Refusing Extremes in a Polarized World

Deutsches Motiv—dithyrambisch II (German Motif—Dithyrambic II), 1972. Distemper on canvas, 74 x 78 in. Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Cologne, London & New York

The Cold War and the global divide between the Capitalist West and the Socialist East led to the politicization of both abstraction and realism. In New York, the new art capital of the postwar era, Abstract Expressionism was cast as a symbol of freedom and individualism that was meant to contrast with the oppressive, restrictive realism of soviet and socialist art. Often covertly through the CIA, the US Government began supporting exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism abroad and helped fund magazines and support critics who promoted American art. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the art policy of Socialist Realism—realist art that heroized workers and depicted the progress of the socialist utopia—was presented as the art of the people and was pitted against the imperialistic capitalist West whose art of abstraction was derided as indulgent and bourgeois. Thus, both abstraction and realism were politicized in the Cold War, and Germany—literally split between Socialist East and Capitalist West—embodied this divide.

From this standpoint, Markus Lüpertz’s mix of abstract and representational imagery becomes both more understandable and more engaging. Negotiating between these two positions, Lüpertz’s insistence that the “object is not important” can be understood as a kind of refusal of both extremes of this polarized world. While the human body, or the appearance of helmets or knives inevitably engages German history, Lüpertz often situates these forms within a kind of unknowable, surrealistic setting that keeps them from ever satisfying the desire to “understand.”

Max Rosenberg, 2016-17 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

The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 2: Photographic Abstraction

This is a multi-part blog post; read Part 1 here.

Though we usually associate abstraction with the medium of painting, Aaron Siskind’s photograph Chicago 30 is decidedly abstract.

siskind_rothko_side by side

(left) Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 in x 7 1/2 in, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004 (2) Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Acrylic on paper mounted on hardboard, 23 13/16 x 18 11/16 in. Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985 © 2005 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Can a photograph be painterly? If it fools the eye enough, can it have the same visual appeal of a painting? Of course there are key differences between the mediums of painting and photography, but for centuries the aim of painting was to trick the viewer; to create something so real and present that the viewer forgot that it was simply paint on canvas. The advent of photography and the emergence of modernism and then abstract expressionism helped shift the art world away from exact reproduction of the physical world. Compared with Mark Rothko’s untitled 1968 abstract expressionist painting (above right), the flourish of black in Siskind’s work appears almost like a brush stroke while Rothko’s appears devoid of the artist’s hand.

siskind_Mexican 32

Aaron Siskind, Mexican 32, 1982. Gelatin silver print, 20 in x 16 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Marie M. Martin, 2005

Siskind’s Mexican 32 is also an abstract work, but it contains a hint of context. The identifiable shadow creates a sense of space in the work; the fraying fabric provides texture, as well as a three dimensionality and depth to the photograph (although this depth is lessened by the stark black background).

Siskind explored abstraction through his camera. These works are an important contribution to the abstract expressionist movement, in which Siskind was socially and professionally involved, but these works are also an intimate window into how Aaron Siskind understood and viewed the world around him.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern