Evelyne Axell, Axell-eration, 1965, oil on canvas, 20 5/8 x 25".

Evelyne Axell, Axell-eration, 1965, oil on canvas, 20 5/8 x 25".

Evelyne Axell

Evelyne Axell, Axell-eration, 1965, oil on canvas, 20 5/8 x 25".

Axell-eration is the title Evelyne Axell, who shortened her name to the gender-neutral Axell at the beginning of her artistic career, gave to one of her paintings in 1965, and now “Axelleration. Evelyne Axell 1964–1972” is the title of the first extensive solo show in Germany by this Belgian artist, who died in a car crash in 1972. The painting shows the pedals of an automobile being operated by a woman in red high heels. Several characteristics of Pop art come together here: the fascination with speed and the car as a symbol of a new modern lifestyle; bright colors and an emphasis on stencil-like, two-dimensional surfaces, borrowed from an advertising aesthetic; and last but not least, the eroticization of the female body through the use of the quasi-cinematic close-up. But the woman here is not merely the object of the gaze, the focal point of desire. She is active, the one who is stepping on the gas, axellerating.

Playing with images of women and artists prevalent in the media and society was crucial to Axell, who self-confidently and erotically placed herself front and center in her work. All phases of her artistic activity are assembled here: oil paintings and collages that, besides showing the influence of British Pop art, also cite Magritte and Matisse; experiments with the synthetic resin Clartex; drawings in felt-tip pen; a few small sculptures; and a copious selection of her paintings in enamel on Plexiglas, such as Le Peintre (Autoportrait) (The Painter [Self-Portrait]), 1970, which shows her naked, with flowing hair, a paintbrush, and a can of paint in her hand. Axell provocatively couples familiar female poses—Le Peintre en extase (The Painter in Ecstasy), 1971, for example, depicts a lasciviously reclining nude—with attributes of the artist, who has the power to represent, maintaining control over an image that both belongs to and lies outside her. Axell, who was also active as an actor and screenwriter, never relinquished this control entirely to others, but, as this show demonstrates quite strikingly, instead nonchalantly played with socially sanctioned images and stereotypes.

In a group of works that had been previously displayed at Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels and the Hamburger Kunstverein, and which—as Susanne Titz, director of the Museum Abteiberg, explains in the catalogue—were an “inspiration for and the nucleus of” the more comprehensive show in Mönchen-gladbach, Axell links the politics of the representation of the body with media images of political events connected to the revolutionary movements around 1968. To cite as examples three works from 1970: Campus refers to the shooting of students at Kent State University in 1970; L’Assemblée libre (Free Assembly) to the public meetings held in many places during this time; while the political resonance of the 1970 triptych Le Joli mois de mai (The Lovely Month of May) is already visible in its title. The sense of new beginnings in the politics of the age is closely tied to a personal and artistic departure. It’s easy to wonder where this approach might have taken Axell, whether her landscape paintings from 1972 would have gone on to play an even larger role in her work, or what the Broodthaersesque concept of her 1970 sketch Projet pour un musée archéologique du XXème siècle. Age du plastique (Project for an Archeological Museum of the XX Century. Plastic Age) would have looked like if executed. These questions cannot, of course, be answered in this show. But it nonetheless goes a long way toward inviting a more in-depth consideration of the work of this still underappreciated artist.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.