Rick Poynor | Essays

What Does J.G. Ballard Look Like? Part 2

Peter Klasen, Les Bruits de la Ville (The Noises of the City), acryllic on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 1966

In a
recent post about the British writer J.G. Ballard, I explored the idea of the “Ballardian” image and the ways that some designers and image-makers have interpreted it. Here, I want to consider a German-born artist based in France whose paintings are the most Ballardian I have ever seen. So far as I am aware Peter Klasen has never been discussed previously in relation to Ballard or his writing. There are good reasons for supposing that Ballard was unaware of Klasen’s work and I have found no evidence to suggest that the artist was aware of Ballard, though it remains a possibility. The remarkable overlap in their thinking and practice at a critical moment in the 1960s is a matter of synchronicity, not influence.

Ballard’s impact on the art world has been a subject of growing interest, which was given an additional spur by his death in 2009. His readily acknowledged debt to Surrealism is already well covered and critical attention has recently moved to his friendship with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi. In February, a conference at Manchester Metropolitan University, organized by David Brittain (author of The Jet Age Compendium: Paolozzi at Ambit), focused in part on this relationship, and some notable Ballard-watchers were in attendance. A year ago, the Gagosian Gallery in London mounted the exhibition “Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard.” This included artists Ballard is known to have admired — Dalí, De Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tacita Dean — as well as artists felt by the curators to share concerns with the writer, including Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Douglas Gordon and Damien Hirst. (See the lavish catalogue designed by Graphic Thought Facility.)

Peter Klasen wasn’t among their number in the Gagosian’s big show, although his work has far more in common with Ballard’s than did many of the pieces in “Crash.” This oversight didn’t surprise me at the time because I, too, was completely unaware of Klasen’s work.  A few months later, in a bookshop in Arles in France, I noticed a thick new monograph titled Peter Klasen: Oeuvres 1959-2009, published in 2009 by the imprint Actes Sud (in French only). Turning the pages and seeing these extraordinary images for the first time, I felt something like the excitement an anthropologist might experience having just unearthed a crucial missing thigh bone. As luck would have it, an exhibition of recent works by Klasen was showing at a gallery around the corner.

In the 1960s, Klasen was loosely classified as a Pop artist. More accurately, he belongs to a tendency the French call Figuration narrative; in 2008, there was a major retrospective of the movement at the Grand Palais in Paris. Klasen has had a distinguished career in France and Europe, with many exhibitions and earlier monographs, including one by the theorist Paul Virilio, but he seems not to have exhibited in the UK and Anglo-American critics have never taken much interest, though later he had shows in the US. Lucy R. Lippard gives Klasen two lines without a picture in her study Pop Art, first published in 1966, noting only that his work is reminiscent of Richard Hamilton’s. In Pop Art: A Continuing History (1990), Marco Livingstone has slightly more to say, though again no image, observing that Klasen, “incorporated rather mechanistic renderings of real objects in his pictures, and sometimes even the objects themselves, but generally he did so in order to heighten the sexual connotations of the images of women featured as his primary subjects; although his works of the late 1960s closely resemble certain aspects of American Pop, his art remained at odds with the impassive stance of its prototypes because of its fetishistic tenor.

Peter Klasen, Anatomie du plaisir (Anatomy of Pleasure), acrylic and oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, 1964-65

This sounds a bit like a scholarly put-down. Everything Livingstone says is true so far as it goes, but the traits he identifies are not a limitation — they’re the point. In a famous axiom, Ballard declared, “sex times technology equals the future.” In the period from 1966 to 1973, which saw the appearance of the texts later collected in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and the publication of Crash, Ballard focused obsessively on this theme. Much the same could be said of Klasen, who locked onto target a year or two earlier, except that he kept on going — similar themes are still present, though differently expressed, in the 75-year-old artist’s recent work. “I believe [. . .] in the elegance of automobile graveyards,” wrote Ballard in a lyrical litany of private obsessions. The final picture in Klasen’s monograph is a photo of the white-haired artist standing in a breaker’s yard, a predatory Nikon slung around his neck, in front of a twisted hillock of rusting machine parts. 

Peter Klasen, Une rencontre a bien eu lieu (A Meeting Took Place), acrylic on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 1965

The three paintings shown here are typical of Klasen’s work in the mid-1960s. All of these images utilize a combinatorial system derived from modernist montage of the 1920s. Occasionally Klasen glues images and small objects to the canvas, but just as often he paints the entire “montage” as a seamless unit. The component images are shattered into fragments and here Klasen differs from an American Pop artist such as James Rosenquist whose image quotations are more complete, continuous and celebratory. The resemblance to Richard Hamilton, whose painterly probes of popular culture also fused image-sections into new aesthetic configurations, comes in the way Klasen deploys these fragments across the picture plane, allowing zones of unoccupied space to open up between them. Although traditional commercial Pop iconography sometimes appears (a hotdog, a bowl of food, a lipstick), Klasen’s overriding concern is the equivalence between female body parts drawn from advertising and glamour pictures — lips, eyes, breasts, elbow — and the manufactured or mechanical elements, which include taps, valves, plugs, handles, switches, syringes, steering wheels and car windows. He presents both types of image on equal terms within the painting’s symbiotically organized structure. Several of the same image fragments recur from picture to picture and Klasen’s color-drained image-world becomes a semiotic pressure chamber in which new forms of control (and desire?) subordinate the erotic presence of the female subjects.

Poster for Two or Three Things I Know About Her designed by Ferracci, 1966

In an interview in 2008, Klasen recalled the influence during these years of Jean-Luc Godard’s approach to film-collage, his essayistic abstractions, disruptive inter-titles and anti-cinematic moments of rupture. A graphic montage using sources also favored by Klasen can be seen in a poster from 1966 for Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her about the life of a prostitute in Paris. If Klasen’s pictures are still “sexy” to us, despite their coldness and extreme, disassociating fragmentation, then it’s a violently ultra-modern kind of sexiness.

Now consider this passage from a chapter titled “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” in The Atrocity Exhibition (first published with the title “The Death Module” in New Worlds no. 173, July 1967):

Operating Formulae. Gesturing Catherine Austin into the chair beside his desk, Dr Nathan studied the elegant and mysterious advertisements which had appeared that afternoon in copies of Vogue and Paris-Match. In sequence they advertised: (1) The left orbit and zygomatic arch of Marina Oswald. (2) The angle between two walls. (3) A neural interval— a balcony unit on the twenty-seventh floor of the Hilton Hotel, London. (4) A pause in an unreported conversation outside an exhibition of photographs of automobile accidents. (5) The time, 11:47 a.m., June 23rd, 1975. (6) A gesture — a supine forearm extended across a candlewick bedspread. (7) A moment of recognition — a young woman’s buccal pout and dilated eyes.

This is one of Ballard’s celebrated image lists found throughout The Atrocity Exhibition. The items that comprise the “operating formulae” can be seen as a miniature exhibition list, as an extreme form of conceptual montage, and as a forced marriage of apparently unrelated images (a classic Surrealist stratagem), which replicates the scrambled structure of the narratives within each chapter, and the way these non-linear chapters ultimately cohere as a work. At the same time, it would be possible to use Ballard’s image kit as a set of instructions to assemble a montage on paper that might then resemble a painting by Klasen (zygomatic arch, angle between walls, balcony unit, accident photos, forearm, dilated eyes, etc.). What both Ballard and Klasen share at this point in the mid-1960s is a cold, appraising, analytical eye. It’s impossible to tell how they feel about what they show, or to know what they want us to feel, if anything at all. Their findings are disturbing and perhaps even repellent from a humanist perspective, yet the new aesthetic forms they use to embody them are, even today, exciting, provocative and tantalizingly difficult to resolve.

Page from “The Summer Cannibals” by J.G. Ballard, New Worlds no. 186, January 1969
Later published in The Atrocity Exhibition. Design by Nigel Francis

Ballard’s experiments with condensed collage-novels in the late 1950s have received increasing attention and they were shown at the Gagosian Gallery; the “Advertiser’s Announcements” he presented in Ambit from the summer of 1967 appear in the catalogue. A few months earlier, in New Worlds no. 167 (October 1966), Ballard published a series of comments on his new experimental texts, under the title “Notes from Nowhere.” He considers the intersection of three kinds of plane: the world of public events, the immediate personal environment, and the inner world of the psyche. “Where these planes intersect,” he writes, “images are born.” In Ballard’s attempt to locate himself, by calling on “the geometry of my own postures, the time-values contained in this room, the motion-space of highways, staircases, the angles between these walls,” the intersection of planes again suggests Klasen’s surgically precise combinatorial technique. Ballard goes on to propose that it might one day be possible “to represent a novel or short story, with all its images and relationships, simply as a three-dimensional geometric model.” Then, just a few lines later, in a curious unedited moment that seems to express his ambivalence, he says that he is worried that a work of fiction could become “nothing more than a three-dimensional geometric model.”

By the early 1970s, Klasen had severely reduced the number of image fragments and the agitated visual complexity seen in his earlier montages. In a development that actualizes Ballard’s conception of a new kind of three-dimensional fiction, Klasen’s constructions, while still wall-mounted, become fully three-dimensional with projecting pipes and bathroom fittings. The unrelenting hygienic cruelty of this work, its absolute concentration on a few fetishistic motifs to the exclusion of everything else — breasts and basin, waist and switches, lips and bidet — bears comparison with the strange mental journey Ballard would undertake as he worked on Crash, the ultimate statement of his ideas about the sexualization of our relationship with technology. “Nothing is spontaneous, everything is stylized, including human behaviour,” he said in 1970, in an interview with Lynn Barber in Penthouse. “And once you move into this area where everything is stylized, including sexuality, you’re leaving behind any kind of moral or functional relevance.” Also in 1970, in a brief manifesto, reprinted in his latest monograph, Klasen set out his aims:

Play on the dialectic of a photographic reproduction and its pictorial transposition.

Play on the magical and poetic power of an object out of place.

Respond to the aggression of society with another aggression.

Show that beauty is everywhere, in a bathroom, for example.

Demonstrate that a bidet, a washbasin, a switch can exercise the same fascination on the spectator as the mouth, the body of a woman or a racing car.

Return these images and objects to the spectator-consumer, allowing him to react to these object-tableaux and to project his own fantasies onto them.

Stimulate his awareness by providing him with aesthetic and ideological information about himself and the world that surrounds him.

(My translation from the French.)

“Respond to the aggression of society with another aggression”: this is exactly what Ballard had done in The Atrocity Exhibition, responding to what he called the “death of affect” — of ordinary emotional responses to events — by playing it out within the glinting, recursive, multi-planar architecture of his book, returning society’s images to the “spectator-consumer,” with their inherent characteristics pulled to the surface and intensified, as a morally ambiguous invitation to know oneself better. Ballard, too, had found a perverse kind of beauty in this material, which is one reason why his writing of this period continues to exert its extraordinary hold on readers.

There is no indication that Ballard knew of this kindred spirit across the sea. Klasen was at the start of his career, like Ballard, and had no reputation in Britain, and unfortunately still doesn’t. Ballard made journeys to France, from the 1960s, but if he had ever come across Klasen’s work, which would have been more likely later, he would surely have mentioned it somewhere — he wrote regularly about art. If the critical aim now, as the Gagosian Gallery show suggests, is to map more fully Ballard’s visual thinking and wider connections to the art world, then Klasen’s body of work deserves close attention. A couple of his previously unseen paintings, had they been shown at the Gagosian, could have made a great impact; the reason for their inclusion would have been much more readily apparent than it was for some of the over-familiar art the curators selected.

The overlapping concerns of Ballard and Klasen in the mid- to late 1960s represent one of the great might-have-beens of contemporary art and literature, but a belated union is still possible. It’s hard to imagine better images than Klasen’s, ready-made or otherwise, for the covers of future editions of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. It’s strange that the French, great admirers of both these books, haven’t cracked this one already.

See also: 
What Does J.G. Ballard Look Like? Part 1 
Collapsing Bulkheads: The Covers of Crash

Paintings by Peter Klasen are from
Peter Klasen: Oeuvres 1959-2009 by Pascale Le Thorel, published by Actes Sud, 2009. 

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