A career shortened by an early death and a vision that flowed against the current of art history have undermined the contributions of painter Jan Müller (1922-1958). Banished from the official narrative, Müller is likely a to remain a footnote to the history of the New York School. Thus, an exhibition now on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York that showcases a number of Müller’s mature, large-scale paintings is a welcome, if short lived, opportunity to see his monumental Abstract Expressionist allegories.
Jan Müller, Walpurgisnacht-Faust I, 1956, oil on cnavas, 68 x 119 inches (courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art)
Müller accomplished what more well-known New York School artists, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko (at least in their early careers) could not - he made paintings that embraced myth and allegory while engaging issues central to the most forward-thinking painting of the time. While Newman and Rothko abandoned their mythological paintings of the early 1940s to pursue a purely abstract visual language, Müller took the opposite course. He renounced pure visual abstraction concluding “the image gives one a wider sense of communication.” 1
(detail) Jan Müller, Walpurgisnacht-Faust I, 1956 (courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art)
Müller remained a painter of abstract ideas, however, if not abstract forms. Without backsliding into still life or portraiture, he used allegory to address the question central to New York School painters: does an artist need to be a purely abstract painter to be “original?” 2 His paintings are original precisely because they take this question as their subject.
Kalm notes: "Considered as an exotic and tragic figure with a cult following, during his brief career, Müller was generally recognized as the first of the Hans Hofmann students to return to the mythic and physiological complexities of figurative imagery. Using the vernacular of Abstract-Expressionism he nonetheless began a vibrant legacy of post abstract painting that continues today."
De Jong writes: "Müller’s literary subject matter, while seemingly at odds with the high Modernist dictates of 1950s New York, hinted at a truth now more greatly apparent to a contemporary audience. Coming from a German Expressionist tradition that includes Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Müller’s paintings nonetheless partakes of a New World sensibility. Looking back to the medieval world for subject matter, Müller managed to paint a metaphor for the New York school. Wrestling, parallel to St. Anthony, with his own private demons, his heart troubles were contracted attempting to escape the Nazis, Müller attempted to turn his studio into a permanent walpurgisnacht, a place of pictorial sorcery."
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.