Markus Lüpertz in America: German Artist Marks First U.S. Retrospective
Markus Lüpertz, one of Germany’s most significant artists of the postwar period, has arrived in America.
Enlarge image Markus Lüpertz: Donald Ducks Heimkehr, detail (Donald Ducks Homecoming, detail), 1963 (© Photo: Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) With two concurrent exhibitions in Washington, DC’s preeminent museums of modern art—the Phillips Collection and Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall—he has made quite an entrance.
Why has the 76-year-old, highly prolific artist, with a career stretching back to the mid-1960s and a rebellious reputation in Europe, remained comparatively unknown in the United States? Why is his first major U.S. museum retrospective happening only now?
“I find that a really tantalizing question,” says Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection and curator of that museum’s Lüpertz exhibition, entitled simply Markus Lüpertz (May 27-Sept. 3, 2017). It has to do with art politics, with everything in life including chance, she says.
“But I think, and I feel it so strongly in this exhibit, that it goes back to the fundamental issue of paintings that can grip you by the throat and challenge you to understand what painting's all about. Paintings that are uncompromising. Paintings that take a helmet, a cake form, a straw of grain, a split tree trunk? And monumentalize them, and give them the dignity of the traditional history genre. It's so contradictory, it's confounding.”
For Kosinski, this contradictory, confounding spirit in Lüpertz’s practice is also the source of his allure.
“I think that for me, that is what I feel passionate about in this work is that it's so brazen, it's so muscular, it's so robust."
Cold War Berlin
While the Phillips Collection exhibition, drawing on a major 2015 gift from gallerist Michael Werner of 46 works by postwar German artists including Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff and Lüpertz, covers a broad sweep of the artist’s fifty-plus-year career, the Hirshhorn exhibition, entitled Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History (May 24-Sept. 10, 2017), focuses on the critical early period of Lüpertz’s practice, during the 1960s and 1970s.
Enlarge image Markus Lüpertz: Der große Löffel (The Large Spoon) (© Markus Lüpertz / The Phillips Collection) In 1962, the 21-year-old aspiring artist moved to West Berlin. In the divided city on the front lines of the Cold War, Lüpertz sought to forge an individualistic path, avoiding the obvious blocs and influences, political or artistic.
This included the still influential Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, whose 1958 exhibition in Berlin impacted a generation of German artists. “And then what happened was that about fifty percent of Berlin artists started painting like de Kooning and the other fifty percent did exact opposite,” Lüpertz told painter Peter Doig in a 2014 conversation.
Avid autonomist Lüpertz sought a third way. In 1963, he began including dithyramb in the titles of many works, signifying a singular approach to his creative process.
The dithyramb, referring in classical Greece to an impulsive, euphoric verse in praise of Dionysus, was revived by nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his Dionysian-Dithyrambs poems, published in 1891.
For Lüpertz, the dithyramb was about asserting the painter’s expressive power over the subject being depicted. Though various objects—some with strong political overtones—emerged in recognizable form in his paintings, for Lüpertz, these forms were mere motifs, drained of a specific meaning by the artist’s treatment of them.
The ambiguous relation between abstraction and figuration has since become a hallmark of Lüpertz’s art. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important,” he has said.
Donald Duck’s Homecoming
Nonetheless, Lüpertz acknowledges a debt of influence to great mid-century American painters including de Kooning, Pollock, and Phillip Guston, who provided a point of departure for both German and American artists of his generation, he says.
Enlarge image Markus Lüpertz: Deutsches Motiv– dithyrambisch II (German Motif—Dithyrambic II) (© Markus Lüpertz / The Phillips Collection) “The origins lie in this liberation, this freedom, and that came from America. Not all of these American painters were painting like Picasso. But with these paintings they came to America, and made something quintessentially American out of it. And then these paintings came back to Europe. And that's the exciting thing. That's why there aren't any borders, but really just painting."
Museum-goers should not visit the Phillips Collection or Hirshhorn exhibitions hoping to ‘understand’ Lüpertz’s art. That will only be possible, if at all, with the perspective of several hundred years’ time, according to Lüpertz.
And it would miss the point. "In art, it's so much more beautiful to believe than to know; beliefs cannot be disappointed. That's why you should believe in art."
In any case, as Dorothy Kosinski of the Phillips Collection noted, the viewer’s reaction to these works is often something akin to the dithyramb—a spontaneous, intuitive passion. Kosinski used the German word berauschend—intoxicating.
“[Museum founder] Duncan Phillips would love this,” she said. “He would adore the exhilaration in these paintings!”
By Jacob Comenetz, Cultural Affairs Officer, German Embassy Washington