Magnús Pálsson, ‘Master Plaster Caster’

The RKD has, among its records, the archive of artist Douwe Jan Bakker (1943-1997). Some of the most engaging letters in this archive were written by his good friend Magnús Pálsson (1929), one of Iceland’s best-known artists. In this episode, this remarkable figure is discussed by curator Lynne van Rhijn. His letters to Bakker describe how Pálsson sent him Puffin meat, and typically Scandinavian reversible mittens with two thumbs. The frankness with which he talks about his life, work and developments in Icelandic art is what makes reading this correspondence particularly worthwhile, as do the warmth and subtle humour that permeate his writing.

(Written for and De Verzamelkrant)

1. Note from Magnús Pálsson to Douwe Jan Bakker, 31 January 1994, collection RKD, Douwe Jan Bakker Archive
2. Magnús Pálsson, Flæðarmál (the beach) (1976) at Galerie A Amsterdam, 1977, photo: M Pálsson
3. Portrait of Pálsson in 1968 with The best pieces (1965), unknown photographer

From ‘nothing’ to ‘something’

Even a scribbled note is a source of beauty. Not saying much, and yet plenty to say – which ties in with a constant element in the early oeuvre of Magnús Pálsson: the inversion from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’. To Pálsson, an absence, a negative, also implies a positive. ‘No thing exists without its opposite also existing’, he said in an interview in 1978. Several works illustrate this principle, such as Flæðarmál (the beach) from 1976, which was exhibited a year later at Galerie Waalkens in Finsterwolde. It is a cast of a stretch of beach in three parts, with the sand, the surf and the sky as individual components. Stacked on top of each other, the three pieces fit seamlessly, just like at the coast, the seawater extends into the sloping sand, and the sky fills up the space between waves.

In a letter to Bakker, Pálsson included an explanatory sketch of his best-known sculpture, The seconds until the Sikorsky helicopter touches down (1976). The work consists of three plaster casts of helicopter wheels which together evoke a positive: a big, just barely hovering helicopter. The three casts were made different in height, ‘to show that the machine wasn’t landing quite horizontally’, Pálsson writes. This way, he aims to not just capture the helicopter, but also the moment. ‘If nothing else, than just to show that also I can do something about time, which seems to occupy everybody’, he writes with mild (self-) mockery. He jokingly referred to a second work as a ‘masterpiece I called something like “Displacement of a space”. If nothing else than to show that also I can do something about space’. The work consists of casts made at several locations in an exhibition room, using plaster to fill up the interstitial space between the wall and around the legs of two people. He then moved the resulting plaster blocks some way forward, effectively relocating the captured residual space. This raises the question whether there is an actual difference between space and that which was captured in plaster. Thus, with this simple, objective technique, he manages to evoke various phenomena.

1. Letter from Magnús Pálsson with sketch of cast of helicopter wheel, 12 January 1977, collection RKD, Douwe Jan Bakker Archive
2. Magnús Pálsson, The seconds until the Sikorsky helicopter touches down (1976) at Gallerí SÚM, Reykjavik, 1976, photo: M. Pálsson
3. Newsletter Mobile Summer Workshop with work by Douwe Jan Bakker, 1981, Douwe Jan Bakker Archive

Artistic exchange

At Pálsson’s request, Douwe Jan Bakker wrote the display room texts for his friend’s exhibition at Galerie A in Amsterdam. To this end, Bakker used the sentences from Pálsson’s letter quoted above. From the correspondence, it appears that Pálsson exhibited on the recommendation of fellow countryman Hrein Fridfinnson, who lived in Amsterdam, and who, like Bakker, contributed to a fruitful artistic exchange between Iceland and the Netherlands during these years. As previously mentioned, in the summer of 1977, Pálsson exhibited at Galerie Waalkens, which was the starting point of a series of collaborations with Galerie A. In Finsterwolde too, the self-proclaimed ‘Master Plaster Caster’ exhibited object-like sculptures which are solid but suggest intangible phenomena. ‘Simple, clearly defined ideas with a relaxed, poetic power of expression’, as one journalist aptly described the work. What Nefertiti whispered to Alexander the Great on the pillow (1977), captures in plaster the space between an ear and a mouth. Its title suggests the object enables a whisper to bridge centuries.

Space-filling music

The artwork was to herald a long series of works inspired by sound, during whose creation Pálsson increasingly opted to use less or no material. The Anti-Society League Concert from 1982, is one of the final plaster works. A small sketch of it also appears in the Bakker archive. On this occasion, Pálsson invited a local punk band to play in a small basement room below Norrköpings Art Museum. There he made plaster mouldings between the band and the walls, after which the space-filling music he had captured, could, in solidified form as it were, be moved outside. Later sound work, for instance, consists of merely a voice in a recording or performance, which he still regards as a ‘sculpture’ because sound too takes up space. ‘The less material there is in art, the more noble it becomes, and once it has long ceased to be visible except as the memory of art, that’s when it is best’, Pálsson remarked in 1994. A glimpse of things to come could already be discerned in one of Pálsson’s earliest experiments for the influential theatre company Gríma. He wrote a sketch for which a herd of 30 to 40 horses had to be gathered on stage in utter darkness. The audience was to construe what was going on merely from the smell and sound.

1. Sketch for Bakker for The Anti-Society League Concert, c. 1982, collection RKD, Douwe Jan Bakker Archive
2. Magnús Pálsson, The Anti-Society League Concert, 1982, Norrköpings Konstmuseum, photo: Carina Hedén
3. Pálsson makes a cast of a punk performance for The Anti-Society League Concert, 1982, Norrköpings Konstmuseum, photo: Carina Hedén

Icelandic forefront

At times Pálsson’s letters to Douwe Jan Bakker seem to suggest a kind of unease about the creation of art. In June 1977 he confesses: ‘I don’t think I really like doing this work. I only like to have done it.’ He then goes on to say that he would prefer to just paint landscapes. An amusing remark to those familiar with the fact that in 1969, Pálsson shook the Icelandic art world with its long history in landscape painting, by exhibiting his wallpaper Journey (1966). The wallpaper had been created by putting classic ink drawings through an old-fashioned ammonia printing machine until they turned into strips of considerable length. He then offered these strips up for sale at a fixed price per meter.

Consequently, Pálsson, with his humoristic work in crude, unsophisticated material, was seen as the most extreme representative of the Icelandic avant-garde from that period. He helped pave the way for art that was more conceptual in nature rather than aimed at expressiveness or aesthetic refinement. Pálsson, who, as a child, according to a modest self-written bio, ‘during the Christmas crowds got lost in a shopping street’ in 1934, experienced many other events that did make the headlines, as other biographers have noted. For example, he represented his country at the 73rd Venice Biennale, and in 1978 he was one of the co-founders of the Living Art Museum in Reykjavik, which became an important breeding ground for experimental art.

Perhaps the biggest mark he made on Icelandic art was in his capacity as head of a new department at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts, where he applied his experience with collective art production in the theatre to visual art. Pálsson considers education to be a medium as well. Here the teaching artist maps out contours which are then filled in by others so that the result often differs from what he himself might have imagined. Thus, through this medium, Pálsson not only relinquishes form but also the initial idea. Teaching: the craziest branch of art is the title of an exhibition from 1984 in the Living Art Museum, where he showcased the fruits of his teaching labour in, among other places, the Netherlands. He taught in Enschede, Maastricht, Arnhem, Amsterdam and the Hague. He also organised Mob Shops, a series of summer workshops in Iceland, where he brought together artists and innovative art teachers such as Robert Filiou and Douwe Jan Bakker.