The paintings of Markus Lüpertz present us with doors of possibility. The sheer scale of his paintings begs one to fall in. Approach these works with visceral openness, the way you would approach a new lover. Enter a painter’s world that challenges description beyond a neo-expressionism, that incorporates the classical and abstract to challenge the simplicity of shape, form, color, and composition within a language of ambiguity and contradiction leaving you immersed in the enigmatic and paradoxical. Witness an artistic voice that has been beaten into the canvas in gorgeous muddy violence built on questions-- as if painting was a question itself. The work has a regard for the sacred akin to that found in the theatre of Kantor, the compositions of Rachmaninoff, and Franciscan Theology. Welcome to the world of Markus Lüpertz.
A principal protagonist and neo-expressionist of the post-1945 generation of artists, Markus Lüpertz is of significant importance, along with other artistic giants such as Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, and Imi Knoebel
His first United States retrospective now at the Hirshhorn is an in-depth exploration of his groundbreaking paintings from the 1960s and 1970s entitled Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History. His second show at the Phillips Collection’s exhibition spans the artist’s entire career.
--Q. As a renown German artist your work has been created within a strong culture of fellow European neo-expressionists and sincerely influenced by German philosophers, quite a-typical from neo- expressionism in the U.S. . The artistic lineages that you protract from are taken seriously so your work is decidedly NOT “put in a kind of free floating zone” , one that “ pretends to be heavy and then takes itself lightly.” (Remarks by the late Robert Hughes pointed at one of the facets of neo-expressionsim in the U.S.). To add to the gravity of your work your two concurrent historic exhibitions, one at the Hirschhorn and the other at the Phillips deliver an even greater seriousness by virtue of the strength of numbers coming together. How does it feel for you to see all of this work together and could you talk about some of the sincere seriousness that you regard as primary as you scan over this vast collection?
Markus Lüpertz: I would exclude the American element. Time will tell to what extent America accepts my oeuvre or does not. Furthermore, for me my exhibitions are a kind of ‘company outing’ where I then encounter those of my paintings again that are in storerooms or in museums. The exhibition setting is a matter of current activities of the day. And if museums are happy to show my stuff then I am grateful, without having any clear expectations of what the public will think.
-- Q. Within your huge painting entitled Exekution, 1992, ( 118x167 ¼ in), we see a replay of Goya’s work The Third of May 1808; the central figure being executed in Goya’s piece is a form of Christian iconography depicting a laborer as the crucified Christ. In 1951 Picasso used the same iconic reference in his Massacre in Korea. In your work you change the symbol of the Christ figure to a hooded man. The emphasis of the work appears to be on the Nazi helmets and uniforms. Your version appears as a piece that is atypical of your other work within its chronological order. Would you unpack some of the significance of this painting for you?
Markus Lüpertz: The photo on which I based the painting is a photo that strangely touched me. So I researched it and found out that the photo was a staged image made by the American occupying forces, who used the photo to reproduce one aspect of the terror of the Third Reich. I am firmly convinced that the photographer knew the Goya image just as he must have known the Manet one. And it was this strangely artificial quality that so fascinated me, as I do not normally tend to respond to such photos. However, in this special context the artistic association (Goya, Manet) struck me. And that fascination led to this image.
-- Q The 1960’s Bay Area painter David Park had a memorable way of talking of the effect of putting the figure back into abstraction, of marrying the visceral mark with figure. He said it brought back the "sting" to the painting. Do you agree and would you speak in the context of your painting Nach Mareés – Jongleur mit Rot, 2002 as to how your process works to get the visceral energy married to the form?
Markus Lüpertz: It is true that Abstract Painting needed to be enriched with a different kind of figuration, as the purely abstract was too limited as it was. Therefore figures resurfaced in the images. Albeit in a much more free and self-confident manner than would have been possible with abstraction. And that is the sensation of our time, namely that thanks to this phenomenon we have an immense potential of pictorial ideas at our finger tips. I can only congratulate our times and our painters on participating in this new dimension.
---You are a practicing Catholic.
Many masters such as Matisse, Chagall, Le Corbusier, and Léger, were brought into the Catholic church when they reached their 70’s to produce complete houses of worship, windows and more. They were ushered in by a Dominican Priest by the name of Père Courtier who had a vision to bring high art back into the church. Would you consider doing the same if approached by the church? If so what would you seek to envision in a sacred space?
Markus Lüpertz: I work for the Church. I create glass windows and sculptures. I would also welcome murals for religious spaces, but primarily as a challenge on how to tackle the occasion and the space.
---What do you hold sacred within your work?
Markus Lüpertz: Let us let religion be religion and painting painting. Painting is important to me and religion is my private matter.
--- I see your work most closely related to Hegel’s hard-to-understand abstract philosophy as he pursued an ultimate synthesis—the absolute idea. Do you approach such an idea in your painting, Rückenakt, 2006, or your sculpture Athene, 2003, whereby you have semiotics couched within the classical?
Markus Lüpertz: Classical Antiquity is our usual habitat. All our criteria, standards of measurement, notions of form are based on Classical Antiquity. And nothing has changed in this regard. Since there is nothing new in the fine arts, only new artists, the existence of these templates is a permanent challenge – and to this day we define what counts as quality according to these templates.
--A Nazi helmet, shovel, skeleton, and nude figures regale Ohne Titel, 2008. A blue sky or moon is revealed with a lone figure walking off in the distance. A cut-out style profile of a person floats at in the corner. I have read all I can discover about this painting but no one appears to make an interpretation. There is a narrative taking place in this work that appears to be tragically beautiful. Could this beauty reflect the pursuit of Sehnsucht?
Markus Lüpertz: Each image is a stage and the mood it conveys is intentional. Meaning your sensation is the artist’s intention. Moreover, the attempt by contemporaries to try and explain images is pointless. And only in terms of how it is seen today can we perceive the enthusiasm for an image about faith. Faith is the most beautiful and purest form of addressing painting.
--What is the art that has influenced you most?
Markus Lüpertz: Let’s differentiate first between art and painting. In today’s day and age, the extended concept of art has no qualitative significance any longer. Meaning if we stick with painting, then at quite specific times quite specific painters fire my imagination and influenced me. Moreover, I am in very close contact with contemporary painters. And the criticism of others or their influence on me takes place in this temporal context. That is legitimate. After all, don’t we all want to be the person to paint that one big and important picture of the epoch. And the more people work on it, the better it is for painting. The greater the qualitative influence, the greater your own output!
--You were the head of the Dusseldorf Art Academy for 25 years, one of the major art schools in the world. What is the most important question that you feel an art student can ask of himself/herself?
Markus Lüpertz: That is a question that as the head of a master class or professor I cannot answer, because I know nothing about youth, I only know myself and my generation and then as the head of the master class formulate offerings based on my own work. There is perhaps one question that people should ask when choosing to attend an academy: whom do they wish to study under?
--You built so much of your work upon myth, the human figure and patterns of color forming a statement of respecting a historical past to morphing into a relevant present. Your later works appear to then take the present as a point of departure from the dualistic struggles and contradictions of life to a non-dualistic consciousness arriving at a more contemplative self-observing space of observing beauty for what it appears to be such as we see in your painting Rückenakt, 2005. I see this arrival in your body of work relating to your transformation of the object such as tents, helmets, the human form, etc. We are then left with the beauty of the object minus content embracing paint as paint, color as pure emotion, and form as being sensual. My observation leads me then to that of a mindful state where judgments are doused and all that matters is the moment. Would this be a fair observation of your present works? Have you taken us to the end of aesthetic theory leaving us to contemplation of simplicity–even a Franciscan mind-set?
Markus Lüpertz: I find your beautiful explanation for my paintings quite fascinating. It is without doubt your explanation and I like it, but I also hope that there are or will be other interpretations, too.
---At age 76 you have journeyed through your own forms of myths and metamorphosis.
What is the next level of metamorphosis you can share with us?
Markus Lüpertz: I am just as curious and fascinated to see what the future brings for me as are you and I hope that we will both then be enthusiastic about what I achieve.