Asger Jorn

Preparing History in Motion for the press is taking up most of my non-teaching time, but the slightly delayed July-August 2012 issue of New Left Review (no. 76) contains my review of a recent collection of writings by Asger Jorn, Fraternité Avant Tout, which focused on his writings on art and architecture from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. Titled "Dialectic of Dionysus," my review/essay analyses some rather unzeitgemäße aspects of Jorn's materialist critique of functionalism and rationalism: his use of the dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian and his rather questionable use of Engels's Origin of the Family. As arcane as some of Jorn's concerns of the 1940s in particular may appear obsolete; however, they not only announce concerns that he would bring into the Situationist International, but also demand attention for the way in which Jorn has worked with his medium as a writer: 

"[Many] of the concerns and references dominating the essays in Fraternité now seem archaic. Furthermore, the artist-author often engages with other theorists not through a careful parsing of their arguments, but by mimicking their mode of writing and détourning their phrases, reworking their language just as he reworked flea-market paintings. It is here that the problematical nature of these writings becomes productive, rather than merely symptomatic. Jorn’s materialism manifests itself in the way he reworks texts as materials, rather than in a careful deployment of the analytical tools provided by Marxist (or any other) theory. What is dialectical is not so much his reasoning as his treatment of text as a kind of texture. His texts are textiles, and in some ways they find their most perfect expression in what might appear to be a parergon: the illustrations."

"If the essay ‘Apollo or Dionysus’ is hard to swallow, a single page in which Jorn uses artworks to develop his take on the Apollonian and Dionysian, and reads the mythological gigantomachy as class struggle, prefiguring Peter Weiss, is nothing short of brilliant. These jump-cuts are not as remote from contemporary viewing and reading habits as the essays may appear to be; with his montages, Jorn creates rhythms that seem more compatible with them, while still posing fundamental challenges to the viewer/reader—as they should. More than anything, the fact that Jorn’s essays are picture essays prevents them from becoming a monde perdu—to invoke the title of his 1960 painting, with its title recalling Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, that supremely Anglo-Saxon imperialist vision of atavistic survivals."