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:

[3] See Raphael Rubenstein, Art in America 5/4/09 “Provisional Painting” :  Also, part II

[4] Ibid 2

17 thoughts on “The Paintings of Jan Muller- Lori Bookstein Gallery May 3-June 23

  1. Thanks Kim for bring more attention to Muller..your essay is terrific and points out lots of new and interesting things to me. ..but esp the section on what he got from Hofmann. He survived the training and moved on , with a very different sense of color and drawing than the more standard idea of a Hofmann student…maybe they spoke german to each other and H let him in on something. I think you are right though, the paintings were already in his head, straining to get out, he just needed enough experience to get to the canvas with some freedom. You can feel the restrictions in his drawing and color, and yet they are a complete world, a universe of painting. His “literary” heritage is alien to so many others of the time, I wonder if the readings or immersion in story and image (Grunewald comparison is great) pushed him further, than say Bob Thompson , a terrific painter, but one whose interests didnt lead him so deeply into narrative expression. Was “narrative” heresy to H students? Why does it suddenly appear in Thompson and Muller but not in earlier H students?
    Something was brewing…both died young, interesting to image what if..

    • Simon, thanks for the response- I like the idea of Hoffman whispering something in German. It is interesting to speculate on the emergence of the narrative, and the narrative/literary among these artists. If you ever want to write, I will be happy to post it here!

    • Simon,
      That is such a thoughtful response to Kim’s essay! Thank you both, and everyone who has come to see and commented on this Muller show. It was a labor of love on the gallery’s part!

  2. I’m with you on the show Kim. Eye-popingly good. Really my intro to his paintings. I knew them somewhat vaguely from reproduction, but didn’t know the narrative or the depth. To me the difference between Muller and Hoffman Formalism has to do with Muller knowing what to paint, not just how. I think you’re right that these paintings were just in him. Period. The acute awareness of the imminence of life and death. Maybe a good teacher like Hoffman situated things so that these paintings could come out. But whether if was his life story or just his nature, he was a student of the other dark narrative. The Blake narrative. The Keats and Yeats narrative. Deeply romantic. Not so far off from Jess. And this is something that I see no trace of in Hoffman. Dig the Eisenheim analogy.

    • Ben, thanks for the comment. I agree that Muller’s what is what is important but when the how and the what are in such an integrated relationship painting really sings- it is so rare when it all comes together, we are so lucky to have this show. I have to study up on Jess! I would love more conversation on this subject. Wøuld love to have your writing on the blog, on any subject, if you are inclined.
      Best, Kim

  3. Really Enjoyed reading your thoughts Kim, And especially the connections with the Eisenhiem Altarpiece. I don’t think of Hoffman when I look at Muller, which is a tribute to his vision as you inferred, but I do see a lot of Picasso in Muller’s work. As Picasso did, Muller positions figures in awkward poses for expressive and narrative purposes so easily, and he whips figures into the compositions from all angles, some still and some flying fast, it all adds up to quite an intense moment.
    I’ll be heading back in on Friday to take another look

    look forward to reading more. Cheers

  4. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for providing the forum and also for your thoughtful essay. I am familiar with Jan Mueller’s small works; however, it is my first time to see these large-scale paintings. Many thanks to Lori Bookstein. Certainly, the large-scale Faustian paintings are quite powerful, however, I would like to direct your attention to a smaller work. Please consider the multi-paneled “Church Hanging Piece (1957).”

    It is comprised of six panels, stacked vertically, which are arranged to form another image: a silhouette of a winged angel on double pedestals. This oddly shaped piece is suggestive either of a simple totem or of monumental art, like an Egyptian goddess or a Madonna.

    In this “Church Hanging Piece,” every panel contributes to the whole in narrating personal myth. It draws many elements from Mueller’s other works: the rider on a black horse, mock horse-riders, Faustian witches and angels, St. Anthony’s red-faced devil, squatting women, brunettes and blonds, a rape in the forest, night rituals, and the innocence of daylight.

    Aside from the narrative, this piece is a complex network of art and play, through various pictorial/painterly means: ideas about establishing a center, symmetry, geometric forms, scale shifts, repetition, patterns of shapes and colors, expected and unanticipated spatial moves, etc. The delivery is direct and simple.

    Starting at the top:

    1. Night Scene. This arch-shaped panel suggests the head of an angel with a pair of broken wings. We are introduced to the blue rider on his black horse. At the top, flanking the central figure are a pair of angels, one red and one white. Below are four women posed as mock riders. On the right, one woman is squatting on top of another who is acting as a horse, an iconography known as the Aristotelian Perversion. This group is presented parallel to the picture plane. On the left, the woman who is playing the horse is in diagonal, while her rider is full length. The two groups of woman-riders and pony-girls are in inverted color schemes, switching between red and green. It’s also a quilt of inventive shapes of alternating dark umber and other colors. The composition, a central figure closely surrounded by adoring females (whose hair-dos double as halos), is reminiscent of Cimabue’s Maesta. But this version is an eerie parody suggesting rather a witches’ gathering.

    2. Green Head. This face is so rough hewn that you cannot call it a portrait. Yet, this woman, with exaggerated red lips, refers to one of the pony-girls or mock riders from the Night Scene above.

    3. Forest Scene. Again, the blue rider is presented almost frontally in a forest with tree trunks formed by vertical strokes, two on the left, and one on the right, and another in a Y-shape. We have seen the horse rider in this forest before, in Mueller’s other work, “Rape of Europa,” and “Search for the Unicorn.”

    4. Mock Rider. This group is from the Night Scene. Perhaps the pony-girl of the right is now riding the pony-girl on the left. In contrast to the orientation of their bodies, both heads insist on frontal presentation. The white head of the mock rider is the apex of a triangular composition. The tree trunks suggest the same setting as the Forest Scene, but with more daylight.

    5. The Devil. This is a much larger panel, forming the upper pedestal. As in the Green Head panel, this red face is the sole subject, mainly painted with a few patches of reds divided by dark blues. It suggests evil, temptation, and danger.

    6. Open Field with Distant Aqueduct in Daylight. This is the largest panel and forms the bottom pedestal. We have been introduced to a number of characters, and they now reappear to create an epilogue or theatrical chorus. The blue rider and his black horse, the mock riders and their pony-girls, all gather in an open field of blue and green patches, sprinkled with muted reds and yellows. It is now daylight, suggested by the red reflections of the sun at the top margin of the panel. Perhaps it is dawn after a night of ritual and revelry.

    As in the Night Scene, two sets of figures (a pair of mock riders and a pair of pony-girls) flank the blue rider on his dark horse, establishing symmetry. The brunettes are on the left while the blonds are on the right. Their heads insist on frontal presentation. This entire grouping is located slightly left of the middle within the panel.

    Within this composition, we can trace a large inverted triangle. Locate the negative space between the hands of the pony-girls. From here, the diagonals ascend and fan out, passing the heads of each woman, and extending to both sides of the aqueduct. The white line of the aqueduct, with variegated arches, forms the base of the inverted triangle. It is the most prominent horizontal line, not only of this panel, but also of the entire piece. On the left, the aqueduct ends with a small green dab just before it touches the edge, thus connecting the upper background with the open field below.

    There is a pattern of interrupted horizontal lines. First, the head of the blue rider interrupts this slightly askew horizontal aqueduct. This interruption is highlighted with a dash of red on his black hair. Second, two dark stripes forming a mountain range are interrupted by an open space, a mountain gap. This negative space is just above and near the protagonist’s head. Above, a unit of white-red-white dashes further accentuates this mountain opening. From this red glob to the smaller dab of red by the head of the protagonist, an orthogonal line informs us of the space yonder.

    The dark stripes of the distant mountains gently narrow toward the blue rider. The verticals of his dark horse continue the weaving of this curvilinear move. The interrupted horizontals and mountain contours emphasize the blue rider as the focal point of the painting. He seems to cast his glance convincingly past the mock rider to the open field on the right. This tightly woven landscape with figures is filled with sensitive touches. It recalls Cezanne’s painting of Aix-en-Provence.

    There is urgency to the narrative, yet any definite meaning or message remains personal and illusive. The images of humans mimicking animals point to a time of pre-Christian pagan rituals. Are these people, posing as animals, being subjected to humiliation, or are they willing participants? Perhaps it is a fetish of degradation, a vestige conveyed here from the legendary decadence of the bygone Weimar Republic. Is the “Church Hanging Piece” then to be an anti-church piece, not to be hung in a church, rather to hang the Church?

    Although an enigma, it is easy to suppose that the narrative is affected by disillusionment and nihilism widespread after the two World Wars, especially among those artists and intellectuals of German heritage. Painters such as Beckmann had direct experience evading the persecution of the Nazi’s, and Mueller’s own family escaped from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

    Throughout history, there have been disasters, wars, and disaffection. In the lasting aftermath of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death (responsible for the loss of a third of Europe’s population), and other catastrophic events like vast fires, we find artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, who painted fantasies of degradation and Church corruption. In Bosch tradition, it is not surprising that Jan Mueller also painted “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” a journey of spiritual struggle and agony.

    But more than a rejection of the Church, or Western Civilization in general, or any other eschatological (end-of-the-world) concept that we take from this strange and powerful piece, there is an emphatic point to make: we must ponder and appreciate Jan Mueller’s passion and full engagement in both the story-telling and the craft drawn from the history of Western Art and its tradition to create something particularly original.

    Younghee Choi Martin
    June 18, 2012

    • Younghee,

      I agree that this is a fantastic and unusual piece- and a modern version of the polyptych- went back yesterday to see it and say goodbye to these beautiful paintings.Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  5. The Paintings of Jan Muller

    Dear Kim,

    Thank you for your most interesting posting on the recent exhibition of Jan Muller paintings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

    I wanted to add to the discussion by drawing attention to the work of the Early Renaissance Sienese painter Sassetta with regard to what I see as certain parallels to Muller’s rendering of figures and his manner of composing a scene. You describe how direct and without mediation are the signifiers in his paintings: pointing out a “four-inch cadmium red (is a) mouth, a black ovoid (is an) eye – convincing, absolutely.” The very rounded faces common in Muller’s work are seemingly not unlike those of many figures in Sassetta’s paintings as well (perhaps not an unusual feature of Early Renaissance art). What I find significant is how arresting the heads are and how they are presented in both of their work. The expressions in the faces of Muller’s pictures are at once arresting, insistent and haunting, and often the keystones of many compositions, by virtue not only of expression but also of of the primacy of the placement of heads within the composition (Stanley Lewis made the observation to Lauren about the significance of placement of in Muller’s work.). In Sassetta’s “Agony in the Garden” of 1437-1444 (Detroit Institute of the Arts), as well, the eyes and mouths of the apostles are closed expressing deep sleep, the downward tilt of heads of the gathered groups contrasts sharply with the wide open eyes, raised and tiled back head of Christ as he is about to receive the bitter cup from the angel. The landscape is bare, and as is often, uncannily unreal. Or as you expressed it of Muller’s work, “What is fantastic and what is of our world exist side-by side, equally real and provocative.” Another example is in “The Last Supper,” 1423, where the expressive tilt of each apostle’s head gives individual weight to their common expression of shock at Christ’s predictions.

    A very compelling compositional element shared by both painters is the odd pictorial space in their compositions. The compacted and foreshortened spaces are a marvel to see. They are of provinces of the imagination and not of geography; yet, I accept them as fitting places for the narratives told. As the stage in any opera or play persuades us that we actually are in the mythological, spiritual or historical realm, at least for a while, the author wants to place us.

    Further, the color palette of both artists is peculiarly their own. Why would it not be? Yet the similarity lies in the hardness and intensity of the greens and blues of the landscape compositions.

    I’m sure Simon was right in assuming that Hofmann and he spoke German to each other, and the training Muller was exposed to might have helped him get the paintings made.

    Altogether, this exhibition made it possible for me to see much more into Jan Muller’s paintings and understand how subtle an artist he was.

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