New York

Jan Müller

Oil & Steel Gallery

I had never heard of Jan Müller before I saw this show. His paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, but apparently they are rarely shown. Müller died in 1958at the age of 35. I couldn’t tell that the 27 paintings here were nearly 30 years old; I was told. They look radiantly new and perfectly alive. All of them date from the last four or five years of Müller’s life, the period in which he produced his best work while living with an experimental plastic heart valve which ticked loudly, like a time bomb.

Müller was returning from abstraction. Some of his abstract works here are vibrant mosaics of paint on wood, seeming related to the work of Giacomo Balla, Paul Klee, and Charlie Parker. The representational paintings are related in some ways to what David Park and Elmer Bischoff were doing at the time. But Müller’s subject matter was heroic, literary, mythical-the search for the unicorn,Walpurgis Night and Faust, the temptation of Saint Anthony, Hamlet and Horatio.

These canvases are neoprimitive in their flatness, their play with compression on a plane. Perspective still exists, but it is hierarchical like a child’s, or serial, like a tribes person’s or a cubist’s. Müller’s figures are full-body masks. His white people are very white and his black people 88 are very black, though red and green faces are also common. Faces are doll faces, reducing a complex soul to essential information. Müller works on the geometric nature of angels and on secret body languages.

Although his figures are simplistic in design they are not simple, and neither are the colors that fill them in. A white body is an aura. A forest is an enflamed spectrum of specific elements. Müller uses colors to achieve the supernatural. No human is that color, but a god might be, or an angel or a devil.

Müller depicts Hamlet and Horatio, in their blue suits, as if they were Siamese twins connected at the soul. Ophelia is a pure diagram at their feet in Hamlet and Horatio, No.1, 1956; Yorick is the blackest and most perfect of skulls in the companion painting from the same year. In both paintings the forests are an argument of earth, water, air, and hidden fire.

In The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1957, the composition of figures has the electricity of the work of William Blake, the odd decorum of a Japanese flower arrangement, and the charge and haunting power of those religious objects that are venerated as homes to powers and worker gods. Müller is a master that I didn’t know we had and others don’t know how much we have.

Glenn O’Brien