From Mosaic to Man

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Untitled (Two Figures on Mosaic Background), oil on wood mounted on wood shingle, c. 1953, 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

From Mosaic to Man on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art is a seminal examination of the painter Jan Müller’s (1922-1958) transformative style. The exhibition features a group of early paintings and late that highlight Müller’s transition from painting colorful mosaic-like abstractions to incorporating blatant representational imagery.

Müller is considered to be one of the first practitioners to realize the conflation of both figurative and abstract expressionism during the early 1950s. Upon arriving in New York and Provincetown’s flourishing artist community, the German refugee found artistic kinship from his fellow native countryman Hans Hofmann. Müller studied with Hofmann at his school from 1940 to 1950, and the two German-born painters had great admiration for each other, despite consistent disagreements and passionate debates regarding their diverse ideas about painting. Müller stated (published in Marika Herskovic’s 2009 survey, American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism) “The artist … cannot take flight to the Elysian Fields of the preciousness of perfection, the prism of the eye, but has to deal with matter complex.” This quote was in stark contrast to the dialectic that Clement Greenberg was espousing at the time, which celebrated formalism – taught by Hofmann and employed by Pollock, Rothko, and others – as being rendered pure because it removed itself from all extrinsic effects. Another quote by Müller (published in “Airless Despair,” Time, 2 February, 1962) elaborated “Abstraction is no longer enough for me. So I am returning to the image. The image gives me a wider sense of communication.”

Repressing the figure and social narrative within a painting became a struggle for Müller as he was developing his skills as a painter. As witness to the Nazi regime’s corruption, and the son of politically active parents opposed to Hitler, Jan was also political minded, but as his wife Dody noted (in the catalog for his retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962) “as his conviction in the moral and ethical issues of our times began to express itself in his art, he withdrew from active participation in political matters.”

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Untitled (Witches), 1957, oil on six wood panels, 23 x 6.5 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

It was during this transitional phase that Jan found his painterly vocabulary. He was diverging from his formalist peers by incorporating both representational imagery as well as literary narrative within his paintings. The figure became a powerful symbol with social undertones throughout the rest of his career. His use of literary references like the witches and demons from Faust expressed the dark side of humanity.

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Leap Frog, c. 1953-54, oil on canvas, 18.5 x 19 in. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Müller’s first figurative paintings weren’t completely liberated from the abstract picture plane. In the beginning, the mosaic forms began to contort to form the outlines of human and animal imagery. In Leap Frog (1953-54), Müller used patches of earth tones to create a vibrant and dreamlike landscape, and white and brown swatches to form the shapes of two figures playfully blending together within a flat picture plane. With a nod to Hofmann’s “Push and Pull” technique, Müller created the illusion of space, depth, and movement on the canvas using color and shape. While Hofmann preferred that the painting be devoid of representation, Müller’s incorporation of figurative imagery proved the possibilities for conflating formalism with narrative subjects.

Müller’s return to representation was a major catalyst in the foundation of the East Coast Figurative Expressionist mode of painting and influenced a generation of painters including Jay Milder, Bob Thompson, Peter Passuntino, and Emilio Cruz. It’s incredible to recognize that Müller’s profound and influential mark on the artworld occurred in such a short time.

 

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