Art historians enthusiastically contextualize artists, but it is a more difficult task when the artist is alive to watch their attempt. Rearranging several paintings before the opening of his first retrospective show in the United States, Markus Lüpertz wanted everything to be perfect. "He choreographed the exhibit," Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski said with well-earned pride.
The exhibitions "Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History" at the Hirshhorn Museum and "Markus Lüpertz" at the Phillips Collection are the first official collaboration between the two Washington, D.C., galleries. They run from May 24 to September 10 and May 27 to September 3, respectively.
Lüpertz was present at the preview of the exhibitions, answering questions with the help of a translator from eager art historians and journalists from both Germany and the United States. The 76-year-old painter, sculptor, poet, and jazz pianist was well-received in his three-piece tweed suit and matching fedora, leaning on the silver leopard handle of his cane. Although he is a favorite of Germany, over the course of his five-decade career Lüpertz has been somewhat unknown to laymen in America.
This might be the fault of art historians who tagged Lüpertz as a "neo-expressionist." There tends to be an aversion towards expressionists from those who like paintings that are easy to grasp. Neither Kosinski or Lüpertz like the attempt to box his work into a style.
"It’s not about style," Lüpertz insisted. "It's about quality."
His paintings are certainly quality, although it is easy to see why he would be described as a neo-expressionist. Lüpertz was born in 1941, just in time for the postwar height in abstract expressionism. He clearly wasn’t shy about grasping its coat tails and measuring the quality of his paintings by studying those of his expressionist predecessors.
His paintings are marked by a consistent postwar theme—using motifs of helmets, the Berlin wall, and tents. They are huge in scale and carry a limited palette applied with gestural strokes. Whether it be the mesmerizing, 40-foot-long "Westwall," his pop-art mimicry in the "Donald Duck" paintings, or his paintings of bright and simply shaped tents at the Hirshhorn, or the stoic "Seerose (Water Lily)" and dythrambic motifs à la Nietzsche at the Phillips, Lüpertz executes with the unique form that dazzles both laymen and art historians.
"No one talks about quality, but uniqueness," the artist said. "Topics are a trigger point, but a painting is defined by quality, which can only be found through comparison to great painters."
Lüpertz uses techniques in his paintings precedented by Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Philip Guston. His sculptures blend Jean Dubuffet’s disproportionate, bulbous shapes with the conspicuously ugly faces painted by John Graham. Some might not call Lüpertz’s sculptures "ugly": Kosinski preferred the words "challenging" and "full of energy," in the same way a mother might speak about her unruly child. I found myself agreeing with her.
They are beautiful paintings, and Lüpertz wanted to ensure people knew his work was admirable because of this simple fact, not because of a concept drawn from them. His reasons for choosing his formats are simple; Lüpertz's paintings are huge, not because he is trying to add volume to his postwar Berlin theme, but because "a large painting is immediately a decorative piece," he said.
But he wouldn't mind if you said his paintings were huge for the former reason. When I asked Lüpertz whether it was frustrating or amusing to hear art historians and curators attempt to classify his work, he said, "Nein."
"There is no truth," he explained. "The observer or the historian needs to invent the painter for themselves."
It is easy enough to construe context, meaning, and feeling when looking at Lüpertz's work, but it is far more natural to see well-executed paintings created by someone who paints simply for the sake of it.
"In art," he says, "it is so much more beautiful to believe than to know."