Thoroughly Modern Michel Majerus

On November 6, 2002, German Pop artist Michel Majerus died in a plane crash at the age of 35 over Luxembourg, the city where he was born. In the 10 years prior to this tragic accident, Majerus produced an extraordinary, eclectic oeuvre that solidified his name beside the legends to whom he was already being compared: Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, Sigmar Polke, Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, and the list goes on. His name has also been immortalized alongside some of his greatest teachers: K.R.H. Sonderborg, Heike Föll, and of course, the essential Joseph Kosuth, who in many ways is considered to be the father of conceptual art.

On Friday, February 7, the Matthew Marks Gallery, in conjunction with the Michel Majerus Estate, will deliver the most comprehensive solo exhibition of the artist’s work in the United States and the first in the country since his death in 2002. Majerus was instrumental in curating his own shows, often altering the architecture of the space itself to suit his aesthetic needs—meaning this show will provide an opportunity not only to discover new Majerus works that have never been shown before, but also to see how some of his more famous works are displayed. Taking up three Matthew Marks spaces, the show promises to be a brazen feast for the eyes as well as a commentary on enduring the relentless barrage that is the 24-hour modern cultural zeitgeist. 

Esteemed art critic, professor, and director of Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, Daniel Birnbaum, who orchestrated the monumental (no pun intended) installation piece Sozialpalast with Majerus in Berlin in 2002, spoke with us on the phone from Stockholm about the evolving definition of Pop, the somewhat cryptic textual narrative left by Majerus himself, and the death and inevitable rebirth of painting. Birnbaum also contributed a conversation with art critic and gallery director John Kelsey to a fully illustrated publication that will accompany the show at Matthew Marks Gallery.

KURT MCVEY: Majerus was interested in repurposing recognizable images from Pop culture, as well as images used by classical painters like Dürer. He was also known for conspicuously recycling images previously used by his peers, idols, and former professors. This “sampling” of aesthetic information has led to this idea of the artist as DJ. Being that you knew Majerus personally, I was wondering if you were aware of any direct musical influences on the artist. I know he was interested in Kraftwerk and Atari Teenage Riot.

DANIEL BIRNBAUM: You know, I’ve been at parties with him, I remember, after the fall of the Berlin wall—this was ’89, ’90—all of Europe seemed to look at Berlin as the new capital, particularly for art. In Germany it was formerly Cologne, but suddenly Berlin became the capital for new exciting art, ideas, and music. It was out with the old and in with the new and Majerus was an example of this. In the early ’90s, there was lots of techno music in Berlin and I know it influenced him quite a bit, but I cannot be too specific unfortunately, it’s all a bit of a blur. [laughs]

MCVEY: The word “Pop,” now, seems to be less about being popular, or existing as eye candy, and more about making something old, new again.

BIRNBAUM: I do like this comparison to DJs because there are many theoretical ways to talk about art, but it’s interesting because Michel was not really a theoretical person. He was an intuitive, clever, and somewhat officially learned person, but what he did was create a presumption that everything seemed to happen now. It could be art from 100 years ago, but it could also be the latest ad campaign for cigarettes or sneakers. I do know that he was involved in the techno scene in Berlin, but one can see it was on a graphic level, with all the invitation cards, flyers and posters—there was a new graphic language that accompanied this scene, and he was a big part of it.

MCVEY: Let’s jump forward a few years and talk about the very ambitious 2002 exhibit, Sozialpalast, where Majerus covered the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with a to-scale image of the notoriously run-down housing project of the same name.

BIRNBAUM: Though I knew him for some time, that was actually the only thing I ever curated for him, in terms of helping him put art out into the world that is. I did write about Michel in the first international text for Frieze Magazine and then sadly, I wrote an obituary for him. That was the only time I’ve ever written an obituary for somebody younger than myself.

MCVEY: Sozialpalast was not only impressive in terms of concept, but also hugely ambitious in scale. Tell us a little bit about that phone call you received from Majerus: you both laughed about CNN becoming angry after spending quite a bit of money on a hotel room opposite the Brandenburg Gate, assuming that it would provide a rather scenic backdrop to a series of interviews, only to have it substituted with a rather dilapidated image of this derelict housing project.

BIRNBAUM: It’s something we could not have planned, you know, because I understood that this was a big deal, the Brandenburg Gate is a national symbol. It would be like doing this on the Eiffel Tower in Paris or something like that. They had been renovating the Brandenburg Gate, so there were time-sensitive commercial, financial, and political reasons as to why it could actually happen. It didn’t occur to me, though maybe it did to Michel, that this most important, very official hotel in Germany, The Adlon, was right behind it. It really confused not just CNN, but BBC World and many other news organizations, which found it strange to say the least. Michel thought it was hilarious.

MCVEY: We have to talk about that piece and how it exists within the context of what we now call a post-9/11 landscape. It seems, looking back on Majerus’ body of work, that you would have to search for a project that has such heavy-handed economic and political overtones. I am curious as to whether or not Sozialpalast was an indicator of where Majerus was going as an artist. It brings to mind Voina Group, a Russian art collective that has recently been executing large-scale guerilla art pieces with hard-hitting social commentary. Are you familiar with Voina?

BIRNBAUM: Well, I know of them. I think they were involved in one of the big Biennials in Berlin a few years ago [the Seventh Berlin Biennale, 2012] and they are actively working with provocation and political confrontation, perhaps a little bit like Pussy Riot, but in a more direct way than someone like Michel, who was political in the sense that he was very much a part of his own moment while also being interested in affairs taking place outside of the commercial art scene. I do think that the piece he did with me, or that he did for Berlin rather, was a huge political statement about multiculturalism, unemployment, how the government spends its money, what’s to be remembered culturally, what’s to be taken away, and also, and this remains important in Germany, what deserves to be rebuilt.

MCVEY: It’s difficult when speaking about an artist like Majerus—someone with so much talent and promise—without succumbing to pure speculation about where he was going creatively. That being said, can you perhaps touch on where Majerus seemed to be mentally after the success of Sozialpalast?  Was he becoming frustrated with the “white-box” format?

BIRNBAUM: He was a young guy when he passed away, but I can say that he was a very expansive kind of guy, and the formats of the paintings became more and more insane, actually. I should mention, though, in 2000 he was invited to the Kölnischer Kunstverein, a public space in Cologne, and instead of bringing art outside, he introduced the street to the gallery by building a skate ramp indoors. He was already breaking down boundaries. So in many ways, I think your speculation is totally relevant.

MCVEY: Not long before you worked together, he famously declared, “You can no longer make art that is just art.” It seemed like painting was becoming more like a compromise, or a link to the past, or perhaps simply a link to the gallery, than something he actually wanted to continue pursuing.

BIRNBAUM: We cannot know, of course, where he was going. I’m not sure he would have left the medium of picture-making, because in the end, he was, maybe not a painter, but something more like a painter in an expanded field. He did produce images. I don’t think he’s ever done performance, or body art, but I could see him working in contexts that were perhaps even further beyond the gallery space.

MCVEY: It was interesting to be able to look back on such a succinct yet heterogeneous body of work, just a brilliant barrage of pop imagery, but what surprised me the most, interestingly enough, were these amazing quotes and phrases, often broadcasted in bold text directly onto the piece. A great example of this is the title of the Kunstverein skate ramp show, If We Are Dead, So It Is. Beside all this impressive visual stimuli, there is in a way, this poetic and somewhat cryptic narrative spelled out for us in text.

BIRNBAUM: Somehow they were contagious because he found these very smart sounding things from advertising campaigns, where he got many of his ideas. I remember What Looks Good Today, May Not Look Good Tomorrow (1999) being such a clever mixture of interesting language and also being overwhelmed by the graphics of it all.

MCVEY: There was an almost aggressive directness behind the quotes, perhaps geared to art critics and people like myself. “Fuck The Intention of the Artist” is a personal favorite. [laughs]

BIRNBAUM: I sometimes wonder; he was a student in Stuttgart, so on one level he was coming out of this painterly tradition with all these quotes from German heroes like [Sigmar] Polke, but on the other hand his teacher was the American artist Joseph Kosuth, who is one of the first conceptual artists, and often seen as the founder of that whole movement, which was really language-based in many ways. Michel wasn’t that far away from what conceptual artists were doing in the ’60s, he just doesn’t always come off as intellectual, I suppose. [laughs]

MCVEY: Kosuth seems to have had an extremely profound and lasting influence on the eternally young artist. I love the story of Michel handing out the dog masks at Kosuth’s installation, documenta IX (1992) soon after graduating. Really an appropriate bookend to what seems like one of the most inspiring student-teacher relationships in the history of modern art.

BIRNBAUM: I was recently in Paris at an opening and everybody went to Brasserie Lipp afterwards, and at the table next to mine —though he came from somewhere else—was Joseph Kosuth. We had a long conversation about Majerus, and I wasn’t aware of how much he followed his students’ careers, let alone Michel’s. I can say that he is very aware of everything Michel accomplished and has actually written rather beautifully about him.

MCVEY: Let’s talk about Michel’s experience in the states, from his first trip to New York in the ’90s when he met up with Julian Schnabel to his time in Los Angeles where he spent much of 2001 creating over 30 large-scale paintings. Of the two cities, L.A. seemed to be a more fruitful muse for the artist. His energy and enthusiasm seemed to be in line with L.A.’s exploding street art seen in the mid 2000’s, which involved artists like Shepard Fairey and the very haphazardly Warholian Thierry Guetta (Mr. Brainwash).

BIRNBAUM: I know of his early visits to New York where he met some people from the American Fine Arts Gallery when he was a very young person. It shows that he was quite ambitious, he was so eager to be social and get involved with the right people. I think he definitely would have shifted the understanding of what German painting in a broader sense is, if he would have been allowed to continue. In fact, what he did is beyond what most German artists have done. As far as the street art reference; yes and no. He was a street person—he was always on his bike, he had a skater’s mentality, he was at the techno clubs—but it’s difficult because he had already “made it” in a way, having shown in some of the better galleries in Europe like Neugerriemschneider and others.

MCVEY: Majerus was in many was fascinated by technology, especially the Internet and its ability to quickly disseminate images and information on a global scale. I wonder how he would have reacted to Internet censorship and the NSA scandal.

BIRNBAUM: I see exactly where you’re going. Majerus was interested in everything new, and I do feel that his own personal sense of time and omnipresence was very much in line with how we think of the World Wide Web, in terms of everything happening now. For him, it was a strangely new temporal experience that he had to express in his art. It’s almost like he was trying to translate that into something hopelessly old-fashioned—not oil on canvas, necessarily, but a painterly practice. How can you paint the Internet? What a ridiculous thing, but he did in a way. With every new project he was trying to grasp digitalized space and transport it to our physical space. I could see him react to prescient developments in perhaps a more gloomy way, but really, his mentality was upgrade optimism. He was also a pretty cheerful character in that he was very much about affirming new things and not about mourning the death of painting or the disappearance of possibilities, but rather, celebrating new frontiers in his art.