NEW YORK — A strange sight greets visitors to the Georg Baselitz exhibition of 100 paintings and sculptures at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Viewers - tilted like trees in the wind - regard the paintings with their heads cocked at a 45-degree angle.
Why the odd posture? Because the signature element of the German painter, born in 1938, is the upside-down image, and museum-goers nearly stand on their heads trying to decipher the pictures. Dubbed a Neo-Expressionist by critics in the 1980s, Baselitz enjoys an exalted reputation in Europe. This show, on view until Sept. 17, is his first retrospective in the United States. It includes nearly 30 years of work, starting with examples from his first solo show in 1963.
Reality, but on a slant
The common thread during a career of experimentation is Baselitz's desire to, as he has written, "liberate representation from content."
Distortion, contortion, and obfuscation are the means to accomplish this radical restructuring of reality. "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant," the poet Emily Dickinson advised. Baselitz similarly bases his images on reality, but stands them on end or turns them sideways. Neither strictly abstract nor representational, the pictures succeed or fail by virtue of formal elements like color, shape, line, and brushstroke.
In a well-known series beginning in 1965, Baselitz painted "heroes" that draw on myth and memory. In these works, he distorted the figures, who have disproportionately small heads, as in the Mannerist paintings he admires. Baselitz's archetypal heroes stride purposefully across a symbolically ruined landscape. In "Black and White" (1966), a male figure wears a backpack, as if shouldering the burden of rebuilding post-war Germany.
Baselitz began to paint topsy-turvy figures in 1969. Instead of "reading" these images as clumsy depictions of figures (Baselitz intentionally cultivates ungainly draftsmanship), one can respond to the canvases as a welter of energetically applied paint.
One has to wonder, however, if he is emptying content of meaning to emphasize the force of line and color, why do so many viewers nearly stand on their heads to decipher the images? Why bother concealing or distorting painted figures, when the paintings work better as pure abstractions? Like a find-the-hidden-object-in-the-picture-puzzle, the upside-down technique impels viewers to look for the subject rather than liberating their imaginations.
"Still Life" (1976-77), for example, is a dynamic composition if one ignores the upended bottle and fruit and concentrates on the white paint cascading across black streaks, with blue pigment peeking around the edges. The abstract image has a pell-mell quality the opposite of "still."
"The Mill Is Burning - Richard" (1988), which portrays an inverted chair from Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles, France, shows Baselitz's reliance on - and subversion of - art history.
Avoidance of elegance
As in his painting, Baselitz tries to convey pure emotion through form and color in his wooden sculptures. Trying, as he has said, to "avoid all manual dexterity, all artistic elegance," he hacks crude figures out of a single tree using chain saw, chisel, and ax. "Armalamor" (1994) shows typical asymmetrical composition, expressive use of color, and reshaping of the human figure. It creates a dialogue between void and volume.
"The imagination spreads like the spores of the trodden puffball," Baselitz has said. The challenge is to reach a compromise between the airy fluff of Baselitz's theories and the substance of the results. In this case, the theory sounds better than it looks.
*"George Baselitz" appears at Los Angeles County Museum of Art Oct. 15 to Jan. 7, 1996; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, Feb. 15 to May 5, 1996; and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin May to July 1996.