I cannot do it alone—want to join in?
Cool, colorful, provocative, wildly experimental and visionary - Louisiana’s exhibition on Poul Gernes was a powerful humorous, beautiful and ambiguous story about one of the truly great Danish artists of the post-war generation.
Poul Gernes (1925-1996) is widely known for his large public decorations such as the Palads Cinema in Copenhagen and Herlev Hospital—the latter being Denmark’s biggest artwork. Today, Gernes appears both as a colorful and optimistic designer and as the inveterate critic of capitalism, but also as a pioneer of a new conception of art and the artist’s role in society.
With this extensive exhibition, Louisiana wanted to point to several possible entry points to the experience of Gernes’ art. We were introduced to both the artist with an exceptional talent for making large, effective images, and on the other hand a Gernes with a rigorously experimental practice, in which art, in keeping with the reorientations of the 1960s, should be torn down from the easels and engage others—the people, all of us—to help carry out the works. Or with Gernes’ own words: "I cannot alone—want to join in?"
15. Juni Fonden supported the Poul Gernes exhibition.
1960s: time for change
Gernes came from the Constructivist tradition, politically as well as artistically, and at the beginning of the 1960s became a pivotal figure for Eks-skolen (The Experimental Art School, 1961-1972), which in one fell swoop came to dominate not only the time, but also the writing of the art history that was to come: new methods, new materials, a new perception of the role of art and the artist in society was now on the agenda. To put it simply—change on all fronts.
With their experimental attitude the artists around Eks-skolen launched new departures on all fronts, and all this took place just as Denmark was moving from a post-war society to a welfare state with many new positions and experiments as a result; a period in which the Louisiana Museum also had a considerable stake.
ART AS A DRIVING FORCE
FOR A BETTER LIFE AND SOCIETY
Instead of following Gernes’ life’s work as a sequential, whole narrative, the exhibition showed the Gernes oeuvre as a Gesamtkunstwerk—a mix of attitudes, brushstrokes, circles and hammer blows, systems and collages, as well as a lifelong effort to make life better and more beautiful with art. Composed around the four main themes the exhibition highlights:
A ‘material laboratory’ for Gernes’ highly physical and concrete approach to materiality and structure, which at the same time is his farewell to the purity and exclusivity of modernism, as can be seen for example in his first target, Untitled, 1962, painted on a bedpost, and a painted toilet seat from 1962.
Systems as a way of emptying a material of subjective choices and reaching out for the universal, unfolded as spatial potential—the series Untitled, 1966-67, consisting of 36 collages on hardboard, and Untitled “Lottery stripes”, 1965-66, one of them randomly colored by Louisiana’s founder Knud W. Jensen.
Herlev Hospital and Formalphabet
Art as fully integrated social practice: a reconstruction of the well-preserved single-patient room from Herlev Hospital, 1968-76.
Art as a spatial experience, Formalphabet, 1966, a sculptured environment consisting of ten monumental units.
“Brother, I am searching”
The showdown with the artist as mystical creative genius—Untitled (“Ass”), 1967, Self Portrait 1-16 from 1965, and the collective work Democratization (with Peter Louis-Jensen) from 1963.
The dream of better times
The artwork as a monument to the power of popular thought and action – with a view to the Louisiana Park, where a scale model of an unrealized decoration for the public square Israels Plads in Copenhagen, Pyramid, 1967/2016, was built on the lower lawn. Inside, Untitled (“The Dream Ship”), 1968, Maypole, 1978, nine suggestions for a European Common Market Flag and a picture frieze of 384 covers of books for the visually impaired, the MagnaPrint series, 1971-2003.
TABERNAKEL - THE GREAT LOUISIANA SHOCK
Although Louisiana in recent years has added several significant Gernes works to the collection, the last ‘real’ encounter between the museum and the artist ended on a dramatic note. This happened back in 1970 in connection to the exhibition Tabernakel—a legendary and scandal-embroiled event in modern Danish art history—which today is remembered because of Bjørn Nørgaard’s horse slaughter and because the exhibition’s participating artists Nørgaard, Per Kirkeby, Peter Louis Jensen and Poul Gernes would end up leaving Louisiana in protest.
The story of Tabernakel is described by curator Anders Kold in the exhibition's richly illustrated catalogue and can also be read as a PDF here:
Gernes' pyramid in the park
During the exhibition period, visitors could enjoy the view from a six-meter high pyramid in the Sculpture Park—the social sculpture was based on a proposal for a public sculpture that Poul Gernes submitted in 1967 to the Danish Arts Foundation’s sculpture competition for an artist’s commissioned decoration of Copenhagen’s square Israels Plads. Gernes’ proposal did not win the competition, but for the exhibition—50 years later—a scale model of Gernes’ pyramid was constructed and on view in the park.
The pyramid was built with support from Johannes Fogs Fond.