What Looks Good Today May Not Look Good Tomorrow: Michel Majerus

What looks good today may not look good tomorrow (2000) at MoMA, New York, in 2022 (Wikimedia Commons) What looks good today may not look good tomorrow (2000) at MoMA, New York, in 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)
Michel Majerus, Berlin 1996 (Wikimedia Commons)

Michel Majerus, Berlin 1996 (Wikimedia Commons).

In an explosive period of creativity that lasted less than a decade, Michel Majerus expanded horizons of creativity with his mix of pop culture and samples from art history in paintings and large scale installations that created a quintessentially complex and inventive postmodern world that tragically came to an abrupt end when he was killed in a plane crash in 2002.

After first coming to international attention in 1996 with an exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Stuttgart, Majerus’s dazzling visual language made him a key figure in a new generation of postmodern painters, as he fused canonized artistic styles alongside images from youth subcultures and the commercial mainstream to create art that embodied its modern, digital era, while also paying homage to artists like Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Born in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg in 1967, Michel Majerus studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, graduating in 1992. It was here that he met fellow student Stephan Jung with whom he moved to Berlin in 1993 and found his artistic home. In the German art capital, Majerus honed his preference for painting aspects of popular culture, from video games, digital images, film, television, and pop music to trademarks and corporate logos. One famous example was a reimagining of the collaborative canvases by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, with Basquiat’s signature crowned skeleton layered over Warhol’s General Electric logo.

If we are dead, so it is, Michel Majerus, 2000, installation view Köllnischer Kunstverein, Cologne (Wikimedia Commons)

If we are dead, so it is, Michel Majerus, 2000, installation view Köllnischer Kunstverein, Cologne (Wikimedia Commons).

His approach formed a new digital language for the new century, as he embraced new forms of image-editing software, printing techniques, and painting on non-traditional materials like aluminum and synthetic fabric, to produce pieces that glistened with the mark of the modern age and reflected that particular moment in time. Majerus’s postmodern world was brought to a tragic and premature end when he was in a plane crash traveling from Berlin to Luxembourg in 2002, killing him and 19 others. He was 35 years old.

Browse work by Michel Majerus coming to auction

Majerus’s Rise to Fame and Notable Works

The end of the nineties proved a pivotal time for Majerus, as he began to establish a reputation alongside Franz Ackermann, Jorge Pardo, and Tobias Rehberger. A series of exhibitions helped to establish his new, hybrid approach to art that reflected the information age, beginning with his invitation to Manifesta 2 in 1998, before announcing his participation in the Venice Biennale in the following year in grand fashion when he covered the main Italian Pavilion with a mural he designed. Already a burgeoning talent in the German art world, Majerus came to American attention during an extended stay in LA between 2000 and 2001, where he was stimulated by the city’s mass media obsession, sending his pop culture references into overdrive during a stay that was noted for his decision to remove the frame and canvas entirely and paint directly onto gallery walls.

Majerus’s art was a world of its own. Historical art references were swallowed whole by digital-age visuals from everyday society to form a world where corporate logos mingled with homages to Willem de Kooning and Sigmar Polke. A world where a Nike high-top leaps from the canvas like a Times Square 3D billboard or Frank Stellapainting.

Controlling the moonlight maze, Neugerriemschneider, Berlin, 2002 (Wikimedia Commons)

Controlling the moonlight maze (installation view), Neugerriemschneider, Berlin, 2002 (Wikimedia Commons)

The roots of Majerus’s postmodern, pop culture-infused approach can be clearly seen at his first exhibition at Neugerriemschneider Berlin in 1994, which followed on from the blood red lettering and cutesy cartoon figures of untitled (maybe you should annihilate) in 1993. Cute and cuddly animated cartoon figures in a Disney style frolic in a winter scene alongside a chilling apocalyptic message, in what was the first in a long parade of visual tributes to contemporary culture.

It was after his first solo show at Kunsthalle Basel that the art world began to take notice, as he introduced his needling provocation of artistic tropes fused with pop culture references, as demonstrated by his pseudo-expressive portrait of Beavis and Butthead (1993).

Currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, what looks good today may not look good tomorrow (2000) reflects the pre-packaged newness of the information age, as it referenced modern visual culture in which very little is truly original and has a limited shelf life.

Majerus didn’t limit himself to two-dimensional surfaces though, as he also created dynamic, painted installations that surround the viewer. For his one-person exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2000, he created a 4,000-square-foot skateboard half pipe. Titled if you are dead, so it is (2000) Majerus covered the ramp in ant-establishment slogans, like “burned out” and “fuck the intention of the artist” as part of an installation that today could be attributed to a rebellious clothing brand.

One of Majerus’s final pieces was also his most memorable. In September 2002 he covered the entire façade of Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate with the digital image of a graffiti-covered 1970s East Berlin housing block of the same name. Titled Sozialpalast, the attention-grabbing installation was overt in its didacticism and represented a new political dimension to Majerus’s work, which perhaps hinted towards the creative direction he was heading.

Browse work by Michel Majerus coming to auction

Majerus’s Legacy

Since his untimely death, interest in Majerus’s art has steadily risen, and in recent years, exploded. Many European museums have organized posthumous exhibitions at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Tate Liverpool in England, Kunsthaus Graz in Austria, and the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart in Germany. His popularity in Germany led to a collaboration between the Majerus family and the Galerie Neugerriemschneider, Berlin in which 200 of his works were toured as part of the European Retrospective travelling exhibition. And in 2002 to honor the 20th anniversary of his death, the Michel Majerus 2022 series of exhibitions were mounted at a range of galleries across Germany.

Michel Majerus – Eggsplosion.

Michel Majerus – Eggsplosion. Sold for $170,000 via Sotheby’s (March 2019).

The slow rise in his popularity has also reached the States, where ICA Miami hosted the Progressive Aesthetics exhibition in 2022, marking the first US museum survey of the Luxembourgish artists, which focused on how his interpretations of capitalism relate to art in American culture.

The increasing public interest in Majerus’s work has also been reflected at auction, with eight of his top 10 auction sales occurring in the past two years. Topping the list is his 1999 painting, o.T. (collaboration Nr. 8), which sold for $795,000 at Sotheby’s in August — more than twice its estimate and for a fee four times greater than achieved for the same painting at Sotheby’s in 2018, when it sold for $190,000.

His influence is also felt by artists, as German sculptor, painter, and graphic artist Thomas Bayrle fused elements from two of Majerus’s paintings to create a silk-screened wallpaper, Majerus (Smudge Tool/XXX) I (2013), while Takashi Murakami used some of Majerus’s imagery in his 2020 paintings. It’s the Kosuth Majerus Sonderborginstallation by Joseph Kosuth at the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York that showcases Majerus alongside two of his Kunstakademie Stuttgart professor’s art in an attempt to trace an artistic lineage that spans generations.

And while his untimely death denied the world the full artistic oeuvre from his brief and dynamic career, Michel Majerus’ bold, outsize talent has returned to public attention amid a surge of interest, for now at least. After all, what looks good today may not look good tomorrow.

Sources: Artuner.com | Artnet | Frieze | MatthewMarks.com | MichelMajerus.com | Time Out | Artforum | SeanKellyNY.com | The Guardian | ICA Miami | Tate