Poul Gernes

Galerie Ben Kaufmann

Although Poul Gernes, who died in 1996, is well known in Denmark, where he exerted a decisive influence on the development of the local art scene during the second half of the last century, his reputation is just beginning to extend beyond the borders of that country. While the colorful panels from his “Stripe Series,” 1967–68, were shown in Kassel as part of Documenta 12, this Berlin show offered a look at Gernes’s earlier work. He made these pieces soon after joining forces with art historian Troels Andersen in 1961 to found the Eksperimenterende Kunstskole (the Experimental Art School), known as Eks-skolen, in Copenhagen. In a time of new departures in Denmark as well as elsewhere in the world, the Eks-skolen was soon part of a vibrant international community: Nam June Paik, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys all came to visit. Experimental impulses were the order of the day, and no one went further than Gernes himself. One idea was “to make something disgusting”: He stuffed his mouth with flour, rinsed it down with lots of water, and then rolled around on the floor until everything he’d swallowed came up again; he then continued to wallow about in his own vomit, his beard matted with it. Watching the film of this 1963 performance, Braekfilmen (Vomit Film), the viewer cannot help but be overcome by feelings of revulsion. In Poul’s Paper Performance, 1967, Gernes wraps himself up in a long strip of paper, then takes a knife and cuts himself free—a male counterpart to Yoko Ono’s famous 1965 piece?

One year later he created Make: The artist, nervous and tense and shot in such a way that his head is cut off, keeps shifting from one chair to another. The work reflects anxiety: What must be done? What can art do? These are the questions that occupy Gernes in this period—difficult questions, but Gernes’s use of parodic elements lends them a certain lightness. Some of the results can be seen in the fourteen black-and-white “Butts Photos” from 1967, in which the naked buttocks of people bending over are extended toward the viewer; sometimes a vagina can be seen, sometimes testicles squeezed between the thighs, and sometimes there is no sign of gender. These photographs are so merciless in their observations that the end result is comical: a charming way of saying “kiss my ass.”

In 1978 Gernes visited Egypt and was struck by the colors and forms of the country’s ancient art, as reflected in a documentary he made of the trip, Kairo (1978). He returned home inspired to combat the anonymous grayness of his hometown. For years he devoted himself to a large-scale project, the “color radiation of Copenhagen,” as he himself explains in his 1994 film Space. There is still much to discover in Gernes’s rich and fascinating oeuvre. When the gaps in our knowledge are filled, we might find that in the second half of the twentieth century, the most consequential influences on subsequent developments in art didn’t necessarily emanate from the great art centers but rather from more peripheral locations such as Hélio Oiticica’s Rio, John Baldessari’s Los Angeles, and, indeed, Gernes’s Copenhagen.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.