07 February, 2009
Asger Oluf Jorn was a founding member of the Situationist International, and a prolific artist and essayist. He was born in Vejrum, in the northwest corner of Jutland, Denmark and baptized Asger Oluf Jørgensen.
He was the second oldest of six children, an elder brother to Jørgen Nash. Both his parents were teachers. His father, Lars Peter Jørgenson, was a fundamentalist Christian who died when Asger was 12 years old in a car crash. His mother, Maria, née Neilsen, was more liberal but nevertheless a deeply committed Christian. This early heavy organised Christian influence had a negative effect on Asger who began progressively to inwardly rebel against it, and more generally against other forms of authority.
In 1929, aged 15, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis although he made a recovery from it after spending 3 months on the west coast of Jutland. By the age of 16 he was influenced by Nicolai Grundtvig, and although he had already started to paint, Asger enrolled in the Vinthers Seminarium, a teacher training college in Silkeborg where he paid particular attention to a course in Nineteenth century Scandinavian thought. Also at about this time Jorn became the subject of a number of oil paintings by the painter Martin Kaalund-Jørgensen, which encouraged Jorn to try his hand in this medium.
When he graduated from college in 1935, the principal wrote a reference for him which said that he had attained 'an extraordinary rich personal development and maturity' - especially because of his wide reading in areas outside the topics required for his studies. While at College he joined the small Silkeborg branch of the Danish Communist Party and came under the direct influence of the trade unionist Christian Christensen, with whom he became close friends and who, Jorn was to later write, was to become a second father to him.
In 1936 he traveled (on a BSA motorbike he had scraped together enough money to buy) to Paris to become a student of Kandinsky. However when he discovered that Kandinsky was in straitened circumstances, barely able to sell his own paintings, Jorn decided to join Fernand Léger's Académie Contemporaine; it was during this period that he turned away from figurative painting and turned to abstract art. In 1937 he joined Le Corbusier in working on the Palais des Temps Noveaux at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. He returned again to Denmark in the summer of 1937. He again traveled to Paris in the summer of 1938, before returning to Denmark, traveling to Løkken, Silkeborg and Copenhagen.
From 1937 to 1942, he studied at the Art Academy in Copenhagen.
The occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany was a time of deep crisis for Jorn, who had been deeply inculcated with pacifism, initially sinking him into deep depression. He subsequently became an active communist resistant. During the war he also co-founded with Robert Dahlmann Olsen the underground art group, Helhesten or "hell-horse," and was a contributor to its journal. In 1941, he wrote the key theoretical essay, "Intimate Banalities," published in Helhesten, which claimed that the future of art was kitsch and praised amateur landscape paintings as "the best art today." He was also the first person to translate Franz Kafka into Danish.
After the war, he complained that opportunities for critical thinking within the context of the communist arena had been curtailed by what he characterised as a centralised bourgeois political control. Finding this unacceptable, he broke with the Danish Communist Party, while nevertheless remaining a lifelong philosophical communist.
He traveled again to France where he was a founding member of COBRA (a European avant-garde art movement), and edited monographs of the Bibliotheque Cobra.
He returned, impoverished, to Silkeborg in 1951 and resumed work in the ceramics field in 1953. The following year he traveled to Albisola in Italy where he became involved with an offshoot of COBRA, the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus.
He met Guy Debord in 1954, who was to became a close friend. The two men collaborated on two artist's books, Fin de Copenhagen (1957) and Mémoires (1959), along with prints, and forewords to each other's work.
He was participant in the conference that led to the merger of COBRA, the Lettriste Internationale, and London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International in 1957. Here he applied his scientific and mathematical knowledge drawn from Henri Poincaré and Niels Bohr to develop his situlogical technique. Jorn never believed in a conception of the Situationst ideas as exclusively artistic and separated from political involvement. He was at the root and at the core of the Situationist International project, fully sharing the revolutionary intentions with Debord. The Situationist general principles were an the attack on the capitalist exploitation and degradation of the life of people, and solution of alternative life experiences, constuction of situations, unitary urbanism, psycogeography, with the union of play, freedom and critical thinking. Such general principles were applied by Jorn to painting.
In 1961 he friendly quit his activity in the SI, still fully supporting its contents and goals, and keeping to financially support it, but believing that the new strategy of the SI was little effective.
He went on to found the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism and contributed material to the Situationist Times. Later, he donated a museum for modern art to the Danish town of Silkeborg, near where he grew up. He was to remain close to Debord, however, and continued to fund Situationist publications.
His philosophical system Triolectics was given a practical manifestation through the development of Three sided football.
His first American solo exhibition was at the Lefebre Gallery in 1962. After 1966, Jorn continued to produce oil paintings while traveling throughout Europe collecting images with photographer Gerard Francesci for his vast archive of "10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art." He traveled extensively, to Cuba, England, and the far east. Jorn traveled to the United States for the first and only time in 1970, for a gallery opening at Lefebre Gallery. He had earlier asserted that he refused to travel to a country that made visitors sign a statement maintaining that they were not communists.
In 1964, he was awarded a Guggenheim International Award including a generous cash prize, by an international jury assembled by Lawrence Alloway. The following day Jorn sent this telegram to the president of the Guggenheim, Harry F. Guggenheim:
GO TO HELL BASTARD--STOP--REFUSE PRIZE--STOP--NEVER ASKED FOR IT--STOP--AGAINST ALL DECENCY MIX ARTIST AGAINST HIS WILL IN YOUR PUBLICITY--STOP--I WANT PUBLIC CONFIRMATION NOT TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN YOUR RIDICULOUS GAME.
During the course of his artistic career he produced over 2500 paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics, sculptures, artist's books, collages, décollages, and collaborative tapestries.
He died in Aarhus, Denmark on 1 May 1973. He is buried in Grötlingbo, on the island of Gotland in Sweden.