Asger Jorn

Asger Jorn’s experimental phantasmagorical art was an art of rebellion, a search for a new beginning in the climate of hardening cultural and political attitudes during the postwar period. In the spirit of Dada and Surrealism, he and his CoBrA colleagues Carl-Henning Pedersen, Karel Appel, Constant, and Corneille fought for a transformation of the world and of life in order to establish a “new art of the people” based on a liberated imagination and a lively, spontaneous creativity. “We have to make the people into artists,” Pedersen said in 1944. “People’s art,” wrote Jorn in 1950 in “Sozialistische Heringe, realistische Olfarben und Volkskunst” (Socialist herrings, realistic oil colors, and people’s art), means not “that the people sing” but that artists must “bring the people to sing.” It was this expansive notion of art, as well as his powerfully expressive paintings, that made Jorn an important catalyst of Munich’s Spur Group and a significant influence on the following generation of artists.

Despite the size of this exhibition––215 of Jorn’s paintings, works on paper, and sculptures (though none of his prints, rugs, or ceramics)—there was little evidence of Jorn’s utopian ideas. Also neglected were his early critiques of functionalism and urban design—arguments that are still valid today—which, had they been included here, would have given viewers a sense of how closely Jorn’s ideas relate to Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture and to the urban design concepts of young artists such as Thomas Schütte and Ludger Gerdes. However, what this particular selection of works did do well was to communicate the sense of vehement emotion and anarchistic rebellion tapped by Jorn’s delving into the realm of unconscious thought, through psychic improvisation and automatism. In the best of the paintings, a primitive tactile materiality is fused with bold colors and expressive painterly gestures to provoke a raw energy that excavates the unknown and brings it to the surface. Like Pollock, he explored the symbolic possibilities inherent in the dynamic surface, emphasizing the sense of psychic energy rather than primitivistic narrative signs, and attempted to transmit this energy with a complete openness of interpretation. Even the titles of his works—often suggested by friends—have as their goal not to limit the painting. Nevertheless, psychic improvisation does not function in Jorn’s work as innocent and unknowing, but as an expression of the collective interests of his day.

Reviewed by Ingrid Rein.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.