PRINT January 1989


IN HIS EARLY 20s, Lars Nilsson was a landscape painter in a venerable Swedish tradition. The scene of the crime, so to speak, was the dewy meadows and shimmering beech forests of Osterlen, in the southern part of the country, a region whose “picture-esque,” painterly qualities, by turns Provençal and Breton, have lured generations of straw-hatted Swedish artists to try their hand at Cezanne-type image-building, or at flickering light in the manner of Monet. Here, in the late ’70s, Nilsson could often be seen wandering like a latter-day van Gogh, easel on back. The place is the petrified forest of Swedish painting, a beautiful maze for artists to get lost in—and many have.

I suppose I had imagined that to confront Osterlen as a crime scene might offer clues to the radical step that Nilsson took a decade ago when he gave up the esthetic inbreeding of traditional landscape painting. With surprising speed, he arrived at an art that could house and problematize politically charged images from the mass media as naturally as his earlier approach could handle a shady clump of trees. Perhaps, I thought, his abundant landscape production had brought him to realize that “nature” is no less “culture” than a newspaper picture, and that the main issue at stake in the move from depicting one to the other is simply a change of codes—and perhaps I am right; perhaps that is what he thought. But Osterlen itself provides no key to Nilsson’s current work.

A more revealing geography appears in an entirely different set of places: ancient Rome—the City without an Origin1—and Vällingby, a “new town” built in the early 1950s on the outskirts of Stockholm. In its self-conception, classical Rome—like Vällingby—was a city without a real past. Founded in 753 B.C. by Romulus and Remus, according to legend, in what had until then been empty hill and marshland beside the Tiber, it had no indigenous Ur-history. It had only a beginning. Everyone in Rome, as Mario Perniola points out, was initially a foreigner: "The new town was created not out of preexisting tribal connections but from a collection of exiles who gathered in this refuge established by Romulus. The very founding ritual of the city was taught to Romulus by Etruscan experts. . . . Rome was from the beginning a simulated village, not to be distinguished from a real one.”2 Surely the same is true of Vällingby—and it was here, in a town no older than he was, that Nilsson grew up.

The shift in Nilsson’s work from an art-historical approach to a mass-media one can be formulated in Roman terms as a departure from a mythical, “vertical” paradigm to the “lateral,” ritual or ceremonial attitude characteristic of the City without an Origin. (A contemporary might also see it as a shift from Modernism to post-Modernism.) Roman ritual, Perniola writes, was "an extremely precise and conscientious repetition of cult acts whose original meaning is concealed, forgotten, or unknown.”3 And Nilsson has arrived at a kind of mute brushwork whose lively gestures do nothing to ease the feeling that we are seeing painting as ceremony, a ceremony in which the artist, like a Roman priest, has rejected all pretense at expression, carefully repeating the motions of the ritual as if disengaged from its original meaning. (A simulated brushwork, not to be distinguished from a real one. . . . ) Nilsson developed this kind of brushstroke in his work of 1982–83, and by 1984 he had created a suite of monochromes, in the noncolors of various shades of gray, that demonstrated it on its own, as nothing but itself. These dryly painted strips of canvas mounted on Masonite could be hung separately or in groups, like anonymous modules in some modern system of building construction.

More than the brushwork in Nilsson’s art takes its character from Rome. The artist named as the first in Roman history, Mamurius Veturius, was also perhaps the first simulationist: he is said to have made 11 exact copies of a shield, the ancile, supposedly presented by the gods to the city’s second king, Numa Pompilius, and the copies were so perfect that Numa couldn’t tell them from the original. In 1984, Nilsson began work on a series of 11 paintings based on a newspaper photograph of the so-called Hiroshima cathedral, a ruined, skeletal shell bearing witness to the atom bomb. Nilsson’s images are so close to identical that it seems meaningless to talk of them in terms of “original” and “copy.” Uniform but painterly, or painterly but uniform, this suite of cathedrals is antithetical both to Minimalist and other forms of Modernist seriality and to their ancestor in Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral from 1892–94. Fittingly, works from Nilsson’s series were first exhibited in a group show called “Det förlorade mästerverket “ (The lost masterpiece, at the Ostergotlands Länsmuseum, Linköping, in 1985), for the repetition inherent in their production by definition excludes the idea of the unique, auratic artwork. Yet these pieces were made by hand, with the traditional techniques of painting, rather than through mechanical reproduction. As Perniola writes of Mamurius Veturius, one might say that Nilsson ”finds himself as distanced from artistic inspiration as from the technical skills that combat nature. He is as strange to the art that creates a work out of nothing, bestowing being and splendor upon it, as to the artisan who uses his ingenuity to solve practical difficulties.”4 His art is of both these spheres of creation, and of neither.

Nilsson advanced this position further in his next project, a collaboration with the young painter Max Book. Their installation in the Galleri Sten Eriksson, Stockholm, in the fall of 1986, amounted to no less than an attack on a living monument of the Scandinavian art scene, the Marcel Duchamp scholar and formerly-avant-garde critic Ulf Linde. Despite his deep knowledge of Duchamp’s work and its implications, Linde has gradually come to conceive of art as a question of timeless solutions to timeless problems. Asserting the aura of the unique masterpiece, he dismisses present-day art and criticism as superfluous symptoms of decadence. Nilsson’s and Book’s answer to these arguments was a templelike installation comprising a large, deliberately ephemeral painting by Book (incorporating paper plates and rotting potatoes), a number of wall texts in the typeface of Latin inscriptions, as if carved in stone, and Nilsson’s portraits of Linde—20 of them, all identical. Executed in gray tempera and pencil, they seemed, in their almost absurd multiplicity, to relate directly to one of the wall texts, a quotation of the critic from 1984: “The world doesn’t need any more pictures, there are too many already.” The farcical dimensions of the ritual repetition were accentuated by Linde’s Thinker pose. These painted images, taken from a photograph—were they originals or copies? Some of the show’s subversive strength came from the fact that it was impossible to give a definitive answer—just as it would have been impossible for the uninitiated visitor to be entirely sure that the show wasn’t a perverse but celebratory homage.

The following year, Nilsson set the same 20 paintings in a new context, a show entitled “Aurora II” at the Nordic Arts Center in Sveaborg, Finland. Where in Sweden the target of these works had been specific, a prominent figure well-known to the Swedish art audience, here he was more obscure. The consequence was that the image itself, and in particular Linde’s pose and facial expression, became central. The issue of the pose had already preoccupied Nilsson for some years. A work from 1985, made for the final event at the Stockholm nightclub/gallery Bar-Bar before it closed, was a large, slightly crude wall painting showing a granitelike male face, the gaze distant and the corners of the mouth sardonically lowered, in a disturbing hybrid of fascist esthetics and fashion-magazine and art-nightclub ideals. And in the fall of 1987, in the Galerie Leger, Malmö, Nilsson showed a large-scale installation that extended his exploration of the pose. The paintings were arranged in six square minimalist grids of 16 canvas-on-Masonite panels each. Without frames, they looked fixed in the walls—dim gray monochromes, themselves square, and at first seemingly featureless. As one looked more closely, however, emerging from the mist of the panels were women’s heads—thrown back, bending, forward, en face, half profile, profile. The eyes in all these faces were closed, the glossy lips open. There was no doubt about what was on view: ecstasy, or, rather, simulations of it. The poses of the women models were themselves artificial, and were taken to another level of artificiality by the artist. The pictures were clearly taken from pornography: this was lust according to code. It was ecstasy as ritual.

These 96 paintings touch on a familiar feminist theory of “femininity” as a construct of masquerade and simulation, even—or most of all—at its most private. Commenting on Nietzsche’s remark that “the female is so artistic,” Gayatri Spivak has written about how, in the social construction of the feminine, “women impersonate themselves as having an orgasm even at the time of orgasm”5; Nilsson’s recontextualized pornography images could almost be an illustration for this discourse. The works also suggest, however, that there is some comfort in the artificial, in the impossibility of knowing the authentic. The pose of the portrait subject is a means to represent the self—to simulate the self. It is a projection and a protection, a shield against the vulnerability of being portrayed unposed and unguarded. Multiple reproduction is capable of the same kind of protectiveness: when Mamurius made his copies of Numa’s shield, repealing its uniqueness, he was preventing its theft, for no thief could tell which shield was “real.” Similarly, Nilsson’s 96 paintings develop a kabuki of posing by duplicating the same 16 paintings in each of the six grids, though their positions change in each group, according to a simple system. Nilsson had painted versions of 16 magazine pictures, then transferred each of them six times via a silk screen process, and in a transparent medium, to surfaces of the same “simulated” gray-tempera brushwork that he had begun to use in 1984. Which of these models is the model? All are involved in the same simulatory ceremony, and all are multiplied by six. The idea of the model is helplessly dissolved, though the hand-painted surface of each panel leaves a residue of uncertainty.

Though Nilsson has never been interested in the usual conventions of agitprop art, a subversive political undercurrent has permeated his work since the early ’80s. Brixton, 1981, takes off from a newspaper photograph of rioting in London; the installation Johannesburg, at the Galleri Olsson, Stockholm, in 1983, was a collection of paintings both abstract and representational that together suggested a mood of oppression and violence. Nilsson’s most recent project comprises three horizontally arranged series of six different male portraits. Each of these series is itself executed in an edition of five. Within each grouping, the images are paired: a rather dandified, elegantly dressed man, in clothes suggestive of the aristocracy of colonialist times, is matched with an alluring young boy, often shirtless, and apparently of poor Mediterranean stock. Images like these have been increasingly in evidence lately in trend-setting magazines from L’Uomo Vogue to Arena. They suggest a retro-dressed neodandyism, a neoauthoritarian style with a bitter-sweet taste of imperialist exploitation, seasoned, a few years after the first AIDS shock, by hints of pederasty. (Perhaps Nilsson, in working with these images, has found another way to refer subtly to ancient Rome.) As with the earlier pornography series, the effect of Nilsson’s project is insidiously intricate, for the critical insights that the work suggests to the viewer are undercut by its below-the-belt perspective, its seductiveness—or the seductiveness of the phenomenon it describes. Or we may respond the other way around—the insight may surprise us while our cheeks are still flushed from our gaze.

This kind of dualistic reaction is characteristically evoked by Nilsson’s work. But another, related duality has not yet been adequately explored, and is of central importance. To return to the beginning: we were talking about cities without an origin, Rome and Vällingby. When the latter new town was founded, the authorities invoked were not Etruscan: the architecture of the town center,so the handbooks say, was based on ideas derived from America. The shopping district, for example, was on an American model: the visitor could get off the new subway, or park his or her car, on an underground level before ascending to a modern consumer paradise of snack bars, record bars, shoe-repair bars, and supermarkets with names like “Kvickly” [sic] and “Tempo.” This simulated town showed no traces of traditional Swedish town life. Yet no one complained. The American patterns were adapted as though nothing could have been more natural.

Perhaps Swedish culture had already been largely Americanized by the early ’30s. The country’s exceptionally fast development from a poor, peasant nation to a highly developed postindustrial society, all within this century, might seem to have required more rapid cultural change than an organic national process could handle. The passage was eased by the fact that between 1860 and 1910, fully a quarter of Sweden’s population emigrated to America. Thanks to the common people’s high degree of literacy, cultural grafting was very soon a fact: letters and other news from the United States provided Sweden with the material for a new vernacular culture, while highbrow culture, and painting in particular, continued to dream of la douce France.

The imprint of Vällingby, that simulation of a town, may have been of crucial help to Nilsson in handling his break with traditional landscape painting. However, it is also important to what I think of as the “American” quality of his art, to the fusion or marriage in his work between strategies formulated in American postwar art and a “Swedish” attitude. One can certainly recognize techniques here that derive from the arsenals of Minimalism and of Pop art (not least as represented by Andy Warhol), and also from the American post-Modernism of the ’80s: Minimalist grids of an aristocratic purism, combined with an ascetic use of color, signal a Modernist ethos, only to confront it with pictures of pictures of pictures from Hustler magazine; the Warhol quality of this last element is itself complicated by the palpable but distanced brushwork; and the recent paintings can look as much like black and white TV screens as like traditional, “humanistic” paintings on canvas. All this reminds me of Vällingby: seemingly American in all its important respects, yet Swedish, with a roughcast facade of insidious well-meaning. Commercialism here is not hard-boiled; the supermarket is next door to the social welfare office, the national dental-service office, and the social insurance office.

Perhaps it is a question of efficiency. Nilsson doesn’t drive his theses home as unequivocally as many of his American peers; his works always leave an uncertainty behind. Are the 20 Ulf Linde portraits all clones of each other, or are they only almost identical? They raise the issue of mechanical reproduction, but a kind of indefinable inertia clogs the machine. (Perhaps this quality is related to the trait that earned Swedish settlers in Minnesota such epithets as “squareheads.”) Nilsson’s art has a precision that does not signal itself as precision, and it occurs to me that this too is Vällingby: simulated, but well built and thought out, and never for a second fancy. The artist’s treatment of his material is remarkably mute. His gray brushwork is dry and matter-of-fact, and he mounts his canvases on a classic suburban material, Masonite, which he in turn fastens to the wall with simple galvanized nails. He uses no shining surfaces, no beautiful frames or seductive copper tacks, no romantic arte povera esthetics.

Postwar social modernism in Sweden brought radical structural changes in the society, but those changes were quite peaceably achieved—the willingness of individuals to place the state’s interests before their own has long been an element in the “Swedish model.” (Echoing Cicero’s recurring notion of the citizen’s obligation of self-sacrifice for the collective, this is perhaps a final Roman strain in Nilsson’s esthetic space.) Yet the flat, unsuggestive, ahistoric look of Swedish suburbia, and resonating in the work of artists like Nilsson, has its parallels elsewhere: in the ’50s, the chances of growing up in a simulated town may have been about the same in the West Germany of the reconstruction, for example, as in the Sweden of Americanized growth. In different ways, artists such as Isa Genzken, Martin Kippenberger, and Rosemarie Trockel lay out a position, or at least a visual look, similar to Nilsson’s. Some of them also allow a like subversive humor to escape from the passive materials of their work. If their art hides a different sense of historical trauma, they still share with Nilsson a sense that theirs is the art of a new Europe—of a reality that in traditional terms seems somehow unreal, yet that unquestionably exists and is here.

Lars Nittve is a senior curator at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Most recently, he curated the“Implosion” exhibition there, and he is currently working on “Two Very Large Presentations by Walter De Maria,” which will open in March.

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Hakan Svensson.

1. Mario Perniola, “Ars og Urbs,” ed. and trans. Carsten Juhl, in Bloendvoerker, Arhus, Denmark: Sjakalen, 1982, pp. 13 ff. Originally published as “Ars e urbs,” in Rivista di estetica no. 4, June 1980.
2. Ibid., pp. 15–16.
3. Ibid., p. 22.
4. Ibid., p. 18.
5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” in Mark Krupnick, ed.,_ Displacement: Derrida and After, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, p. 170.