There cannot be any doubt about Lars Nørgård’s status as one of Denmark’s most important renewers of the craft of painting in the late-modern era. When we turn our attention to his surreal and whimsical drawings, we find ourselves standing before works that are almost ingenious. From where do these absurd ideas come? What does this mind look like, we might ask – this mind that generates dullard sailors, chickens with shark fins, wandering globes and Christmas trees fashioned by fish skeletons? Already, back in the 1980s, art-scene aficionados had ample opportunity to witness Nørgård’s art but it was first in the 1990s that a much wider public met his work, especially when he un- veiled a series of posters made for DSB [Danish National Railways] with those signature strokes, so characteristic of his work, that capture his untamed ideas in their flights of fancy. With his loony and enigmatic humor, he jazzed up the train traffic, so to speak, at every station stop in Denmark.
But let’s wind back in time to the starting point and then gradually work our way toward the present time, so that readers who might be new to this artist’s work can follow along: Lars Nørgård (born in 1956) turned up on the Danish art scene in the beginning of the 1980s – at the time that he broke away from a course of study in San Francisco, where he was being trained as a painter. Instead of working all the way toward a Masters degree, as per his intention, he was satisfied with the Bachelor degree that he earned at the Academy of Art College. On a visit to his home country in 1981 he made the decision to stay, a determination that was influenced by an encounter with some colleagues of his generation who were busy working at the renowned Værk- stedet Værst, an artistic nesting box located on Rosenørns Allé in Copenhagen, which Lars Nørgård found to be a par- ticularly fertile experimental milieu, offering its participat- ing members a whole spectrum of challenges. During this phase, Nørgård presented himself as a veritable “painter’s painter”. Standing amidst this large heterogeneous array of artists who, in the day’s cultural media channels, were being presented under the collective nomenclature ‘De unge vilde’ [The Young Wild Ones], Nørgård distinguished himself as a decidedly more classical figurative painter with his very own genuine motific world – typically served up with a tongue- in-cheek approach and a surplus of black humor. In contrast to many people of his generation who attended the Royal Danish Academy of Art in the 1980s, Lars Nørgård never operated with a theoretical meta-plan. He is indeed a reflec- tive and knowledgeable artist, an intellectual and thoughtful soul, but he is not an academic nerd whose art comes forth against a backdrop of erudite interpretations and theoretical formulations. His art is nurtured, instead, by imagination and intuition.
Originally, he started working as a photo-realist, but the time he spent in San Francisco turned him on to the patently American rendition of abstract expressionism. However,
as has already been mentioned, he changed tack when he returned to Denmark and became a special kind of seer and commentator; this can clearly be spotted in the well known “generation portraits” of his artist colleagues who happened to be working alongside him at Værkstedet Værst. These humorous and allegorical generation portraits served to document the life going on in the artists’ colony, for better or worse – in a way that can be compared with the some- what older German artist Jörg Immendorff’s caricatured culture-critical generation portraits, as seen in Immendorff’s series, ‘Café Deutschland’, which has firmly inscribed itself into the history of German art. In this so-called curled period – not unlike a similar phase in Vilhelm Lundstrøm’s career
– Nørgård demonstrated his sublime capacity to condense people’s physiognomic and physical features in a rapid and telling manner. What also comes to mind here are associa- tions with Honoré Daumier, the Michelangelo of caricature- portraiture, especially when you look – for example – at Nørgård’s portrait of art collector and curator John Hunov and his wife, Birte Inge Christensen, posing in Adam and Eve costumes or of his artist colleagues Dorte Dahlin and Berit Jensen, exposed as half-naked music-hall ladies. In the spirit of the so-called bad paintings, where the objective was to paint as hideously as possible, with a deliberately grimac- ing attitude, Nørgård makes use of a greenish-brown earth- color palette in this early phase of his work.
Later on, the freewheeling, daffy and surreal fantasies came to the fore. To the great surprise of many of his admir- ers, these tall tales virtually invaded Nørgård’s paintings, which were supplemented by a whole slew of absurd draw- ings. The situation in this next very fertile and productive phase that lasted about ten years was this: the drawings nurtured the paintings, as source material, and vice versa. It is simply astonishing to witness the interminable wellspring of imagination that characterized Nørgård’s works during these prolific years. However, sometime around 1998-99 Nørgård stopped making these absurd and figurative rebus- like paintings, where he was also engaged in making subtle word-plays on the relationship between the painting’s plot and its title, by means of which new associations and trails of meaning emerged. This is a capacity of which he is still a master. The fact is that he had played through the register and had now come to feel like some kind of assistant or helper for his increasingly demanding sense of fantasy. By this time, he felt somehow that the painting had degenerat- ed to the level of pure illustration and he found himself look- ing for new excitement and new surprises. Accordingly, he started to paint pictures that he did not know beforehand: paintings that operated in the manner of a research process and which provided room for experimentation.
Now a new phase was ushered in, a phase characterized by hyper-energetic and colorful semi-figurative paintings which are plentifully displayed in the present volume, which focuses on works made in the past four years. In this phase, Nørgård has refined his method and honed his instruments with the result that he is even more able to control the very difficult – also in the technical sense – creative process. In these kaleidoscopic paintings, Nørgård nullifies the central perspective. Instead, forms, lines and ribbons of color are flung out on the picture surface with a centrifugal force. The colors are almost glaring and they appear to ‘clash’ with each other, especially because Nørgård makes extravagant use of complementary contrasts and cold/warm contrasts. Here, we are far away from prim or beautiful paintings. What we have before us is rather a matter of colorful and high voltage works of art. These power discharges are on the verge of capsizing but are rescued at the goal line by Nørgård’s compositional and colorist surefire accuracy.
The new paintings are alluring – for the viewer and also for the painter himself. Here, Lars Nørgård proceeds step- by-step, moving all the way out to the edge while officiating at a wrestling match between his boundless sense of fantasy and his proficiency as a pictorial artist. All the while, the canvas lays down a gauntlet before the artist to adopt new points of view and to put new methods into use. The experi- ment continues from one painting to the next, in the manner of an extended chain reaction.
On a hot summer day, we meet the artist in his large studio, situated in a factory building in the Nørrebro sec- tion in Copenhagen: an impressive and high-ceilinged room with two stories and an overlooking mezzanine on the second floor which allows the artist to stand back from his paintings and contemplate them from above. The space of- fers Nørgård the possibility of working in large formats, so that he can satisfactorily fulfill the many public-adornment projects that continuously come his way in the form of com- missioned assignments.
Lars Nørgård has just finished a number of new paint- ings and just laid the finishing touches on a suite of draw- ings for exhibitions that will be held in the autumn of 2007. “What we have here is a long queue of happy accidents that follow one another in sequence. It’s something like throw- ing a bucket of paint against the wall. Either it comes to be beautiful or else it turns out ugly. It’s all a question of luck”, he says about his explosive and brilliantly colored paintings.
You’ve been putting a great many colors into play in your large paintings. What role does color play for you?
“I am using the color so that it will create both harmony and discord. What I’m aiming at is a situation where a whole
lot of energy will come forth – the picture should almost transmit electrical discharges. For this purpose, I switch back and forth between cold and warm colors. When you see this red section over here [Lars Nørgård points out a certain area of one very large painting with a primarily vertically ex- tended format], I have been using three different red hues, both warm and cold ones, that keep the painting in motion. Moreover, I’m working with a variation in the texturalities
– on the whole, I am very concerned about creating varia- tion of the surface. Sometimes I take on the role of the little chemist inside me [laughs]. I’ve got to know how much the color has to dry out before I go about applying a thin layer on top of a thicker one. I do all the wrong things, all that stuff that you’re not supposed to do when you’re painting, in order to elicit certain effects that I think are exciting. I’ve got to be attuned to when the very minute arrives where it’s high time to strike. For this reason, working with these paintings is an enormously intense process. There’s no room for any- thing else while they’re standing there and I can’t just go on home in the middle of the whole process.”
You are also operating with crackles that can cause the mind to recall a swatch of geological material, like eroding crusts of earth. These parts of the paintings are strange and mysterious but they are also very beautiful. How do you make them?
“These have been produced by using water-based oil paints that I allow to dry. While the paint is drying, I pour a thin layer of color around the half-dry color and then I let it lie there at certain places while letting it fall away at other spots. Because of this, the crackles arise. What we have here is a long queue of happy accidents that follow one another in sequence. It’s something like throwing a bucket of paint against the wall. Either it comes to be beautiful or else it turns out ugly. It’s all a question of luck.”
Do you sometimes paint on top of a section you’ve created when it doesn’t work on the first attempt?
“Of course, it happens sometimes. But while some of my paintings have basically formed their own emergence from the outset, I’ve really had to grind tooth and nail to get oth- ers to succeed. Here [Lars Nørgård points to an area of the painting with scratches made in the paint], for example,
I was using old stiff brushes that were left with color on
the bristles so that I could make special trails in the paint. Sometimes I am deliberately using materials that do not form chemical bonds. What this requires is that the whole thing has to be covered with lacquer or else the pigment just peels away from the canvas. Over here, I’ve been using Chi- nese ink, applied on top of the oil paint”, says Lars Nørgård and points at a large section of one of the paintings.
There is a whole world of texturalities and surface effects that can be seen when you move closely up to the canvases. The eye is really given something to feed on.
“That’s exactly what I’m aiming at”, says Nørgård, with a glint in his eye.
How do you go about getting started with making such a huge painting?
“Earlier on, when I was still working from a pre-existing idea, I started by drawing a motif. But in my new paintings, I am hurling the colors on the canvas and the brush is only spar- ingly employed. The black contour lines you see on the fin- ished paintings do not enter the picture until the very last phase. Up to that moment, I am busy creating a skeleton – or a ruin – for building further on. I cannot just set color fields in upon a white canvas … and I don’t have the slight- est idea where the picture is going to wind up when I get started with the work. Each and every colored field has its own personality – it’s a micro-cosmos. Sometimes it’s necessary to put in some mosaic-like elements in order to prevent the picture from acquiring a fixed point or a center. The picture has to be constantly wrenched away from mak- ing sense. Every time you think that you’ve now managed to gain a sense of a certain meaning about – or hit upon an interpretation of – the picture, this same sense should then disappear for the sake of a new meaning.”
In the manner of puzzle pictures?
”Yes, exactly! And when I’m working with square-shaped pictures – and this is often the case – I am always trying to remove the center from the middle of the canvas.”
But what is it that these paintings are dealing with, in the fundamental sense? Speaking for myself, I read them as being metaphors for chaos and order. They appear to contain equal measures of both of these. What do you have to say about this?
“Well, I also think that they reflect my whole life, which is constituted by equal measures of chaos and order [laughs]. The paintings have come to take on colossal significance when it comes to my own sense of well-being – I’m not a particularly nice fellow to be around when I haven’t been painting for a while. But this is not tantamount to saying that the act of painting is therapy for me. Nonetheless, it does happen to be an existentially important domain for
me. My painting is a perfect drug – and it’s very hard to
take a vacation from it. For me, painting is the only medium that offers access to these experiences of infinitude which perpetually permit new aspects to turn up. All the while, the picture is changing its appearance and it constantly provides me with new experiences. When I look at this picture [Lars Nørgård points toward one of the larger paintings in the studio], I suddenly come to discover something I’ve never seen before – in spite of the fact that I painted it myself. In contrast to sculpture, film or music, realms of expression that can also contain these experiences of infinitude, paint- ing does not require being transacted by a large number of participants. One person, all alone, can create this entire progression of infinitude and should it come to pass that I’m not happy with what I’ve made, I can simply tear it into pieces or paint over the whole thing and start all over again. And although you cannot actually see the drawings here, they are indeed present. There is a moment of non-resolu- tion, of riddle, just like there is in the drawings. I ought to mention, however, the reason that I moved away from using the comical drawings which I had been painting onto the canvases for a good many years: I didn’t feel that projecting a visual joke from an A4 arc of paper up to the monumental formats, which many of my paintings have today, was work- ing for me anymore.”
Lars Nørgård makes drawings, especially when he takes up residence at The Blue Lagoon on Iceland or in Israel, two places that he regularly visits largely for purposes of finding relief for his chronic condition of psoriasis. He still gets his drawing paper sent over from the United States – he prefers the American B-format, which he became comfortable with during the days of his study in San Francisco. He makes
his drawings at a furious pace and the drawings emerge in groups; he produces as many as 25 in one day. From the mo- ment he opens his eyes in the morning he can tell whether or not this day is going to be a good one for making draw- ings. What is required is that the slate has been wiped clear and clean. He is especially prolific with making drawings when, every now and then, he is not bound up by everyday life’s many obligations. Nørgård customarily creates about 150 drawings when he stays in a certain spot for a month’s time. Since the 1990s, he has created so many drawings that they could fill up the walls of a large museum, from floor
to ceiling. In his most recent exhibition held in one of the Statens Museum for Kunst’s “Focus Rooms”, 202 drawings were placed on view. Elements of the drawings enter into his pictures: body stripes and spinning tops – frequently occur- ring figures – can be identified in both mediums. What we have here is a fluctuation between effects and elements from the drawings that are being integrated into the painting.
Do you look back with nostalgia on the years of fun and hard work at Værkstedet Værst?
“Yes, of course I do. But then again, it’s classic to look back on one’s youth with a sense of nostalgia. On the one side, we were marginalized and rebellious – we were punks – and on the other side, we were being asked to be very disciplined and compliant, like when John Hunov was in sight and wanted to buy a painting [laughs]. No, the sense of idealism didn’t persevere, not even in the short run. You just waltzed right on down to Café Dan Turéll so that you could brag about what you had just managed to sell. Today, we’re living very spread out from each other and we only see each other at festive occasions like birthdays, weddings and baptisms. So, with this in mind, it really is a lot of fun when we do meet. But we never talk anymore about art … or money.
But I’m having a very hard time handling the passage
of time. Watching the years go by is, quite simply, terrible. I often make drawings of clocks and I consider life to be one long tape measure. I take hold of a scissors and clip off a lit- tle piece for New Year’s. It might sound like I’m torturing my- self, I know, but it’s necessary for me to do this. The aspect of time is actually intrinsic to the very process of painting.”
Sure it is, and I imagine that your complicated paintings must demand a great deal of time?
“Yes, they do and making them is actually very hard for me. A rather complicated painting calls for a rather elaborate and time-consuming process. If I wanted to make neat and constructive paintings that were easy to grasp and right in keeping with the tenor of the times, I guess I could do so. But this just wouldn’t work for me. I’m always making it dif- ficult for myself and for the viewer to penetrate his or her way into the picture. It’s supposed to be hard to handle. And as soon as I know my own form and my own technique, I lose interest. It’s difficult to contain all these forms in my head. There’s got to be a deeper meaning with the pictures since, as an artist, you are spending your whole life on them. In contrast to an artist like Per Kirkeby, who conjoins his paintings with nature, my paintings are based on processes inside me. I cannot communicate my message with words. In contrast to Claus Carstensen and Peter Bonde, who were preaching back in the 1980s that the individual artwork does not have any autonomous meaning, I sincerely believe that it does. You should be able to pick out one particular picture and it also ought to have a valid meaning in 25 years time.”
In that sense, couldn’t we say that you are a classic artist, who takes the art institution and the conception of the art work seri- ously?
“Certainly and very much so!”
In his recent works, Lars Nørgård is moving along two main tracks: elements of figuration crop up here and there, even as he is constantly breaking up the picture so that it becomes estranged and abstract. The painting’s many dis- placements of planes, the centrifugal force, the elements that clash and give rise to sparks among themselves when they collide on the surface – all of this supplies a great deal of energy. There are both depth and surface, both dynamics and lull and both cold and warm areas in the picture that amass themselves into a complex but visually stimulating and entertaining totality. In this most recent phase, Lars Nørgård has turned back to the abstract expressionism of his youth, which he inflects in his own direction. It is still the American abstract expressionism that serves as the source of inspiration – Pollock, de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein and last but not least, another painter whose name is coming more and more to be held in high esteem, Philip Guston, who rummages about as a kind of and time-consuming process. If I wanted to make neat and constructive paintings that were easy to grasp and right in keeping with the tenor of the times, I guess I could do so. But this just wouldn’t work for me. I’m always making it dif- ficult for myself and for the viewer to penetrate his or her way into the picture. It’s supposed to be hard to handle. And as soon as I know my own form and my own technique, I lose interest. It’s difficult to contain all these forms in my head. There’s got to be a deeper meaning with the pictures since, as an artist, you are spending your whole life on them. In contrast to an artist like Per Kirkeby, who conjoins his paintings with nature, my paintings are based on processes inside me. I cannot communicate my message with words. In contrast to Claus Carstensen and Peter Bonde, who were preaching back in the 1980s that the individual artwork does not have any autonomous meaning, I sincerely believe that it does. You should be able to pick out one particular picture and it also ought to have a valid meaning in 25 years time.”
In that sense, couldn’t we say that you are a classic artist, who takes the art institution and the conception of the art work seri- ously?
“Certainly and very much so!”
In his recent works, Lars Nørgård is moving along two main tracks: elements of figuration crop up here and there, even as he is constantly breaking up the picture so that it becomes estranged and abstract. The painting’s many dis- placements of planes, the centrifugal force, the elements that clash and give rise to sparks among themselves when they collide on the surface – all of this supplies a great deal of energy. There are both depth and surface, both dynamics and lull and both cold and warm areas in the picture that amass themselves into a complex but visually stimulating and entertaining totality. In this most recent phase, Lars Nørgård has turned back to the abstract expressionism of his youth, which he inflects in his own direction. It is still the American abstract expressionism that serves as the source of inspiration – Pollock, de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein and last but not least, another painter whose name is coming more and more to be held in high esteem, Philip Guston, who rummages about as a kind of
sounding board for what Nørgård really wants to say. On Danish soil, Nørgård is an energetic lone wolf whose paintings are also nurtured by rock and jazz music from the 1960s and 1970s, and especially Captain Beefheart’s compositions, which can be charac- terized as a most peculiar concoction and by their surreal and en- igmatic lyrics. Beefheart’s is a music that wrenches about, sneers and turns things around – much in the manner of Nørgård’s paintings. The famous rock composer and musician also happens to be a painter and he has become a part of Michael Werner’s gal- lery, where his works are presented using his given name, Don van Vliet. To a great extent, music serves as an inspiration for Lars Nørgård. He often paints while listening to extended improvisa- tions by musicians as diverse as Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, The Grateful Dead and early records by Pink Floyd; these are sounds that he has been listening to for quite some time.
On the whole, you really have to get with it and keep your eye on the ball if you want to experience Nørgård’s works which, in recent years, have also been supplemented by a number of bronze sculptures and, in the case of his latest exhibitions, by porcelain sculptures with motives inspired by his figurative nonsense figures that also appear in the drawings, like the chicken with shark fins. Above and beyond this, there is his flair for providing his paintings with absurd and humorous titles, which steer the viewer’s atten- tion in a determined direction. One ‘reads’ the title right into the picture and tries to make sense out of the painted chaos, even if the interpreter will often have to throw in the towel.
Lars Nørgård is always on the move and it can be difficult to leave the studio because there are so many things packed in there. Every now and then, the artist simply has to go down to the cor- ner and grab a beer in order to ease his way out from the painting process before going home to his family. The best day for working is Sunday: that’s the day of the week that he can work, unfettered, for many hours on end. For him, what is extremely important is to be able to make use of organic and environmentally-friendly non- toxic colors. He will go to any lengths to avoid polluting the envi- ronment. To a question put before him about when his paintings are finished and ready, he retorts: “When you can feel it in your belly. It’s something like a process of emission. It might sound deeply pathetic, but the picture actually says to me, ‘Hey you, now you’ve just got to let me be … and now you can get lost and go home happy’”, says Lars Nørgård with a broad grin. I hurry to take my leave, so that I can leave him alone to get started on his next painting.