Birgir Andrésson, Blackest Night, 2006, wall paint, dimensions variable.

Birgir Andrésson, Blackest Night, 2006, wall paint, dimensions variable.

Birgir Andrésson

The title of the recent Birgir Andrésson retrospective, “As Far as the Eye Can See,” takes on a bittersweet resonance when one considers that the renowned Icelandic artist was raised by blind parents. This fact puts Andrésson’s recourse to language-based work and his heavy use of color in a different light. If Sol LeWitt, in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967), observed that such art should be “mentally interesting” and “emotionally dry,” Andrésson’s oeuvre proves that there is space for humor, beauty, and sentiment within it.

Curated by Robert Hobbs, “As Far as the Eye Can See” surveyed the artist’s three-decade-long career, which was cut short by his death in 2007 at the age of fifty-two. Andrésson started his Conceptual practice in the mid-1970s and used an international artistic idiom to question local topics. In 2004 he stated: “My works aren’t based on Iceland, just like they aren’t based on Spain, Argentina, or Afghanistan. Some might regard them as Icelandic, but that must be for the simple fact that I’m Icelandic and have been brought up here.”

The works in the exhibition tap into tensions not just between the global and the local, but also between the anticipated and the unexpected. Although the retrospective was not organized chronologically, the display began with Andrésson’s earliest photographic pieces from the 1970s. Untitled (4 elements, Earth, Water, Air, Fire), 1976, documents the artist’s intimately scaled performative interventions in the landscape. Here the work introduced Andrésson’s poetics and defined the characteristics of works that deal with the act of looking and observation, which figured most strikingly in his depictions of people. Different People, 1991, commemorates nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century vagabonds through an installation of blown-up photographs. Images of these eccentrics, initially reproduced on trading cards, became memorabilia for Icelanders in the early twentieth century and were later completely forgotten. Andrésson spent several years collecting such cards with the intention of honoring these outcasts and giving them their rightful place in Icelandic history. He went even further in his series “Text Portraits,” 1996–2007, which presents short textual assemblages made from descriptions of criminals and missing persons found in nineteenth-century parliamentary proceedings. These texts are placed against backgrounds of saturated hues, which are sometimes identified according to Andrésson’s invented Icelandic Pantone color scale. Here, rather than using language to signify itself and an artistic idea, as is frequent in Conceptual art, Andrésson mobilizes the text into a specific interplay of intimacy and biography.

The artist’s deployment of color figures heavily in several of the other works presented in the exhibition. In the series of murals “Icelandic Colors,” initiated in the 1980s and continued until his death, Andrésson appropriates a competitor to Pantone—the Natural Color System developed by the Swedish Colour Centre Foundation—by designating certain hues “Icelandic” and combining them with idiosyncratic verbal references that critically address the relationship between contemporary art and the commodity form. In Nearness (Symbols-Handicraft-Flags), 1994–95, one of the works presented in Andrésson’s exhibition for the Icelandic pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 1995, the ideology of color is very precisely considered in the context of knitted sheep-wool flags. To create the work, the artist reduced the colors of the Icelandic national flag to those produced through natural processes, this gesture directly interrogating national identity while also recognizing tradition and the artist’s living environment.

Although Andrésson exhibited internationally, his work never really received its proper recognition outside Iceland. This show and its accompanying monograph emphasized that he and his oeuvre contributed to a break with established conventions, a shift in our understanding of art. And when that happens, it can take a long time before we can fully comprehend a body of work’s significance.