The James Ensor and Georg Baselitz exhibition at SAM, though billed as a two-person show, is a standoff. Works on paper, mostly etchings, are tightly and pleasingly arrayed in a small, gray-painted gallery on the museum's third floor. Ensor, a 19th-century Belgian with an aesthetic that falls at the midpoint between Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine, has the south wall and the adjacent portions of the east and west walls; Baselitz, a contemporary German and ecumenical modernist, holds the equivalent north-wall domain. Gallery entrances ensure that the artists' works do not meet on either of the shared walls.
A double-sided etching by Ensor, Doctrinal Nourishment (1889), sits in a vitrine in the middle of the room, cheated a bit closer to Ensor's side. The print is in the glass box so museum visitors can walk around it and see both sides. Depicting a handful of lumpy white shapes concealed by black fog, it's the least graphic Ensor work in the show, the work closest in appearance to a Baselitz. Because of this, standing off the wall and alone, it's as if the other Ensors urged it forward to ask the Baselitz prints where they came from and what they want.
From Baselitz's side of the room, the Ensors look like swirls of framed gray scale. Enter Ensor's domain and the Baselitz prints, while discernible as male figures, are tiny and abstracted. The conceit of the show is to bring the works together "in an unlikely and provocative dialogue that provides a unique insight into the work of both artists." But if this is a dialogue, a conversation, the two parties are positioned on the deaf opposite ends of a tarmac.
The works, all of them, come from two local collections: Tom and Lore Firman collect Ensor; the Baselitz prints belong to Jeffrey and Susan Brotman. The Firmans own a famously complete collection of Ensor's prints, perhaps all of which are housed, as they are at SAM, in simple silver frames. The Brotmans are major SAM donors who have endowed a curatorial position and, in 2007, made a substantial promised gift of artwork to the museum. Their prints are enclosed in many types of frames, some more pristine than others, and, together, they have the charming appearance of beloved objects gathered over time and displayed in heavily trafficked areas of the home.
Baselitz has cited Ensor as an influence. With their shared penchant for suffering, ruin, and black humor, each epitomizes Teutonic romanticism. Both artists also made/make print and paint versions of the same compositions—and that's the root of the problem with the SAM show. While Ensor's and Baselitz's paintings have strong formal similarities (the color palettes especially), Ensor's crackerjack and entertaining prints are cleaner than his paintings, more distinct and easy to read, while Baselitz's are less so. (The Baselitz prints are from the artist's pre-upside-down "Heroes" period. Many are solitary, small-headed figures in barren landscapes, the details of their midsections so hazy I had to read the labels to determine who had been burned, had opened his pants, etc.) In the end, these are not the best works to "dialogue" on behalf of the artists. On view, instead, are two broad collections that were readily available for the museum's use.