A comprehensive catalogue of the exhibition Strategic Vandalism: The Legacy of Asger Jorn’s Modifications Paintings on view at Petzel Gallery in New York from March 5th to April 13th, 2019. With texts written and edited by the curators as well as reprinted articles on the subjects of détournement, vandalism, and the relationship between modifications and appropriation art in the late 1970s.
If you have old paintings, do not despair. Retain your memories but detourn them so that they correspond with your era. Why reject the old, if one can modernize it? —Asger Jorn
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Strategic Vandalism: The Legacy of Asger Jorn’s Modifications Paintings at Petzel Gallery in New York (March 5 – April 13, 2019) – this historical group show of over 30 prominent international artists investigates multifarious appropriation methods situated in the context of the first thrift store paintings altered by Danish artist Asger Jorn. Spanning from the mid-1960s to the flourishing techniques of the 1980s, up to the present day.
In Paris, 1959, Asger Jorn exhibits a group of paintings at the prominent Galerie Rive Gauche. Not only has he re-worked these found paintings with his own brush, modifying their respective surfaces, but he also writes a text describing his technique as a recovery of certain iconographic archetypes. Instead of making a mockery of these kitsch paintings, he articulates some of their inherent folk-art values. The exhibition is not well received. However, it has since become legendary. Jorn’s modifications have long been a neglected chapter in the Danish artist’s biography. Yet from today’s perspective these high/low hermaphrodites are recognized by keen-eyed viewers as mirrors reflecting the historicity of modern painting.
Such “Modifications” are a painterly version of “détournement,” a Situationist technique, described in 1956 by Guy Debord and Gil Wolman as the systematic revaluation of “prefabricated aesthetic products.” For Jorn, who co-founded and financially supported the Situationist International, the 1959 Galerie Rive Gauche exhibition, showcased his implementation of a fundamental aesthetic critique in which he appropriates a relatively discredited artistic source as “his” own material, then applies his iconography, and his language to that particular prefabricated model.
Strategic Vandalism: The Legacy of Asger Jorn’s Modification Paintings features works by Enrico Baj, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Vidya Gastaldon, Wade Guyton/Stephen Prina, Rachel Harrison, Ray Johnson, Jacqueline de Jong, Asger Jorn, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Per Kirkeby, Lee Krasner, Albert Oehlen, Francis Picabia, Stephen Prina, R.H. Quaytman, Arnulf Rainer, Julian Schnabel, Jim Shaw, Gedi Sibony, Alexis Smith, Daniel Spoerri, John Stezaker, Betty Tompkins, and David Wojnarowicz.
To introduce Asger Jorn’s Modifications in New York as a turntable for theory and the impetus for an exhibition ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Wade Guyton might seem surprising considering this Danish artist is not particularly well known in the USA. However, by introducing Jorn’s Modifications, we are not only able to shift the attention to a central chapter of Modernism, we are also touching on Modernism’s history in New York City. Jorn realized his unusual concept of painting in the middle of the last century, halfway from the French arena of the Classical Avant-garde and towards the global salon of our present day. This was a time when New York stole the idea of Modern Art, though no one in Paris had the slightest idea that this was happening. The Golden Age in this capital of the 19th-century, its unparalleled productive function as a center of the international Avant-garde, had come to an end, completely unbeknownst to the people there.1 And even more difficult to detect was the fact that Jorn, by exhibiting his quirky Modifications in one of France’s most significant galleries, was also brokering the impending decline of the value of art in this city. His concept, which mixed so- phisticated theory with shabby banality, reveals a finely tuned sense for the fatal turn that would soon change Paris forever.
Only recently had the Danish artist Jorn become a “successful painter,” who received a surprising amount of attention. And thus, everyone was awaiting the artist’s next foray into the current field of Modernism. His response to the wishes of his affluent audience, however, was to be his smeared “Sofa Paintings,” kitsch from tourist places and cheap products made by hobby artists. Like a ghost of free painting, he set upon the Romanticism of forests, stags, and meadows. And if that were not enough, he even advocated regarding flea market items as a valu- able source of inspiration. To expose the economic basis for the evaluation of art and to insult class-specific reservations intrinsic to cultural preferences were part of his strategy as an artist, though these were by far not his only provocation. In the exhibition Modifications, a complex weave of open and obvious contradic- tions merges with hidden ones. Jorn’s concept painting before its time activated and intensified a series of oppositions. Unpredictably, this fact captures and sheds light on the multi-faceted potential for conflicts at that moment in history.
Viewed from close up, these oppositions are initially disputes within the Internationale Situationniste [Situationist International (SI)], a revolutionary group whose activities were financed almost entirely alone by the Danish painter from its founding in 1957 to the mid-1960s. In addition to Jorn’s contribution to the theoretical orientation of the Situationists and the articles he published in their magazine, he is associated with the SI above all for his Modifications – and hence, shelved straightaway by people on both sides of this field of conflict. The cham- pions of Situationist radicalism interpreted this “misappropriated kitsch” as an ex- pression of his indissoluble ties to painting; they were unable to find anything more in this. On the other hand, art world aficionados assessed the series as a curious excursus that merely resulted from his issue with the Situationists; it was regarded as having no significance at all in terms of the core area of his practice, painting. Thus, the Modifications were first a financial flop and then became the subject of misunderstandings or disregard.