The after-life of Neo-Expression has become a divergent struggle between artists whose identities have changed and whose styles have morphed since they came to prominence, quickly branded in the late 1970s. Nowadays, however commercially viable, Fischl's nudes reek of nostalgia and Salle's most recent Rosenquistian juxtapositions evidence a point of creative stagnation. Many members of this movement have altogether abandoned their roles as torchbearers of the Avant-garde, rebels against minimalism, conceptualism, and pure-abstraction, while others have simply assumed alternate careers, most notably Schnabel whose success as a filmmaker is quite remarkable. And who's to blame them, stagnation would seem to be a fate worse than death. Of all those associated with Neo-Expressionism, only the Germans -- Kiefer, Baselitz, and Immendorf -- have most successfully continued to flourish and evolve as visual artists.
Despite mixed critical reception of recent work, the quality of Baselitz's artistic output over the past fifty years remains unquestionably high. Since arising in the heat of controversy in 1963 when police confiscated works including "The Big Night Down The Drain" (1962-3) and "Naked Man" (1962) from a Berlin exhibition, Baselitz has received and deserved tremendous attention from the entire art establishment: galleries, museums, critics, and collectors alike. "Georg Baselitz: The Early Sixties" arrives at a peculiar moment in New York along with other, albeit more comprehensive, historical exhibitions in New York namely "Soutine/ Bacon" at Nahmad and "Picasso" at Gagosian. Werner limits his show to a tight selection of pictures from the 1960s, a series of important canvases and several works on paper including "Oberon" (1964), a fleshy gouache with a series of busts angled sideways almost functioning as an antecedent to his infamous fully inverted paintings, his "Hero" and "Fracture" series, executed later that decade.
Significantly younger but born into the same war-torn state as fellow countrymen Max Pechstein and Otto Dix, among others, Baselitz' graphic imagery echoes his predecessors' more vivid and visually processed sense of trauma. However, elements of abstraction in this work parallel Baselitz's own age and inability, as a young child, to entirely assimilate what was happening around him from his birth through the gloom of the early post-war period. The sights, sounds, and surely events from this tumultuous time reverberate as the lingering effects of conflict clearly have plagued the artist throughout his career.
The early pictures on display at Michael Werner reflect a distinctly German sensibility with what, in retrospect, is a clearly modern twist. "The Painting for the Fathers (Landscape for Father)" (1965) confronts a post-apocalyptic state of desolation. The eerie yellow background shimmers over the dead rotting below, darkening closer to the mutilated mass. Two skull-like constructions lay inert violated by pests and festering in the dim light. A long, thin arm extends out of third, smaller head on the left. The entire composition angled on a slant and densely painted strikes the viewer as a faint memory or impression of a period rather than an isolated event.
Similar sentiments reign in "God's Cornucopia-I Am Unavoidable" (1964). The viewer begins at the outset of a march along an off-white path towards the horizon, towards a low-hanging light barely able to sustain its flame. The path, littered with what appear to be cornucopias, Christmas trees, and crosses, gives the impression of a pseudo-sardonic recollection or a somber journey. The reddish-pink blobs recall Guston's early influence on Baselitz but are relegated to the secondary by the presence of a semi-allegorical scene.
Thematically, this assortment of paintings and drawings conjure up the same melancholic and foreboding tone, some violent, some anguished, others repressed, but all saturnine. Images such as "Untitled (Whip Woman)" (1964) recall a contorted figure, heart turned upside down. The brilliance of this small drawing emerges in its spatial depth and Pop allusions. It's this imagery, namely the heart, concurrent or predating Wesselman and Dine juxtaposed with a raw intensity and tonal harshness of palette indicative of the mid-century German mindset that allows Baselitz to bridge time so effectively. While the artist's independence of vision and lack of adherence to any singular theoretical or polemical doctrine is often emphasized by critics and historians alike, his imagined experience and weighted German identity remains at the foundation of his work. Baselitz' '60s paintings stand as a proud achievement and significant marker in the larger context of an ambiguous time.