An exhibition of new works by highly acclaimed German painter Georg Baselitz is now showing at Gagosian Gallery in London, and will run until 29 March. In Farewell Bill, Baselitz’ new series of paintings is self-portraiture, but it is all about Wilhelm de Kooning; it is figuration, but it is abstracted; it is high art, but it is commercial. And it is humorous, but deadly serious.
Georg Baselitz possesses that distinctly German seriousness whereby art is not entertainment; rather, it is the edification of the human spirit through intellect and aesthetics. Baselitz paints because through art humanity can be reconciled with its own questionable destiny. In these new paintings, looks at himself as he is situated in the history of art and his relation to his major inspiration, Wilhelm de Kooning. The result is a collection of works whose self-awareness belies more than a little Hegalian conceit.
On one level, the pictures are an exercise in the discipline of self-portraiture, whereby Baselitz is honing a craft while continuing his usual practice of offering repeated riffs on a single theme. But on another level, he is engaging with art history by deliberately replicating the style of de Kooning; the fact that the paintings come out as de Kooning-Baselitz hybrids of gestural marks that feverishly push the limits of representation only proves the point.
The marriage of watercolour fluidity and impasto density is reminiscent of de Kooning, while the upside down orientation and controlled hysteria is all Baselitz. It is almost as if Baselitz looked in on himself as an unfinished project of history and saw only the ghost of de Kooning. It is as if by some amazing accident the dialectic of history had stumbled on the self-awareness of Spirit through a torrent of effortless brushstrokes.
The thing that separates Baselitz from other painters with grand intellectual conceits is the fact that he never fails to capture the intellectual idea (the self-portrait as reflective disciple) and the aesthetic idea (the reference to de Kooning). The two can always be seen equally in all their complimentary tension without dissolving into high-minded obscurity. It is in this way that he manages to be witty, since he is explicitly mobilising his own great master to make a little joke of himself.
The seriousness, however, is in the devotion to painting as a vehicle for thinking. In the self-portrait, Baselitz denotes himself with his baseball cap that has the name of his paint supplier, Zero, and by leaving the marks of his footprints from where he has stepped on the canvas. The works were made quickly with no overview of the entire canvas, so there is localised detail that never quite fits together, furthering his tireless questioning of representation and fragmentation of its visual language.
After a while, one begins to think that this continual fragmentation of self and other in Baselitz has deep psychological roots in his childhood experience of walking to safety through the ashes of an obliterated Dresden. This is the work of an aging master coming to terms with his mortality as an artist who will, in the final analysis, be remembered as a series of flecks of paint and heroic symbols.
Georg Baselitz: Farewell Bill, until 29 March at Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street, London, WC1X 9JD. For more information visit www.gagosian.com.
1. Georg Baselitz, Willem raucht nicht mehr. Courtesy of the artist and Gasgosian Gallery.