If you tuned in to CNN in 2002 during the runup to the German national elections, you may have seen a series of bizarre interviews broadcast from Berlin. These were strange not because of what was said but because of what was behind the people in them: what appeared to be a large housing project tagged with graffiti. Typically, in its place is the Brandenburg Gate, a defining monument of the Berlin landscape, which had inexplicably disappeared.
Those watching closely, however, would soon realize that this was just a clever trompe l’oeil; the Brandenburg Gate had simply been masked with an image of a housing complex, printed at a grand scale. The Brandenburg Gate’s iconic horse sculptures were still visible. This intervention was the work of the Luxembourg-born German artist Michel Majerus, and it was titled Sozialpalast, a reference to the name of a real housing block host to residents many conservative politicians may have wished to ignore.
The piece is one of the defining ways that Majerus used his art to upend viewers’ perceptions of the world around them. He often directed his focus at the media and art history itself, as he did in his beloved paintings, which feature motifs borrowed from Warhol, Basquiat, the “Super Mario” video games, GE advertisements, and more. But no matter his area of interest, Majerus sought to force people to see the world anew—a mighty task for an artist who only lived to be 35.
Majerus died in a plane crash in 2002, but his paintings and other, less classifiable works have continued acting as a North Star to a group of young artists. In 2018, for example, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston included a painting by Majerus in a survey of art after the internet, placing it within the context of works by Jon Rafman, Cao Fei, Avery Singer, and others. It felt right at home there. Currently, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, another painting by Majerus hangs beside a video by Petra Cortright, whose lo-fi videos making use of stock digital effects have earned her acclaim. That painting, from 2000, features text that reads “What looks good today may not look good tomorrow.”
The irony is that Majerus’s work continues to look good today, and that it will continue looking good tomorrow. That will become obvious this winter, as a spread of Majerus shows go on view across Germany to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. Meanwhile, the U.S., which has seen very few Majerus shows, will get its first-ever museum survey devoted to him this week at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami.
“It was a very short but very extensive career, but that’s what made all this possible,” said curator Krist Gruijthuijsen, the organizer of a survey of Majerus’s early works at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. “He was far ahead in his thinking about his painting and his image-building.”
Alex Gartenfeld, who organized the ICA Miami with Stephanie Seidel, said Majerus’s “approach to images and image circulation is very deeply connected to early internet aesthetics, and is also very attuned to transformations in globalization and global capital at the turn of the century, whose ripples we’re perhaps feeling now. All of this makes it feel very timely and, I think, very important to successive generations of artists.”
When Majerus got his start, in the ’90s, there weren’t many artists doing what he was doing. In Western Europe, this was a time of art in the expanded field—pieces that were highly conceptual, often with explicitly political aspirations. Majerus worked in painting, a mode that was considered retrograde by many during the era, and by the time of his death, he had moved the medium in a new direction.
He had arrived in Germany in 1986 to attend art school in Stuttgart, having abandoned his home country of Luxembourg, whose culture he found too bourgeois. At the Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Künste, he studied with K. R. H. Sonderborg, a German painter known for his elegant abstractions filled with thick black strokes, and the conceptualist Joseph Kosuth, whose experiments with text and semiotics earned him plaudits in the U.S.
Majerus merged their approaches, then added his own. In his early works, the nihilism of Beavis and Butthead is combined with the formal panache of postwar painters, with strokes that swirl and drip across the canvas. A dry sense of humor courses through it all. There’s one untitled painting that features a cartoonish man, a smiley teddy bear, and a dozing rabbit in a bunk bed that would not be out of place in the funny pages, save for the textual addition Majerus has made to this quaint scene: a speech bubble that reads “FUCKING LIFE” in German.
Majerus knew that, in order to find his own voice, he would have to dig himself out from under all of his influences, and even made it his artistic project to find a way of doing that. Fuck (1992), a painting in the KW show, features an array of artists’ last names—Kippenberger, Koons, Stella, Haacke, Polke, and co.—all accompanied by that titular expletive.
At the time, Majerus was, as Gruijthuijsen put it, a “young artist in search, but the search is so in your face. You see someone struggling with the bourgeois world, trying to figure out the intellectual world.”
Many credit Majerus’s breakthrough to his 1996 survey at the Kunsthalle Basel, which included the kinds of paintings for which is now well known in Germany. (Similar ones are the main focus of the ICA Miami show.) It’s tempting to read these works, in which “Super Mario” characters and Snoopy-like figures emerge from abstraction, as damnations of pop culture. Just the same, it would be possible to say that Majerus was upholding this imagery as shiny and beautiful—perhaps just as much as any other artworks that grace the Swiss museum.
“There was not really a hierarchy, it was just all visual,” Seidel, the co-curator of the ICA show, said of Majerus’s images. “On the other hand, he also didn’t feel like the advent of digital technologies and reproduction was the end of painting, but rather a vast expansion of its possibilities.”
The celebratory quality in the 1996 survey was felt in another, more unusual way. Majerus covered the floor of the galleries with a metal grid through which the parquet floor was left visible. “You were surprised by the sound of your own steps if you toured the empty Kunsthalle alone, and if a group gathered, the overwhelming sound created an atmosphere reminiscent of the techno clubs of the ’90s,” curator Daniel Birnbaum wrote in Artforum.
Later Majerus shows grew bigger and ever more expansive. Some shows included scaffolding, a move intended to recall building structures seen while walking down the street and lure that material into art institutions, eliding any boundary between the two settings. Other exhibitions featured paintings so large they could barely fit inside. The canvases expanded to the scale of billboards, and then even exceeded them in size.
His methods grew increasingly ambitious too. if we are dead, so it is (2000), arguably one of Majerus’s most famous works, was a functional half-pipe that appeared at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne. Lined with repeated text and overlaid blow-ups of pages of books, it was periodically used by bikes and skaters who had to be careful not to hit the ceiling’s beams. Looked at right now, just a few months after the Thai collective Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts & Culture placed a half-pipe at this year’s Documenta, the gesture seems astoundingly prescient.
As the many Majerus shows around Germany attest, his output far exceeded any traditional media, however. In December, the Neue Berliner Kunstverein will show some of Majerus’s lesser-known video installations, some of which involve the artist’s name bobbing around digital voids. Earlier this month, the Kunstverein in Hamburg put on view Majerus’s installation the space is where you’ll find it (2000), one of many room-filling works by the artist that bring the imagery seen in his paintings into the third dimension.
It’s easy to mine these works for deep conceptual resonance, considering the ways that they test authorship, short circuit consumerist desires while also egging them on, and embrace then-new technologies. They offer eye candy and food for thought in equal measure.
But how best to engage with them? Gruijthuijsen tends to offer those who come by the KW a canny bit of advice: Don’t think too hard.
“He was a very smart guy, but he was not always trying to find a Kosuthian critique,” Gruijthuijsen said. “There was an immediacy to his work.”