Woman with Classic Face and Red-Faced Figure by George Grosz – review

Object: A painting by George Grosz Portrait of: Three figures painted in the 60s by Grosz at Nancy’s Orchard, Chelsea Workplace title: “We are carrying on as usual, Mr Garfunkel says no” Index: 20…

Woman with Classic Face and Red-Faced Figure by George Grosz – review

Object: A painting by George Grosz

Portrait of: Three figures painted in the 60s by Grosz at Nancy’s Orchard, Chelsea

Workplace title: “We are carrying on as usual, Mr Garfunkel says no”

Index: 20 paintings by George Grosz, including Five Policemen in an Unemployment Office with About 15 Ballroom Dancers, New York, 1966

Why we care: Many of us didn’t even know we’d seen this painter until now. We may have seen works from his summer series, which make as good a case for the persistence of artist-photographer Donald Judd. A critique of 1970s modernism – done by the artist – it looks very much like a modernist painting, with Grosz’s trademark warmth and intimacy, a few dark shadows and beautifully strung lines, barely distinguishable from his non-representational research into visual sign language, in a book of Trained Earrings, also created during his Chelsea residency. The viewer’s eye is drawn to two landscapes, each of their various stylistic trends: while the legs of a doll are in one, in the other a simple blond coat is spotted with beautiful broken splashes of colour. Two figures are lit from below by diurnal flashes of luminous light, from a radiant African-American sun or an Imperial Japan sun: the visitors make a pilgrimage, with their sombre clothes and mournful white and green fruit juice glasses, toward a century’s’ absence of African-American freedom.

Monoliths of the Winged Ones by George Grosz. Photograph: Donald Brickell

History: With his assertion of the final stage of the printing process as the end of history, Grosz refused to be bound by the embrace of history’s institutions. His long life post-1945 lacked any formal ideology, just delight, hard work and boredom. But it did not lack ideology, since his paintings, which he made in the office of studio manager Nancy Strauss and in Chelsea’s public housing, were concerned with the inequalities and inequalities of the postwar world. Their subjects, Grosz remembered, were not the first world war – “over there was always the Great War” – but instead the brutalities of poverty, old age and death among the public housing’s tenants.

There are many levels to these paintings: an engaging, self-conscious hallucination of a time past, as a more or less phantasmagoric sleepwalk through broken glass, discordant baroque lines, broken glass and broken surfaces, with occasional glimpses of life in its never-ending cycle of rain, work, children, visiting monsignors and who-knew-what. And there is the psychological dissolution of a self-important individual with his suitcase full of broken papers, bird notes, handwritten letters and notes for the man standing by the glass wall at the back. That man is just as anxious as the doomed artist at the centre of these works, desperate to release the landlocked inmate within, ready to empty his situation on himself.

Shown: Present, Chelsea, London, until 7 February.

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