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KNUD MERRILD

(1894-1954)

Modernist & Surrealist

by Carol J. Huston

Knud Merrild (1894-1954) is known as the father of the flux painting technique, as well as an individualist in synthetic cubism and abstract surrealism. A true progressive in art and politics, Merrild was the first artist in California to create assemblages and co-founded the Los Angeles branch of the American Artists Congress in 1936. A Danish émigré to the United States, Merrild contributed greatly to the trajectory of United States Modernism prior to 1950, particularly in Los Angeles. He exhibited widely with other Cubists and Surrealists including Man Ray (1890-1976), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Helen Lundeberg(1908-1999), Hans Burkhardt(1904-1994), Dan Lutz (1906-1978), and Rico Lebrun(1900-1964).




Table Of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

In 1894, Knud Merrild was born on the small island of Jutland in northern Denmark. At age fourteen, Merrild began working as a house painter’s apprentice in addition to his painting in his spare time. His father, a choirmaster, supported Merrild’s dream of becoming an artist by sending him in 1909 to the Art and Technical School in Stege, Denmark. When he was 18 years old, Merrild started professional art training in Copenhagen at the Arts and Crafts School, where he studied until 1917. In 1913, after viewing an exhibition of Cubist paintings at a museum in Copenhagen, Merrild turned his artistic drive toward abstract modernism and dedicated the rest of his artistic career to this pursuit.

In 1916, Merrild exhibited for the first time at the annual Danish Royal Academy’s Fall Salon. The following year, Merrild entered the Royal Academy of Art. However, his outspoken views regarding modern art displeased the Academy and enticed Merrild to leave in 1918. He then founded the Avendt Kunst society which promoted a modern fusion of the fine arts and crafts. Avendt Kunst held annual exhibitions at the Kunstindustri Museum until 1922.

Upon his departure from the stifling institutional environment, Merrild continued to paint and create ceramic objects with a modernist impetus. A born athlete, Merrild won the Scandinavian backstroke championship in 1919. In the years following, he traveled throughout Scandinavia and the United Kingdom using scholarships awarded to him from the Danish government. After his stipend expired, Merrild settled in London and studied art at the British Museum and the National Gallery. He funded his studies by working for these institutions as a laborer and occasional tour guide for Danish visitors. Merrild’s inability to financially support himself solely on his art works would persist for the rest of his life.

In 1921, Merrild decided to immigrate to the United States, where he believed he could succeed as a modernist. Regarding this drastic move, he recalled,

I was longing to get back to my art work, and one day it struck me that a new, large and rich country like the United States, with skyscrapers and vast industries, ought to be a place where modern art would be appreciated. I remembered what the Danish critic, Georg Brandes, had said: that America would be the future art center of the world.

Merrild arrived in New York City with only 25 dollars in his hand. In New York, Merrild met another Danish artist, Kai G. Gótzsche (1886-1963), and together they moved to Los Angeles in May of 1923. Upon his arrival, Merrild began developing his strong network of artist and writer friends, including Henry Miller (1881-1980), D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), Lorser Feitelson (1898 - 1978), Irving Stone (1903-1989), and Man Ray, who authored a letter of praise to Merrild in the California Arts and Architecture journal in 1943. D. H. Lawrence invited Merrild and Gótzsche to spend the winter of 1922-23 with him and his wife, Frieda, at their isolated ranch in Taos, New Mexico. This experience resulted in the 1938 publication of Merrild’s charming book, A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D. H. Lawrence, an intimate account of their stay with the eccentric author and his wife. Merrild also published a book about Henry Miller, entitled All the Animals in the Zoo (1945).

Because abstract art was not widely appreciated in Los Angeles prior to the 1950’s, Merrild was unable to support himself and his wife exclusively on his career as an artist. His first jobs in Los Angeles disappointed him; Merrild worked as a set designer for a movie studio and as a designer for an architect. Producing art in his spare time, he worked as a house painter and established his own business in partnership with fellow Dane artist Enjar Hansen by the 1940’s. He sometimes painted murals for private homes, such as the estate of Walter and Louise Arensberg, who also purchased several Merrild paintings for their renowned fine art collection.

After suffering a severe heart attack in Los Angeles, Merrild moved back to Copenhagen for more affordable healthcare. There he spent his final few months of his 60th year, eventually passing away in 1956.



COMPOSITION OF "4"s
Circa 1935
10.5" x 7.5"
Watercolor on paper
Available for acquisition

In form, the overlapping planes created through repetition of lines and basic shapes in Composition of 4’s are reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866 -1944) early geometric, abstract oil paintings in the Bauhaus. It also recalls an earlier, Cubist painting by Merrild, To Love is to Suffer (c. 1922) which uses the same half-colored leaves and flowers as seen in Composition of "4"s for the print design on the woman’s blouse. These distinct leaves appear again as the focal point in Four Leaves (1934). The repetition of half-colored forms in his artwork reflects Merrild’s interest in the Taoist symbols of Yin and Yang.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

In 1922, Merrild’s artwork was exhibited for the first time in the United States at the Belmaison Gallery in New York City. Nearly ten years after the monumental 1913 Armory Show’s display of European Cubism and Futurism for the first time in the United States, Merrild’s modernist painting was embraced as an innovative, refreshing departure from conventional representational art.

Throughout his career as an artist, Merrild did not conform to one stylistic genre, but instead fluidly transcended from one style to the next, often overlapping techniques to create something new. Despite his experimentation with different styles, a constant inspiration for Merrild was his desire to translate the idea of flux -constant change- into pictorial painting. This pursuit, first realized by Merrild in 1909, became a life-long obsession and finally materialized to his satisfaction in 1942, when he invented flux painting.

Merrild’s earliest works from the 1920’s resemble a breed of Cubism influenced by the severe lines of Art Deco. By the late 1920’s and into the early 1930’s, Merrild produced drawings and paintings in the geometric vein, such as his watercolor on paper Composition of 4’s (c. 1935). In form, the overlapping planes created through repetition of lines and basic shapes in Composition of 4’s are reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866 -1944) early geometric, abstract oil paintings in the Bauhaus. It also recalls an earlier, Cubist painting by Merrild, To Love is to Suffer (c. 1922) which uses the same half-colored leaves and flowers as seen in Composition of 4’s for the print design on the woman’s blouse. These distinct leaves appear again as the focal point in Four Leaves (1934). The repetition of half-colored forms in his artwork reflects Merrild’s interest in the Taoist symbols of Yin and Yang.

Around 1930, Merrild gained maturity as an artist and began creating assemblages and collages, combining abstracted forms of painted metal and wood. Reflecting a Cubist heritage with angular shapes and bold colors, these Constructivist experiments utilize carved surfaces and attached fixtures, resembling the work of Dadaists Jean Arp (1886-1966) and Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). Referring to this phase of wood constructions, Merrild said, In regarding space as a medium, I surround it by restricted areas of varied proportions; penetrate it at different angles and depths with shapes and planes, creating movement and rhythm, and in addition use various materials and colors in a related harmony to the whole.

One of Merrild’s most famous assemblages, Aesthetic Function in Space (1928-1933), combines multiple materials in rich colors such as brown, mustard, and deep green. The central, asymmetrical division of this composition of light and dark, big and small, and foreground and background evoke the persistent Yin and Yang motif in his artwork. Like Aesthetic Function in Space, Primaries (1938) is an assemblage of mixed cut-outs of wood painted in variations of the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow. Merrild’s minimalist relief constructions such as Veritas (1933) and Relief Construction (1933) resemble reliefs produced by Bauhaus master Joost Schmidt (1893-1948).

Merrild invented flux painting in 1942, when he put himself hard to the task. Merrild’s motivation for his progressive flux technique lies in his interest in metaphysics and the ancient writings of Lao Tse and Heraclitus, who wrote that change is the fundamental law of reality. According to his 1952 Statement on Flux Painting, Merrild writes, Everything seems to depend on the whim or law of chance, accidental judgment by accidental authority and forced cause... To reflect this I attempt a personal intuitive expression where ‘laws’ of aesthetic evaluation become meaningless. Therefore, I do not subscribe to any former concepts... Merrild’s flux experimentations demonstrate his concerted interest in the fluidity of organic, unintentional forms such as the patterns of tree bark or the wrinkles of an elephant’s skin.

Merrild’s flux paintings are often compared to his contemporary Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings because of their shared rejection of traditional painting methods by pouring paint onto a canvas. However, Merrild’s flux paintings are distinct from Pollock’s. Rather than slingling paint onto the canvas, Merrild produced marbelized figures on easel-scale canvases from the wavy undulations of oil on water. Using housepainters’ tools and enamels, Merrild’s flux method involved

pouring paint onto a moistened canvas while manipulating the motion of the canvas to create different shapes. Even though Merrild’s invention of flux predates Pollock’s first drip paintings by five years, Pollock is attributed to the development of this technique, perhaps as result of the minute possibilities for publicity in Los Angeles compared to New York.

For Merrild, flux paintings existed as a final culmination of his desire to illuminate the subconscious through randomness and anti-esthetic values. After he invented flux painting in 1942, Merrild’s paintings achieved great national recognition with an increased number of exhibitions outside of California. During his lifetime, abstract art was not hugely popular in Los Angeles possibly because of its inaccessibility to the public as an over-intellectualized artistic endeavor. However, in 2005, as a public indicator of his brilliance as an artist, Merrild’s work was displayed alongside work of the great abstract surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in the Surrealism USA exhibition at the National Academy Museum in New York City.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1894 Born on island of Jutland, Denmark
  • 1908 Begins career as a house painter
  • 1912 Starts professional art training in Copenhagen at the Arts and Crafts School
  • 1916 Exhibits for the first time at the annual Danish Royal Academy’s Fall Salon
  • 1917-8 Attends Denmark’s Royal Academy of Art
  • 1918 Founds Avendt Kunst
  • 1919 Wins Scandinavian backstroke championship
  • 1921 Moves to the United States
  • 1923 Settles in Los Angeles
  • 1938 Publishes novel, A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D. H. Lawrence
  • 1956 Dies in Copenhagen, Denmark
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York
  • Copenhagen Arts and Crafts Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
  • Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, California
  • Los Angeles Permanent Collection, Pomona, California
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
  • Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
  • Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego, California
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
  • Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles, California
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Private Collection of Louise and Walter Arsenberg
  • Private Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Leslie M. Maitland
  • V. AWARDS

  • 1924 Numerous from Los Angeles Associations
  • 1935 Merit Award, Transigram Sound Corporation, Hollywood, California, First Annual Exhibit of Painting and Sculpture
  • VI. EXHIBITIONS

    SOLO EXHIBITIONS

  • 1923 Santa Fe Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • 1933 Stanley Rose Gallery, Hollywood, California
  • 1935 Hollywood Gallery of Modern Art, Hollywood, California
  • 1936 Stendahl Art Gallery, Los Angeles, California
  • 1937 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
  • 1937 Boyer Galleries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1939 Boyer Galleries, New York City, New York
  • 1944 American Contemporary Gallery, Hollywood, California
  • 1948 Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills, California
  • 1952 Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York City, New York
  • 1965 Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
  • 1991 Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles, California
  • GROUP EXHIBITIONS

  • 1916 Danish Royal Academy’s Fall Salon, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 1922 Belmaison Gallery, New York City, New York
  • 1924 Paris World Olympic Games, Paris, France
  • 1929 Art Center, New York City, New York
  • 1931 Along, Art Line, Barker Brothers & Bullocks Downtown, Los Angeles, California
  • 1932 Los Angeles World Olympic Games, Los Angeles, California
  • 1933 Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena, California
  • 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego, California
  • 1935 Paul Elder Gallery, San Francisco, California
  • 1935 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
  • 1935 Transigram Sound Corporation, Hollywood, California
  • 1936 Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
  • 1938 Dam & Fonss, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California
  • 1941 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, New York
  • 194? California Watercolor Society
  • 1942 Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
  • 1942 American Federation of Arts, Washington, D.C.
  • 1943 Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
  • 1945 Pepsi Cola Company’s Paintings of the Year, New York City, New York
  • 1946 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, New York
  • 1947 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1949 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
  • 1950 Los Angeles Art Association, Los Angeles, California
  • 1952 Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena, California
  • 1964 Long Beach Museum, Long Beach, California
  • 1965 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
  • 1976 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
  • 1977 National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • 1979 Rutgers University Art Gallery, New Brunswick, New Jersey
  • 1980 Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • 1980 Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
  • 1980 Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
  • 1982 Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
  • 1983 Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California
  • 1989 Wight Art Gallery of the University of California, Los Angeles, California
  • 1992 The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • 1993 Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio
  • 1993 Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1995 Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
  • 1995 Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, California
  • 1995 Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, Utah
  • 1998 Hirschl and Adler Gallery New York City, New York
  • 2005 National Academy Museum, New York City, New York
  • VII. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Founder, Anvendt Kunst, 1917
  • Co-founder, Modern Art Workers, 1925
  • Co-founder, American Artists Congress, Los Angeles branch, 1936
  • VIII. EDUCATION

  • 1909-1912 Art and Technical School, Stege, Denmark
  • 1914-1917 Arts and Crafts School, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 1917-1918 Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • IX. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. Dailey, Victoria, et al. LA’s Early Moderns: Art, Architecture, Photography. Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 2003.
    2. 2. Dailey, Victoria. Knud Merrild: Works from the 1930’s + 1940’s. Los Angeles: Steve Turner Gallery, 1991.
    3. 3. Fiedler, Jeannine, ed. Bauhaus. Cologne: Könemann, 2000.
    4. 4. Karlstrom, Paul J. Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920-1956 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1990.
    5. 5. Knud Merrild: 1894-1954. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibition Catalog. Los Angeles: Anderson, Ritchie & Simon, 1965.
    6. 6. Levin, Gail. Themes and Improvisation: Kandinsky and the American Avant-Garde, 1912-1950. Dayton Art Institute, 1992.

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