Michel Majerus - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “You can no longer make art that is just art.”
    —Michel Majerus
    A master of spatial manipulation and play, Michel Majerus’ artworks absorbed the energy of youth culture in the final decades of the 20th century, translating and encapsulating the rapidly changing, and ever more virtual world which surrounded him. Ranging from paintings, digital prints and public demonstration pieces to ambitious installations, Express sits within a distinctly experimentative oeuvre as a work which compounds the artist’s previous examinations of spatial ideas within the two-dimensional picture plane. It is one of roughly thirty large-scale canvases created when Majerus was living in Los Angeles in 2001 and demonstrates the artist’s most potent and mastered visual language, just one year prior to his sudden and untimely death.


    Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919, Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Image: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © DACS, London 2023

    In Express, an off-white background is superimposed by bold lettering in striking colour, giving the work the typographical essence of mass media. This links it to earlier montage artists such as Hannah Höch who, like Majerus, appropriated text and mediated imagery into new structures. Höch’s seminal work, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, collages found images and text onto the picture plane in a dynamically layered process. Majerus does not use physical found material in Express, but instead takes inspiration from photographs he has taken of advertising or billboards. In a process he refined in the late 1990s, the artist then projects an image onto the canvas using a laptop and beamer which act as a digital stencil, a late 21s century update of Höch’s collage practice. And, although Express is more nuanced and less overtly political in comparison to Höch’s work – the capitalised lettering ‘EXPRESS’ may reference the high-speed nature of the new digital age or more vaguely, the shady, get-rich-quick ideals of the Hollywood industry. In this respect, both Höch and Majeru’s sampling of popular iconography as rhetorical material allows them to tap into the ethos of their distinct periods.


    Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, Florida, 1984, Private Collection. Image: akg-images, Artwork: © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London and © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

    Two other artists who redefined the art of appropriation in the later decades of the 20th century were Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose dynamic collaborations are the stuff of art-historical legend. Reframing the question of where appropriation ends and collaboration begins, Warhol would prepare a silk-screened or hand-painted canvas, incorporating familiar visual elements from the contemporary consumer world including borrowed corporate logos, products, and the language of advertising, which Basquiat would then work over. Combining the iconography and elan of Pop art with the more gestural energy of graffiti, the two artists challenged ideas of originality and authorship in relation to the artwork, paving the way for Majerus’ own, pioneering approach to digital technologies and the Readymade.

    Continuing a legacy of appropriation art that shaped the major movements of Dada, Pop, and the work of the Pictures Generation, Majerus’ painting borrowed the iconography of the consumer age, amplified through his use of a large-scale billboard format and certain typographic elements. While Warhol’s silk-screening technique embodied the making of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Majerus’ work decodes the digital realm, slowing it down through the medium of paint.


    Painting the virtual dimension

    “We cannot know, of course, where he was going. I’m not sure he would have left the medium of picture-making, because in the end, he was, maybe not a painter, but something more like a painter in an expanded field.”
    —Daniel Birnbaum

    The fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the techno scene and the creation of the Nintendo console were all elements behind a 1990s climate of possibility and expansion, fuelled by a new and rapidly advancing digital age. The arrival of computers and the internet afforded complete access to information, constituting a virtual age where prior concepts concerning space and time became defunct. An avid player of video games himself, Majerus transcribed this mindset to his artistic practice as ‘part of a system – art – that he saw as his “game,” his far horizons’, and he used the medium of painting to describe digital space in an analogue way, like a physicist using laymen’s terms.i Like so, works such as Express are coded with references to the digitalisation of society. The inclusion of painterly, gestural marks next to the more delineated text is confounds the eye, creating the illusion that the image is only semi-loaded. Like a static digital screen, the letters and painterly strokes appear to be autogenerated, a quality enforced by the empty letters of the uppermost word ‘EXPRESS’ which are yet to be coloured in by numeric code.


    Screen from the game Red Alarm, for the Nintendo 3-D video game system Virtual Boy, 1995. Image: Granger / Bridgeman Images

    Majerus’ work with installation art, alongside his interest in Nintendo gaming, introduced the artist to long-standing art historical debates related to painting’s organisation of space. What sets paintings like Express apart is its ability to master the illusion of limitless simulated space, seen in video games such as Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from 1995, as three-dimensional virtual structure is generated from the canvas’s flat surface. By placing pictorial devices against an infinite background, such as the puzzle pieces which appear to protrude from the painting’s surface, Majerus proves that source material and content can in fact be spatial, his paintings stylistically achieving a characteristic ‘richness with a vacuum.’ii As if standing in front of a computer-generated landscape, Express absorbs us into its cybernetic, spatial dimension. It affects us as an installation piece would; our eye forgets the flat surface of the mounted canvas as the piece is given a digital location of its own. A cyber experience of space is made analogue through the material of paint, and it was in this way that Majerus expanded the painterly tradition, proving that it could survive in the digital age without becoming a thing of the past.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Majerus participated in Manifest 2 in 1998. In 1999, he took part in the Venice Biennale where he covered the façade of the main Italian Pavilion with his mural.

    • Installationn played a central role in Majerus’ practice. For his largest work, For if we are dead so it is, Majerus created a 4,000 sq. ft skateboard ramp which was then covered in his designs at Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2000. Skateboarders and BMX bikers were then invited to ride over the artwork the day before the exhibition opened. In 2002, he draped a life-sized image of the Schöneberg Sozialpalast, Berlin’s brutalist housing project, over the Brandenburg Gate. 

    • Recently, to mark the 20th anniversary of Majerus’ death in 2022, a German-wide exhibition series, Michel Majerus 2022, visited KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Berlin; the Kunstverein in Hamburg; the Michel Majerus Estate; and at neugerriemschneider in Berlin. The same year, his first museum survey exhibition in the United States opened at ICA Miami.


    i Günther Holler-Schuster, “From here we can go anywhere: Michel Majerus and the Extension of Painting”, in Peter Pakesch, Robert Fleck, Veit Görner, Marie-Claude Beaud, Gijs van Tuyl eds., Michel Majerus, p. 165. 
    ii Veit Loers, “Splash Bombs: On the Painting of Michel Majerus”, in Peter Pakesch, Robert Fleck, Veit Görner, Marie-Claude Beaud, Gijs van Tuyl eds., Michel Majerus, p. 192

    • Provenance

      Gio Marconi, Milan
      Phillips de Pury & Company, London, 18 October 2008, lot 370
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart; Tate Liverpool, Michel Majerus: Pop Reloaded, 11 July 2003 – 18 April 2004, no. 35, n.p. (illustrated)

Property from a Prominent Private Collection



signed, titled and dated ‘Majerus 01 Express’ on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
279.7 x 398 cm (110 1/8 x 156 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2001.

Full Cataloguing

£300,000 - 500,000 ‡♠

Sold for £444,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023