Looming before the viewer in its colossal, eight-foot height, Baselitz creates a work of heroic proportions in Trinker am Tisch (Drinker at Table), resulting in a powerful, iconic portrait. The enormity of the canvas works in tandem with the figure’s upside-down portrayal to create a sense of disorientation, forcing the viewer to mentally invert the image to make sense of its orientation. Seated at a white table, the figure’s lower body is relaxed in a cross-legged repose, but his head and upper torso are turned in profile, caught in a moment of primal angst. He clutches at a blue bottle that stands nearby a small orange, and his face displays the wide-set eyes and opened mouth of a silent scream. The sense of unease created by the painting’s bold imagery is tempered, though, by the artist’s thoughtful, painterly approach, where glowing passages of luminous color are created by short, dappled brushstrokes of the brush. Animated fields of buttery yellow are interspersed with grey and black to create a seductive, light-filled passage, while in the lower register, the artist’s brush becomes powerfully alive in a symphony of orange, peach and flesh-hued tones. In every instance, the painting oscillates back and forth between the inverted representation of the seated figure and the abstraction of its painterly field. This dynamic, tactile surface epitomizes Baselitz’s own description for his style at the time, which he described as “boxing with both hands.” (Georg Baselitz, quoted in P. Kort, ‘80s Then: Georg Baselitz Talks to Pamela Kort,” Artforum, April 2003, p. 207)
As an East German who had moved to the West just before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Baselitz’s heroic figures demonstrate the fractured sense of identity of postwar Germany. Like his contemporaries Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, Baselitz sought a new pictorial language in order to carry on with the act of painting in the decades following World War II, as the specter of war still lingered over many aspects of daily life. Like Baselitz’s New Types and Heroes of the mid-1960s, the Glasstrinker (Glass Drinkers) and Orangenesser (Orange Eaters) can be understood in similar terms, where a conflicted figure struggles with the existential terms of his own reality in a fundamentally altered, modern world. Then as now, these paintings are seen as powerful emblems that reflect the artist’s attempt to create meaningful work in a still-divided Germany that stood at the brink of the Cold War’s end. Indeed, Donald Kuspit noted the particular power of the series when Trinker am Tisch (Drinker at Table) was exhibited in New York at Xavier Fourcade in 1983: “These paintings are not only upside-down, they are inside-out: the figures have a flayed, raw look that goes with spiritual nakedness…The ‘reversible world,’ the sense of ‘topsy-turvydom’ — of everything stood on its head — is also a comic acknowledgment of the world’s craziness, a picaresque way of calling it into questionableness. Very simply, it is a way of…negating what seems the proper order of things…used to renew the failing criticality that is the soul of modernism.” (Donald Kuspit, “Georg Baselitz at Fourcade,” Art in America, February 1982, pp. 139-40)
Although he never sought to deliberately emulate the work of past masters, the Glasstrinker (Glass Drinkers) and Orangenesser (Orange Eaters) were nevertheless influenced by the German Expressionists, especially artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde of Die Brücke. “These works represent my reaction to expressionist art during the ‘80s," Baselitz explained. “I had always loved expressionist painting, like every European. In fact I admired it all the more because these were precisely the paintings desired by my father’s generation. Their denouncement made them especially appealing to me as a human being...” (Georg Baselitz, quoted in P. Kort, op. cit., p. 207)
An important painting from a crucial moment in history, Trinker am Tisch (Drinker at Table) illustrates the highly expressive and brilliantly colored portrayals of the human figure that crystalized during this fruitful period. A few months after it was painted, Baselitz selected the present work to be one of only four painting that he exhibited at the Xavier Fourcade Gallery in March of 1983. There, Trinker am Tisch (Drinker at Table) was exhibited alongside Nachtessen in Dresden [Supper at Dresden], also painted in 1983, and now in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich. The painting then traveled to London, Amsterdam and Basel as part of the artist’s European retrospective later that year.
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