Hello, Dolly!

Picabia, Schnabel, and Willumsen represent an offbeat, impure vein of Modernism, says Claus Carstensen about his and Christian Vind’s exhibition Café Dolly at the J. F. Willumsen Museum in Frederikssund.

J. F. Willumsen, Fødselsdagskagen. En spøg, 1943.
J. F. Willumsen, Fødselsdagskagen. En spøg (The Birthday Cake. A Joke), 1943.

Modernism follows many different tracks; remarkably few of these are official, while far more are secret. Many secret links and interconnections arise out of a desire to rewrite the art history canon in order to allow space and scope for new artistic and art historical positions. Over the course of the last 20 to 30 years the number of unorthodox alliances and readings of Modernism has grown enormously, making it increasingly difficult to find firm footing, but also offering a more multi-faceted and slightly more entertaining perception of Modernism.

The exhibition Café Dolly, staged at the J.F. Willumsen museum on the occasion of Willumsen’s 150th anniversary, can be regarded as a contribution to this ongoing revisionist reading of Modernism. The exhibition will not only provide a reinvigorated picture of J.F. Willumsen the “Vitalist”, but also of modern painting in general. This is done by juxtaposing, in a genuinely startling and striking move, Willumsen and the Dadaist, pre-Pop artist Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and the Neoexpressionist artist and film director Julian Schnabel (f.1951).

Café Dolly is presented by the artists Claus Carstensen and Christian Vind, who share an interest in European ur-Modernism and its less well-known aspects. In 2009 they published the travelogue En rejse til Trieste (A Journey to Trieste) about a journey conducted afoot “where the Iron Curtain went.”

Francis Picabia, Don Quixote, 1941-42.
Francis Picabia, Don Quixote, 1941-42.

To accompany Café Dolly the artists will publish Café Dolly – Picabia Schnabel Willumsen. A self-confessed “hybrid” anthology that goes far beyond the usual exhibition catalogue format. The book includes contributions from the editors Annette Johansen, Anne Gregersen, and Margrit Brehm as well as from Vind, Carstensen, and the critic Roberto Ohrt. Like the exhibition itself the book will occupy an unspecified position somewhere between art history, an art installation, and the  more idiosyncratic artistic statement.

Kunstkritikk has spoken to Claus Carstensen about the exhibition concept, about the monochrome as figuration, about polluted Modernism, and about a fundamental re-evaluation of painting.


J. F. Willumsen, Dame leger med kat, 1945.
J. F. Willumsen, Dame leger med kat (Woman Playing with Cat), 1945.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of J.F. Willumsen you and Christian Vind have put together an exhibition about modern painting where Willumsen is spliced with Francis Picabia, Julian Schnabel, and Dolly the cloned sheep. To some, such an exhibition should be an impossibility. What is the story behind it all?

It all began when Christian Vind and I visited J.F. Willumsen’s Museum in 2009 to see the exhibition Et værk uden grænser (A Work Without Limits), which took an in-depth look at one of Willumsen’s most important works, The Wedding of the King’s Son from 1888 and 1949. While we were taking in the exhibition we were struck by the thought of how fitting it would be to show Willumsen’s late production interacting with Francis Picabia’s late, figurative works and Julian Schnabel’s figurative works from the 1990s to 2012. After we had a chat with museum director Annette Johansen she encouraged us to present a specific proposal for an exhibition. A few weeks later a visit to another museum prompted us to rest briefly in Horsens and to have our dinner at a bar/restaurant called Café Dolly. We quickly agreed that the name would make an excellent exhibition title with its offbeat connotations: the cloned sheep Dolly, which was named after Dolly Parton, and the questions pertaining to reception history and canon issues raised by the exhibition. 

Claus Carstensen
Claus Carstensen.

So what questions are raised? 

We point to a number of formal, trans-historic similarities between the works themselves and between the artists’ biographies, and we have also wanted to provide scope for discussing a constructed, figurative, and collage-like vein of painting that acts, to paraphrase the anthropologist Mary Douglas, as a kind of “matter out of place”. Such painting is at time ambivalent, self-contradictory. It is a form of painting that is not explicitly borne by a critical agenda, but whose sheer presence as figurative painting and “matter out of place” nevertheless offers a silent criticism of what one might call the white modernism of abstraction with all its categorical imperatives and demands for purity, requiring the work to be unsullied and timeless. This discussion prompts a more general canon discourse about re-evaluations and devaluations. A discourse about the future of the past and a reconstruction of our historic legacy.

Francis Picabia, Auttiportrait,1935-40.
Francis Picabia, Auttiportrait,1935-40.

This is to say that the exhibition can be regarded as a kind of critical-complicit reconstruction of Modernist painting? How does such a re-reading and reinstating of Modern painting affect our understanding of a more general historical heritage?

The white modernism of abstraction represents a kind of iconoclasm that has a counterpart within the realm of political revolution because it, like such revolutions, seeks to erase the past and begin afresh. Anchors are cast, time is reset, the space and scope for statements reinvented. This reinvention, catharsis, or purification is also evident in Modernism: the black square as a clean slate, or the white monochrome as an unsullied, unstained beginning. The notion of a tabula rasa is the dynamic element in all these movements.

But how do gaudy figurative painters such as Picabia and Willumsen fit in with and relate to the monochrome and to abstract Modernist painting’s – essentially rather anal – celebration of that which cannot be represented?

Julian Schnabel,  Julian Schnabel: Untitled (portrait of May, 2012.
Julian Schnabel, Julian Schnabel: Untitled (portrait of May), 2012.

Paintings do not arise out of nothing in a space without references. They always refer to and oppose something other. A white monochrome that claims to have abolished representation and figuration still refers to itself in relation to the history of the monochrome and iconoclasm. A monochrome is not just a monochrome: it draws heavily on the concept and notion of the monochrome and its potential and on the concept and notion of abstraction.

Unlike the white modernism of abstraction, which seeks to erase history and time, the paintings by Picabia, Schnabel, and Willumsen all refer back to something; something that the artist is fascinated by and swears by. They point back in time, model themselves on existing works and make a virtue out of these things. They are obviously mediated – and at the same time they are excessive and impure in the sense that they are unafraid of the “pollution of paint”.

The monochrome should, then, be regarded as a figuration, and the notion of a Modernist point zero should be considered a perpetuum mobile rather than historical fact? Might one say that the three (or four, if we include Dolly the clone) artists selected represent separate stages of the art history of the point zero in the 20th century?

Julian Schnabel, The unknown painter and the muse he will never meet, 2011.
Julian Schnabel, The unknown painter and the muse he will never meet, 2011.

No, with these three artists the real issue is rather one of sullying the monochrome, of polluting or contaminating the white surface. We might point to the pun or etymological link between the words “blamage” and “plamage”, i.e. between making a gaffe and a blotchy surface, as a starting point for claiming that all three artists represent an off-beat, impure Modernism where the technique not only incorporates figuration, but also – in many cases – blots and blemishes.

However, the canvas is not the only thing to be blemished about these three artists; the same is equally true of their reputation and legacy. That point may not be very overtly presented in the exhibition, but it is expanded upon in the accompanying book, which will be released on the day of opening.

This impure or perhaps even pandemonic Modernism may in fact thrive better outside of the exhibition room? Is that what the book seeks to show?

I actually think that the pandemonic is also strongly present in the exhibition. But of course that aspect becomes more prominent by being contextualised the way we do it in the book accompanying the exhibition; really it is a hybrid or bastard book that occupies a position somewhere between a coffee table book, a collection of art historical and historical essays, and an artists’ book. A kind of book that – rather like the exhibition itself – is perhaps only possible when artists are given entirely free rein by the institution, and we were lucky enough to get exactly that.

Julian Schnabel,  Fountain of youth(ENDITALIC}, 2012.
Julian Schnabel, Fountain of youth, 2012.