and Robert Moskowitz, the shaped canvases of Peter Bömmels and Elizabeth Murray. On the German side there is what Georg Jiri Dokoupil called "powerful content" and Penck called "dialectical representation." This is perhaps most obvious in Immendorf's Café Deutschland paintings, which deal with the co-existence of East and West Germany. Re-union is possible, but the thick wall between them implies they will always be different -- they have become spiritually and ideologically irreconcilable. On the American side there is Sam Gilliam's realization that "one of the real ways of getting away from the stretcher was to take the canvas out of it and just attach it to the wall." He continues "the dialogue with what was happening with Pollock and Louis working on the floor, but I am taking that dialogue to the wall." Formal and technical problems are foremost for Gilliam, as they were for many American artists: American art identity remained bound to Greenberg's theory of modernism, which privileged the medium over content. Clever manipulation of form counted for more than imaginative transformation of content. Pollock and Louis were abstract painters -- for Greenberg they "clarified" painting's autonomy by using paint more "frankly" than it had ever been used (Greenberg was all but indifferent to the expressive and evocative power of their paintings, and the traces of illusionism that remained in it). Gilliam wanted to take the "next step": interweave painting and sculpture. He was a painter who wanted to "establish as much facticity as possible, but keep certain elements of illusion," but he was "also carrying on a dialogue with sculpture." Thus his use of "great masses and gestures of cloth [that] would shift from density to openness depending on one's perspective."(9) From the German point of view, Gilliam is altogether indifferent to emotional content -- universal feelings evoked by such universal content as "mother, father, life, death," as Dokoupil said. From the American point of view, the German artists are poor artists -- as Judd explicitly said -- because they were indifferent to modernist esthetics.
But they wanted to get beyond it, which is why they trivialized it: the point made in 1968 by Polke's Carl Andre in Delft was repeated, in different terms, in 1980 in Robert Ryman, Can You Hear Me?, a collaborative drawing by Dokoupil and Walter Dahn. Once again modernist abstraction was mocked as a hollow, sterile esthetics -- an esthetics with no existential content, especially in its final Minimalist form. For the Germans, modernist abstraction was an exercise in futility, for the Americans, existential expressionism was an exercise in subjective excess. As Greenberg said of the paintings of van Gogh and Soutine, they failed as art however much they succeeded as feeling. There was a stand-off: the German artists got their identity from their existential -- and German -- content, the American artists got their identity from their manipulation of the medium and the pieties of pure form. Each was decadent from the other's perspective. Each believed the other was stuck in a historical rut. The Americans dug the grave of abstraction, the Germans resurrected the corpse of Expressionism. Without saying so, each regarded the other as "postmodernist," that is, each reworked a clichéd fragment of avant-garde art, mistaking it for the whole avant-garde truth, or at least its only valid aspect, indeed, the only artistic advance that had staying power. Both were in effect excavating and reconstructing, in terms that suited their identity, an avant-garde art that had become history. They were looking backwards -- back to the beginning of the century: Expressionism and Abstraction -- the pursuit of existential authenticity on the one hand and esthetic purity on the other (each claimed it was artistically authentic, that is, articulated the essence of art, and disparaged the other as inadequate) -- were the seminal movements of 20th-century avant-gardism.
Both German identity art and American identity art returned to the fundamentals of avant-garde art. It had been at odds with itself from the start, as the difference between Expressionism and Abstraction indicates. The attempt to reconcile their differences was also there from the start, as Kandinsky's Abstract Expressionism shows. Gilliam's painting is clearly abstract expressionistic, if lighter in mood than the New German Expressionism, and Dokoupil's painting is eccentrically abstract however little it has to do with modernist eccentric abstraction. The decorative pattern art that appeared in New York in the '70s--for example, the work of Robert Kushner, Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, which not only has nothing morbid about it but conveys a kind of joie de vivre (it is the American version of "luxury painting," to use the term that Greenberg used to describe the hedonistic painting that emerged in Paris after the first world war) -- exemplifies the upbeat American attitude. In the case of Kozloff and Schapiro this is an esthetic as well as emotional triumph, especially because a good deal of feminist art sacrifices esthetics to ideology. Much of it also tends toward morbidity and violence, as in the case of Nancy Spero's polemical documentary work, as though identifying with the male aggressor rather than asserting femininity, understood in libidinous terms, as a positive identity in itself, which Kozloff and Schapiro do. In contrast the bizarre surreal imagery of the Muhlheimer Freiheit conveys, with manic cunning and wit, the nightmare of being German. Hans Peter Adamski, Bömmels, Dahn, Dokoupil, Gerard Kever, Martin Kippenberger, Gerhard Naschberger, Albert Oehlen, Volker Tannert, among others, convey -- with varying degrees of black humor and existential irony, not to say a certain vicious sense of absurdity -- the German sense of traumatic identity. It is an identity haunted by the Nazi past, as Dahn and Dokoupil's German Forest (1981) -- the tree has swastika wheels and a swastika mouth -- makes clear. (It is reminiscent of Heartfield's Little German Christmas Tree, made in 1934 at the beginning of the Hitler period in German history rather than in its aftermath.) Morbidity becomes comic, which does nothing to change the German tragedy -- the German New Expressionism in general tends to be tragicomic, or rather tragic satire -- but makes it more bearable, emotionally if not socially. The only American artist who can match them in morbid humor is Robert Arnason, whose self-portraits are also full of tragic rage, however modified by funky irony, and who also has an apocalyptic style, as his Fragment of Western Civilization makes clear.
It is not only the Germans and Americans who differ in sensibility and history, but, more broadly, Americans and Europeans. The point is made clearly by comparing the figures of Philip Pearlstein and Francesco Clemente. But the comparison is not so simple, for it shows the inescapability of the existential in formalist art, and the inescapability of formalism in existential art. Pearlstein claims to be a formalist -- his abstraction is mannerist, as his steep spaces, exaggerated perspectives, and oddly elongated figures indicate -- but his naked figures clearly have psychosexual import, and are in troubled relationship. They are victims of life as well as intriguing arrangements of surfaces and shapes. Clemente's paintings are routinely narcissistic, and full of sexual fantasies, but they are also field paintings, sometimes explicitly. His ground is usually flat and non-illusionistic, or minimally illusionistic, and his figures are usually flat and sketchy, like mirages about to evaporate. He has also made a series of works inspired by Indian design, as cosmic in import as field painting.
Slick, eye-biting American Photorealist surface and crude, tactile German painterly surface highlight the differences between the two identities, but they again show the inescapability of existential emotion in formal brilliance and the formal brilliance necessary to make existential emotion convincing and urgent, and above all to convey its subtlety. Thus the Photorealist paintings of Don Eddy and Richard Estes can be read as purely formal constructions but they are also profoundly introspective. Eddy's objects symbolize states of mind -- sometimes manic, as in his paintings of glass, sometimes depressing, as in his paintings of automobiles -- while Estes's urban spaces are labyrinthine voids, from which there is no exit. Some are marked by token figures, even more isolated than those of Hopper. In Estes, human space -- space made by human beings for human beings -- becomes inhuman, while in Eddy inhuman objects become subtly human. Both painters are masters of reflected light -- their surfaces mirror the world they are part of -- and in both reflection becomes emblematic of curiosity and cogitation. It is a symbol of human consciousness as well as their own remarkable powers of observation. Indeed, Eddy and Estes are meditative, contemplative artists. There is an aura of wonder in their works, the wonder which makes the most ordinary things seem exquisite, and in which knowledge begins. But this aura of wonder exists in uneasy, compensatory balance with the aura of disillusionment -- the disenchantment inherent in the sense of ordinariness ("reality") that inevitably settles over things--that also informs their works.
Perhaps the case par excellence of the tricky dialectic of pure form and existential emotion are the figures of George Segal. They are melancholy presences, at once ghostly abstractions -- nothing but molds, usually painted white -- and depressed human beings, implicitly, and literally, hollow. They are often placed in abstract arrangements isolated in public space. These installations are complex formal arrangements, in which familiar things, used for their geometry as well as function, are integrated with the figures, conceived as grand organic gestures. Many of the installations form patterns of primary colors as well as three-dimensional objects. Segal acknowledges a debt to Mondrian, and, like Pearlstein, thinks of himself as a formalist, but, like him, is an existential formalist, in contrast to Mondrian, who is a transcendental formalist. Segal's installations are clearly theatrical, but it is a theater of the everyday absurd, revealing the inherent vulnerability of human beings and the underlying pathos of American life. In their different ways, and with different means, Hanson and Segal, as well as Eddy and Estes, suggest the lives of quiet desperation that most men lead, as Thoreau said. Or, as I would say, their sense of inadequacy, bringing with it a sense of failed individuality and faulty identity.
The environmental paintings of Eddy and Estes have a numinous, indwelling radiance, and the figural sculptures of Hanson and Segal have a monumental presence -- however understated, as befits the everyday types they render -- but all four artists deal with a world that remains incorrigibly banal, and with the unfortunate existential consequences of being in such a world. Only its artistic transformation redeems it from mediocrity and meaninglessness. However imaginatively enlivened, the environment and people they depict remain emotionally ruined -- existentially catastrophic, by reason of the ordinariness ruthlessly imposed upon them by modern life. This remains so, despite the sensibility that enriches their presence with its own sensations, reflecting the artist's determination to feel alive even as he remains empathically bound to the deadness around him.
The German New Expressionists deal with the same tragic thing, suggesting that it is a universal feeling in late modernity, and rampant in postmodern society, but they deal with it in a more angry, rebellious way, as though wanting to throw it off, but, being unable to do so, show it corroding the skin of their painting. The German artists have a strong sense of personal identity, the Americans of social identity. The identity of the German artists seems unstable and insecure, the identity of the American artists seems stable and secure. The former seem delirious -- raving, disrespectful maniacs. The latter look like sober citizens in comparison; on the surface, their work seems coldly objective. Both but are at their wit's end, for they realize that the personal and social are in a fight to the bitter end, however dependent each is on the other for its credibility and character. The important thing is that both the Germans and Americans are able to make the artistic best of the conflict between the social and personal sides of their identity. That is, they reconcile the opposition through artistic means, establishing an uneasy esthetic peace. All esthetic victories may be Pyrrhic victories, but they bring peace with them. Both Germans and Americans turn psychosocial entropy into an optimal experience of art, whether it be conceived as quintessentially formal or existential, purifying or dithyrambic, to use the word Lüpertz used to describe his painting. "Dionysus dithyrambos" means "Dionysus, who stands before the double door" that leads to the underworld.
(1) Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1977), pp. 13-14
(2) Erik H. Erikson, Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 20
(3) Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New
York: Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 37, 39
(4) Theodore W. Adorno, Negative Dialectic (New York: Seabury, 1973), p. 362
(5) Thedore W. Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), p. 34
(6) Quoted in Chipp, p. 82
(7) H. I. Schvey, Oscar Kokoschka: The Painter as Playwright (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1982), p. 7
(8) Theodore W. Adorno, "Commitment," The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. 313
(9) Quoted in Planar Painting: Constructs 1975-80 (New York: Alternative Museum, 1980; exhibition catalogue), n. p.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here