PRINT February 2006


Over the course of a decade-long career, Michel Majerus crammed the digital efflux of our age into paintings that strain conventional definitions of the medium. On the occasion of the artist’s current multipartite European retrospective, DANIEL BIRNBAUM revisits an enduring oeuvre cut short in its prime.

“I’M CERTAIN THAT ONE doesn’t have control over the short time in which one does good things,” said Michel Majerus, the Berlin-based artist who died in a plane crash in his native Luxembourg in November 2002 at the age of thirty-five. His time as an artist was indeed short—less than a decade was all he had. Yet it is important to stress that this brevity had nothing to do with the self-destructiveness so often associated with artists who die young. Majerus, whom I came to know quite well in the mid-’90s, was incredibly affable and sincere. His death was simply a meaningless accident that prematurely ended one of the most promising artistic careers of his generation at the very moment of a major breakthrough. Nevertheless, by then he had already developed a body of work that, in retrospect, appears to be a key contribution—I’m inclined to say the key contribution—to what one might call painting in the expanded field. His work, claims the catalogue accompanying a sprawling five-part European retrospective that began last year and culminates in 2007, constitutes the most important counterposition to the revival of expressionist styles in early twenty-first-century painting. To this I would add that Majerus’s production of images and visual environments, in fact, represents one of very few recent approaches to painting that cannot be understood in terms of a return to anything from the past. His art had a specific kind of newness—not the lofty, if contested, “originality of the avant-garde,” but the prepackaged newness of the latest cell-phone graphic or just-released sneaker from Nike. Majerus’s art was about this newness. But in what sense was it painting?

We tend to identify large, colorful surfaces filled with imagery and text as paintings, whether they are acrylic on canvas, lacquer on aluminum, or digital printing on synthetic fabric. We are likely to see them as paintings even if, like two of Majerus’s most monumental works, they cover the facade of the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale or, more unexpectedly, drape entirely Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. A student of Joseph Kosuth’s in Stuttgart in the early ’90s, Majerus, of course, did not believe in traditional disciplines defined in terms of material support, but one can perhaps see his art as actively grappling with issues of painting in a different way. His massive works on canvas—some of which reach nearly thirty feet in width—display fragments from the history of painting and imagemaking in its entirety, from Jean-Antoine Watteau, Philipp Otto Runge, and Willem de Kooning to Disney, Frank Stella, and Jörg Immendorff. Yet what dominates Majerus’s fields are not citations from old or recent masters but images plucked from glossy advertisements or the anonymous pictorial cosmos of video games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. These figures might inhabit fragments of abstraction or bump against graphic styling appropriated from the posters and flyers of the German techno scene, which was but one of the subcultures—along with skateboarding and manga—whose visual vernaculars Majerus mined. Through it all float theoretical quotes that laconically question the very status of artistic production: WHAT LOOKS GOOD TODAY MAY NOT LOOK GOOD TOMORROW; PRODUCE, REDUCE, REUSE; FUCK THE INTENTION OF THE ARTIST.

Certainly Majerus’s practice took cues from Pop and its forebears (the omnivorous Titian-to-trash sampling of Robert Rauschenberg and the painted agglomerations of James Rosenquist or Sigmar Polke come to mind) as much as it represented a fresh take on the appropriation strategies of the late ’70s and ’80s. But his work might be distinguished from these predecessors by the stunning sweep of its polyglot promiscuity. The imagery that fills his paintings—otherwise visible on T-shirts, key rings, and stickers, or in computer games and comics—is, as German critic Tilman Baumgärtel put it, today’s lowest common cultural denominator. It’s just as legible in Luxembourg and Berlin as it is in Manila or Bangladesh. Churning out images such as a ridiculous video-game monkey climbing a tree of expressionist brushstrokes, Majerus established himself as a master of contemporary ugliness. His large, lurid surfaces are among the most glaring and visually overpowering works of art I know. There is often something truly hideous and uniquely superficial about them, a quality the artist considered of particular importance. As Baumgärtel points out, Majerus’s work can even make the deadpan crassness of Jeff Koons look sophisticated.

Majerus never mourned the death of painting or authenticity and yet his work concerns the very conditions of painting’s possibility and the kinds of representation associated with the medium. Perhaps more interesting than the introduction of various popular vocabularies into his art—a standard operation in much work today—is the way that the digital methods of picture production seem to alter the very space of representation itself, producing a strange sense of emptiness and visual dissonance. Take, for example, eye protection, 1999, with its perplexing mix of wave patterns, techno-style lettering, and enlarged handwriting. Across the bottom of the painting runs the text: IT’S HARD TO DO A PROPER ANALYSIS. This is certainly true. More than thirty feet wide, the digital print on aluminum evokes the heterogeneous spatial realms one encounters simultaneously on a computer screen. Majerus created a similarly bewildering scenario in a work shown in the lobby bar of a cinema complex during Manifesta 2. The painting, yet sometimes what is read successfully, stops us with its meaning, no. II, 1998, consists of a large horizontal aluminum panel covered with bright waves of color and a cropped graphic that seems to suggest the volume function on a digital music player. At the right edge of the work, an enormous athletic shoe digitally printed on a cutout panel literally steps out of the picture. With startling photographic illusionism, the silhouetted and foreshortened shoe acts like a kick in the face to the viewer and also makes it abundantly clear that Majerus couldn’t care less about respecting old-fashioned pictorial devices such as the rectangular frame of the picture plane. And yet the sneaker does not step out into a total void: A second white panel functions as a backdrop that gives the shoe its almost sculptural presence in spite of its total flatness, creating a set of disconnected spaces that cannot be easily assimilated within the ordinary world of kinesthetic and perceptual experience.

This radical discontinuity is the most typical feature of Majerus’s art. It is difficult to orient oneself in his works. To an eye not trained in the visual logic of computer games, the space can make little sense. Here, the brain, as Gilles Deleuze put it in a different context, “has lost its Euclidean coordinates and now emits other signs”—signs that are hardly compatible with the traditional conditions of what we call painting, the medium of flatness and delimitation. Confusing spatial circumstances are nothing new to painting, of course, extending in a long line from El Lissitzky through Stella to various figures today. Yet with the proliferation of digital technologies, we have become more accustomed to layouts that embrace this heterogeneity, and Majerus is an artist who, perhaps more effectively than any other, has chosen to display and even exacerbate this visual logic. One of his means is the disconcertingly empty ground in which his pictorial elements often float. These blank areas, usually white, seem to distance the components from one another rather than producing a sense of coherence. Majerus amplifies this dissonance by mixing, often in a single work, techniques like painting, silk-screen, and various forms of digital printing. The artist seems to insist that the visual systems generated by digital devices cannot be translated seamlessly into shapes and colors on a surface, be it canvas, chipboard, or Sheetrock. And yet, with a certain amount of brute force, that is what happens in Majerus’s work—without any visible effort to reconcile the divergent pictorial terms. He never used painting, if that’s even the right term, as a zone of resolution. Instead, he treated it as a medium forever teetering on the verge of collapse, an insufficient armature to contain and support all the disparate systems he brought to it.

So perhaps one shouldn’t refer to Majerus as a painter after all, but rather emphasize the way in which his spatial ruptures and jarringly mismatched iconographies evince the crisis that’s engendered when the medium is so aggressively exposed to the visual production of today’s technologies. His critique of painting does not ultimately entrench it more firmly in its traditional areas of competence, but instead opens it up to tensions and conflicts it clearly can no longer handle. This is painting in the expanded field—or not even painting at all. Early on, Majerus added physical elements to his work that made the entire gallery part of the show. For his breakthrough solo exhibition—his first at an institution—at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1996, he installed a metallic grid on the floor through which one could still glimpse the old parquet. The new flooring changed the acoustic situation completely: You were surprised by the sound of your own steps if you toured the empty Kunsthalle alone, and if a group gathered, the overwhelming sound created an atmosphere reminiscent of the techno clubs of the ’90s.

Majerus would go on to create more and more ambitious environments that altered the perception of the space itself rather than just the images on the walls. Specifically designed wall structures or elegant-looking forms of scaffolding became integrated parts of his shows, and the “paintings” seemed to develop directly out of these architectural arrangements. Occasionally the permanent features of a given space, such as pillars or steel rafters, were incorporated in the installation, thus changing the original architecture beyond recognition. I remember experiencing this firsthand in 1997 in “Space Safari” at Anders Tornberg’s small gallery in Lund, Sweden, where I could no longer distinguish between the permanent walls and columns and the building blocks the artist had added to the space. Everything was part of a kind of three-dimensional painting—an approach that drew on a host of precedents from de Stijl installations to Warhol’s superimposition of his canvases on wallpaper, but one that felt uniquely Majerus’s own. He didn’t create painting installations; his spatial constructs seemed to emanate out of the computer game as a visual machinery that suggests more dimensions than can be reproduced at once in our everyday perceptual space. This may be why his works are never fully “satisfying” or “successful.” They can never “succeed” because they exist between different kinds of worlds, orders, and logics, and although they seem to suggest that a unified translation of these disparate realms into our own might be possible, of course one never is. We’re left with only orphaned characters from Nintendo and a useless futuristic scaffolding, or a massive working halfpipe covered with bright patterns, photographic imagery, and slogans, like the one Majerus crammed into the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2000. He invited skaters to perform on his installation, but the lively gesture was characteristically qualified, this time by a ceiling height that precluded actual use and the title, if we are dead, so it is.

During his last two years, Majerus spent long periods in LA, but work in his Berlin studio continued uninterrupted with the help of an assistant who painted images delivered via e-mail attachments. It was as if the limitations of site and geography were so obviously irrelevant to him that he never considered halting his Berlin production simply because he happened to live abroad—and that may be, to quote Gerhard Richter, “the daily practice of painting” in the twenty-first century. Majerus’s last major project (our sole curatorial collaboration) was completed along these lines, with him in the US and me on the other side of the Atlantic. For three weeks during the German national elections of September 2002, Majerus covered the iconic Brandenburg Gate, then undergoing restoration, with an enormous digital rendering of the so-called Schöneberg Sozialpalast, an early-’70s graffiti-covered housing block. Standing on the site of the infamous Sportpalast where in 1943 Joseph Goebbels called for “total war,” and home primarily to unemployed immigrants of more than twenty-five nationalities, the building was being considered for demolition and represented everything a conservative Berlin politician would want to repress about his hometown. But during the days leading up to the election, all the major international television networks reporting from the German capital inadvertently carried a surprising image in the background that the reporters could not quite explain. The project, I think, marked a new degree of political involvement on Majerus’s part, and perhaps anticipated artistic responses to Berlin’s other contested buildings, such as the recent interventions at the Palast der Republik.

In the 1990s Majerus appeared to me to be the most contemporary of contemporaries. No one else seemed to make art that was so obviously of our times. Today’s digital technologies produce a global omnipresence—an altered sense of time, of the now—that was at the very center of Majerus’s interests. “What looks good today may not look good tomorrow” the artist stated again and again in his work. The largest piece containing this text was a massive geometric relief presented in the bombastic central space of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in 1999, which also contained the crucial sentence NOW’S THE TIME in white capital letters against a black circular backdrop. Indeed, “The Power of Now” was the title of my first essay attempting to come to grips with the radical presence that his work so forcefully conveys. The temporality of Majerus’s work, I claimed a decade ago, is that of a floating, all-encompassing now, analogous perhaps to that of the World Wide Web. Both phenomena—Majerus’s art and the Internet—were new to me then. Now, that now seems a long time ago.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.