Asger Jorn

In distilling Asger Jorn’s prolific output from the ’30s until his death in 1973, this selection eschewed the chronological format of most retrospectives. Instead the Tàpies Foundation’s main gallery, a dramatic atrium space largely visible from the front entrance, was devoted chiefly to Jorn’s large and medium-sized paintings and ceramic works, while more intimately scaled pieces were displayed downstairs. This was just as well, because what emerges in surveying the career of this Danish artist, perhaps best known as a cofounder of both CoBrA and the Situationist International, is not a narrative arc but rather an overriding theme: the striving for an “authentic” spontaneity, a means of tapping into the unconscious to recover something primeval.

This psychological primitivism was displayed front and center in a key work Lettre à mon fils (Letter to my son), 1956-57, with its cast of crudely drawn characters emerging from masses of expressionistic paint. Guillaume Apollinaire, 1956, shows a big eggheaded figure spewing brown bile, his knuckles dragging on the ground. Later, Jorn’s work grew fully abstract, as in Çà et moi (Here and me), 1969, a fierce yet lyrical composition in which darker colors bear down on lighter ones and the lighter ones resist. In between those periods were two series of “détourned” paintings, in which Jorn altered flea-market art finds to subversive or just mysterious ends. Among the eight on display were Ainsi on s’Ensor (“That’s the way out”; a pun on the name of the Belgian Symbolist who was an early influence on the artist), 1962, in which Jorn makes an already eerie painting of a suicide-by-hanging more so by adding a clown mask to the dead man's face and a suicide note reading MERDE AU MONDE.

Painting, however, was but one facet of Jorn’s oeuvre. The show included pen-and-ink drawings, prints, books (such as an ambitious study of stuck-out tongues throughout art history), and even sound recordings, including one of Jorn and Jean Dubuffet doing what sounds like free jazz on recorders. A six-page pamphlet was required to put Jorn’s visual art in the context of a wealth of other activities: the array of artists’ groups and journals he co-founded or joined; the hundreds of essays and books he authored; the international collection of contemporary art he assembled to expand a small museum in Silkeborg, Denmark Jorn also undertook major research on ancient Scandinavian art under the auspices of his provocatively named Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism.

Regardless of its medium, Jorn’s far-ranging output seems consistently and almost wildly idealistic, especially in light of the cool ironies that came to dominate art in the decades after his death. The works all share a certain vitalism, evidence the artist’s unwavering belief in artmaking as essential to life. In “The Situationists and Automation” (1958) Jorn wrote that “standardization opens up domains of experience more interesting than those it closes,” including “the possibility of continually discovering new desires. But these new desires will not appear by themselves in the oppressive context of our world. There must be a collective action to detect, express and realize them.” Jorn and his Situationist cohorts may not have succeeded in unleashing a collective creative frenzy among the masses—but he did spend a lifetime detecting, expressing, and realizing his own desires.

Julie Caniglia