In an effort to find out what the lost works of Kristinn Pétursson (1896-1981) would look like, his existing pieces are accompanied by comments from contemporary Icelandic artists.
We have seen it throughout art history: how important it can be for individual artists to be part of a community of artists and thinkers. The dialogue between equals working in the same field can be an essential factor in their artistic development. Occasionally, however, artists have stepped out of that community or, for some reason, never even entered it. It is only natural to be curious about the development and artistic pursuits of those who continue working outside of their local artistic community.
One such artist was Kristinn Pétursson from Hveragerði, a small town about an hour’s drive from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Born in 1896, Pétursson studied fine art in Reykjavík, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Paris and exhibited in various venues up until 1954, when he had his last public exhibition. Despite never showing his work publicly again in his lifetime, Pétursson did not stop following the goings-on of the international art world, and visited numerous exhibitions and biennials abroad. Furthermore, he kept working vigourously on his own art, developing his thoughts, concepts, and works in solitude and relative isolation from fellow artists and the locals of small town Hveragerði until his death in 1981.
Pétursson was a prolific artist. A Reykjavík museum, ASÍ Art Museum, preserves most of his remaining works, some 1 450 drawings and paintings. For some unknown reason, all of his sculptures, reliefs, and installations were discarded. Legend has it that all of the pieces were documented before being thrown away, but any such collection of photographs is yet to be found. Only a handful are left to us. This gives a mysterious appeal to his work and a longing to get a feel for what is missing. However, Pétursson wrote numerous texts that provide insight into the installations and sculptures lost. For instance, he explained his experiments with large colour fields, painted directly on walls, that transform the experience of space long before his Icelandic colleagues had caught up with that kind of thinking.
Now on display in the LÁ Art Museum in Pétursson’s native town, Hvergerði, there is an exhibition of his works, curated by Markús Þór Andrésson. Along with selected paintings and drawings by Pétursson and documentations or suggestions of how some of his lost works could have been, the curator has invited four practicing artists to ‘comment’ on Pétursson’s works with their own. The exhibition is entitled The Void and centres on his works relating to that subject, which took up much of his attention in later life: attempts to reach out from the canvas and into space, tending toward experiments with installations and site specific work. The ‘commenting’ artists are Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, Huginn Þór Arason, Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir, and Unnar Örn.
The name of the exhibition is partly inspired by a series of his, entitled The Void, Nil, Nothing at All. In his paintings, Pétursson attempts to push the colour out of the canvas or paper to reveal the void. The white void is central in each piece, tearing it apart, pushing the colours and shapes that usually constitute a painting off the edges. These are conceptual works using abstractions of colour, shape, and composition.
In the exhibition, the other artists’ pieces are positioned among Pétursson’s drawings and paintings. Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir shows poles erected from pillars made with worthless found materials. These sculptures were first shown at an outdoor group sculpture exhibition in this same small town in 1993, where most of the pieces were massive masculine sculptures of highly resistant materials. Aðalsteinsdóttir, however, was inspired by Pétursson’s work and his position as an outsider and made her sculptures homage. Allegedly, there were predictions that her fragile work – positioned as it was, at the edges of the original exhibition – would not survive and stand up to the work of the other artists. Of course, it did, and now rhymes beautifully with Pétursson’s career and position.
Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir was inspired by Pétursson’s writings, part of which he dedicated to categorizing his works. Birgisdóttir took these personal categorisations, such as ‘hanging treasures’, ‘fountains of light’, or ‘items that fit the palm nicely’ and created works of her own to fit them.
A particularly memorable work by Huginn Þór Arason is a tissue dispenser of the sort normally found in public restrooms, yet has bright green napkins coming out of it. It resonates powerfully with Pétursson’s ideas about colour flowing out of the art object and into the space.
In a separate room, Unnar Örn has borrowed all of Pétursson’s works from the ASÍ Art Museum that were not selected by the curator for the exhibition. They are installed in a cluster inside a red curtain cube in the middle of the room, which the audience can peek into, revealing the entire remains of a man’s career, simultaneously grand and trivial. It was possible to catch a glimpse of works completely different to those in the exhibition, such as surreal paintings (also unique in Icelandic art at the time) and academic busts.
Gaining from loss
The exhibition succeeds in presenting work that provides insight into a subject dear to this mystery man: the void itself. With the prudent curatorial move of inviting four artists to ‘comment’ on Pétursson’s work, he is finally in union with other artists, on equal terms. Furthermore, the move puts his work in a contemporary context by invoking the dialogue between the commentators’ works, proving Pétursson’s artistic relevance, beyond his role as an outsider.
Although there is a sad and empty feeling associated with Kristinn Pétursson’s secluded toil and his lost work, maybe this fate was just perfect. After endless attempts to push everything else aside to illustrate or expose the void, he managed to leave behind a real void, which continues to inspire others to take it on. Were all his work accounted for and documented, there would not be half of this appealing sense of mysterious emptiness to his oeuvre. Perhaps there was no better way for him to hint at the tragic hope of the void.
The Void runs at the LÁ Art Museum until February 24th 2013.