Markus Lüpertz: Et in Arcadia ego at Michael Werner, NYC (Review)

Installation view, Markus Lüpertz: Et in Arcadia ego at Michael Werner Gallery, NYC, 2023.

Markus Lüpertz: Et in Arcadia ego at Michael Werner Gallery, NYC

February 16 – April 21, 2023

All images courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery

In  Markus Lüpertz’s Et in Arcadia ego, on view at Michael Werner through April 21, the past and the present harbor a reciprocal relationship. Lüpertz combines elements of art history  (Cezanne’s nudes, Courot’s pastoralism) with blurred shapes and dripping forms, creating contemporary works out of past referents.  Purposefully antiquated, Lüpertz’s palate enlists tobacco and iron brown, piazza blue, and oxide red: pigments introduced in the nineteenth century and derived from recently recognized metals like cadmium, chrome, and zinc.

This conscious mobilization of the past in new works enacts the Latin phrase for which the show is named:  Et in Arcadia ego; Even in Arcadia, I (Death) Am Here.  Lüpertz subverts art’s immortalizing capabilities less with the presence of human decay (though many of the works include skulls)  than with the presence of art history.  Remixing canonical references in this way, Lüpertz’s work shows us how visual motifs and even particular colors hold the emotional and imaginative residue of the moment in which they were first employed. Therefore, deploying “historical” tropes in new contexts casts the present as a receptacle for what critic Raymond Williams calls “history in solution;”  broken-down remnants of the past that churn, solvent-like, within the now.

Markus Lüpertz, Der Morgen (Arkadien) (The Morning [Arcadia]), 2021, mixed media on canvas in artist’s frame,  32 x 39 1/4 inches | 81 x 100 cm

Assembling disparate motifs from canonical paintings, Et in Arcadia ego examines the spatial and temporal properties of a “remainder.”  A leftover part of a whole, a remainder is ostensibly useless. Lüpertz toys with the obsoleteness of remnants, allowing snapped-off art historical referents to retain their cryptic partiality while also functioning as the compositional glue in new work.  In  “Der Morgen (Arkadien) (2021)” for example, the recumbent nude in the foreground quotes Guercino’s figure drawings, while the yellow mountains in the background display Fauvist influence. Like pottery shards, these art historical motifs are wrested from their original contexts to create, in aggregation, a new contemporary one.

Markus Lüpertz, Caput Mortuum, 2020, mixed media on canvas in artist’s frame,  45 3/4 x 38 1/4 inches | 116 x 97 cm

The past’s function as the living material of the present is perhaps most acutely evident in Caput Mortuum (2020), where a brick-colored swathe of paint at the work’s center turns a nineteenth-century pastoral scene into something wholly unfamiliar.  The painting’s Latin title, which translates to “worthless remains,” names the brownish-red metallic compounds left over from chemical processes like sublimation. The Caput Mortuum-colored slab that floats at the woman’s side casts a brownish-red shadow on her figure,  flattening her features to resemble those of an ancient terracotta figure. Here, the ostensibly “worthless remains” of the past–a reddish-brown abstraction that denies legibility– has colonized the (contemporary) visual field. Seemingly extraneous leftovers from history are re-released, here, as the work’s compositional linchpin.

Installation view, Markus Lüpertz: Et in Arcadia ego at Michael Werner Gallery, NYC, 2023.

Lüpertz enlists the double frame (one around the canvas, and again around the framed canvas) to debunk the fantasy of art’s timelessness.  Art, like Arcadia, is theoretically immune to mortality; ”She cannot fade… forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” writes John Keats of the lovers painted on a Grecian Urn. In Lüpertz’s work, the frame within the frame reminds us that art is always lodged within history; the contemporary painting will ultimately become the historical  “framework” for something new. As framed assemblages of historical and contemporary elements,  the works are literal “freeze-frames” of the present, which Lüpertz casts as an uncanny temporal moment poised between the dissolving past and the uncertain future.

In this sense, Et in Arcadia ego exemplifies what the German philosopher Friedrich Holderlïn has called the “gap” between the past and the future; the present forces us to suffer “that which is momentarily incomplete” on our journey towards actualization. Holderlïn contends that we never arrive at such totalizing fulfillment;  life is a process of perpetual becoming that unfolds as we  “surpass” ourselves from “one moment to the next.” The role of art is to grasp that perpetual change and to hold it still, so that we might occasionally glimpse its vital motion. Et in Arcadia ego affords this vision.

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Liz Scheer

Liz Scheer is a writer and painter based in New York City.

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