American debut of Iceland’s most celebrated contemporary painter at various NYC venues
April 13 – July 17, 2004
February 13 , 2004—The first major American survey of work by Iceland’s most acclaimed contemporary painter will be on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery from April 13 to July 17, 2004. Worldscapes: The Art of Erró features approximately 80 paintings and collages, as well as props from the artist’s avant-garde films. Concurrently, 10 large paintings from Erró’s series titled Femmes Fatales, 1987–95, will be shown uptown at Goethe-Institut New York while a recent suite of lithographs, Mao’s Last Visit to Venice, will be on view at NYU’s Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs. Erró, who encountered American Pop art during several extended visits to New York in the 1960s, is best known for his colorful, jam-packed postmodern history paintings that mix and juxtapose styles. Not content simply to blur the boundaries between high and low, Erró deploys a kaleidoscope of cartoon characters, art historical icons, and government leaders to comment on urgent social and political issues.
A firm believer that more is better, Erró moved Pop into—as art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has noted—its Baroque phase. “We’re pleased to work with the Reykjavik Museum of Art to introduce American audiences to the work of this significant Icelandic artist,” notes Lynn Gumpert, the Grey’s director. “What distinguishes his works from those of his American Pop counterparts is his commitment to create contemporary history paintings.” Erró observes: “By dealing with daily events, I try to interpret the present, a short period of time in the life of the society, before it enters total oblivion.”
Erró, who adopted this alias, was born Gudmundur Gudmundsson in Olafsvik, Iceland, in 1932. An inveterate traveler from early on, Erró studied in Reykjavik, Oslo, and Florence before settling in Paris in 1958. His early tempera-and-ink paintings on paper depict ghoulish grimacing figures entwined in seemingly never-ending struggles, and firmly situate him in the postwar European figurative art scene. An astute observer of art history, Erró incorporated references to works of art in his paintings long before appropriation became synonymous with postmodernism.
From the very beginning, the technique of collage proved essential to Erró’s art. He has amassed an ever-expanding archive of images–comprised of news and magazine clippings, posters, leaflets, postcards, reproductions, and comics–which provide source materials for his collages. Dating from 1956 is the Radioactivity series, in which primordial stick-figures interact with tabloid headlines such as “Flu Covers the World.” In 1958, he created a series of bold, colorful collages derived, in part, from fashion magazines. In them, women’s faces metamorphose into strange, mechanical hybrids, which inspired subsequent paintings in the Meca-Make-up series, such as Madame IBM, 1959–60, a startling portrait where an eye and a rouged mouth emerge out of a geometrical conglomeration surmounted by curls.
Paris in the early 1960s was hotbed of international artistic activity and political protest. Of his Meca-Make-up series, Erró observes: “It consisted of shock images, like insults. Everything at that time was violent. There was the war in Algeria, then the war in Vietnam. Even rock music was violent.” Erró, along with artist and friend Jean-Jacques Lebel, participated in numerous happenings and performances, using his body and those of his collaborators as living grounds for political engagement. In one 1962 performance, two naked women wearing Kruschev and Kennedy masks wrestled in red paint, dramatizing a Cold War fight-to-the-death.
His first trip to New York in 1962 provided additional fodder and an important discovery, Pop art, which coincided with his interest in popular culture. But while James Rosenquist would juxtapose a woman’s profile, cars, and pasta, Erró’s works from the sixties would combine a political figure with vignettes from a Thomas Hart Benton mural and a Soviet Socialist Realist painting. American Pop thrived on the transformation of everyday reality into art, but Erró adopted this new language to display the contradictions inherent in a world of never-ending consumption. In Pop’s History, a landmark painting from 1967, Erró acknowledges his American colleagues and mocks the notion that Pop could have first surfaced anywhere but the U.S. In this key work, cartoonish, bearded Muscovites in fur hats frolic in the snow while excerpts from Pop classics—a Warhol Marilyn, a Wesselman reclining nude, an Oldenburg hamburger, for example—float above in balloons. In the 1960s, Erró also produced two experimental films, Grimaces and Concerto Mécanique, which will be screened in the exhibition at the Grey alongside the Surrealist-inspired assemblages and props he created for them.
Erró continued to develop his history paintings in the 1970s, including a series on American astronauts and works such as CIA KGB, 1974–75. In Chinese paintings, from 1974–79, another series, he inserts Mao Zedong or figures from Socialist Realist posters into stylized urban backgrounds, for example, New York or Chicago. It is a contemporary reprise of this series produced as lithographs—Mao visiting Venice—that are on view at NYU’s Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs.
Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, Erró filled every inch of his canvases with brightly colored cartoon and comic-book figures, all vying for our attention. Exemplifying this abundant, horror vacui approach to painting is the Femmes Fatales series. In each painting in this series, female figures abound—nuns, women warriors, television superstars, historical characters, and, most prominently, comic-book super heroines, such as Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, and Tank Girl. Here Erró simultaneously employs and undermines clichés, creating scenarios where women always reign supreme.
Erró has always worked in series, first creating collages that he then projects onto canvases and paints. He observes, “Assembling the collage is the most enjoyable part of the work. It offers the most freedom. It is almost like automatic writing. Here you discover formal solutions to filling the surface. The collage is simultaneously an original and a model. Then it’s just a matter of locking yourself up in the studio, sometimes for 15 hours at a stretch.”
Erró has shown prominently in Europe, including a 1999 solo exhibition at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. His work has been included in many exhibitions centering on postwar art in Europe, for example, “Made in France” in 1997 and “Les Années Pop” (The Pop Years), both at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. In 1989, Erró donated over 3,000 works to the city of Reykjavik, and in 2001, a selection from the Erró Collection was featured at the Harbour House, a recently opened branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum. “Erró’s gift to the Reykjavik Art Museum is one of the largest ever given to an Icelandic museum,” notes Eirikur Thorlaksson, director of the museum and co-organizer of the exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery. “It is part of our mission to help shed more light on Icelandic culture, and the Erró Collection is providing one means to do so.”
Worldscapes: The Art of Erró will be on view at the Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, April 13 thru July 17, 2004; gallery hours: T, Th, F: 11am – 6pm, W: 11am – 8 pm, Sat: 11am – 5pm; tel: 212-998-6780; website: www.nyu.edu/greyart. Femmes Fatales will be on view at Goethe-Institut New York, 1014 Fifth Avenue, April 14 thru July 16, 2004; gallery hours: M thru F: 10am – 5pm; tel: 212-439-8700; website: www.goethe.de/newyork. Mao’s Last Visit to Venice will be on view at NYU’s Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs; 58 West 10th Street, April 19 thru May 28, 2004; gallery hours: M thru F: 10am – 5pm; tel: 212-992-9091; website: www.nyu.edu/vernon-center.
Worldscapes: The Art of Erró is co-organized by the Grey Art Gallery and the Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland. The Grey Art Gallery presentation is made possible in part by the Abby Weed Grey Trust, the Consulate General of Iceland, and Iceland Naturally. Educational programs are supported in part by the Grey Art Gallery’s Inter/National Council.