PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF A PRIVATE SWEDISH COLLECTOR
Binoche & Godeau, Paris, 4 December 1988, Lot 34
The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, New York
Christie's, Amsterdam, 30 November 2010, Lot 47 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the late owner
Michael Ragon, Asger Jorn, Paris 1961, p. 51, illustrated in colour
Guy Atkins and Troels Andersen, Asger Jorn, The Crucial Years: 1954-1964, London 1977, p. 240, no. 198, illustrated in colour; and n.p., no. 1218, illustrated
Asger Jorn, cited in: Guy Atkins and Troels Andersen, Revised Supplement to the oeuvre catalogue of his paintings from 1930 to 1973, Denmark 2006, p. 16.
Designated “the greatest painter of the 1950s” by eminent art historian T. J. Clark, Asger Jorn brought forth an outstanding compilation of works that show, not only the artist’s supreme technical command, but also his incredible breadth of artistic development (T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven 2001, p. 389). Suspended somewhere between abstraction and figuration, his practice attempted to unite Danish tradition with European modernism and as such reached beyond the confines of a specific art historical category. Jorn was perhaps best described by his fellow Scandinavian artist Erik Steffensen: “he was a painter in earnest, giving way to the hard gestural aspects of painting and allowing narrative elements to slip into the background: modern art with substance, created by an eye that has seen that the best products of painterly culture” (Erik Steffensen, Asger Jorn, Hellerup 1995, p. 11). Exemplifying the emphases of Jorn's extraordinary oeuvre, L'État Normal (The Normal State) is an engaging work. It is completed in a saturated palette of yellows, blues, reds, and greens, and is characterised by a number of vague humanoid faces, emerging from a densely articulated background. In composition, execution, content, date, and size, it is in keeping with the very best of this artist’s oeuvre, distilling the aesthetic of the CoBrA movement as well as demonstrating how far Jorn’s own style progressed beyond it.
Asger Jorn is best known as the champion of CoBrA: the man who, along with Karel Appel and others, formed one of the most important avant-garde groups in post-war Europe. Their school aimed to break away from existing art movements, and to create an international collaboration that challenged the artistic monopoly of Paris. Formally positioned between figurative art, which they thought detestable, and pure abstraction, which seemed to them sterile and inhuman, the CoBrA school created paintings with spontaneity and freedom of expression. They took great influence from children’s art, and primitivist tribal art, and their best works are semi-abstract expositions of painterly force, created with bravura swirls of violent brushwork and suffused with mask-like humanoid faces, barely emerging from the background in loose delineation. In each of these facets, L'État Normal should be considered an exemplar of the avant-garde movement, and a consummate success.
In their attempts to find a new visual language following World War II as well as in the bold saturation of their varied palettes, the artists of the CoBrA movement shared much with their American Abstract Expressionist counterparts. The present work certainly recalls Jackson Pollock’s work from the 1940s, before his style had devolved completely into drip-like action painting. The She-Wolf of 1943 makes a worthy comparison, featuring the same swirling linear delineations and the same tension between figurative and abstract modes of depiction. We are also, in the interpretation of the present painting, led to think of Willem de Kooning whose work presents a similarly vivacious approach to colour. The Woman series forms a ready counterpoint to L'État Normal; in these works, in much the same manner as Jorn, de Kooning created barely discernible figures from lozenges and segments of hot bright colour, thus imbuing his paintings with a comparably dynamic mood.
We can further ascribe some influence to French modernism. In the 1930s, Jorn had studied with Wassily Kandinsky, whose influence can be felt in this work not only through its extraordinary saturated palette, its centreless composition, and its deference to abstraction, but also through its pointed use of elliptical linear articulations; we are particularly led to think of the Colour Study series that Kandinsky created in the 1910s. Another factor in Jorn’s change of style was his move in 1953 from Denmark to the seaside town of Albisola in Italy. The change in his immediate environment between long dark Scandinavian winters, and bright Mediterranean sunshine was immense, and its influence is manifest in the present work.
L'État Normal not only distils the fundamental tenets of the CoBrA movement, but also aptly demonstrates how, after the group disbanded in the early 1950s, Asger Jorn was able to stylistically evolve beyond it. The bright colours and labyrinthine emphases of the various forms across this panel remind us not only of the comparisons that abound between Jorn’s oeuvre and those of his American Abstract Expressionist counterparts, but also of his move to the Mediterranean, and the ameliorating impact that it had upon his oeuvre.
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