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Critic's Notebook: A Painter of Modern Life

By: Peter Selz

In 1967, at the height of Beatlemania, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandappeared to wide acclaim. With more than 11 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, it was one of the most successful albums of all time. The cover, designed by the British painter Peter Blake, displayed 70 famous faces, including Edgar Allan Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Carl Jung, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Mae West—and one painter, Richard Lindner.

During his lifetime Lindner was acknowledged as a significant and unique European-American painter. He was represented by prestigious galleries—first Betty Parsons and then Cordier and Ekstrom in New York and Claude Bernard in Paris. He had solo shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and, in 1974, at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, which went on tour to museums in Holland, Germany and Switzerland. Monographs by Dore Ashton, Hilton Kramer and Rolf-Günter Dienst were published. Prominent European writers—Eugène Ionesco, Alain Jouffroy and Roland Penrose—wrote essays on Lindner’s work.

But since his death in 1978 at the age of 76, Lindner has been largely marginalized. True, there was a retrospective at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum in 1997 that went on to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the city from which he fled the Nazi onslaught. But although Lindner’s art was appreciated, he did not fit into any modernist or postmodern slot. No one painted like him. He was erroneously called a precursor of Pop art, but his heraldic symbols of New York, his paintings of pimps and armored women, were cultural commentaries far removed from the bland images of Pop. “I am not a Pop artist,” Lindner insisted. “I myself am really a hard-edge painter. If I were a collector, I would buy mostly abstract paintings.” In her monograph, Ashton wrote, “These masked creatures with their foibles painted or draped upon them are really none other than the medieval fools depicted by German woodcut masters in the Totentanz. Lindner’s dance of death unrolls in the modern metropolis, but it is no less eternal for that.”

The roots of Lindner’s art can be found in European culture, particularly in the Germany of the Weimar years, in the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang and in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. The artist recalled that Bertolt Brecht suggested that he paint the stage sets for the Threepenny Opera. His work harks back to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), the art of sarcasm and disillusionment that followed upon the hopes and fervor of Expressionism: the paintings of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter and especially Christian Schad and Oskar Schlemmer. Another major influence was Fernand Léger’s painting of formalized, mechanical bodies with bold outlines. “For me, Léger was most important,” said Lindner. “His style inspired me, and he was interested in everyday life.” These artists were exemplary embodiments of what Charles Baudelaire had in mind when, a century earlier, he advocated the painting of modern life.

There was also Lindner’s native Nuremberg—the city of Albrecht Dürer, dominated by its medieval castle with its infamous torture chambers, but also the site of Hitler’s spectacular Nazi Party conventions. Finally, there was the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, patron of Richard Wagner and builder of fairy-tale castles. King Ludwig is in attendance in all his glory as the central figure in Lindner’s The Meeting (1953), an autobiographical group portrait of individuals (and a large brown cat) whom he brought together in a strange encounter. Here Lulu, a recurring figure in Lindner’s work, makes her first appearance as the corseted girl standing between king and cat.

Lulu, the main character in Frank Wedekind’s controversial plays Earth Spirit andPandora’s Box, is also Eve, Pandora, Lolita, the embodiment of male fantasy and hopes. Lindner kept painting the figure, as in his stunning West 48th Street (1964), a synthetic woman wearing a fantastic purple helmet, an S&M collar, her simulated breasts exposed and her money purse prominently displayed, all set against a blunt red background. This is the mythical Valkyrie of Lindner’s youth transformed into a Times Square whore. A few years later the artist deglamourized America’s glamour girl in Marilyn Was Here (1967), in which she appears armored by an elaborate girdle with targets, one black, one blue, signifying breasts. Her face is blacked out. This is a very different Marilyn from the one in Warhol’s silkscreens of the same period.

Lindner was thoroughly versed in European art and remained a European artist in exile. He adored New York, which he took as the theme of his work. Shortly before he died, he told the American critic John Gruen, “My work is really a reflection of Germany of the ’20s. It was the only time the Germans were any good. On the other hand, my creative nourishment comes from New York and from pictures I see in American magazines and on television. America is really a fantastic place.” And it is these places of American fantasy—Hollywood, Disneyland, Las Vegas, Times Square, Coney Island—that make up the world of his pictures. For example, in his 1961 pastel and gouache drawing The Smoker, the figure looks like a fantasy circus clown, and The Pink Pussycat is a girl with long blonde hair, sexy lips, round target-like breasts and a multicolored corset, who stands there to be looked at. Lindner’s people are far removed from reality. They constitute a human circus in which the woman—be she a prostitute, an actress, an armored angel or a long-legged, cat-eyed girl—calls the game and dominates the goings-on. Men are helpless in these engagements. On careful reflection, Lindner’s fantastic place appears to be a lonely place.

The portfolio Fun City, produced in 1971, rehearses Lindner’s iconography of erotic women and subaltern men. Lollipop shows a young girl in a miniskirt sticking out her tongue to lick the candy, illuminated by a large beam of light and watched by a small image of a man with a cigar. We see only his uniformed chest and head; the lower part of his body is missing. A very strange, unsettling image in this portfolio is calledNew York Men; it pictures three heads: a head of a black man in large blue shades, a Dick Tracy-type profile and a white man’s lower face shown below a large hat, with handcuffed, gloved hands. Fun city, indeed! This portfolio also includes a portrait based on a well-known photograph of Allen Ginsberg. It shows the poet anchored at a window with a full beard and glasses, wearing an Uncle Sam hat. The artist has added a second image of the poet, considerably reduced in size, peeking from the side, thus creating an amusing composite of the poet and his doppelganger examining the viewer.

Ionesco wrote the preface to Lindner’s final portfolio, Untitled (1975). In admiration of the painter, the absurdist playwright pointed out that Lindner had moved past Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and abstraction to an interpretation of reality that is not realistic, creating an art that can be “fantastic, monstrous and dangerous at the same time.” The preeminent Paris publisher of lithographs, Mourlot, who had printed for Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Chagall, issued this suite and wrote an appreciation in which he stressed Lindner’s punctilious supervision of the printing process. Most of the images are of large women—Amazons, dragon ladies, Liliths and oversize Lulus. Armored in garter belts and corsets, they are right in front of the viewer’s face, yet they remain inaccessible. Lindner, a post-Cubist, has broken the body and reassembled it in these lithographs into automated bodies, operating in an automated, mechanized society. In one of them, Amazone, the profile of a well-groomed man—an upscale pimp?—is placed onto the gigantic body of a woman who faces us with no expression on her painted face. In another print, the male is indicated solely by his hand above the woman’s ample buttocks, which presents a great contrast to her tiny head. She carries a yellow purse as she walks away from the almost-invisible man.

Long before feminism, Lindner stated, “In my paintings it is the woman who is more brilliant, stronger and sadder than her mate.” For Lindner, art was a game by which to show the superiority of aggressive women to submissive men. He pursued this strategy to reveal the existential separation of the sexes in the ultimate game of life.

Richard Lindner
March 14–May 2, 2009
George Krevsky Gallery, San Francisco

Author: admin | Publish Date: May 2009

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