Everybody Dies and Everything Stays

In Germany, the large-scale commemoration of Michel Majerus’s untimely death provides an opportunity to revisit the 90s as a decade of both lost optimism and sinister beginnings.

Michel Majerus, Weißes Bild, 1994. Acrylic on canvas, 480 x 640 cm, 12 parts, each 160 x 160 cm © Michel Majerus Estate, 2022. Courtesy Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

The artist Michel Majerus died tragically in a plane crash in his native Luxemburg in 2002 – at 35 years old, much too young. This year, the twentieth anniversary of his death is being commemorated with a big exhibition at Kunstverein in Hamburg as well as no fewer than four exhibitions in Berlin. Three have just opened at Kunstwerke, the Michel Majerus Estate (operated out of his former studio), and neugerriemschneider, the gallery that has represented him since 1994. The show at Neue Berliner Kunstverein will open in December.

Michel Majerus 2022
Kunstverein in Hamburg, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Michel Majerus Estate, neugerriemschneider, Berlin, Hamburg

ICA Miami will open a solo presentation next week, and in November I followed a symposium about the artist at Luxemburg’s MUDAM, which will host a big retrospective next summer. In addition, a dozen or so institutions in Germany with Majerus works in storage, among them Ludwig in Cologne, Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and Lenbachhaus in Munich, will present them as part of their collection displays. This all just to say that, while there are many forgotten and dead artists, few are commemorated on such a scale. So why Majerus?

Majerus left behind an impressive two thousand works produced over the course of a single decade. So the most obvious reason is that there is a great deal to show, and a strong gallery infrastructure to make it happen. The anniversary also coincides with an immense interest in painting on the art market and elsewhere – the always trendy and young Paris Internationale, just past, was almost exclusively that – and certainly, in this regard, Majerus raises the bar both in terms of concept and craftsmanship.

Installation view, Michel Majerus gemälde, neugerriemschneider, Berlin © Michel Majerus Estate. Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Also, more specifically, with the emergence of NFT’s, post-internet art is once again being considered, and here Majerus, with his sampling of video games and computer graphics, is seen to be a predecessor. Already during the late 90s, both Daniel Birnbaum and Nicolas Bourriaud described the visual logic of his paintings as analogous to the World Wide Web (it is also clear that, from the beginning, he had caught some of the industry’s most influential eyes).

But Majerus’s work is most interesting, I think, as a site for the ongoing reassessment of the 1990s. Because the decade that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, often celebrated for its energy and optimism, now seems to have promised more than it could keep, driving us to return to it, on the one hand, out of nostalgia, and, on the other, from the need to readjust a narrative that fails to explain what got us into our present state of war and collapsing democracy. What if the 90s were not a time of liberation and triumph, but a period of transition, asked the curator Fabian Schöneich at the MUDAM symposium, “what if they were empty?”

This idea goes some way to explaining why the only thing the participants at the symposium seemed to be able to agree on about Majerus’s work is that it encapsulates the aesthetic of the 90s like that of few others. Some said that it is painting about painting, others that it is not painting at all, but performance. While MUDAM director Bettina Steinbrügge was not alone in finding the work light and uplifting, the artist Cory Arcangel said that, to him, it is downright dystopic. In the end, the critic Ingrid Luquet-Gad surmised that it is a mirror for each of us and whatever we want the 90s to tell us about the present. 

The exhibition at KW, titled Early Works, reads as a recipe for how German painting escaped the 80s, or what should come after Kippenberger: Expressionism meets Pop meets institutional critique and installation art. The paintings are large, numerous, and, I imagine, with barely a breath between idea and execution. In the first room, one looks, indeed, like a Kippenberger, another like a Förg, a third like Polke – and completely self-consciously so. I’d barely mentioned to the curator how the style resembles the collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat before finding out that Majerus had sampled that, too.

Michel Majerus, ca. 2001. Photo: Edith Majerus © Edith Majerus, 2022. Courtesy Michel Majerus Estate and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

Majerus studied in Stuttgart under Joseph Kosuth, the pioneer of conceptual art, and Informel-painter K.R.H. Sonderborg, an odd pair whose influences Majerus managed to seamlessly unite in his work. His tutelage is also the subject of a new installation by Kosuth at the estate, which takes as its title the initial of each of the artists: k+m+s.

“Fuck Stella, fuck Schnabel, fuck Baselitz, fuck Haacke” – etc. – proclaims the painting Fuck from 1992, currently on view in Early Works at KW. This list of art patriarchs is also referred to under the umbrella term ‘dead suckers’ in sauerei [Mess], part of Majerus’s first show with neugerriemschneider in 1994, now reproduced at a 1 to 1 scale in the gallery’s current space. It follows that when Majerus painted the Mario Kart characters it was both a reference to video games and to Pop art. De Kooning plays a big role, as do washing detergents and lewd jokes. At the estate, Kosuth bent the message in neon, copied from Majerus’ extensive notes: “it doesn’t matter what the painting is if the attitude you have towards painting works, then the paintings work, too. Dead suckers, so what. Everybody dies and everything stays.”

There is no doubt that Majerus’s paintings ‘work’– and much more than just that. Still, there exists around the Majerus anniversary, perhaps furthered by the tragic nature of his death, some slightly amnesiac claims to the singularity of his practice that hinge partly on his innovations within painting’s expanded field, and partly on the integration of new technology in his pictorial language. But, of course, Majerus was not alone in these developments, neither historically nor in his time.

Susanne Paesler comes to mind as a Berlin-based painter who, like Majerus, turned her name into a logo and copied modernist paintings as well as kitschy wall-papers and fashion items indiscriminately. Paesler died from cancer in her mid-forties in 2005, leaving behind but a tenth of the works that Majerus did and a similar fraction of market muscle. On the level of colour and style, if you stumble across a solitary Majerus you might take it for the 90s works of Laura Owens, Wendy White, Francis Ruyter, or Charline von Heyl. At the symposium, it was Cory Archangel who started filling up the vacuum around Majerus with names, also pointing out the obvious: the precursor to post-internet art was not painting, but internet art – all the actually digital art that was developing en masse at the time, though it had not yet found its way into the main spaces of institutions.

Michel Majerus, the space is where you’ll find it, 2000. Digital print on vinyl, wood 310 x 1862 x 1535 cm, Installation view, Michel Majerus, demand the best, don’t accept excuses, Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Hamburg, 2005 © Michel Majerus Estate, 2022. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg Photo: Jens Ziehe.

As Birnbaum wrote in Artforum in 2006, Majerus’s “art had a specific kind of newness—not the lofty, if contested, ‘originality of the avant-garde’, but the prepackaged newness of the latest cell-phone graphic or just-released sneaker from Nike. Majerus’s art was about this newness.” In that sense, he did not predict post-net so much as Anne Imhof and the art of trendspotting. Except whereas Majerus lived in a paradigm where “What looks good today may not look good tomorrow,” as is also the title of one of his paintings, Imhof, with her necrophilic rehashing of yesterday’s youth culture, is increasingly a symptom of the opposite. Today, it is almost impossible to imagine an aesthetic that relies not in the slightest on nostalgia: we have given up on keeping a finger on the pulse, retorting instead to a practice of fetishising where it last expired. And so we might identify what is so striking in Majerus’s work not as innovation, but rather a radical presentism: being so much in the moment that it seemed to stream through him.

As the paintings accumulate in KW’s great hall, it becomes clear that the effect of Majerus plays out across paintings, in both time and space, as an extraordinary feeling of velocity and freedom. At the exhibition in Hamburg, titled Data Streaming,a maze-like architecture pushes the viewer forward until they hit a white wall at the other end and have to turn back around – a choreography of immersion and progression familiar from video game, which can be repeated over and over again to different, but similar results. “Majerus’s work is anonymous,” said the curator Karen Archey during the symposium, “we don’t know who he is.” He is a mirror, a vessel that moves through time and space and reflects almost anything.  

The paintings are so colourful, so enormous, and executed with such bravado, it is easy to read them as an outcome of that famous 90s optimism, that faith in technology, freedom, and the future. When asked why he painted to that scale, Majerus responded that the walls of the MoMA are that scale. He believed in his own future, to be sure. The collector Charles Asprey told me that, during a visit to London, he and Majerus spent hours in a massive gaming arcade then behind the bright billboards on Piccadilly Circus. It’s the sparkling 90s version of that magical space behind a waterfall, – a perfect metaphor, really, for Majerus’s work.  

But stay with that image: incessantly flashing lights, games that go on and on for no reason, the heat of a hundred screens, blodshot over-strained eyes. The Hamburg show opens with the painting Thälmannkart (2001) which details in writing the life and death (by Nazi assassination in 1944) of Ernst Thälmann, once the head of Germany’s Communist Party. Above, socially responsible and visually subdued GDR cartoons sit next to the profusions of the American Mario Kart franchise. The composition is completed with an abstract painterly gesture and a colour chart, as if in preparation for its own reproduction.On differently coloured backgrounds, the series Tron repeats the portrait of its namesake hacker, found dead in 1998, hanged from a tree by a belt much too large to be his own.

Both these works are about disappointed ideas in past and present, and suggest that Majerus saw, even in the still-emerging network technology, not possibility, but inevitable backlash. Two other paintings read “burned out,” one of them also “fuck off,” and a floor piece says “Not much is thrown away because there really is no place to throw it.” At KW, a cartoon cat playing in the snow suggests, “maybe you should annihilate.” A little boy in a bunkbed says: “scheiss Leben” [shit life].  The more paintings we see, the less we believe that the lightness that characterises Majerus’s work formally level should have anything to do with optimism on an affective level.  

Michel Majerus, 10 bears masturbating in 10 boxes, 1992. Acrylic on cotton 295,3 x 560,6 cm, 2 parts, each 295,3 x 280,3 cm © Michel Majerus Estate, 2022. Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Matthew Marks Gallery Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.

An obvious counterpoint to maximalist Majerus would be Michael Krebber, who performed such a melancholy and hesitant attitude to his paintings that they came to exist either as extremely sparse or plain ridiculous. But there is a silver lining to both brands of nihilism. Because Krebber’s paintings are – weirdly – moving, just as Majerus’s strategy was a kind of reverse-Warholian one: not a claim that everything and therefore nothing is art, but that capitalism’s visual scraps can be turned back into art, and, more poignantly still, painting. Warhol famously didn’t want anyone to see him paint because the works were supposed to be made by a machine. Majerus, I was told, didn’t want anybody to see him paint because he didn’t want them to know how little time he spent on each work. Perhaps he thought they would misunderstand. Because it is not that the work is just facetious, but that quantity and speed were important parts of how he produced a sense of spatial immersion and that now now now energy, at once exhilarating and exhaustive. 

Of course, the anniversary begs the question of how Majerus would have developed as an artist had he lived. For him to have remained, like Krebber, within the very particular German painting discourse that he was also very much engaged in seems unlikely. In the last few years of his life, Majerus expanded into large-sale social installations like the gloomily titled skateboard ramp if we are dead, so it is, whichhe made for the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2000; the space is where youll find it, printed digital collages installed on great cylinders from the same year, now on view in Hamburg; and, finally, Sozialpalast [Social Palace], which covered the entire Brandenburger Tor with a 1 to 1 scale picture of a graffitied social housing estate in 2002.

The latter, especially, suggests that his work would have grown more political. In the context of the symposium, such speculation was delivered as a compliment to Majerus, perhaps sprung from a desire to justify or excuse his lack of overt interest in politics in the works from the 90s, which, like referring to a roster of exclusively male artists, would be frowned upon twenty years later. Can we imagine Majerus a Rirkrit, an Olafur or a Wolfgang, the artists whose first names we learned instead during the decades that followed?

Wolfgang, lastname Tillmans, born just a year after Majerus, is one artist who took that route and followed it all the way to the large walls of the MoMA. On the occasion of his current retrospective, Alex Kitnick wrote in Artforum about Tillmans’s early work, as Birnbaum did about Majerus’s fifteen years prior, that it “conjures an ease of imaging and organising that anticipates the digital.” And it is interesting to note that the reception the exhibition, which opened in September, and spans three decades of Tillmans’s work, tends to focus on the work from the 90s applying the same keywords also circulating Majerus: new forms of connectivity, subculture, freedom – concepts that have become more beautiful as they’ve withered. 

In The New York Times, Jason Farago assessed that though the Tillmans show “is candid, unaffected, breezily intelligent” – as could also be said of Majerus – it is “moralistic, too, in the later galleries.” The culprit is Truth Study Centre from 2005, “a first act in the 21st-century domestication of Tillmans’s youthful freedom,” in Farago’s phrase. Majerus’s Sozialpalast was more bombastic than Tillmans’s rather prim indignation at media manipulation. Still, as his politics matured they might have made the work – again, in the words of Farago on Tillmans – recede “into self-righteousness” like “a memento mori.” 

The problem with any ‘anticipation’, and especially one of something so vast as ‘the digital’, of course, is that what came first becomes indistinguishable from what followed. This is what happened to Warhol, too. But the more pertinent issue here is that a sense of loss seems to have hijacked the show in New York – per Farago, “one of the saddest museum exhibitions I have ever attended” – overpowering any other affect that might be at stake in the work.

The Majerus exhibitions are not sad, but they do have – Data Streaming at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, in particular – a cynical bite; even amidst all that energy, there is an air of despondency. This, I believe, is much to the benefit of Majerus, as it provides a point of gravity in an oeuvre that otherwise defies it – a miraculous feat, really. The losers are those of us in the audience who, upon leaving the gallery, meet a reality in which what might look okay today is certain to look worse tomorrow.

Michel Majerus, MoM Block Nr. 76, ca. 2000. Acrylic on canvas 200 x 180 cm © Michel Majerus Estate, 2022. Courtesy Private Collection Photo: Jens Ziehe.