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There’s No Geist like the Zeitgeist

Such is the legenda aurea of AbEx engraved on the hearts of many collectors who started buying in the 1970s. Rarely had expectant patrons been so mismatched to the art available. Longing for heat, they got cool. Instead of the fervent and self-describing gesture, they were offered a “minimalist” box, a “site-specific” row of bricks, a “conceptual” sheet of quarto paper chastely imprinted with a proposition about symbolic logic, or a photograph of a designated boulder in some remote fold of Nevada. Seeking solace in the art magazines, once the home of muggy romantic prose, they received edifying discourses on the aesthetics of boredom and the virtues of difficulty. The art they bought was not particularly cheap, but it did not promise to get much more expensive. As the decade wore on, their hopes of latching onto “heroic” art were crimped by legions of feminist art historians extolling Pennsylvanian quilt makers and unjustly neglected women Precisionists from the Bay Area; and their sense of self-worth as patrons found itself under attack from every sort of Marxist, structuralist, and deconstructor. Not to get value for your investment dollar was one thing; but to be rebuked as an exploiter of the artworkers while not getting it was quite another.

Moreover, this retreat from the hot, the heavy, and the personal was taking place against a background of unbridled social narcissism: never had Americans erected the Self into such a sacred calf as they did in the 1970s, as every conceivable kind of sexual, athletic, and therapeutic fad was applied to sensibilities frazzled by post-Vietnam doubt. The art and the time, to put it mildly, were out of joint. It is hard, therefore, to overestimate the relief felt by American collectors around 1979 and 1980, when Expressionism, like MacArthur, returned.

In Europe, and especially in Germany, the feelings provoked by neo-Expressionism ran thicker and touched on deeper nerves. There, postwar American painting in general, and Abstract Expressionism in particular, had come by the end of the 1970s to be seen by the left as colonizing art, largely backed by foreign entrepreneurs, intended (whatever its original aims had been) to apply in the field of aesthetics something akin to the rule of the multinationals. Figural expressionism had been a German and Austrian invention. Hitler had borne down on it as Entartete Kunst, “Degenerate Art,” the German metastasis of a general modernist cancer. Some prominent Nazis, led by Albert Speer, had tried to persuade him in the 1930s that at least some aspects of Expressionism—its imagery of primordial landscape or rural simplicity, its fondness for peasant motifs and animistic visions of Nature—might serve the Party quite well, if they could be purged of the urban jitters represented by Kirchner or Kokoschka.

Speer went so far as to propose Emil Nolde, who held an early Nazi party card, as an official artist. But Hitler, whose taste was fixated on German salon painters of the nineteenth century like Makart, would not hear of it; so the Expressionists were driven into exile or sent to the camps. But this did not mean that German artists, after the war, gladly embraced Expressionism. By then, its “Germanic” qualities, its celebration of the instinctive, the irrational and the Volkisch, had become almost as thoroughly contaminated by the cultural fallout from Nazism as Wagner’s music or the neoclassical architecture of Speer’s teacher, Troost. Abstraction was now identified with progress, freedom, and democracy; like the corporate glass box, it was part of the imagery of postwar reconstruction, even though it—being saturated in the ideology of art informel—made a point of its own instinctiveness and irrationality.

The contorted Expressionist figure was abolished by the photographs of what Germans had done, in the camps, to real bodies. It seemed to mock catastrophe. To paint in a realist manner, however, exposed an artist to the charge of flirting with what lay on the other side of the Wall: Stalinist “socialist realism,” another voice of tyranny. With a vast tract of German art history closed to them—for Expressionism was not simply a twentieth-century art movement, but the modern prolongation of a vein of imagery that extended from Bavarian folk-carvings and the work of Matthias Grünewald to the ecstatic Nature-worship of Philipp Otto Runge—most German artists took to an international style, and wore abstraction as the virtuous uniform of deNazification.

The man who broke this bind was Joseph Beuys. One does not need to be a Green, or have a taste for Beuys’s rambling performance as a students’ Messiah promising world salvation through universal creativity, to acknowledge the wide and stimulating effect he had on German culture in the 1960s and 1970s. With his performances and constructions, deploying an imagery of dead animals, antlers, precious metals, fat, felt, wands, rust, and detritus, he managed to integrate German longings for a mythic past back into the stream of modern German culture, enabling Germans—for the first time, in the visual arts, since 1933—to move with an easy conscience among their inherited imagery of Romanticism, once so fatally appropriated by Hitler. Beuys’s extraordinary gift for taking conventionally repellent materials and socially abhorrent memories and converting them, as by a shamanistic act, into angular visions of history is what touched off the expressionist revival of the late 1970s.2 It is no accident that the most talented German artist of the present generation, Anselm Kiefer, studied with him in the early 1970s.

For foreign visitors who did not know his work at first hand, the room showing Kiefer’s work was the hub of “Zeitgeist”; it made the journey to Berlin worthwhile. His landscapes of northern German plains, clotted and gray, the paint plowed inches thick and mixed with straw, had an extraordinary, bleak, and (given their obsessive references to frontier, no-man’s land, and battlefield) political intensity. His Monument to the Unknown Artist—a vast hall in the architectural style of Speer’s Chancellery, square Doric columns and all, with an emblematic palette borne up on a pillar above a pool—reflected, simultaneously, on the catastrophic cultural losses of the war, the unusable heritage of German official art, and the inflated careers of modern artist-heroes. Compared to Kiefer’s gloomy yet precisely judged work, the much-vaunted ironies of the American New Wave were like the twittering of distant sparrows.

It was a pity that the other indisputably major Expressionist artist at work today, Frank Auerbach, was not shown in Berlin too. But Auerbach’s sin, in the eyes of the curators, seems to have been premature neo-Expressionism—he is fifty-two, and has been at it since he was an art student; so his recognition, at least in Germany and America, remains delayed.

From Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, and the better paintings of Georg Baselitz (whose mannerism of painting his subjects upside down seemed a fraudulent attention-getting gimmick at first, but now looks more like a way of subverting the “sincerity” of the Expressionist code), there is a fairly steep fall to the general run of heftige Malerei, a phrase whose meaning hovers between “earnest painting” and “heavy-duty art.” Apart from the fact that one becomes deafened by its relentless fortissimo, most of it is badly drawn, hastily painted, and banal in conception. In the end, art history gives no points for sincerity: performance is what matters. And even the “sincerity” of painters like Fetting, Middendorf, or Siegfried Anzinger—let alone the trivial Salomé—is called into question by the sheer volume of their output. This market may not be here tomorrow; indeed it is likely that the peripheral work of such Wilden ohne Eien or “ball-less Fauves,” as one prominent German critic called them, will sink without a trace within five years. For the moment, however, it provides a large stratum of German collectors with the kind of art that appeals to them: heavily coded with conventional signs for emotional rawness and impending crisis; making few demands on connoisseurship, it is perfect promotional material.

Much the same is true of Julian Schnabel, the American artist whose brief career has made such a vivid impact. In Schnabel, collectors nourished on the legend of Abstract Expressionism have found a temporary surrogate for the Pollocks they cannot buy. The interesting thing about his career is not the paintings. They are, almost without exception, ridiculously bombastic and illdrawn: to look at Schnabel’s crusts of broken saucers, staring masks, antlers, and other quasi-symbolic impedimenta is to be reminded of the lines in Sheridan’s The Critic: “Your occasional tropes and flowers suit the general coarseness of your style, as tambour sprigs would a ground of linseywoolsey…so that they lie on the surface like lumps of marl on a barren moor, encumbering what it is not in their power to fertilize.” But the strategies by which Schnabel was installed as a “major” figure had much to say about the workings of the art world.

Schnabel believed, and fulsomely announced to anyone within range, that he was a genius. When someone makes such claims there are only three broad choices: that he is a fool, a fraud, or the real thing. Under the right circumstances, such conviction tends to snowball; and the conditions were certainly right, since American collectors were bored, restless, and haunted by legends of the past. They wanted a pseudo-Pollock—the art world equivalent of Rocky Balboa.

Schnabel played this part to perfection; there turned out to be a more than accidental relationship between his come-on and Sylvester Stallone’s, since both, in their respective media, were based on kitsch parodies of heroic will. Dealers supported him boldly, feeding the pot with heavily hyped price estimates; these, after a lag, became real (at least to peripheral collectors). The climax of this process came with an auction at Sotheby’s last spring, when one of Schnabel’s plate-paintings sold for $85,000. It was suspected in the art world that this sale had been rigged with planted underbidders; by then, too much money had been invested in Schnabel’s career to allow his prices to fall, at least for the while. Schnabel’s dealers strongly denied that any such rigging had taken place.

It was the construction of Schnabel’s career as a cultural artifact that impressed art consumers. It showed how much power dealers could muster and how effectively a hard sell could short-circuit the hitherto gradual growth of a painter’s prices along with his, or her, reputation. If a critic pointed to the gross and transparent promotional mechanisms behind this career, that only meant that he or she was “avoiding” engagement with the work. If he or she disliked the work, that was a symptom of blindness or retrogression. Thus the tiresome myth of the misunderstood hero became a solvent to argument. Moreover, since what counts in criticism these days (from the market’s point of view) is less the penetration than the length, any mention, favorable or unfavorable, became grist to the mill. Not since the media blitz that accompanied Bernard Buffet’s rise thirty years before had the old show biz maxim that they can say what they like as long as they get the name right applied so forcibly to a painter’s career.

  1. 2

    See Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979).

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