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LONDON — There is a no-holds-barred, let’s-smash-up-the-kitchen-boys, bestial uproaringness about the early work of Georg Baselitz.
And much of this is in evidence in his treatment of hands and feet. The West German police seized an early painting called “The Big Night Down the Drain” (1962-63) — it was on display in his very first exhibition in West Berlin — on the grounds of obscenity.
And, yes, it is very easy to regard this early painting as obscene. It is offensive. It is ugly. It is nasty in the extreme. It is cocking a snook at any manifestation of refinement that might just happen along. It is tearing up the rule book. It is saying: the new art is like this, take it or leave it.
Baselitz seems to be at war with everything: the shameful past of Germany; the repulsive consumerism of the West; the absurd rigidities of the East; the impossible predicament of George Baselitz, who seethes with all this unfocused anger…
Just look at what this old-young, dwarfish, stubby-headed, malevolent-looking child/man is doing with his hand in that just-cited painting …
Now the point about masturbation is that, displeasing to the eye of the onlooker or not, it does reveal evidence of much vigor and short-lived excitability.
And, yes, there was always a lot of vigor about those early hands and feet. The hands were often fat and fleshy and pulpy. The feet looked massively grounded in the earth. And always Rapunzel-stampy big enough to emerge in Australasia in the fullness of time…
Cut to the present, and this new show of work at White Cube Mason’s Yard, Darkness Goldness. Baselitz is in his 83rd year now, and once again he is staring down at hands, weighing their significance, contemplating the nature of their physical presence amongst us, reflecting upon his own aging hands, seeing these new images of hands through the prism of all the art he has seen and thought about and felt about over a lifetime: the Mannerist hand, big as a giant fish on a slab, on display in the foreground of Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (c.1524); Soutine’s pendent joints of meat; the ghoulish, green, plague-wasted hands of Grünewald’s altarpiece; the triumphal-looking hands of Dürer … These last are undoubtedly the hands of a supremely gifted fabricator, almost Christ-like in his self-preening, in a celebrated self-portrait of 1500. Baselitz is holding all these in the balance as he works …
These new hands are giant hands, almost alarmingly so, 17 of them processing around the walls of the large downstairs gallery, many more upstairs. They are long and relatively narrow. Each work is a combination of monoprint and painting. Each hand is gold against a black ground. The gold is smothery. The hands dangle in space, into a black void, like Géricault’s hospital specimens. They have all the withered, shriveled, poignant, alarming fragility of very old hands, knuckly, bony, loosening and falling away into their constituent parts. The hands seem to be dribbling in the direction of their own disintegration, disappearing even as we give them our attention… They are dream visions of hands, spectral, a little like frozen water, seeming to lengthen a little as they hang, caught between gesture and complete inertia.
Baselitz has been famous for inverting his human figures since the late 1960s, hanging them upside down in order to drain his paintings of content and defy our expectations of what it is to extract meaning from the representation of a human figure.
But what of single hands? Is there a right way up for a hand? No. Hands writhe and twist about. They are objects of agitation, forever on the move. They hang down. They rise up. They flap. They go every which way. That is how we define the meaning of hand gestures, by their very unstillness. A single finger raised when all the others are folded down can be a cause of outrage — think of Maurizio Cattelan’s huge public sculpture, “L.O.V.E.,” which appeared in Milan’s financial district in 2010 — a colossal hand, three stories tall, with all the fingers knocked off except the middle one, an extraordinary act of provocation. How they howled.
Baselitz’s hands dangle down, wrist top, fingers bottom. There is undeniably a mood of helplessness about them, a wish to be pitied, evident in their age and their isolation, framed within this black void. That does not mean that they are inert, not exactly, not all of them. A single finger folds back on itself, flexing its meager evidence of life … We see much more evidence of hand-life, finger-life, in some of the working drawings in the tiny gallery tucked in beside the lift downstairs.
What of all this gold though? Oh the preciousness of gold! This is our first response. These gold surfaces are pocky and blistery though …
Now the restless burn and sizzle and dither of gold (and gold always induces a certain restlessness in the onlooking eye), in combination with the hard wall-slam of black, always intrigues. Black stays still. Gold seems to shift and even ooze and slip. It also hints at the sacred — even when we know that Baselitz himself will have no truck with any notions of the transcendental.
Yet there is much that is sacred here. The proof of the survival of these hands, perhaps, feels a little sacred; the fact that their serial representation, though thin and a little wasted, is continuing evidence of the vigor of an older artist, still fighting to make it new, still striving to discover what it is to represent the nature of the human hand, still having the push and the confidence to make works on this scale.
Could these huge hands, so many of them hanging in this space, thrown out at us from black grounds whose sheer drama make them feel larger still and ever more emphatic, redeem an octogenarian from the awfulness of his opinions?
Georg Baselitz: Darkness Goldness continues at White Cube Mason’s Yard (25–26 Mason’s Yard, London) through November 14. I Was Born into a Destroyed Order, a show of older works by Baselitz, continues at Michael Werner Gallery (22 Upper Brook St, Mayfair, London) through November 28.