It is an extraordinary and unexpected admission, but Georg Baselitz has never enjoyed the popularity which American museums and collectors have shown towards his German contemporaries. No European critic would doubt that he belongs in the senior league of contemporary Expressionist painting but he has not engaged comparable affection in the United States. Even Joseph Beuys, for so many years considered to be too inaccessible for American taste, now commands a position of respect and curiosity which has eluded Baselitz.
The benefactors of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at present the most dynamic circle of collectors congregated in any one city, have filled their walls with the finest canvases by Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, but have virtually ignored the claims of Baselitz. As a result, he did not feature in that museum’s inaugural exhibition which, otherwise, placed great emphasis upon the achievements of contemporary German painting.
A combination of factors may have led to this strange situation. Surprisingly he has not enjoyed the visibility of his colleagues and has never previously been the subject of a proper survey organised by an American museum. In spite of having been represented in New York by Mary Boone, and now by Pace-Wildenstein, his best work has been shown by his European rather than American dealers. His reputation as an artist of uneven standards, not entirely unfair, has disguised the quality of his best work. He was not, for example, particularly well served by “Refigured Painting: The German Image 1960-1988” which was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1989. His strengths have been his weaknesses in the American market place where he is regarded as being too rough, too powerful, too uncompromising in his brushwork and imagery.
An opportunity to correct, or at least review, this judgement comes with a major survey of his work which opens at the Guggenheim Museum at the end of this month (26 May-17 September). In the circumstances, it may be accurate to describe the occasion as the most important exhibition of the artist’s career. Curated by Diane Waldman, the museum’s deputy director, and sponsored by Hugo Boss (see The Art Newspaper No. 47, April 1995, p 15), it will occupy virtually the entire building on Fifth Avenue, including the Rotunda, the High Gallery, the complete suite of spiral ramps and two of the Tower galleries. In total, ninety-eight major paintings will be shown in a largely chronological presentation, with each ramp or gallery punctuated by the sculptures which Baselitz has been making since 1979. Thirteen of these brutal and pigmented wood carvings will be included in the exhibition but his watercolours and drawings, and his entire printed oeuvre, have been omitted. There are no concessions to a softer taste.
Whatever is the critical response to the exhibition, no fault can be found with the museum which appears to have served the artist particularly well with the level of its commitment and the selection of his works. A more desirable choice of paintings would be hard to imagine.
The installation in the Rotunda sets the agenda with the dramatic juxtaposition of three massive carved figures and “Nachtessen in Dresden” (1983), a banqueting scene which carries specific references to Emil Nolde and the Brücke group of painters. This impressive preface to the exhibition is followed by several canvases of the Pandemonium period and no less than eighteen “Neuer Typ” pictures, those ironically heroic figures, lonely and mutilated survivors of devastated landscapes, which Baselitz created in 1965-66. Only the period of the artist’s earliest inverted compositions, the mannerism which he adopted in 1969 and which has characterised all of his subsequent work, is not properly represented. The examples obtained by Ms Waldman begin only in 1974. Evidence of the artist’s latest development, a tendency towards abstraction, will be provided by twenty-one compositions completed in the last five years.
The exhibition will be shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (15 October-7 January 1996), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (15 February-5 May 1996) and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (May-September 1996).