Left: Jonathan Lasker, Idiot Savant (detail), 1983, oil on canvas, 78 1/3 x 53 1/2“. Right: Jonathan Lasker, Heavy Mental, 1985, oil on canvas, 71 x 71”.


For the past thirty years, Jonathan Lasker has been committed to producing bold and enigmatic abstract paintings. His current show at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London, which he discusses here, presents a gathering of his works from the 1980s. The show is on view until December 23.

LOOKING OVER THE EIGHT WORKS IN THIS SHOW, I found myself reflecting on who I was both as a person and as a painter between 1983 and 1992 and also thinking about what the surrounding context was like when I made them. Trying to assess that period of time gives me an unsettling feeling of reinhabiting my own past self, as well as the historical past.

In retrospect, I realize that many of the paintings in the show either became seminal for me or they were made in the early stages of one breakthrough or another in my work. Idiot Savant, for example, was one of the first paintings in which I conflated Pop imagery with gestural painting elements. Blobscape comes forward as the picture in which I first used scribbling as a background motif, which is something I have done in many subsequent pictures. Both of these paintings were important to me at the time, in helping to expand the discursive nature of my work.

In an archaeological sense, seeing Heavy Mental again also helped me to find my buried past self as a painter. This painting has rectilinear bars, which were thickly painted with a palette knife, in its background motif. Upon close inspection I noticed traces of maroon paint on the edges of these bars. That was part of an underpainting on the ground of the painting around the bars. On top of this I added silver paint, which was scumbled over with isolated brushstrokes of gold. The traces of maroon hue were intended to be evidence of painting process. In the intervening years I had almost forgotten that this is something I had done in many of my paintings. I experienced it as an intriguing atavism, which remains in the genes of my work.

I also realized how truly experimental this thing we call “context” really is. For instance, Idiot Savant has had a very checkered contextual biography. It was first exhibited in 1984 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in a three-person group exhibition titled “Fact and Fiction.” The other artists in the show were Thomas Nozkowski and Gary Stephan. This exhibition was involved with the dichotomy between pictorial and material space in painting—in other words, between fact and fiction. In 1987, however, an image of this painting was published in “NY Art Now: the Saatchi Collection.” Some of the artists in this grouping were Jeff Koons, Allan McCollum, Peter Halley, Haim Steinbach, and Philip Taaffe. The discourse applied to that group of artists involved issues such as consumer culture, appropriation, and signification. In between these two exhibitions Idiot Savant was also exhibited in my first solo exhibition at Michael Werner’s gallery in Cologne in 1986. Werner was best known as the dealer who developed the careers of Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, etc, who were considered to be neo-expressionists. This third context did not shape the reception of my work, nor was it intended to. If anything, it enhanced the sense of otherness of my work. But to this day, my work continues to have the odd distinction of being contextualized in two discourses that normally function in mutual exclusion of one another in art, namely the discourse that involves space in painting and the one involving signification in visual art.

— As told to Sherman Sam