The Paintings of Jan Muller- Lori Bookstein Gallery May 3-June 23

The Painting of Jan Muller

Kim Sloane

June 2012

Walpurgisnacht – Faust II 1956 oil on canvas, 82 x 120

Only a few weeks remain for the exhibition of painting by Jan Muller at the Lori Bookstein gallery (May 3-June 23, 138 Tenth Avenue NY, NY). The gallery has brought together three large canvases, one from the Whitney and one from MOMA, and one from a private collection, that form a spectacular trilogy. Many other pictures round out to the show, and entering the back room is like entering a chapel.

If you have not yet been I urge you to go. I cannot recall a show which has so affected and been so discussed by so many artists of all ages and of all persuasions. Why should this be so?

The painting of Jan Muller is painting at its most moving. It comes to us directly, through the simplest of signs. Emotion and message are communicated without mediation of any kind, with a minimum of artifice, of rhetoric, or conventional design. These signs are at once paint and image, four-inch stroke of cadmium red is a mouth, a black ovoid is an eye – convincing, absolutely.

The imagery also leads this simultaneous double life. What is fantastic and what is of our world exist side-by-side, equally real and provocative. This is the true province of painting, and its poetry. It is a fiction that convinces, becomes real, through the transformation of the physicality of the medium into pure feeling. What is invisible becomes visible, what is inside, comes out, what is immaterial is given concrete form, and vision in the largest and most expansive sense can be expressed.

To achieve this so directly at such a young age is miraculous. But Muller lived a quickened life. His life and his work recall these lines in Yeats great poem Byzantium[1], as they also recall Byzantine imagery:

“Before me floats an image, man or shade,

Shade more than man, more image than shade;

For Hades bobbin bound in mummy-cloth

May unwind the winding path:

A mouth that has not moisture and no breath

Breathless mouths may summon;

I hail the super human;

I call it death in life and life in death”

The fluctuation between image, man and shade (or, in the case of Muller witch or vision) is precisely the experience we have in front of the three great canvases; precisely the kind equivocal sensations that painting can realize. Yeats speaks of the superhuman and of Hades, which is an analogue to Muller’s Faustian imagery. But also to the point is the evocation of simultaneity of death in life and life in death, or the actuality of a hell of earth. This is what Saint Anthony, the subject of one of Muller’s large canvases, experienced in his visions, and what was a reality for Muller. Muller’s parents were incarcerated in concentration camps, they managed to be released, and the family fled, moving through Europe, ending in a refugee camp in France. Muller’s heart was weakened by the travails of this existence. He made it to New York in 1941. He died in 1958, at the age of thirty-six. [2]

Temptation of Saint Anthony, oil on canvas 80x 121 1957 Whitney Museum

What makes the work so powerful is that this struggle between these forces of death, or of the devil, and life, are so keenly felt. The act of painting, of making art, is where this struggle occurs. And in what is perhaps the privilege of the survivor, a profound understanding of the human condition allows an expression to unfold before our eye that lights up darkest corners of our souls. The resolution of the painting becomes redemption.

A touchstone, both formally and thematically is the Eisenhiem Altarpiece.In the exhibition we have the three larges canvases, linked in spirit, but also triptychs, and works with multiple images connected vertically. This multi-panel painting was of course common practice in Northern Renaissance painting. It allows for an expansion of narrative, as different stories, or different aspects of a single story may be told on separate panels and seen sequentially. The Eisenhiem Altarpiece both slides and unfolds to reveal its series of remarkable images. It adds the element of time, acknowledging perhaps that the story to be told needs time to be effectively communicated, and also to be properly absorbed. Indeed, the message and objectives of the Eisenhiem may be the most ambitious work in the history of art. Muller, I think shares this ambition.

The painting was commissioned for, and situated in, a plague hospice at a time when the disease was thought to be the result of an incomplete or lapsed faith. The power of Grunewald’s imagery and the grand ambition of the painting was to restore faith, and through this restoration, to actually effect a cure. In order to achieve this, Grunewald rallied all the powers a painter can possess.

Muller understood and was able to marshal many of these powers. It is of great interest that after coming to this country he spent five years studying with Hans Hofmann. This is not an insignificant amount of time. We do not see in these works the cubist derived structures we associate with many of the Hofmann students, so what did he get from his fellow expatriate teacher?

Surely, he practiced the methodologies of pictorial and spatial structures that Hoffman emphasized. For Muller, however well understood these lessons may have been, they do not become ends in themselves. They are tools, tools at the service of his expression. The emotion is primary. We see in his work a very sophisticated knowledge of pictorial forces, of tension on the picture plane, of movements across the surface, and of color intervals perfectly pitched. But, all is restrained; never do the formal qualities call attention to themselves as subject. From his study with Hofmann I would speculate that he internalized the lessons, gained a mastery and confidence, in such a way as to achieve the great freedom to simply express. Though direct, these works are in no way either “casual” or “provisional”.[3]

And just as surely he learned the structural inner workings of the great painting of the past, which Hofmann also demonstrated to his students.

From Grunewald he takes the dark backgrounds that give a mystical luminosity to his colors. He knows that compliments of close value on this background will vibrate with heightened intensity. And perhaps most beautifully, he knows that to heighten the whites, one prismatically overlays a range of hues. Look at the angel’s dress in the Concert of Angels panel of the Isenheim to see the spectrum of hues giving light to the white. The same can be seen in the figures in Muller’s Walpursnacht- Faust II, 1956 (among others). Martica Sawin notes in her essay the pointing finger of the Devil in Walpursnacht- Faust I recalls that of Saint John the Baptist in the Eisenheim Crucifixion panel.[4]

The restoration of faith is I think the ambition these two artists share. We may locate our faith in many places. It is surely a great pleasure of this exhibition that one’s faith in painting as a medium that can touch with its own particular powers, as no other can, is gloriously restored.

Walpurgisnacht – Faust I 1956 oil on canvas, 82 x 120,Museum of Modern Art


[1] W.B Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems,  Scribner ISBN978-1-4165-8992-1

[2] see online catalogue for the exhibition, with essay by Martica Sawin, originally published in Arts, volume 33, Feb.1959: http://www.pagegangster.com//p/cSDPg/#/page/5

[3] See Raphael Rubenstein, Art in America 5/4/09 “Provisional Painting” : http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/features/provisional-painting-raphael-rubinstein/  Also, part II

[4] Ibid 2