ART 2021

Beware Strategizing Painters Bearing Gifts

By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found in Baselitz’s work

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Sure, the world was turned upside down by COVID. But as we gladly return more and more to museums and galleries and “normal,” we still gotta take the bad with the good.

Case in point: the six paintings recently gifted by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For business reasons — collectors love that institutional cachet — we can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, enervating canvases?

First, some boilerplate from the Met’s website about this clumsy body of work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) employed the strategy of inversion, an approach that continues to be of interest to him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to expunge narrative content and expression — elements present in his earlier work — in order to focus on painting itself.”

Indeed, judging by the sludgy paint handling, wan colors, flabby limbs, and doughy faces on view here, Baselitz successfully jettisoned engaging “content and expression” — his “strategy” of presenting topsy-turvy figures conveys little interest in his sitters. By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.

Excepting of course … he turned his figures upside down.

Maybe Baselitz should’ve taken a page from Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and portrayed his figures at an angle. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to commune with Peter as he contemplates the spike driven through his left hand, the weight of his powerful torso beginning to bear on pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own heaving limbs — shadowy lackeys of murderous empire — all of their separate agonies beautifully frozen within the composition’s wrenching equipoise.

But I forget that Baselitz was not painting sitters who were actually upside down, he was painting portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not flutter the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of expunging “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers with … what, exactly?

And to be fair, comparison to practically any of Caravaggio’s tableaux — every bit as dramatic as his compeer in the Baroque zeitgeist, Shakespeare — is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can perform yourself at the Met — something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s blunt innovations were first hung: Take a cell phone shot of one of these clunkers and then rotate the image on your screen. Is it, at least, a compelling figure? A captivating portrait?

Only if you like desiccated paint surfaces, deflated patterns, and lazily proportioned figures. It doesn’t matter if Baselitz is a righty or a southpaw because he could not be more cack-handed.

But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely awry. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465–70) by Giovanni di Paolo.

Go ahead: Click. Flip.

Whoa. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems — like Baselitz — with hands and faces. But he had compositional chops to spare. Start with that bowed white trim encircling his robe, bisected by the surreal knuckle-like knots of his flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the totality revealing an underlying awareness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.

But perhaps it is still an unfair comparison — too many props and too much gold leaf. Well then, another gallery or two along and we come to El Greco at his most splendiferously mundane: Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1595–1600). Do that 21st-century-phone whirl and here’s what you get:

Just the racing flourishes of that ruffled collar spanning burnished wedges — a swooping matrix reminiscent of one of Ed Clark’s abstract helixes — is worth the price of admission.

But if a skeptic out there thinks this is a case of comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, truck on over to the Alice Neel show, which is up until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who not long ago proclaimed that women can’t paint, so go ahead and pick one of Neel’s paintings, whip out your phone, take your shot, and hit the rotate icon. You’ve got nothing to lose.   ❖

Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn
The Met Fifth Avenue
Through July 18

Highlights