Luxembourg's Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean has almost everything a modern art museum could want: a prime location overlooking the nation's capital, a dramatic new building designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei and an expected deluge of art-hungry visitors. Luxembourg is one of this year's European Capitals of Culture, and a new TGV fast-train line from France opens in June.
Just one thing is missing from the museum: modern art. Since its opening last July, the place has seemed oddly empty. Unlike its more established peers Paris' Pompidou Center, Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, New York City's Museum of Modern Art the Grand-Duc Jean (named after the sovereign who retired in 2000) doesn't have much of a permanent collection. Planners behind Mudam, as the Musée d'Art Moderne is known for short, started buying works about a decade ago. Even then, Monets and Manets were beyond their budget, and a Picasso was out of the question. So Mudam ended up focusing on what is sometimes called contemporary art, stuff produced after the 1970s or so. You don't have to be an expert to know that the contemporary art scene is a dizzying circus of dead sharks, unmade beds, provocative installations and whizbang video displays but few crowd-pulling artists with household names.
Now, however, Mudam may have a winner, a show that does justice to its elegant new quarters and tickles the imagination as well. The exhibition, open until May 7, features that rarest of commodities, a Luxembourg-born artist: Michel Majerus, who in an intense, tragically shortened career fused Pop, Minimalism and other genres with a punk sense of fun. Majerus was more a painter than a video or installation artist, so most of the 250 works in the show are canvases big ones, some the size of billboards, all throbbing with color, text and images purloined from comic books and advertising, which he often subtly subverts.
Consider splash bombs 3 (2002), one of several giant acrylics in which Majerus incorporates the logo of those eponymous American water toys amid swirls of color that is smeared and partially erased. Or a canvas in which cuddly cartoon characters frolic in the snow beneath the work's menacing title, maybe you should annihilate (1993), in large, blood red letters. Other paintings include cameos by Super Mario Brothers, Lara Croft, the Road Runner, the General Electric logo and a giant Nike sneaker.
Yet Majerus' untitled (violet) (1997), in which a purple rectangle hovers at the top of the canvas dripping color like a pair of wet blue jeans, has a classic simplicity that suggests Mark Rothko or even Henri Matisse. For years, critics have been mentioning Majerus in the same sentence as contemporary giants like Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol if only because he stole shamelessly from them. Majerus "quotes, spits out and recycles modernism," enthuses Mudam director Marie-Claude Beaud. "His painting seems to be cultivated, sensitive and trashy all at the same time."
That could almost describe the museum. Mudam has been in the works for nearly two decades, slowed by squabbling among city fathers over its site, design, materials and even whether Luxembourg a hardheaded realm of financiers and Eurocrats needed such an extravagance. Jacques Santer, the country's former Prime Minister and a European Commission President, helped convince them to seek repute as a cultural capital instead of a mere tax haven.
Pei was chosen as the architect nearly a decade before the matter was settled, and he has produced a temple of culture even a banker could love. Sitting on a plain high above the rest of Luxembourg City, the museum is laid out like an arrowhead, echoing the old, arrow-shaped Thüngen Fortress next door (soon to be a museum itself). Mudam's exterior is sheathed in French "Louvre" limestone that radiates the honeyed glow of its Parisian namesake. The interior bright, airy and playful is well-suited to the occasional zaniness of the art on display. Even the museum's café, with its indoor canopy of heat-formed textile tiles by Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, is a visual pleasure.
The emptiness is also starting to dissipate. The museum's permanent collection, 250 works and growing, includes such delights as Wim Delvoye's interior of a gothic chapel, made of metal and punctuated by stained-glass windows depicting body parts, and Tobias Putrih and Sancho Silva's plywood shapes that can be assembled by museumgoers into furniture of their own design. Mudam has purchased a few Majerus paintings, though nearly all those on display have been lent by other museums. The artist remains a favorite of curators worldwide, from London's Tate Modern to Mexico City's Jumex Collection.
Majerus barely had time to enjoy his fame. He studied at the Stuttgart Academy in the early 1990s and, after barely a decade as a working artist, began to establish a reputation along with Franz Ackermann, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger and a rising generation of young iconoclasts. Majerus made waves by painting the entire façade of the Italian pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale with a pastiche of famous artworks. In 2002 he covered Berlin's famed Brandenburg Gate with a digital rendering of a graffiti-blighted East Berlin housing block.
By then, Majerus was dividing his time between Los Angeles and his large eastern Berlin studio. On Nov. 6, 2002, the artist boarded a Luxair flight from Berlin to Luxembourg. It crashed in heavy fog 10 km from its destination, killing him and 19 others. He was 35 years old. Five years later, Michel Majerus' bold, outsize talent has returned to the country of his birth, to a museum that may help gain for Luxembourg the artistic glory that was once within his grasp.