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Markus Lüpertz at Vito Schnabel Gallery

Markus Lüpertz, Europa und Zeus (Europa and Zeus), 2021, © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

​Vito Schnabel Gallery’s Markus the Painter or the Ratio of the Impossible opens April 21 at the historic Old Santa Monica Post Office. Comprising thirty paintings made between 1964 and 2021, this exhibition sheds light on the prolific, influential, and critically acclaimed German artist’s six-decade immersion in the medium of painting, and reveals his unique approach to the realm that lies between representation and abstraction.

Markus the Painter or the Ratio of the Impossible is the 81 year old master’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. It will remain on view through June 11th.

In his practice, Markus Lüpertz achieves a form of abstraction that disrupts pictorial convention and redeploys it as a tool to motivate the creative process. He isolates, liberates, and transforms familiar figural elements or motifs from their bearings, applying expressive gestures to the deconstruction of context in order to create something entirely new. Characterized by pictorial plasticity, his oeurve is deliberately, intoxicatingly void of stylistic consistency. As Lüpertz explains, “What I paint is a chain of things; one painting leads to the next”. Instead, his paintings focus upon the energy at the center of the act of making itself, and upon the internal process of the artist.

Lüpertz’s practice arises from a conversation with the past to engage with the ever-present, eternal challenge of what it means to paint a picture, to achieve the “ratio of the impossible”. In his own words,“In painting there is nothing new, only new artists who try to explain an ancient mystery: painting, in its time.”

Among Lüpertz’s first mature works of the mid 1960s, his “dithyrambic” paintings explore the process of representation. Referencing an ancient Greek term, this series derives from the legend of the cult of Dionysus and borrows from the concepts of Friedrich Nietzsche’ws Dionysian poetry. The term refers to a form of wildly lyrical hymns performed in dithyrambic dance, dedicated to Dionysus, God of wine, vegetation, unbridled pleasure, festivity, and frenzy. For Lüpertz, the dithyrambic concept served as a correlative to his own impassioned celebration of the process of painting. This construct became fundamental to his aesthetic philosophy and fueled the evolution of his ideas about pictorial representation and abstract invention.

On view in the exhibition at the Old Santa Monica Post Office, Zelt – dithyrambisch (Tent – dithyrambic) (1965), Fußball (Football) (1966), and Eisenbahnscheine-Motte (Railroad Truck – Moth) (1969) evoke dynamic, dramatic volumetric structures or objects that convey abstract and pictorial qualities. Hovering projections in flat planar space, Lüpertz’s rapid and rhythmic brushwork pushes the materiality of paint into form, emphasizing compositional gesture over the thematic resonance of visual representation. These early paintings moved the artist toward his distinct style: the rendering of familiar motifs with great expressiveness while maintaining an elusive, mysterious obscurity. Lüpertz’s work thus located and confronted the profound dichotomy of “something abstract that is also figurative.”

Lüpertz developed a serial approach early in his career, reflecting his fascination with a cinematic style that favored the abstract portrayal of characters over traditional storytelling techniques. In keeping with his renegade mindset and irreverent disregard for convention, he adopted this pictorial strategy: Lüpertz began to conceptualize ideas through repetition and the continuous working of a motif or theme through serial variation.

Following the radical dithyrambic paintings and a provocative series of “German motifs” made during the 1960s and ‘70s, Lüpertz increasingly explored the ground between abstraction and figuration in works ever more nuanced and patterned, dense and evocative. He began to intertwine motifs he had previously isolated in single compositions. Ein Ferkel und viel Pfeffer (A Piglet and a Lot of Pepper) (1981), for example, offers up rhythmic, abstract surfaces subsumed by Lüpertz’s bravura handling of paint. In Mal ab Alter (Copy it, Dude) (1982) and Genie (Genius) (1982), his approach to color, line, tension, and gesture renders visual spectacle amplified by collage. Adding torn posters from cigarette advertising, Lüpertz painted over letters and isolated elements of text, adding a surreal element to the already obscure nature of his thickly woven compositions.

Lüpertz’s most recent works on view, Europa (Weiße Schencke) (White Snail) (2021) and Europe and Zeus (2021), revisit antiquity through the theme of Arcadia, the pastoral utopia that has occupied the collective consciousness of Western art history since ancient Greece. In these paintings, the artist mines the myth of Europa, the beautiful Phoenecian princess abducted by Zeus, who took the form of a bull, and whisked away to Crete. These works evoke enigmatic still-life paintings, combining familiar motifs within the artist’s oeuvre — an animal skill, a snail shell — with art historical referents. Remixing and reinventing canonical and contemporary visual motifs, Lüpertz achieves a push-and-pull energy; striving toward a new objectivity and ever-greater, more sublime engagement with the poles of figuration and abstraction, he merges remnants of the past to create weight in the present day.

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