Asger Jorn died forty years ago tomorrow. If he ever received a Google doodle, the only fitting response would be to deface it. He was a Danish painter. That’s one of his above. It’s called The Avant-Garde Doesn’t Give Up (1962). He was a member of the Free Jutlandish Painters, CoBrA, the Lettrist International and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. He was also a Situationist. Then he wasn’t any of them. He grew up in a grim Christian household and narrowly survived several bouts of T.B. before discovering the paintings of Edvard Munch and Emil Nolde. He translated Kafka into Danish. He drove down through Europe on a motorcycle pilgrimage to meet Kandinsky. He worked for the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. He studied art under Fernand Léger, with whom he decorated Le Corbusier’s Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux at the 1937 Paris World Fair. He smoked a pipe. Here is a brief clip of him painting. He painted dreams, myths, emotions, madness, automatist emanations from the subconscious. He believed Realism to be unreal, “True realism lies in the search for the expression of forms faithful to their content. But there is no content detached from human interest.”
Jorn wrote and illustrated the book Mémoires with his friend Guy Debord. It had a sandpaper cover (“an auto-destructive jacket”) to destroy books it was placed alongside and the shelf it was placed upon (an idea Tony Wilson borrowed for The Durutti Column’s first album), yet it was itself a thing of beauty. It began with a quote by Karl Marx, “Let the dead bury the dead, and mourn them… our fate will be to become the first living people to enter the new life.”
When the Nazis invaded Denmark, he worked underground on the banned journals Helhesten (Hell Horse) and Land og Folk. In an essay for the former, entitled Intimate Banalities, he wrote “We are not disillusioned because we have no illusions; we have never had any. What we have and what is our strength, is our joy in life; our interest in life, in all its amoral aspects.” He said the task of modern artists was “to go out on thin ice.” After the war, he published a book containing his thoughts on art, Helg og Hasard (Salvation and Coincidence). He wrote a Speech to the Penguins, contributed to documenta 2, attended the Conference of Surréalistes Révolutionnaires in Brussels. He lived for a time on the Tunisian island of Djerba and in the Italian town of Albisola. He founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. He collected graffiti as early as the Thirties and was a pioneer of Psychogeography. He made a deranged record with Jean Dubuffet called Expériences Musicales.
Realising that Western life and thought had been blighted by the either/or of Aristotelian logic, he created his own form of trinary logic called Triolectics. This led him to invent three-sided football. The winner is not who scores the most goals but the team who concedes the least. This is what it looks like:
For his Modifications series of paintings, Jorn didn’t really paint in the traditional sense but defaced and altered existing works to change their appearance and meanings. Sometimes these were old portraits or landscapes he found in junkshops, sometimes posters he tore off billboards. The process was as important as the finished article. He called them his ‘defigurations.’ In his own words they were “beautiful, ugly, impressive, disgusting, meaningless, grim, contradictory etc… It makes no difference, as long as it is life, vigorously pouring forth.” He was an example that it is the vandals who are the custodians of culture despite being portrayed as the barbarians at the gates.
When he was awarded a Guggenheim award, he replied with the following telegram,
GO TO HELL BASTARD—STOP—REFUSE PRIZE—STOP—NEVER ASKED FOR IT—STOP—AGAINST ALL DECENCY MIX ARTIST AGAINST HIS WILL IN YOUR PUBLICITY—STOP—I WANT PUBLIC CONFIRMATION NOT TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN YOUR RIDICULOUS GAME.
He wouldn’t play their game, not when he could create his own.