Born in 1914 on the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark, Asger Jorn was the second oldest of six children born to two school teachers with a fundamentalist Christian background, as a youth Jorn was influenced by the teachings of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872), the Danish writer and seminarian who revolutionized established notions of the proper role of education, taking the view that universities, rather than training learned scholars, should educate its students for active participation in society and popular life. Grundtvig’s most lasting legacy is his advocacy of the folk high school (folkhøjskole), a community-based institution where he imagined non-compulsory education would lead to heightened creativity within the society at large.
Jorn began to paint in his teenage years, but elected to attend the Vinthers Seminarium, a teacher-training college in Silkeborg. Nicola Pezolet, the Québécois art historian who has studied Jorn’s work and the postwar Europe cultural context extensively, writes that “As early as the 1930s, Jorn’s understanding of the role of art was inextricable from his left-wing political engagement and his desire to develop collective forms of cultural creation linked to an emancipatory project of popular education.” While at college he came under the influence of the trade unionist Christian Christensen, with whom he became close friends, subsequently joining the Silkeborg branch of the Communist Party of Denmark and publishing expressionist-influenced woodcuts and lithographs in local leftwing journal sold to support labor struggles.
In 1936 Jorn abandoned his teaching job and drove his BSA motorcycle to Paris in pursuit of a more cosmopolitan art education. Hoping to study with Kandinsky, he arrived to discover that the aging artist was no longer accepting new students. Subsequently, he enrolled in Fernand Léger’s Académie d’Art Contemporain. Through Léger, Jorn met Le Corbusier, who commissioned the aspiring artist to produce a mural, Les Moissons (The harvest season), for the large-scale temporary structure he designed as part of the 1937 Paris World Exposition, the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, in the process becoming close friends with the young Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, who also was employed in Le Corbusier’s atelier. He also familiarized himself with Surrealist writings (particularly on architecture) and was inspired in particular by the crepuscular 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in Paris, which allowed him to “envision the possibility of a radically non-utilitarian architecture, one that prefigured a future society liberated from the bourgeois ethos championed by Le Corbusier and his supporters.”
Jorn returned to Denmark in 1938, and soon distances himself from both of his early mentors. He was especially critical of Le Corbusier’s elitism and theoretical rigidity, and in his critical stance towards the architect one finds the seeds of his larger critique of architecture in particular and functionalism in general. But current events delayed this articulation. During the German occupation of Denmark he participated in the Danish resistance as a member of the Helhesten group, over the course of the war developing an optimistic notion that “a vast, active, and democratic collaboration among everyday people, professional and amateur artists, and architects” would come to fruition after the war, as would a “more complete kind of socialist democracy.” This last hope was quickly disappointed, as it became increasingly clear that the American Marshall Plan would reinstall orthodox market capitalism on the European continent.
After the war Jorn began to chafe under the strictures of party communism and soon broke with the Communist Party of Denmark (although he did not officially renounce his membership until the mid-1960s), pursuing his interest in collective forms of art-making and developing expressive, collaborative modes of action alongside occasional architectural experimentation (mostly in the form of mural-making) outside a party context. He also returned to his interest in architecture, in 1948 publishing an article in a Danish journal titled “What is an Ornament?,” resulting from a visit he had taken to Djerba, Tunisia, a trip one might surmise was partially taken in emulation of Paul Klee.
In 1955 Jorn founded The International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB) along with Guy Debord, which involved some of Europe’s most celebrated modern artists, and was key to the development of radical art in Europe. The Movement started as a laboratory to explore the role of art in a modern, industrial society – its ideals were freedom and experimentation and, though it lasted only a few short years, its influence was profound. The group was international but based its operations in Alba in Northern Italy, when Jorn was invited there by the Nuclearists Baj and Dangelo.
Asger Jorn produced his major monumental work, the Aarhus relief, in Alba (and transported it by train from Italy to Denmark). The Dutch artist Constant first developed his radical ideas about architecture as part of the Movement – ideas which continue to inform and inspire contemporary architects around the world. The legendary Italian artist Lucio Fontana was involved, as were many of the former CoBrA painters including Alechinsky, Appel and Corneille, and the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio was a central figure. He invented Industrial Painting at his Experimental Laboratory in Alba, which was also the Movement’s effective base. Ettore Sottsass was also a member of the IMIB at the very start of his career, before he found fame in his own right as a ceramicist and industrial designer.
The original Bauhaus school of art and design was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. The school moved to Dessau in 1925 and Berlin in 1932, but was finally closed, due to Nazi opposition to its radical ideas, in 1933. In 1953, after recovering from tuberculosis, Jorn heard that the Swiss architect Max Bill planned to open a ‘new Bauhaus’ in Ulm. Jorn wrote enthusiastically to Bill, hoping to be part of the new project, but Bill informed him that the new school was strictly devoted to design – there would be no place for ‘free artists’.
Jorn responded by proposing the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus – a movement of ‘free artists’ devoted to the experimental theory and practice that would be excluded from the school in Ulm. Jorn, Gallizio and Piero Simondo declared the foundation of an Experimental Laboratory in Alba in 1955, and in 1956 they organised the First World Congress of Free Artists at Alba town hall. Simondo, along with Elena Verrone, also published a journal called Eristica devoted to the new movement and its ideas. The IMIB merged with another avant-garde group, the Lettrist International, in 1957, to form the Situationist International, but many of its members also went on to become internationally acclaimed artists in their own right.
During their time as part of the Situationist International, Jorn and Debord collaborated on works together. In 1957 they created Fin de Copenhague, an illustrated book that was allegedly made in a twenty-four hour period. In 1959 they created their second collaborative book, Mémoires. Mémories represents a radical rethinking of the illustrated book, as well as genres such as biography, history, and the artist’s book. It tells the intellectual autobiography of Debord, then twenty-six years old, and the creation of the Situationist International. Rather than written passages, the book is constructed through détourned or repurposed found materials, such as newspaper clippings, photographs, cartoons, and advertisements, as well as quotations from figures who included Marx and Huizinga, as well as the popular press. Eschewing a strict vertical and horizontal orientation, the book instead proposes an all-over viewing, as if navigating a map, yet with no direction given. In this way, it evokes the Situationist concept of psychogeography, as well as the dérive, or found object. Jorn, associated with the CoBrA movement created gorgeously lush ink splatters, skeins, and other marks in bright colors that visually link fragments of text and images, while also evoking gestural abstractionists. The desire of Debord and Jorn to challenge the conventions of fine art and the collectable object is visible in the famous cover, which, constructed out of sandpaper, was intended to destroy the covers of all other books in the owner's library.
Jorn fought against capitalist interests in cultural institutions and resisted being co-opted by them. His work titled Døddrukne danskere (Dead Drunk Danes) was completed in 1960, the title referring to William Shakespeare’s Othello and a remark made by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the year it was painted. The latter had described Scandinavia in general, and Denmark in particular, as a region of ‘sin, suicide, socialism and smorgasbord’. Four years later, without Jorn’s knowledge, Døddrukne danskere was selected for the Guggenheim International Award in New York and awarded $10,000USD. However, Jorn, who detested the very idea of art prizes and competitions, replied with a furious telegram to the museum’s president, Harry F. Guggenheim: GO TO HELL BASTARD—STOP—REFUSE PRIZE—STOP—NEVER ASKED FOR IT—STOP—AGAINST ALL DECENCY MIX ARTIST AGAINST HIS WILL IN YOUR PUBLICITY—STOP—I WANT PUBLIC CONFIRMATION NOT TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN YOUR RIDICULOUS GAME.