This is not jazz. This might sound obvious, but I repeat, this is not jazz, this is painting. Painting that in fact refuses to become jazz. It is inexorable, unbending, die hard professional, and divinely gifted. Here we find no medleys of rehashed notions, no obligatory solos, no predictable improvisations, no ideas of immediacy or excessive emotion. No high brow entertainment.
This is simply painting. Painting that goes straight for the solar plexus – or perhaps, better, more wonderfully, and much more astoundingly – startles us with the soft and complete strength of an aurora borealis. A divine gift.
Just like jazz, some might say, and rightly so, to a point. Not at all, I would counter, at the risk of being mistaken, although hopefully in a meaningful way.
All this talk of jazz and painting has to do with an evening in Helsinki a year or so ago. I was talking to an American critic, a critic who bears a genuine love for painting. He suddenly exclaimed: “Have you ever thought of how painting has become a kind of visual jazz, a kind of extremely sophisticated entertainment at times?” We ended up discussing jazz and its development through the 1900s from popular culture to the avant-garde and back again. We never finally determined where painting would fit into this, but the statement etched itself in my memory. In any case, I think I understood what he meant.
Painting is in crisis, but not in the way one often thinks by reading magazines and newspapers. It is not dying at all; on the contrary, it is thriving – perhaps even all too well. Perhaps what he intended to say was that in this era of accelerating visuality, where we have become ever more adept consumers of images, painting is something we seek out for heightened visual pleasure, increased stimulation, a little more friction, or rather frisson. Could this explain why an ever increasing number of my friends in London have started tuning in to the radio station Jazz FM on their car stereos? Exchanging pop, rock, soul, R&B etc., for something more complex, with more variation, and with formulae that are less repetitive in character, for something subtle, deft, and “exciting”. For something wonderful and enjoyable that has, however, through its own self-perception, its history and its notions and conventions relating to improvisation, tradition, and emotion, ultimately become conservative. Jazz has thus abandoned its position as an avant-garde form of expression and become entertainment clad in the sophisticated garb of culture. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you.
I think I understood what the critic meant, but must also emphasise that all painting is not jazz, and that some forms of jazz even succeed in the feat of not being jazz at all. And as I said, and said explicitly, Torsten Andersson’s painting in particular is not jazz, but art, in a somewhat deeper, more intense sense.
His paintings meet our gaze, directly, intensely, and proudly unlike anything else. But the directness lies in their appearance, or our view of it, and definitely not in their origin. Even at an early stage, Torsten Andersson was well aware of the curse of painting – that as a painter one is destined to trudge about in everything that has already been done before. In old languages, borrowed languages, languages one can and perhaps even must embrace at some point, only to be denied at a later stage, or to use Andersson’s own words, “negated”.
When one traces Torsten Andersson’s work back through his life and ponders the important milestones – the large and somewhat heroic retrospective exhibition at Moderna Museet in 1986; the first paintings after his long and painful hiatus from painting between 1966 and 1972; and above all, the process of formulating his own language during the 60s, starting with The Sea Gull, 1961, via The Source, 1962, up to the key work The Clouds Between Us from 1966 – the image of a struggle appears, a kind of life and death struggle geared to achieving a personal language.
Had he heard the seriousness and pragmatism in his voice, void of any romantic dramaturgy, I believe that Torsten Andersson would agree with Walter De Maria when he stated that, “Art is a matter of life and death”. Although their art is seemingly very different, they are kindred spirits.
One of the most obvious things that can be said of Torsten Andersson’s painting of the past few decades is that it does not resemble anything else. This cannot honestly be said of much painting nowadays. Most of it is… well, jazz. To attain this he has assumed and negated stance upon stance, artist upon artist. This he has done in a systematic fashion for the most part, but sometimes I think in a state of anger and frustration as well, since the nature of the artistic process is all too unpredictable to offer respite to calm a systematist. He has repeatedly “examined art”, understood, and discarded, thereby ultimately finding a space, a place, a language he could call his own. In theory, he had already achieved this in 1966 with The Clouds Between Us, a “realistic portrait of an abstract sculpture”, a painting that embodies the logical consequence of a logical consequence, so to speak.
The first stop on this arduous journey is hence The Sea Gull, where a bird shape has been cut out of the canvas and sewn back on again – parenthetically speaking a deconstruction avant la lettre in the best Derridian tradition. Neither a negation nor a confirmation, but a visualisation of a conflict between two types of realism. On the one hand traditional depiction, the illusionism of representation, and on the other, the type of realism where the painting itself becomes an unmistakably real object. Then follow The Source I and II, where both approaches coexist side by side, rather than in an overlapping manner. In its upper section, the palette knife has conjured up the image of wild, lush vegetation with frantic, supple brutality, while the lower section is comprised of a simple black board. A board is a board is a board – but also the black surface of the water of the source… After that his choices are few. The next step must be a kind of object-like painting; a painting that is a sculpture and still is not, but something in between. During the first half of the 1960s – while the Minimalists in the U.S.A., with Donald Judd at the forefront, were abandoning painting for a kind of artwork which is neither, not sculpture or painting, but rather “specific objects”, as Judd called them – Torsten Andersson constructs several such objects. Most of them have long since been reduced to kindling wood in the artist’s merciless sorting sessions, but it is nevertheless amazing to see the similarities between the artistic conclusions that Donald Judd and Torsten Andersson draw at exactly the same time, with their simple, painted box-shapes. In the next phase however, Andersson draws completely different conclusions than Judd does from the sculpture paintings they had independently created. Andersson focuses on the painterly situation, seeking out new pathways for the tradition and practice he has so unconditionally loved since childhood. Instead of studying new spatial composition templates inspired by the logic of mass production – Judd’s distinguishing mark becomes the empty box, or boxes, lined up in a non-hierarchical fashion according to the principle “one thing after the other” – Andersson abandons the three-dimensional constructions and starts painting portraits of the abstract sculptures instead. The earliest paintings I have seen of this kind are dated 1964, but I believe, as I mentioned earlier, that it was not until a couple of years later, with The Clouds Between Us – a portrait with reflected highlights, deep shadows, and everything that realistic portraiture requires – and The Red Thread (The Source) from the same year, that he becomes fully aware of what he has done. With this portrait of an “imaginary closed object in an imaginary closed room”, he realises that he has reached a place where no one else has been before. Through a relentless “process of negation” he has found what he refers to as his “personal language”.
From this point on, his painting becomes something else. The risk of improvising around someone else’s theme, and discovering that one has spent the better part of a year creating a medley based upon already existing languages is eliminated.
If what Torsten Andersson calls his “struggle for language” is thereby concluded, it does not mean that he has reached his destination. On the contrary, he also seeks to fortify, almost literally defend his language. He wants to anchor it, and stabilise it to the point where it can endure anything – the scepticism of the surrounding world, its temptation to copy, and not the least, all the uses that he himself could possibly imagine.
One aspect he examines is the cultural habitat, or even the geographical habitat of his language. His perspective upon the whole process of negation and his entire artistic project is international in character. When he “examines art”, it is the art of the world that is studied, and it is in relation to this that he achieves a conceptual clarity in his own language. But when it comes to firmly establishing his own principle however, he draws his inspiration from something not only Swedish, but something particular to southern Sweden and even regions more local in character; the areas in the vicinity of his childhood village of Benarp, not far from Hörby.
“Images from Frosta County” was his name for the important exhibition at Galerie Burén in Stockholm, were he showed among other things, the two Source paintings. And the works that Torsten Andersson describes as his “depictions of popular tales” – featuring the Battahus blacksmith, Pernilla the orphan girl, and Victoria Benedictsson – are also images that are firmly rooted in the Hörby region. One would certainly like to think that both The Birch, and The Maple literally have their roots in Benarp as well, despite the fact that on their way to becoming paintings they have become imaginary abstract sculptures, and have at some point been formally inspired by stylistic elements of both Celtic and Viking art. The project is thus both uninhibitedly international – Torsten Andersson’s ambition is to contribute to art history – and at the same time just as uninhibitedly provincial, albeit in the best sense of the word. Both global and local; in other words, Glocal.
These depictions of popular tales were also a part of a slightly different strategy to consolidate the language – an attempt to reinforce it with something more personal and existentially biting. The Blacksmith, 1983, is about the Battahus blacksmith who took the lone, dying calf of a poor old woman to church and gave it Holy Communion, and had to pay subsequently for this with his life. Was it possible to tell such stories with this language – while not abandoning the basic thought that there is a third path, a language that is both doubly imaginary as well as doubly realistic – and therefore neither the one nor the other?
The depiction of popular tales was one method, another was a series of works under the heading The Reproduction Triptych from the mid-1980s, the themes of which touched upon the capacity of art to transcend materiality and perhaps our own and every other living being’s desire to transcend their given limits. But not even an eternal, transcendental theme such as this is allowed to become elevated or pretentious high-brow culture. Here the auxiliary engines in the narrative of the transcendence of one’s own prerequisites are the titles, and they speak for themselves: The Frog’s Phallus, The Female Reptile’s Nipple, and The Virgin Mary’s Stomach. The impossible is possible. This is something that life, at least in its most intensive form – art – can show us at best. A kind of divine gift.
The depictions of popular tales and The Reproduction Triptych – together with a few other painting from the 1980s of what one could perhaps call bio-mythological structures – contributed to further consolidating Torsten Andersson’s personal language, though it was not for the purpose of telling these stories that he had struggled to acquire this language. They touched him deeply, scared him even, but this was not where the core of his art lay. In the mid 1990s he wrote, “The struggle for language is, and has always been, the sole content that has helped me to live”. At that point he had returned to painting imaginary statues and sculptures. Sculptures that, although they were imaginary, seemed to be made of plywood, just as the objects of the 1960s were. Quite squarish and angular, but at the same time spatially complex. Complex, yes, but also visually cheeky, with a youthful, impatient punch, indicating that the artist is on to something, that a new phase has begun. The chase is on.
At the same time, when one is now a viewer who does not stand and grope with his own feelings when faced with the literally inexorable stories hidden within the earlier paintings, another question becomes all the more persistent and bothersome: What is it about them that affects us so intensely? Why are we affected by their soft, yet total and apparently inexplicable power – this aurora borealis?
Perhaps it is because only the best are allowed to survive. It sounds dreadful – and it is. Out of one hundred working sketches, ninety are destroyed. The surviving ten drawings lead to one hundred new ones, of which ninety are destroyed, leaving twenty. Of these twenty, sixteen are destroyed. Four drawings remain. These drawings then continue in the work process – developing into paintings, though with no guarantee of survival.
Perhaps, and most probably, it is the best that survive. But the process has just as much to do with something else; with making the work real, with sharpening the senses, and getting focused. Creating a painting, especially for an artist who has worked consciously and professionally for over fifty years, is quite easy. Destroying that which one has created, however, and choosing what has to be thrown into the backyard fire, and what is allowed to come to life upon meeting the gaze of a viewer is difficult. Unfathomably difficult. Strange as it may seem, this is where painting becomes serious; and this is precisely what Torsten Andersson’s painting is – not jazz.
Thus, the seriousness, and the inexorable aspects of the process are extremely important. In this relentless process, however, the decisions are also made that are crucial for what we are allowed to see. Here the imaginary sculptures of plywood (or whatever other materials are used) are constructed on paper, and subsequently transformed into paintings. They are constructed – complex, self-evident and astoundingly useless; at times precariously top-heavy, askew, and in some way ill at ease with themselves and their both massive and hollow bodies. They are constructed and drawn, in an obstinate isometric perspective, in the imaginary space of the drawing – and if their survival instinct proves to be strong enough, in the imaginary space of a painting as well.
Perhaps the placement of the forms is somehow fundamental – actually the key to their power? During the 1980s and 1990s the forms rest – almost – firmly on their imaginary foundations, placed at the lower edge of the canvas, and surrounded by space. At times they are sliding, but in those cases the form itself is less defined, more shifting in character. The latest paintings, including the portraits of the brown “wooden constructions”, as well as the more recent, softer, patterned “cloth clad” sculptures are different. The forms have been seemingly pressed into the pictorial space with absolute decisiveness and confidence, resulting in a peculiar tension. It actually should not have come as a surprise to me when Torsten Andersson recently mentioned Olle Bærtling as an artist he respected. Both of them have extremely active relationships to the pictorial space, albeit in completely different ways. In Bærtling’s case, liberated and hyper-energetic – in Andersson’s more recent paintings squeezed, with resistance, as though he and the forms themselves refuse to accept what is offered. At the same time one knows that they have been placed where they are with diabolical precision. Strange, exciting, and insistently fascinating!
In the latest paintings of “cloth sculptures” we are faced with a visual intensity the likes of which I have rarely encountered. Packed into their imaginary spaces, the seemingly simple, but spatially complex forms balance and writhe in a state of paradoxical, active rest. In some strange way they seem discontented with what three-dimensionality and perspective have to offer, yet at the same time they possess the unquestionable presence that constitutes Andersson’s painterly signature. The striped and polka-dotted patterns of the cloth against a white background both complicate and unify the forms, while they themselves become a wonderful arena for this extraordinary type of painting that is seldom seen. By painting, I mean the traces of the movement of the brush and palette knife across the canvas; the traces of the physical act of applying paint on the canvas. Quite simply, the traces that allow us to see the forms we see, and in addition, to see more than the forms we see.
Torsten Andersson never admits to being interested in the singular act of painting, the handwriting of the brush and palette knife, or painterly beauty of any kind for that matter. The way in which he speaks of painting gives the impression that he “paints” the paintings almost like a house painter, and corrects his drawing by rubbing off that which does not work in a spatial sense, but that he never apportions the painting, the surfaces, the lines, or even the colour with any intrinsic value. I can understand his defensive stance. He began his struggle to find a language he could call his own in a time when the interest in aesthetic painting and beautiful colours had reached almost pornographic proportions. Ironically, he was probably more talented than most with regard to such things.
Be this as it may, I take the liberty of stating the following: His paintings may be just “simply painted”, but it is nevertheless a fact that no one paints like Torsten Andersson. So rough, decisive, and void of any flirtation whatsoever. So ineffably beautiful. But once again: without the feeling of having a space of his own, a given place in art history, and the negation of the struggle for a language, this would not have been possible. Without the relentless sorting out, this would not have been possible. Without the labour of finding the shape that was as self-evident as it was awkward and finding a conceivable and equally inconceivable space for it, none of this would have been possible. A struggle spanning more than fifty years has made all this possible and provided us with paintings yielding the necessity and irrefutability that only great art possesses. It bears down on us with the soft and total power of an aurora borealis. A divine gift.