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The late Jorg Immendorff was one of Germany’s most famous artists during the late 20th century. A favorite of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who commissioned Immendorff to paint his official portrait, the artist was a celebrity in his native country until his death in 2007, known equally for his notorious uninhibited lifestyle as for his creativity. In America, he is hardly as popular, which is why Michael Werner Gallery has done well to bring this retrospective, which first showed at their London location, to New York.

Consisting of eighteen paintings and sculptures in three smallish rooms, the exhibition nevertheless manages to completely capture all of the various media and styles that Immendorff worked in, over the period of 1974 to 2007 that this show focuses on. It could not have been easy for the curator to make the proper selections; as Immendorff’s oeuvres were numerous and highly varied.

The exhibition’s title, Questions from a Painter Who Reads, is taken from what might be called the flagship work being shown, a large scale, figurative semi-realist work done with a touch of expressionistic stylings. The title and subject matter are taken from a Berthold Brecht poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads, concerning how much one person can be credited with the accomplishments that history has to credited to them. This is informed by Marxist theory, which says that individuals can only act in a manner determined by the era in which they live, and the social class they are either part of, or identify with. Immendorff expresses this sentiment most powerfully, by showing the primary figure seated behind what appears to be tree, with his desk or easel, I can’t tell which it is, attached to the tree’s trunk. Behing him, in a blaze of fiery colors, a crowd of people seem to be coordinating the tree’s elevation, as in a stage show, physically maintaining its structure. In addition to the political meaning, one can also extrapolate whether Immendorff is trying to suggest that the artistic process involves many more creators than the popular image of the lonely genius would suggest. 

On the wall around the corner is Chile, from 1975, one of the artist’s “Maoist” paintings. The image does share qualities with those socialist realism posters, as the flatness and emphasis given to the expressions on the characters faces conveys. However, the subject material, a protest against the horrific Pinochet dictatorship, contains a genuine revolutionary spirit that a dictatorship’s propaganda could never truthfully express. Like many young Germans of his generation, Immendorff had experimented with radical Marxist politics, before moving towards individualism and seeing art as the true revolution. We can see this ideological self-questioning that he was undergoing at that time in this work.

This inner turmoil can be seen in the other “Maoist” painting included, So…..Visit to an Artist, from 1976, in which a crowd carrying banners visits an artist at work, the artist identified by the brush he holds, the frozen and stiff grimace on his lips expression the disillusion and dissatisfaction he feels at being made a symbol for a mass political movement.

Scattered amongst the other works are samples from the artist’s Malbuchs (coloring books), a series of highly conceptual mixed abstract and figurative paintings that Immendorff produced over a couple decades. The abstractions are perhaps the best demonstrations of the artist’s skill in playing with lines and curves. Some of the work seems to suggest flower drawings, while others suggest scientific illustrations or psychological ink-blot tests, to this viewer.

These mind games of abstraction are especially apparent in looking at the two Untitled paintings Immendorff made in his last years. While I am not familiar with the literature regarding these works, the scenes of dogs struggling against supernaturally-appearing, semi-treelike objects to me evokes what the artist must have been feeling as he dealt with illness and public scandal during those days.

There are also a few well-made collages, which combine a neo-expressionist motif with ideas of tearing down and uprising; clearly expressing the thoughts of the Junge Wilde (wild youths) movement that Immendorff participated in, that challenged the prevailing trends of the art world while simultaneously reasserting forms and styles that were deemed antiquated and used up. The two sculptures shown, in an obviously primitivist manner, connote the same meanings.

Off the beaten art path, on the Upper East Side, the Michael Werner Gallery is not frequented by the usual young art world crowd. For those actually looking to experience recent art history, however, I strongly recommend checking out this thought-provoking retrospective.

Jorg Immendorff

Questions from a Painter Who Reads

Michael Werner Gallery

4 East 77th Street

Through April 19th

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