Peter Louis-Jensen

Vestsjællands Kunstmuseum

The avant-garde project of total integration of art and society eventually leads out of art. Peter Louis-Jensen (1941–99) was among those who took this route, although he made more stops along the way than most. He pioneered Minimalism and a kind of Pop-brut-structure painting as well as producing graphic work, assemblages, Happenings, films, and sound works. Around 1970 this full creative palette exploded in political activism. If to some extent Louis-Jensen disappeared from the establishment radar due to his peregrinations in and outside of art, with his radicalism and impatience he always seemed to be present even by default or through sheer charisma.

Louis-Jensen was also a synecdoche for collectivism, with his involvement in the ’60s extra-academic initiative the Experimental Art School as the most influential example, counting among its other members artists such as Poul Gernes and Per Kirkeby. Given the multiplicity of his connections, this exhibition, curated by the Vestsjælland’s in-house art historian Christine Buhl Andersen, takes an inclusive chronological approach, probably the best way to articulate an authorship whose irreconcilable extremes were an excited romantic subjectivity and a downbeat structuralism. An interesting aspect of the latter is Louis-Jensen’s early formulation of Minimalism, which accentuated agency as well as time, space, and body. He arrived from Happenings to define an “empirical Minimalism” in opposition to his American counterparts Judd and Morris, whose approaches he considered to be more contemplative. In Louis-Jensen the repetition of sculptural elements was resonant of urban space and essentially process oriented, emphasizing the transformation of the object or the activity of the beholder in directly “finishing” the work. The exhibition catalogue features an in-depth commentary with texts by Buhl Andersen, Louis-Jensen, and some of his artistic contemporaries; however, it might have been interesting to have his Minimalist production evaluated by a voice from outside Denmark, to bring this aspect of his work in dialogue with the international canon.

In 1970 Louis-Jensen took the leading role in a notorious and short-lived squatting of a provincial church. The activists’ Super-8 documentation of the action presents a frightened bird’s-eye view from the church tower down on riot police and hostile locals, like the perspective of Dr. Frankenstein observing the farmers gathering around his castle to purge their village. After that Louis-Jensen practiced socialism through more peaceful means. But an effect of the exhibition is to show activism as a contender for Minimalism’s privileged position as the primal scene of contemporary artists’ involvement with social space. Louis-Jensen is an exemplary figure for the investigation of artistic agency as a means for challenging established institutional procedure through self-organization. His anarchist Swap Shop (1969), where exchange was based on a barter economy, teeters on the threshold between art and activism as a social sculpture that prefigures works by artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and N55. The activism of the ’60s involves an alternative art history that remains relatively uncharted though still influential today.

In the mid-’90s Louis-Jensen reappeared on the commercial gallery scene with Buddhist thangka paintings that showed the former agitator coming to terms with painterly ornament. It could be argued that he needed a bigger logic, like religion, to continue his project of developing art’s liberating potential. In this way the artist who transformed the art object into a form of life ended his work on an introverted, if characteristically unpredictable, note.

Lars Bang Larsen