If you’re a selfie enthusiast mourning the closing of Hirshhorn blockbuster “Infinity Mirrors,” here’s a tip. The museum just installed a massive painting that’s nearly as Instagrammable as Yayoi Kusama’s mirror rooms: “Westwall (Siegfried Line),” a 41-foot-long canvas depicting a German World War II fortification. It’s just one of 32 works in “Markus Lupertz: Threads of History,” an exhibit showcasing the early work of an artist who, like Kusama, has been overlooked in America despite acclaim throughout the rest of the world.
The Hirshhorn exhibit, which opened Wednesday, will be joined on Saturday by the first American career retrospective of Lupertz’s work, called simply “Markus Lupertz,” at the Phillips Collection. Together, the two shows are the first in-depth U.S. survey of Lupertz’s work.
“Between these two installations, you can really get the sense of the expanse of his career, the themes that interested him and the evolution of his methods,” says Dorothy Kosinski, the director of the Phillips Collection and curator of the retrospective.
The double dose is helpful because, as an artist, Lupertz (who’s still painting) is hard to pin down, Kosinski adds. “He’s kind of more elusive and more challenging than some other, more popular contemporary artists. He doesn’t have an instantly recognizable style.”
Lupertz was born in 1941 in what’s now the Czech Republic, and he moved to West Germany as a child. Largely self-taught, he launched his career by painting abstract versions of ordinary objects such as cake tins and tree trunks, says Evelyn Hankins, the curator of the Hirshhorn show.
“Westwall,” painted in 1968, marked the turning point at which Lupertz began addressing emotionally charged themes, such as the German military’s role in World War II — a nearly taboo subject in East and West Germany at the time.
“He was making these paintings at a critical moment when Germany was having a moment of reckoning” with its wartime atrocities, Hankins says.
Lupertz’s brushwork and emotional tenor have also developed over time, Kosinski says.
“Some of those early works from the ’60s and ’70s have an almost hard-edged, pop art kind of quality to them. His works in the ’80s are filled with anxiety and fury,” Kosinski says. “And then, in the last several years, his paintings have taken on a more elegiac, arcadian beauty.”
“Donald Duck’s Wedding” (1963), at the Hirshhorn: This is a serious painting with a silly subject. You can make out the duck from the eyes and the orange bill, but Lupertz obscures the rest of the cartoon bird with his technically challenging brushwork. This combination of high and low art, and of pop art and abstract expressionism, is typical of Lupertz’s early paintings, Hankins says.
“Westwall (Siegfried Line)” (1968), at the Hirshhorn: “On one hand, it looks like a painting of some kind of monumental minimalist sculpture, but actually it is a painting of the Siegfried Line,” a great battlement that ran along Germany’s borders with Belgium and France, Hankins says. The painting’s perspective — with the battlements angling inward on both sides of the midpoint — “puts the viewer right in the center,” Hankins adds.
“Helmets Sinking — Dithyrambic” (1970), at the Hirshhorn: For decades after World War II, any painting depicting German military themes was likely to be labeled dangerously nationalistic, Hankins says. But when Lupertz painted these helmets, he wasn’t trying to be provocative: “He believes that creativity drains the motif of its cultural meaning, and I think with the German motifs, he’s really testing that theory,” she says.
“Arcadia — The High Mountain” (2013), at the Phillips: Here, Lupertz juxtaposes German military helmets with classical Greek sculptures. By combining the two images, he is exploring his place in the Western art tradition, with the helmets perhaps representing his work and the sculptures representing the great artists of ancient Greece, Kosinski says.