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Georg Baselitz

[16 Jan 2018]

Georg Baselitz will be 80 on 23 January 2018. A pioneer of the Contemporary German art scene, we look back over the artist’s turbid career, with one eye on his accelerating prices as the market appreciates the importance of his work.

Born in Saxony in 1938, on the eve of World War II, Georg BASELITZ (1938) is today recognised as one of Germany’s most important Contemporary artists. First and foremost a painter / printmaker and then subsequently a sculptor, he belongs to a generation of artists that includes Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorf and Anselm Kiefer and who rejected the aesthetic standards of the 1960s avant-garde…

Baselitz’s pictorial work hit the German cultural scene of the mid-60s with a noisy splash! After a chaotic period as an art student – refused entry to Dresden’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1955 followed by dismissal from East Berlin’s School of Visual arts for « lack of socio-political maturity” – he continued his training in West Berlin, studying the theories of Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich and the major American contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston and then travelled (Amsterdam, Kassel, Paris).

In 1961 (year the Berlin Wall was constructed), he adopted his pseudonym and wrote his first Pandemonium manifesto, strongly influenced by Antonin Artaud, obsessed with decadence. His first works were also manifestos, produced in an Expressionist tradition with a strong emotional charge and much in common with Outsider art (Dubuffet, Fautrier, Munch, Nolde, Steinberg). In short… clearly and deliberately non-conformist.

His first solo exhibition in Berlin took place at the Werner & Katz gallery in 1963 and, not surprisingly, provoked a scandal. Two of his paintings (Die Großer Nacht im Eimer, depicting a boy masturbating) and Nackter Mann (Naked Man) were actually confiscated by the German authorities for “affront to common decency”. Baselitz seems to have achieved his goal: to upset the authorities and the public with new and provocative paintings. The two canvases were given back to him two years later… and are today considered among the most important paintings of the Post-War period. Indeed, the masturbator is today the pride of the Ludwig museum in Cologne and his works from this pivotal period are the most sought-after by collectors. In 2011, Sothebys offered a smaller version of Die Großer Nacht im Eimer (from the Christian Duerckheim-Ketelho Collection). Titled simply Grosse Nacht (Big Night), the work depicts the same onanist subject that was confiscated by the authorities in 1963, a work that Baselitz considers his first attempt at painting. The sale of the work was an event in itself, and the painting fetched several million dollars: $3.8 million to be precise… still one of his best-ever auction results.

Towards the end of the 1960s Georg Baselitz produced the works for which he is probably best-known… his so-called “inverted paintings, which quite simply show human figures upside-down. This figurative reversal was a new strategy to enhance the expressive impact of painting itself. After all, Wassily Kandinsky himself admitted that his abstract art” – which had a profoundly innovative impact on painting in generalresulted from seeing one of his paintings upside-down in his workshop. Code reversal therefore seemed a logical path for a better exploration “all things visible”, and it dominated what has subsequently been recognized as “another pivotal and emblematic period in the artist’s career, one that also elicits strong bidding at auctions. While it is today difficult to acquire a small Baselitz canvas for under $100,000 (this was already the case in the 1980s), some of his drawings from this period can be found for around $10,000. On the other hand, enthusiasts will have a much harder job finding Baselitz sculptures which are much rarer and which the artist only started making after he was 40.

Very recognizable, Baselitz’s sculptures were mainly created in wood. They result from a highly physical confrontation with the material, usually involved an axe or a chainsaw: a direct cut, a radical act, going straight to the essential. As he himself said in 1983, his sculptures are “more primitive, more brutal… not as tame […] as sometimes painting can be”, It is less encrypted than a painting, more direct more readable. His first sculptures received a very mixed response on the international art scene. In 1980, his Modell für eine Skulptur (Model for a sculpture) (1979) was presented at the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale triggering a noisy controversy. It wasn’t so much the subject that shocked: the public was expecting to see Baselitz’s famous painted heads, instead of which they discovered a brutally carved first sculpture that clearly demanded freedom from the Contemporary art of the period. The work clearly satisfied Baselitz’s desire for uniqueness, and he continued on the path of sculptural archaism during the 1980s creating heads and standing figures, like tribal totems, decorated with minimal colors. These works almost never reach the secondary market, and when they do, they fetch well beyond a million($).

Nowadays Baselitz has joined the ranks of the art market’s “blue-chip” creators, and his prices show a strong progression since 2000 (up 119%). Although you almost certainly need a few million to hope to acquire a good Baselitz painting or sculpture, his prints regularly appear at auctions for a couple of hundred dollars

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