Art in Postwar Germany

Installation view of the Markus Lüpertz installation. Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

In the sixties, when Markus Lüpertz began his career, the arts in Germany were in a tenuous situation. After World War II, critics and artists in the new West German state had embraced abstraction. Artists like Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay created totally abstract compositions that were distinct from, but also connected to, international trends in the United States and France. Yet, while there are indeed broader historical implications to Abstract Expressionism in the US and Informel in France, the avoidance of representational imagery in West Germany came to be viewed in the decades following the war, as an avoidance of history itself. Artists spoke of a “year zero” and often created primordial looking abstract forms that appeared outside of history, as though going back to some mythic beginning or abstract, pre-historical origin could escape the trauma and horror of Nazism and the Second World War.

Max Rosenberg, UMD-Phillips Collection Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art

What is a Dithyramb?

Mann im Anzug – dithyrambisch II (Man in Suit—Dithyrambic II), 1976. Distemper on canvas, 98 1/2 x 73 1/2 in. Private collection

When you visit the Markus Lüpertz exhibition, you might find yourself asking, “what is the dithyramb?” You’d find that word repeated over and over again on several labels. So let me quote:  he said, “I didn’t want to paint figuratively anymore, so I invented something abstract that is also figurative, a dithyramb.” So, in there you feel the contradiction; he’s challenging us to figure out what he’s saying. He imposes that term on paintings that ostensibly present a tree trunk, roof tiles on a house, a helmet, a traditional cake form in Germany, a stalk of wheat, a man’s suit, such disparate and trivial objects, and again he paints them with authority and drama, instilling their trivialness with importance, or at least the importance of a painted object.

He defies normal expectations; it’s not really a depiction and it’s not figurative, but it’s not abstract. Those are the kind of norms that he’s discarding very vociferously. When we expect things to be part of a landscape, none of them appear outdoors; they seem to inhabit a flat, ill-defined, poster-like environment. That log does not rest in a landscape, it can hardly be described as a still life, is it now a monument? Those are the kinds of questions that he’s prompting us to engage in as we look closely.

I quote Lüpertz again: “the dithyramb was my totally individual contribution to abstraction, abstraction not in the sense of rational analysis or reduction, but as in the invention of a nonsense object.” He embraces riddles and mysteries as fundamental to art. He says, “art survives only in riddles, only in mystery can art’s eternal truth be retained, therefore the artist must be, as Nietzsche demands, a seeker of riddles, because those who seek to solve riddles are many.” The reference to Nietzsche is important because this whole Dionysian poetic term from the poetry of antiquity re-emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the German-speaking world and had a resonance for him.

Dorothy Kosinski, Markus Lüpertz exhibition curator and Phillips Director

George Condo Is Staring into My Soul

Condo installation-09_Lee Stalsworth

George Condo, The Discarded Human. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

George Condo’s The Discarded Human is a rather harsh image of a female figure leaning back and staring at the viewer. Condo takes away a structured perspective, making the figure’s body look twisted and deformed. The woman is holding herself up with her arms, creating a strong pose for an otherwise contorted body. Attached to this body is a dark face with distorted facial features.

Everything about this work makes me uneasy. The dark tones and shades of gray create a dim mood for the scene. There’s no sign of the time of day, but I can’t help imagining it’s the middle of the night. The woman’s straight forward stare and gaping mouth make her seem like more of a monster than a human. Condo seems to do this with such ease that I feel like part of the image is him staring out at me, chuckling as he watches me try not to squirm uncomfortably.

Condo might also be making a commentary on the view we put on the female body. He has forced the pose of this figure to be contorted so as to see both her butt and breasts, but also disrupts the view with her ominous and lurking face, making us question what beauty is and where we choose to see it.

Britta Galanis, Marketing & Communications Intern