When I entered the exhibition On the Verge. Sidsel Paaske (1937-1980) at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Oslo I fortunately visited the Great Hall first. It is excellently presented, featuring three dominant works: Lying across the floor in the vast room is Paaske’s Blått brev: de fire temperamenter (Blue Letter: The Four Temperaments), an almost 40-metre long paper work originally created for the Molde Jazzfestival in 1979. The feature wall opposite presents a selection of enamel works. And on the right-hand wall, curator Stina Högkvist has placed 14 drawings that present a focused argument about the position held by this medium within Paaske’s art.
In 1979 Paaske was 42 years old and relatively well established. She held a central position within Norwegian culture, having connections to the scenes of literature, music, art and applied art, and she had established a personal idiom that encompassed 1960s experimentation as well as the democratic and political trends of the 1970s. Even so, the poet Jan Erik Vold calls her “a queen without a country” in the catalogue. He points out that barely any critics followed her work. The same held true for many of her radical contemporaries, we might add. In the absence of this interest, Paaske regularly sought out new media and modes of expression, and the result is a body of work of somewhat varying nature and quality. It is also, and to an equal extent, work that challenges traditional art history writing.
Blått brev is placed on a low base made out of untreated plywood, introducing the radical, down-to-earth aesthetics of the 1970s into the grand architecture of the old National Bank of Norway. The blue main colour of the work flows across the room in long bands, interrupted only by red and black marks and punctuations. The work seizes on the concept of ocean and water with playfulness, and was originally conceived as a score for musical improvisation. But of course it is also an abstraction, a simplification, and a concrete work; a picture of how the brush moved across the roll of paper. Perhaps this is indeed a masterpiece within Norwegian Late Modernist art; a work that bridges the gap between the main current of lyrical abstractions on the one hand and more radical, performative and floor-based works on the other.
This vibrant tone is continued in the presentation of the fourteen drawings. Here Högkvist presents the most clearly articulated group of works in the exhibition: drawings executed in marker pens, ink and pen, hovering somewhere between body, diagram and abstraction. The drawings that directly address questions of gender, such as Kropp IV (Body IV), Hold stenhårdt på greia di I and II (Hold On Tight to Your Thing) (all from 1973) and Fra det indre arkiv II and IV (From the Inner Archives) (1976), are particularly intense and personal testaments from this historic epoch when women seized control of narratives about their own bodies and sexuality. At the same time there is a visual and intellectual clarity to Paaske’s approach to these subjects that reminds us that this is first and foremost political, not private.
Immediately thereafter we come across the feature wall in the former grand hall. Once again the totality is visually compelling. Here the curator has orchestrated a selection of Paaske’s enamel pictures from 1965 to 1980 – small, densely condensed formats imbued with an intense materiality. Most are abstract or semi-abstract with an organic feel; others are reminiscent of landscapes, figures or diagrams. Here we are witnessing the very essence of the expanded concept of culture prevalent in the 1970s, the folksy, freedom-seeking use of colour seen in classrooms and dip-dye workshops in the late welfare state, embedded in this deeply ambivalent and glossy material.
Undecided formal language
However, as we are taking in this wealth of abstractions on enamel, doubts sneak in. Something about the small-scale formats and the somewhat open-ended, indecisive formal language doesn’t seem quite compelling in this museum setting. Was Paaske a painter or a jeweller? Should these works be regarded as decorative pieces, or are they works of art that merit a place in this story next to her paintings?
At this point it is worth pausing to reflect on the exhibition design. To display the enamel pictures Högkvist constructed a spectacular wall where the rough plaster is demonstrably visible. A staging that works well visually, but which also suggests that the works cannot hold their own without support. It seems as if Nasjonalmuseet had to construct a grander, wider narrative in order to give Paaske a place in art history.
This grander narrative is expressed in the exhibition design, but it also has a name: we are witnessing a cultural-historical approach to art history here. We are presented with Paaske’s notes, posters, political pamphlets, jewellery, book illustrations and record covers. We are shown TV shows in which the artist took part, and we are even treated to a “woman frieze”, The National Museum’s attempt at placing Paaske within an historic context by means of portraits by women artists from their own collection. Overall, this is a very talkative exhibition that employs many different perspectives in order to emphasise Paaske’s importance. The problem is that this makes us uncertain. Might it be the case that Paaske’s works don’t quite pass muster on their own, that they need to be helped along? Or is art history itself falling short of the mark, requiring expansion or revision in order to accommodate artists like Sidsel Paaske.
The exhibition does not offer any entirely convincing answer to these questions. Overall – after the splendid opening in the main room – it varies greatly in nature and quality. The most puzzling decision concerns the presentation of Paaske’s work Brent fyrstikk (Extinguished Match) from 1966. In order to build up a narrative about this sculpture, the curator has brought in works by two other artists who have worked with the same motif: Swedish-born American artist Claes Oldenburg and Danish-born Henrik Olesen. Henrik Olesen’s monumental Extinguished Match (based on Oldenburg 1987) from 2010 is placed right in the centre of the room, whereas Sidsel Paaske’s textile-clad, rather more tactile match has been shifted off to one side.
Högkvist is absolutely right to investigate the genealogy here. We are used to thinking that Nordic artists follow in the footsteps of international role models. But might it not be that Paaske’s spent match from the 1960s served as inspiration for Oldenburg in the 1980s? And might Henrik Olesen have quoted art history differently if he had been aware that a Norwegian woman created a spent-match sculpture twenty-one years prior to Oldenburg? These are interesting questions. However, they are not so interesting that they ought to overshadow the value of Paaske’s match in itself. To my mind, having Henrik Olesen’s paraphrase on Claes Oldenburg “displace” Sidsel Paaske’s match rather subverts the entire point of the exhibition.
The exhibition also comprises a range of display cases showing notes, pictures and printed publications as well as four smaller individually themed rooms: one shows Paaske’s early practice, including works from her student days; one is dedicated to her dialogue with music; one focuses on her relationship with literature, and one is devoted to her jewellery. In these presentations the methodical uncertainly of this exhibition becomes manifest. Her commitment within these different areas is beyond question, but the artistic results yield mainly slim pickings, certainly as they are presented here. Above the display cases in the museum corridors are groups of two and three paintings, presented as if they were subordinate to pamphlets and journal entries. The “Music Room” is dominated by a bench and an air conditioner; the paintings are presented in an asymmetrical, desultory fashion. The jewellery is placed within an ethnographic context that sets them apart from the rest of the exhibition instead of promoting cohesion.
Some works are nevertheless compelling. The illustrations for Jan Erik Vold’s book Hekt from 1966 are magnificent in their graphic simplicity, like condensed philosophical problems or little Haiku poems. The cover of that book – a painting from 1964 – has a unique quality that makes one wonder why Paaske did not pursue this style further. The painting is black with a large, round white speck in the middle, extending outward in a circular motion. It looks like a fireball. Paaske relates that she created this work by pouring a bucket of white paint onto a canvas covered in black paint and then turning the painting around so that the white paint ran outwards towards the edges. The work has a physicality reminiscent of action painting and a graphic simplicity that is more intellectually stringent that e.g. her many enamel pictures.
The works that lent their name to the Norwegian title of the exhibition, Like før I and II (On the Verge) share this mixture of material playfulness, graphic simplicity and intellectual clarity. Here Paaske has processed two boards used for name signs in an apartment building, using them as frames for a total of sixteen drawings done in marker pens on acrylic glass. This is a highlight of the exhibition, fully deserving of a position within Norwegian art history in every sense – including within the traditional, work-centred mode of art history writing. I find myself wishing that all of the less-than-brilliant works and all of the historical material were removed, allowing these excellent works to be presented in a more authoritative fashion. Of course I realize that Stina Högkvist’s expansion of the art historical perspective has been necessary; without this work she would not have been able to fully grasp Sidsel Paaske’s practice. And indeed one wishes that some of Paaske’s performative works had survived, for example the large paintings she created “live” to the accompaniment of music. On the other hand, in the absence of good documentation for this part of the artist’s body of work, I would wish that this broad approach had not been presented in such detail, that she had made a more discerning selection, trusting in the strength inherent in the best works.