Georg Baselitz, Erstens
Executed in 2014, Erstens, bitte schön (First, if you please) exemplifies Georg Baselitz’s expansion of figurative and abstract painting. The present work builds upon Baselitz’s Frakturbilder or Fracture Paintings of the late 1960s, a group of works which followed his seminal Hero Paintings of the same decade. The Frakturbilder subsumed the techniques of twentieth-century Cubism, presenting a new form of painting neither wholly figurative nor abstract. In their execution, Baselitz looked to the classical Cubism of Picasso and Braque, and to the avant-garde’s ground-breaking rupture of the traditional picture plane. Yet Erstens, bitte schön signifies a shift in Baselitz’s visual practice – in 2014, the artist’s brushwork became increasingly loose and gestural, his use of colours brighter and more saturated. In its fluid movement of pigment and raw physicality, the present work is an homage to American Abstract Expressionism, and indeed to the painterly prowess of one of its giants, Willem de Kooning.
Baselitz first encountered de Kooning’s work in West Berlin in 1958, during The Museum of Modern Art's travelling exhibition The New American Painting. Between 1958 and 1959, the exhibition travelled to eight European cities: Basel, Milan, Madrid, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Berlin. Baselitz had left East Berlin that same year after being expelled from his art academy and transferred to Hochschule für Bildende Künste, the prestigious fine art academy that hosted the West Berlin leg of the exhibition. Baselitz was awe-struck by the work he saw there:
“Until then I had lived first under the Nazis, and then in the GDR. Modern art just did not occur so I knew almost nothing. Not about German expressionism, dadism, surrealism or even cubism. And suddenly here was abstract expressionism. Paintings by Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Still and many others, in the very buildings where I took classes every day. It was overwhelming.”
Travelling to the most important fine art institutions on the continent, The New American Painting exhibition fundamentally introduced Abstract Expressionism to Europe, and its impact was far-reaching and profound. Writing in the 1958 exhibition catalogue, curator Porter Mccray claimed, “It is true to say that the paintings created a sensation: whether enthusiastically, hesitantly, in the form of back-handed compliments, or of real hostility, it was acknowledged that in America a totally ‘new’ – a unique and indigenous – kind of painting has appeared, one whose influence can be clearly seen in the works of artists in Europe as well as in many other parts of the world” (Porter McCray cited in: New York, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), The New American Painting, 1958-59, p. 7). Baselitz further reminisced, “I found those pictures so overwhelming so totally unexpected, so different from the experience of my own world at the time that I felt totally desperate, because I thought I’d never stand a chance of doing well compared to those painters… The dimensions, to us, were just huge: an expression of freedom. Our canvases felt pathetic, tiny” (Georg Baselitz cited in: Farah Nayeri, ‘Georg Baselitz: Raw Views of a Painful Past’, The New York Times, February 2014, online).
The liquidity and luminosity of Erstens, bitte schön is imbued with the same sense of spontaneity inherent to de Kooning’s painterly style. The momentous battle between abstraction and figuration on the surface of the present work recalls de Kooning’s most celebrated compositions including Woman I (1950-52) and Woman II (1950-52) – now in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York – two works which Baselitz would have seen as part of The New American Painting exhibition in Berlin in 1958. In executing the present painting, Baselitz worked with his canvases on the floor, crawling on top of the canvas throughout the process of paint application. This technique of working in close proximity to the surface of the canvas, rather than at a distance, was also employed by many Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock. Baselitz himself has claimed that he paints, “only forms that come directly out of my mind and that cannot be visually controlled… You can’t step back, the way painters do when appraising their picture. I paint abstractly, I don’t paint naturalistically at all” (Georg Baselitz cited in: Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Georg Baselitz’s influences and evolution’, The Financial Times, March 2014, online). This highly physical process of applying paint to canvas creates a sense of dynamism and chance – compositional elements central to the present work.
The composition of Erstens, bitte schön is divided into three spatial planes by lines of facture at the upper and lower centre of the composition. Baselitz’s fracturing divides the immense, looming figure on the surface of the present work into three subsections, that evoke the ruptured figuration of the artist’s earlier Frakturbilder. The composition of Erstens, bitte schön is in fact based on one specific work within the Frakturbilder series, Drei Streifen – Der Maler im Mantel (Zweites Frakturbild)(Three Stripes – The Painter in a Coat (Second Fracture Painting)) of 1966. Executed nearly fifty years later, the present work is comprised of a similar colour palette – with bold hues of green and red. The nuanced brushwork of Baselitz’s earlier work here dissolves into fluid swathes of pigment, as the artist’s representation becomes increasingly abstracted. In his more recent paintings, Baselitz thus merges the compositional techniques of his earlier break-through works with a new form of gestural freedom and monumentality evocative of Abstract Expressionism and specifically de Kooning. While depicting the human figure remains central to Baselitz’s wider oeuvre, the present work is imbued with the painterly abandon of mid-twentieth century American painting – a vehicle by which Baselitz powerfully reimagines his own canon.