Jörg Immendorff


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German painter, sculptor, and Performance artist. Born in Bleckede in Lower Saxony, he became celebrated for his complex and provocative allegories of contemporary politics. He held his first exhibition of painting in Bonn at the age of fifteen. In 1963, he embarked on a course in theatre design at the Düsseldorf Academy but was thrown off after he refused to permit one of his paintings to be used as a set. In 1964 he joined the class of Joseph Beuys, who appears in many early paintings. Immendorff also assisted on Beuys's famous performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). Beuys had rearranged the stage in response to his dealer's request on the grounds that ‘We need to sell the stuff’. Immendorff applied a red sticker, the universally adopted sign for ‘work sold’, to Beuys himself. The pupil's attitude to his teacher was ambivalent. He approved strongly of the ambition to extend art to social activism but had no sympathy with the mystical aspects of the older artist's outlook.

‘Hort auf zu malen!’ (‘Stop painting!’) exhorts a canvas of 1966 (Stedelijk van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven). The statement is inscribed over a cross which cancels the now barely legible images beneath. For the next few years Immendorff was to concentrate on Performance art and political activity, usually under the umbrella label of LIDL. Like Dada, this was a nonsense word. It was evocative of the sound of a baby's rattle. Immendorff used a baby mask in some of his performances and painted obese and ugly babies. His activities included the sabotage of the documenta press conference in 1968 by pouring honey over the microphones in protest against the selection, which concentrated strongly on American Pop. These activities were part of the widespread student protests against the Vietnam War. In 1969 the police acted to close down the ‘LIDL Academy’ group at the Düsseldorf Academy. By the early 1970s Immendorff had become committed to a Maoist political stance and practised a didactic strain of painting complete with ‘self-criticism’. A painting of 1972 includes the caption ‘I dreamed of becoming an artist’, concluding that ‘My guiding star was egoism’.

His presence at the 1976 Venice Biennale included a statement which urged artists to resist ‘the imperialist strategies of the Soviet Union and the USA’. At that exhibition he saw the work of Renato Guttuso. The Italian painter was a bastion of the official Communist party and his painting Caffé Greco (1976, Museum Ludwig, Cologne) was a kind of static memorial to great figures in modern European culture. The Café Deutschland series, which Immendorff began in 1978 as a response, presented Europe not as a place where noted artists and intellectuals could discourse in civilized ease but as a divided culture framed by violence. They are set not in a sunlit café but in a dark and seedy nightclub in which the artist is sometimes to be seen jiving frenetically. The first of the series (1978, Museum Ludwig, Cologne) commemorates his friendship with the painter A. R. Penck, who at that time was unable to leave East Germany. He is seen reflected in a column while Immendorff thrusts his hand through the Berlin Wall. The attitude behind the series is summed up by the pessimistic statement from an interview in Artscribe in 1983: ‘There is a history now of Europe being the world's battlefield and Germany sitting right here on the frontier. What Hitler did is nothing compared to the evil we are ready to unleash upon ourselves.’

These paintings represent one of the boldest attempts by a late 20th-century painter to engage with contemporary history. Roberta Smith described them as ‘part political cartoon, part history painting, part memoir’. With the collapse of the DDR in 1989 and subsequent reunification of Germany, Immendorff's work came to be seen as less relevant. At the same time he became absorbed into the establishment he had once challenged so vehemently. In 2000 he was even commissioned to paint the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whom he personally admired as a politician and who actually respected the place of the artist in society. However, scandal and notoriety attended his final years. In August 2003 he was arrested in a Düsseldorf hotel with a large quantity of cocaine and in the company of nine prostitutes. It has been noted by cynics that his sentence of eleven months' probation was just short of what would have entailed mandatory disciplinary action by the Düsseldorf Academy, where he held a professorship, so endangering his young wife's pension. In 1997 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which gradually left him paralysed and was eventually to cause his death. His final works were made by assistants under his direction.

From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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