Of all the artists to have been selected to show in White Cube’s new temporary, offsite space at one of the world’s most renowned opera festivals, Georg Baselitz isn’t exactly the most conservative choice. The 77 year old German artist often makes work that tackles notions of his national identity head on, even at the risk of shocking the most open-minded viewer.
Housed in the first of three, annual specially commissioned pavilions created by architects Carmody Groarke (instantly recognisable to art audiences as the designers behind last year’s Frieze art fair), Baselitz has created a series of variously sized paintings featuring two of his longstanding signature motifs – legs and feet. “Feet”, he’s said, “are my earthwire”, a grounding force that keeps this rebellious artist from completely taking off. The largely monochrome canvases have been titled using more or less obscure references to classical music – by Bach, Mozart and Wagner for example – and there’s certainly a lightness and playful musicality here that makes them much softer than the harsh and intensely world war two-centric works he’s produced in the past. Some of the marks are strong, quick and gestural, others melt and fade into their white backgrounds or gentle pools of watery black paint. The longer you look, the more you imagine these disembodied limbs could spring to life, whirring like a possessed wheel to the music that informed them.
They’ve been hung in a staggered, diagonal pattern, reflecting the space’s somewhat unconventional sloped ceiling, which is punctuated by numerous strip lights. At first, these seem like an unwise choice for illuminating an art space, even if they’re clearly necessary to bolster the not quite sufficient natural light that pours through the space’s only opening – a pair of large glass and wood doors. As you remain in the gallery, however, the contrast between the unashamedly perfunctory lights and the scale and impact of the gilded-framed canvases becomes more obvious and pleasing. This is an impressive piece of architecture which could easily fill another two reviews on its own – suffice to say it’s clearly been thoroughly considered as a space for Baselitz’s uncompromising art: it houses it just unconventionally enough, while leaving the works plenty of space to make their loud presence felt.
If these were purely repeats of dancing legs, though, they wouldn’t be convincingly Baselitz. They are unmistakably, if not entirely overtly, swastikas, and are all the more successful for it. It’s good to see one of the original angry voices of post-war German art hasn’t completely mellowed with age – you can’t help but admire the artist’s continued dedication to exorcising the ghosts of his country’s past through his practice, not to mention his willingness to potentially cause a bit of a stir among the 100000 opera fans who visit Glyndebourne every summer. White Cube have cleverly ridden the line between playing it safe with an established art world star and being prepared to show work to a non-art audience that might shake them up a bit.