Monday, February 8, 2021

Markus Lüpertz at Michael Werner Gallery, London (2021)

 Markus Lüpertz at Michael Werner, London (as viewed online, January 2021)

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In his latest show at Michael Werner in London, Markus Lüpertz reveals that capacity which alienates us from Arcadia through our ability to refashion nature toward our desires and needs. The same capacity also seems behind the epic quests toward redemption and salvation embodied in the classical ideal. His focus on the concept of Arcadia, along with his choice of types of figuration within in, seems to call for a grand synthesis in which a new relationship to nature becomes part of the overall scheme of individual and social development.

Lüpertz takes figures from Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age paintings and uses them in landscapes primarily based on the wilderness surrounding his studio. He could be acknowledging the lingering meaning and impact of the classical stage of art but also implying that the figures present a type of flawed visual language which must be tweaked. Or, the flawed concept of humanity as the measure of all things, and the capacity of humanity to continually fall and rise and overcome, or the inherent strength of the figures in Renaissance and Dutch paintings might be the language being spoken vis-à-vis nature in these works. Is Lüpertz implying we are still, in a de facto sense, in this classical stage, despite all the superficial innovations in the visual arts from the Dutch Golden Age onward and all the talk of post-modernity and metamodernity? So Lüpertz strips the classically inspired figures of clothing and places them in landscapes he is familiar with, but declares the landscapes to be Arcadia.

What could it mean, then, to begin with figures from the Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age of painting? Well, who were these folks? They were, primarily, the patrons who funded the Renaissance or Dutch Golden Age. These were power brokers. In Italy they often demanded figures from Greek mythology to be in commissioned works. Their demands influenced the development of art. Lüpertz is starting out with visual imagery pleasing to the Italian and Dutch middle to upper classes.  So Lüpertz tips his hat, as it were, to the financial basis of art which forms the core of the canon we see in our museums. He is acknowledging that you just do not get art without an economic system, and the economic system determines, to a great extent, what art you get. Basically, your buyers are your art. What they want to buy gets placed in a museum someday.

He is placing naked patrons of the arts and their whimsies in a bucolic paradise. And why does he use the forests around his studio for Arcadia? Well, our concept of Arcadia is flawed as well and based on the limited experiences city dwellers have had during brief jaunts into nature. The big irony involved in landscape painting, after all, is that it was begun in Holland, the UK and Germany by city-dwelling artists who knew very little of the workings of nature and who imputed their romanticized or mystical visions onto dirt, mountains, rivers and trees. Arcadia embodied the concept of nature as the placid setting for an easy life.  

But we also have to realize that Arcadia or Paradise, as a pure form of nature where humankind lived in innocence pursuing a sustainable type of life, is the core of the Western religious tradition. The fact that we screwed this up becomes the beginning of our holy book. We do not view Adam and Eve as early Homo Sapiens with dark skin hunting and gathering through African savannahs or Anatolia. We view our concept of Paradise due to a classical tradition as being populated by husky, muscular men and women of the white race. Albrecht Dürer had a bulked-up white couple in that garden. The exact race which ruined Paradise and brought about industrialization and the destruction of our planet are suddenly embedded into a sustainable Paradise at the very beginning. Meaty white folks in Paradise getting tricked by a snake into losing everything becomes the beginning of white history and religion and the basis of the quest to get back to that garden. The race which ultimately began the destruction of nature created the ideal of the classical figure living in harmony in Arcadia. But nobody is just relaxing and playing the flute in Lüpertz’ Arcadia – thought, planning, anxiety and cunning are apparent in body gestures and facial expressions.

It could be that Lüpertz asserts, by doing this, that the potential for self-destruction was always inherent in humanity and that there was never a stage of innocence. Nature, take it for what it is, provided a sustainable system and we were never fully integrated into it – even as hunter-gatherers we caused extinctions. If you take a bunch of rats and put them on an island and let them reproduce, they will ultimately devour all the food on the island, kill and devour each other and the king rat will starve to death. Despite our fully developed neo-cortex, the development of humanity seems to involve such a situation as well, as we have made no concerted attempt to control population growth or the emissions of pollutants into our atmosphere developed to indulge the consumer whims of an ever-growing multitude. Like rats we, apparently, will eat through and use everything until nothing is left. We dream of Arcadia as the starting point, dream of a return, but our oceans are turning into acid and temperatures rise each year.

When we view Lüpertz’ human figures, they are monumental or stone-like in nature. Alienated, scheming, planning, partially inside and partially divorced from and at an advantage toward nature. Nudity does not make these figures seem more natural. They are the drama queens which emerged from nature to inadvertently destroy nature. This new relationship to nature also allows for the human figure to undertake the grandiose mythic journey. Indeed, Adam and Eve can be found among the figures in this show. Adam is shown on multiple canvases, in two instances he sits in the shadow, as if newly awakened, looking on to a sun-bathed landscape of possibilities. Another is called Anticipation Adam in which he is literally divided from nature by a thick white line. Eve is frozen in thought as she prepares to eat of the knowledge of good and evil. The fall of humanity is already planted inside of her, she has not taken a bite yet. There is no snake in the vicinity.

We see a ghostly figure on a white horse transitioning through nature. Nature is not the end or purpose, it is the middle ground between urban centers that one must traverse for one’s safety, comfort and development. In a painting labeled Jason’s Farewell, the masculine (desire) is departing from the feminine (fulfilment) as an aged man looks on. Actaeon is turned into an animal after viewing a goddess bathing. He will be torn to pieces by his own dogs.  His transgression seems akin to Eve’s and maybe Jason’s departure, which will lead to so much tragedy. We see a black boat beckoning a journey. A tree fork is embraced by a female nude. We see a female nude racing down an allée evoking a desire for escape.

The theme of the show to me is that we have couched our hope in our transgression. Both come from the same source. One implication is that we have to choose whether nature or humanity will be the dominant force, although we dream of and talk of a synthesis. One, however, most likely must become integrated into the other for the survival of both. The recent work of Lüpertz seems to question whether there is any other alternative.

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