The exhibition of work by Georg Baselitz opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers Angelenos a comprehensive look at one of the most influential artists to emerge from post - World War II Germany.
Best known, perhaps, for making paintings with images that appear upside - down--a strategy he began using in 1969 to drain objects of their meaning and transform them into shapes--Baselitz has hammered out a consistently experimental and distinctive melding of abstraction and figuration. The show, which comes here from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, draws from 30 years of Baselitz’s career.
Interviewing the 57-year-old artist through a translator in one of the LACMA galleries where his work is hung, one encounters a beautifully dressed man who’s remarkably amiable considering that he just completed a long plane ride that left him with a severe headache. An in-depth conversation about various brands of aspirin preceded the following discussion of his work.
Question: In a recent interview you made a point of identifying yourself as a specifically German artist. What about your sensibility is recognizably German?
Answer: For years people said that about me, so I finally thought about it and realized it’s true. With artists there really are differences that have to do with nationality and I am German--I have no sense of myself as a citizen of the world.
Q: How did growing up in the shadow of World War II shape your sensibility?
A: I was 7 years old when the war ended, so my childhood took place in a climate of fear. The primary thing then was survival--how do you get some soup? Now that I’m older, I’m beginning to look at the larger implications of that war--and Germany itself finally seems ready to address its past. The German people feel great shame about the war, and as to whether that wound of shame will ever heal, I think what will happen is that it will be replaced. Events in the world and another peoples’ shame will supersede it. The human race seems to be evolving in not a good direction.
Q: What drove you as a young artist that no longer seems so important?
A: Early on, I felt it necessary to be explicit, crass and dramatic in trying to make clear what I wanted to do. I was also intent on rejecting the dominant styles of that period--Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism--but that’s part of the coming-of-age of every young artist. In this kind of rejection you make mistakes, but you must make them to find your freedom. I no longer feel required to work that way, and my work is less and less a reaction to the outside and to what other artists are doing. Rather, I find myself looking to my own past, repeating, correcting, deepening. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to wander through my past, and I find myself developing a more responsible attitude toward my work. I want to work more consciously.
Q: The American art world has an image of you as something of an aristocrat. How do you feel about that?
A: Me? An aristocrat? I don’t understand that at all because in Germany I’m a farmer! During the war my father had to go through the family records in order to prove his lineage to the Nazis, and believe me, there were no aristocrats in the family. My ancestors were all middle-class, bourgeoise priests and teachers.
Q: You’re not an aristocrat, yet you live in a castle with 120 rooms?
A: Well, that’s what is available in Germany. Nobody really wants to live in them, so artists often end up with them.
Q: In the catalogue for this show, when you discuss artists you consider your peers, writers you admire and artists who’ve influenced you, you don’t mention a single woman. Even all your dealers are men. Do you consider yourself a sexist?
A: If you have a specific example, I can respond--actually, I have a very good example. When I was a student I saw work by an artist named Joan Mitchell and I loved him a lot. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Mitchell was a woman--and I thought nevertheless, the work is good!
Q: How old were you when you began to have a sense of yourself as an artist?
A: Fourteen. My parents were both teachers and my father spoke several languages, so I was raised in a fairly intellectual environment. In Germany, when you turn 14, you must decide whether to go to a trade school or go on to university, and it was then I decided to be a painter.
Another change took place then too. My uncle was a priest and I was raised a Protestant. As a child there’s no way to reflect on what you’re being taught because it’s all you know. But at 14 I began to wrestle with the question: Should I run away from the church, or should I embrace it? I found the milieu of the church frightening, and so I escaped. Another problem was that I don’t believe in God.
Q: In a recent interview you made the comment: “I don’t understand Christian paintings--people flying around in fairy-tale clothes. I don’t know what it means and it has no importance for me.” Why have millions of people over several centuries chosen to embrace this belief system?
A: There are powerful religions, and there are less powerful religions that fail. There is a conflict between Germans--particularly Germans north of the Alps--and Christianity because Germanic folklore revolves around pagan things that emanate from under the earth. In Christianity, things come from above. I’ve always felt that if there really is such a thing as freedom--which is what people are looking for in religion--that it won’t come from the sky. I believe it will come from the earth, and that is where my work is rooted.
Of course, every imperial religion has denounced the pagans because they had other gods, and unfortunately, the pagans disappeared and everyone became Christian. But this is where artists come in--they bring all things of the past to light again. Every artist functions as a medium, and it’s not something they’re in control of because it’s too valuable and sensitive to be controlled.
* Georg Baselitz’s paintings will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Sunday through Jan. 7. (213) 857-6000.