Poul Gernes, Untitled, 1966, enamel on sixteen Masonite panels, each 48 × 48".

Poul Gernes, Untitled, 1966, enamel on sixteen Masonite panels, each 48 × 48".

Poul Gernes

Herlev Hospital, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, is the tallest building in Denmark, and Poul Gernes’s complete interior decoration of that structure remains the largest painting in the country, perhaps in the world. Yet few of the patients who experience it may recognize it as art, for Gernes’s work is as resistant to categorization as it is eye-catching. Not only does his painterly world cut across the borders among Fluxus, Pop, Op, Minimalism, and Conceptual art, it also effaces the distinction between art and design. Gernes (1925–1996) championed the decorative, and insisted on popular access as a primary measure of success.

The title of the first exhibition organized by Gernes’s estate in collaboration with Galleri Nicolai Waller, “Paintings, Sculptures, Flags, etc.,” sounded like a casual inventory list. The “etc.” probably referred to Katamaranen, 1967, a real catamaran at the center of the room, which Gernes had adorned in mustard-yellow and flowery-fabric wallpaper, and which he once took sailing. Though the slender vessel certainly does possess a sculptural quality, that’s not the point. The work is not a Duchampian readymade or a stand-in for some high-flown idea, but an unceremonious witness to life. And it may very well one day go back to sea; “etc.” here names a useful everyday object.

Gernes’s work, then, might best be understood outside of an aesthetic economy, and rather within a material one: Nothing should go to waste, and though everything may be turned into art, none of the resulting artworks are precious, or necessarily safe in their elevated status. For his series “Kasser” (Boxes), ca. 1977–79, he cast the insides of cardboard boxes in plaster, leaving the imprints of bottles still visible on top. Here, sixteen of these boxes sat on a low plinth, neighboring no fewer than thirty-one of his “Marengstop” (Meringue Tops), ca. 1977–79, works, each a goopy plaster tower in confectionary colors. The lavishness of the works on display seemed to formulate a dictum for Gernes’s attitude: Art equals joy, and less is never more.

Joy is also the key to the dot paintings that Gernes began producing in 1966. In the same year, Gerhard Richter started making his not dissimilar color grids in Germany. But where Richter, by copying paint-sample cards, took his place in the emerging Pop tradition of self-conscious commentary on consumer culture, Gernes followed a more practical line of thinking. His was a response to the world’s cry for color. Although Gernes was a staunch anti-elitist, his politics manifested not so much in what he made as in the contexts his works would produce, and the energy they would yield.

Hanging over the army of meringue tops and boxes was the nine-part suite Untitled (Suggestions for a European Community Flag) made in 1972 on the occasion of Denmark’s entry into what was then known as the European Community. Variously colorful, florid, and nonsensically childlike (one simply shows an ice-cream cone), these flags hardly reflect Gernes’s view that the European project was colonial and right-wing. But Gernes, as ever, did not set out to depict the world as it was; his mission was to transform a fraction of it into a better alternative: a brighter and prettier one. His idealistic art remained thoroughly unalienated, which, paradoxically, has made it all the harder for people to grasp, now as then.