Martin Herbert on Michel Majerus

In November 2002, a plane carrying Luxembourgian artist Michel Majerus back from Berlin to his homeland crashed and he died, aged just thirty-five. By that time, he’d spent more than a decade evolving a wildly inclusive aesthetic that—broadly under the sign of painting, though increasingly involving digital prep work—mixed high- and low-cultural references and often involved printing and brushing directly onto gallery walls. (Or, for a 2000 show at Cologne’s Kunstverein, prophetically titled “if we are dead, so it is,” onto a full-scale half-pipe.) To mark the twentieth anniversary of Majerus’s untimely passing, nineteen institutions in Germany and Luxembourg mounted simultaneous presentations of his work. Among the most intriguing of these, at least in prospect, is the one at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, “Michel Majerus: Early Works,” which, via ninety-plus artifacts—mostly previously unshown paintings—takes viewers from 1990, when Majerus was still a student, to 1996, when, thanks to his solo show at Kunsthalle Basel, the art world began to take note of his work.

The arc of this period, in stylistic terms, is quite legible, even in this show’s chronology-smudging hang. Majerus was painting on canvas and incorporating silk-screen elements; beginning to think—as showcased in the main space, after a handful of smaller rooms—in terms of wraparound environments; and taking a relentlessly nihilistic standpoint on the debased culture he saw around him. He saw targets everywhere and weaponized puerility, in particular. (When Beavis and Butt-Head appear, under relatively respectful pseudo-expressive daubing, in a ca. 1993 untitled work they feel like lodestars.) Majerus’s default mode in this era was attention-seeking, needling provocation. If he used a children’s-book image, cue swear words. The 1992 painting eins, zwei, drei loops the handwritten statement LEARNING GERMAN IS EASY I EINS, ZWEI 2, DREI 3 around a giant blaring swastika, while the same year’s Fuck is a tongue-in-cheek list of insults aimed at Majerus’s influences: FUCK STELLA FUCK ERHARD WALTHER FUCK WILDE FUCK SCHNABEL (and so on). His former tutor Joseph Kosuth also makes the roll call, and in Untitled, ca. 1993, the American Conceptualist’s name appears beside an image of Homer Simpson sporting a blond wig and sunglasses, flashing peace signs. Nearby, Untitled, 1992, uses Christopher Wool’s trademark stenciling to spell out COOL WOOL. And so on.

Somewhat ironically, such reflex iconoclasm serves in this case as part of an old-fashioned pedestal-building process. Notably, between 1992 and 1994 Majerus was part of an artist group, 3K-NH, but there is no visual evidence of that here. Instead, he is positioned as a solo white male maverick, the better to secure a reputation that, especially outside of Germany, has looked undecided since his death. (Large Majerus works have popped up in art fairs recently, cheaply priced.) This multivenue Festschrift constitutes the big push, yet its very weightiness feels at odds with Majerus’s outwardly punkish approach. A painting outside the scope of this show (it’s from 2000; New York’s Museum of Modern Art owns it) declares that WHAT LOOKS GOOD TODAY MAY NOT LOOK GOOD TOMORROW / NOW’S THE TIME. The works here appear similarly unconcerned with how they might age, and that’s their most invigorating aspect. But there’s no doubt Majerus’s vision of a crapped-out and horizontalized visual sphere—art no better than entertainment, everything swirling in a monoculture—feels prescient, even if it mainly evokes Adorno and Horkheimer’s “culture industry” updated and on pep pills. In 1991—probably; the checklist has a question mark after the date—Majerus painted Untitled, a Heathcliff cartoon featuring block-lettered vulgarities. As the eponymous ginger cat from the 1980s television series casts his line off a fishing boat, an arrowed label pointing to his tail reads MICHEL’S PENIS; another, indicating wriggling bait in a cup and referring to the feline’s girlfriend, reads SONJA’S CUNT. Now, fire up the popular Twitter account Hourly Pornhubbed Heathcliff, and tell me whose world we’re living in.

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