A flaming, psychologically-charged vision stretching two-and-a-half meters in height, the present work is one of the largest paintings in Georg Baselitz’s iconic Trinker (Drinker) series. Rendered in the artist’s signature upside-down format, its protagonist is bent double over a table, his swimming blue eyes fixed upon the bottle clutched in his hand. Rivers of thick, fiery impasto run down the length of canvas in tactile layers, pushing the figure to the brink of abstract dissolution. Painted in 1982, and held in the same private collection since the following year, the work dates from one of Baselitz’s most electrifying painterly periods. In the wake of the Royal Academy’s landmark 1981 show A New Spirit in Painting, the artist took his place on the global stage, featuring in both Documenta 7 and the legendary exhibition Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, that year. Infused with the lessons of his Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist forebears—from Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele to Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline—the present work bears witness to the newfound vitality of his artistic language during this period. Forged in tandem with his celebrated Orangenesser (Orange Eaters), Baselitz’s Trinker stand among his most expressive and vibrant canvases, with examples held in the Sprengel Museum, Hannover and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Included in the artist’s retrospective at the Akron Art Museum and Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1983, the present work is a glowing, visceral testament to the moment that Baselitz took his place at the forefront of international Neo-Expressionism.
The Trinker occupy pivotal territory in Baselitz’s practice. Simultaneously profane and profound, their subjects represent an extension of the artist’s prosaic archetypes of the 1960s—woodsmen, hunters and the disenfranchised Heroes. Much like the latter, whose forlorn protagonists wandered empty wastelands, the Trinker are burdened with existential angst, channeling the Zeitgeist of Cold War Europe. At the same time, they dispense with the Romantic overtones of Baselitz’s earlier subjects, offering visions of carnal lust and pleasure. The theme of inebriation gives rise to blazing palettes and impassioned, gestural brushwork, consuming its figures like the fires of hell. Along with the Orangenesser, early paintings from the series were unveiled in 1981 in Baselitz’s American debut at Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York, where the present work was shown two years later. As the critic Donald Kuspit wrote in his review, “the figures have a flayed, raw look that goes with spiritual nakedness. We seem to have a rogue’s gallery of mutants for whom even the simplest act—eating a fruit, drinking from a bottle—is difficult, a horrendous, urgent event. It is no accident that such elementary acts are depicted—acts of survival, which show the human figure in a simple yet tortured or maddened state of being, as if only by such stark simplicity could inherent suffering be made self-evident” (D. Kuspit, “Georg Baselitz at Fourcade,” Art in America, February 1982, pp. 139-140).
Baselitz’s paintings of the early 1980s represent some of his most daring creations. As his works began to gain international recognition, he broadened his sphere of influence, looking to both his ancestors and his immediate contemporaries. On one hand, he drew renewed inspiration from the achievements of German Expressionism: notably the artists of the Brücke—such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kircher and Emil Nolde—to whom he paid explicit tribute in his 1983 masterpieces Nachtessen in Dresden (Kunsthaus Zürich) and Der Brückechor. At the same time, his increasing presence in the United States led him to contemplate his relationship with American abstraction. As a student in West Berlin, he had visited the Museum of Modern Art’s touring exhibition The New American Painting at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste nearly every day in 1958, as well as their celebrated Jackson Pollock retrospective. As his practice evolved, he came to admire the work of de Kooning—whose works hung opposite his at the 1981 Royal Academy exhibition—as well as artists such as Kline and Philip Guston. On a more contemporary level, he would undoubtedly have been aware of the emerging Jean-Michel Basquiat, who exhibited alongside Baselitz at Documenta 7, as well as in a 1982 group show organized by Diego Cortez. Indeed, something of the younger artist’s raw, metropolitan energy is palpable in the present work, where figuration and abstraction seem to dissolve into a dizzying blur.
Baselitz had first begun painting upside-down in 1969. Working in the aftermath of the Second World War—a period that had seen art historical motifs exploited to political ends—he sought to question the artificial nature of representation. By inverting his subjects, he drained them of symbolic power, forcing the viewer to confront their lack of intrinsic meaning. Instead, he drew attention to the manner of their execution, reveling in the sensory power of paint. By the time of the present work, this trajectory had reached extraordinary new heights, giving rise to wild, expressive brushwork that bulldozed over the laws of figuration. “These works spring more directly from the use of paint and are more expressive, and above all more colorful, than Baselitz’s previous paintings,” writes Andreas Franzke, “… The figure seems shaken from within by the consequences of their own compulsive actions: explosive trails of paints hold them together” (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich, 1988, p. 140). During the 1970s, Baselitz had begun using his own fingers to manipulate his painterly surfaces, imbuing his compositions with a corporeal, tactile charge. His increased focus on sculpture during the 1980s, too, was influential in this regard, inciting a physical engagement with the canvas that the artist described as “boxing with both hands”. In the present work, the figure is suspended like an edifice, pummeled to the point of drunken illegibility through the force of Baselitz’s brushwork.
Baselitz’s negotiation between figuration and abstraction may be understood in terms of the post-war European landscape. Raised in East Germany, he had moved to the West just before the construction of the Berlin Wall. There, free from the dogmas of Socialist Realism, abstraction loomed large—from Art Informel in Europe to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism in America. In his own paintings, Baselitz sought a third way between the two poles: his subjects were representational, yet their execution fundamentally disturbed the relationship between figure and ground. While he undoubtedly imbibed the techniques of his American contemporaries, his work also owed much to his readings of Modernism, and the theories of abstraction espoused by earlier artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. With regards to the Trinker, Diane Waldman writes that “the equilibrium established between figure and field, and among form, color and surface, recalls the balanced asymmetry that Piet Mondrian achieved in his Compositions of the 1920s and 1930s” (D. Waldman, Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, p. 141). Indeed, the painterly furore of the present work’s surface exists in counterpoint with an underlying geometric armature, formed by the angular confluence of the figure and the table. In the tension between them, a disorienting simultaneity emerges: like the drinker, the viewer is forced to reconcile the stable, recognizable world with abstract hallucination, bound together in visceral chaos.