The seemingly self-explanatory category of ‘artists’ writings’ covers a wide variety of practices and has undergone substantial historical transformations. Early twentieth-century modern artists often produced treatises that attempted to legitimize unprecedented forms through plodding attempts at dialectical exposition (Mondrian) or exhortatory symbolist-futurist prose (Malevich). In a step that was to have profound consequences, Duchamp used his notes not for explanation but for exploration, making them into an integral part of his practices. In the 1960s and 1970s, conceptual artists such as Dan Graham and Robert Smithson developed the essay as an artistic form in its own right, using the magazine as a medium. Contemporary artists such as Paul Chan and Hito Steyerl, though they have abandoned the conceptualist impulse to designate texts or ‘magazine pieces’ as artworks, continue to write essays as part of their artistic practice.

The writings of Asger Jorn would seem to be a late example in the Mondrian–Malevich category, evincing a painter’s struggle to position and explain his developing work. But whereas Mondrian used a bowdlerized version of Hegel’s idealist dialectic to legitimize his specific approach as the sole way forward, Jorn performs an idiosyncratic appropriation or détournement of dialectical materialism, in conjunction and in dialogue with his art, yet without deriving a set of specific and constrictive formal prescriptions from it. If anything, both the artworks and the essays constitute a series of experiments that attempt to think through and challenge what Jorn perceives to be the cultural and social status quo, and to give the historical dialectic a decisive jolt.

Born Asger Jørgenson in Jutland in 1914, Jorn made his debut as a painter in Denmark in the early 1930s, where he joined the tiny Communist Party. In 1936 he went to Paris to study with Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier, working with them on the Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Returning to Copenhagen, he joined the anti-Nazi resistance during the War. In the post-war period, having changed his name, he would be a founder-member of the cobra group and, in 1957, of the Situationist International. If his primitivist-expressionist visual idiom—combining elements culled from folk art and Munch with the lessons of Surrealist automatism—was entirely at home in cobra, his continuing production of paintings and artworks in other media (ceramics, collage, sculpture) was accompanied by increasing difficulties with the si. Jorn-the-theorist was ultimately just as incompatible with the rigours of the Debordian brand of Situationist theory; nonetheless, Jorn’s French-language book Pour la forme, edited by Debord and published in 1958 by the si, has long been one of the more readily available and better-known of his publications.

An English translation of Pour la forme (as Concerning Form) by Jorn scholar Peter Shield has recently been published by the Museum Jorn; Shield is also responsible for a 2002 translation of some of Jorn’s writings from the first half of the 1960s as The Natural Order and Other Texts—an impressive achievement, though forbiddingly priced. Jorn’s early Danish texts have so far gained exposure mostly through Graham Birtwistle’s analysis of his immediate post-war writings in Living Art: Asger Jorn’s Comprehensive Theory of Art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946–1949), which takes into account not just the published articles but the substantial unpublished efforts Jorn undertook to present his theory of art and culture in total form. Published in Holland in 1986, Birtwistle’s book has not had stellar international distribution, leaving these writings somewhat in limbo. Now the affordable anthology Fraternité Avant Tout: Asger Jorn’s Writings on Art and Architecture,1938–59, edited by Ruth Baumeister with texts translated by Paul Larkin and others, gives the first overview in English of Jorn’s development as a theorist from the pre-war years through the cobra period to the beginnings of the Situationist International. The publication appears to mark a growing interest in Jorn, which will no doubt be further stimulated by it. Perhaps we have arrived at the moment when Jorn can finally be properly historicized, which is to say: the moment at which his practice becomes visible precisely as being insufficiently ‘of its time’, as failing to settle into any orderly categorization of mid-twentieth-century art and culture.

Jorn’s earliest texts try to formulate conclusions from his experience of working with Le Corbusier and Léger on the 1937 Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, which results in seemingly mutually contradictory titles such as ‘On the Artistic Potential Inherent within Architecture’ and ‘Architecture Is Not an Art’. Jorn is interested here both in collaboration with architects and in distinguishing art from architecture. Although the first essay from 1938 is still largely laudatory of Le Corbusier and his colleagues’ attempts to reposition visual art and architecture, during the Second World War the texts quickly become critical of modern functionalism, promising or demanding liberation from ‘the often deadening conveyor belt of life’ through imagination and intuition. For this to happen, architects need to abandon the functionalist paradigm and enter into a genuine dialogue with artists. ‘A building that has not been finished off by artists should not be passed for use by the local Health Authority’, Jorn writes; but at the same time he does not want to be relegated to the position of ‘finisher’.

For the vitalist-materialist Jorn, art springs not from religion but from ‘the psychological urge to liberate material substances’—to use and exacerbate their qualities. This root is ultimately the same for art and architecture, but architects have negated the irrational side of art by purging their purist, white constructions of mood, atmosphere, the imagination. The last of these can only return to building projects if artists are involved from the beginning; decorating a scheme previously devised by rationalists will not do. Thus, in his texts from the Second World War, when Jorn was working in relative isolation in Denmark, he laid the ground for his post-war crusade against Max Bill’s New Bauhaus in Ulm, and for the formation of the Mouvement International pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste, which would precisely attack the dogma of functionality in the name of the image and the imagination.

Proclaiming that ‘art is a life and death issue’, Jorn takes his anti-rationalist, anti-functionalist crusade beyond architecture into domains such as fashion, railing against the anti-sensual Anglo-Saxon dress code, which amounts to a ‘public castration’ and negation of life. Under the stifling ‘gentlemanly’ ideal, ‘the only people who have an acceptable dress code are cinema ushers, artists, bellboys and Christmas elves, and these are all at this stage nothing more than museum curios’. Linked to the ‘rigorously policed’ modern Western dress code is the ‘disgusting, anti-human and destructive surrogate for real life going under the name of gymnastics and sport’. These motifs would be taken up again in the immediate post-war years, when the theoretical and historical scope of Jorn’s essays widens dramatically, turning his critique of functionalism into an indictment of classical–rationalist tendencies throughout history.