“.....Higher beings Command”
Works on Paper from the Frieder Burda Collection in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden, the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle presents works on paper by Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer, Neo Rauch, and Gerhard Richter, providing insight into a barely known side of this fascinating collection for the first time.
Higher beings commanded: paint the top right corner black! is the title of what is probably Sigmar Polke’s most famous painting. Made in 1969, it depicts precisely what the title proclaims: a minimalist white canvas on which the title is written carefully at the bottom, and whose upper right-hand corner has been dipped in black. The painting is an ironic nod to the myth of the artist genius that creates masterpieces by dint of his inspiration alone. Not many people know that this famous painting has a predecessor: a series of drawings made in 1968, titled Higher beings command, shows how Polke was forced to follow altogether different commands of higher beings that wished to see other motifs: geometric forms with a flowerpot, herons in the evening sunlight, modern, abstract art. And a drawing of Don Quixote, who can be interpreted as an ironic symbol or patron saint of the artist fighting against windmills.

Polke’s series also provides the title of the exhibition “.....Höhere Wesen befehlen (Higher beings command)”—Works on paper from the Frieder Burda Collection at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, in which 113 works offer a view deep into the psyche and creative thought processes of 20th and 21st-century painters. In presenting groups of works by prominent artists such as Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer, Neo Rauch, and Gerhard Richter, the show documents the key role drawing has played since modernism, not only in the form of a sketch and a preliminary stage to painting, but as an autonomous artistic medium.

At the same time, the exhibition is also a portrait of one of the most important German collectors of the present day: the entrepreneur Frieder Burda, member of the famous German printing and publishing dynasty. The concept of the show, which was curated by Goetz Adriani, member of the board of trustees of the Museum Frieder Burda, and Friedhelm Hütte, Global Head of Art Deutsche Bank, entails the formal and thematic dialogue between the various different work groups. A characteristic painting introduces the presentation of each artist’s drawings, watercolors, and gouaches.

The expressive dialogue between the late de Kooning drawings and the drawings for Baselitz’s 1980 painting series Street Scene, which opens the show, might be surprising at first, but it brings together two protagonists of post-war art each of whom developed a dark, “uncultivated” human image and explored trauma. Both artists addressed the figure in painting in an aggressive way and developed a bold, audacious painting style that neither represented things in a traditional sense nor rendered them abstract.

The bodily shapes in the drawings de Kooning made and revised between the 1960s and 1980s recall the disturbing figures of his famous Woman series of the 1950s. “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” he once said in reference to his work. His painted likenesses of women evoke both female power and a fear of this power. His amply endowed Women call archaic goddesses, pin-up girls, and demons to mind. They are weighty—all body and skin, growth and decay. In their drawn reduction, however, they take on a fragile, light, almost dancelike nature, as though they were in the process of dissolution. In contrast to this liberating gesture, the 1980 sketches for Baselitz’s Street Scene read like testimonies to confinement and isolation. This is how Baselitz described his painting series: “They wave, call out, and hang or sometimes even fall out of windows. The background is for the most part dark, and you can’t see what’s behind the figures. These are women at the window, each of them isolated from their surroundings and without communication with the others.” In the preliminary studies, the loneliness and existential helplessness is palpable in every drawn gesture.

In the case of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, works by two artists are juxtaposed that occupy a key place in the Frieder Burda Collection. At the same time, they are closely connected to one another through their biographies, their work, and their friendship. Richter (Ladies Shoe), Richter’s Customer Service, Slimness Through Richter: these are the titles of drawings from 1965 in which Polke not only satirizes excessive consumerism, but also the role of the artist and the commodity character of art, turning his friend into a fictive brand. In 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam War, he imbues the potato, symbol of the German economic miracle, with dubious ideological significance in his painting Potato Heads (Mao & LBJ). Polke’s drawings from 1963 to 1976 form the largest ensembles of works in the exhibition. They are set against Gerhard Richter’s canvas Grau (Gray) from 1974 and a group of his abstract watercolors from the late 1980s. In the late 1970s, when Richter began his “abstract paintings,” he was working in opposition to the zeitgeist and the figurative painting of the Neue Wilden and Neo-Expressionism. For him, figurative painting had exhausted itself at the time. Back in the 1960s, Polke and Richter had helped revive representational painting in contemporary art. Nevertheless, they both questioned the representational character of painting from the very beginning. While Polke’s grids created a distance to accustomed ways of seeing and called the reality and production of images into question, Richter blurred and distorted his motifs.

A separate section of the show is devoted to Arnulf Rainer’s drawings. In his overpainted works, Rainer also tries to give his paintings back what they have lost: an element of mystery. He began overpainting his works in the 1950s, and in the course of the ensuing years, they developed the closed black surfaces in evidence in his early works on paper from the Frieder Burda Collection. Rainer is not concerned with destroying motifs, but in “perfecting” them. His uncompromising engagement with his own human and artistic existence is also reflected in his 1977 Van Gogh series.

.....Higher powers command” concludes with a few little-known, early drawings by Neo Rauch. Like many of the works in the show, Rauch’s works on paper dating from the turning point in his artistic career in the early 1990s tread a fine line between figuration and abstraction. And like the works of Richter, Polke, and Baselitz, they subliminally touch upon the ideologically charged feud between the two movements.

“.....Höhere Wesen befehlen”
Works on paper from the Frieder Burda Collection

12/5/2014 – 3/8/2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin