April 2021 Vol. 2, No.4
Matheis on Mathiesen
A memorial on the 70th birthday of artist Gert Mathiesen
In 1990, I met the Danish artist Gert Mathiesen at the Schoolhouse Gallery and Studios in North Salem, New York, where he shared a studio with his artist wife Pam Smilow. It was easy to connect with him. We were both European immigrants, our names were virtually identical, our birthdays one day apart. We both loved Dylan and the blues. It was clear to see from the outset that he was one of the most consequential artists I have ever met. When I first encountered him at the Schoolhouse, the ceramics, mixed media painting and printmaking artist was actively focused on using linoleum, woodcuts, paint and monoprinting techniques.
Gert Mathiesen’s art kissed the sunshine. He could make colors sing, like Matisse. His love of music still radiates in his two dimensional picture planes and ceramic objects. Mathiesen’s prints are seemingly alive, teeming in dance and exuberance. He had Picasso’s playfulness and Paul Klee’s powerful manifestations of inner creative freedom. Like Matisse, he understood form and shape. His artistic sensibilities were visual and spatial explorations, with inherent simplicity and infinite curiosity. Reflecting on his vast portfolio today, it is a multiplicity of constant experimentation. He was an exponent
of the artistic vanguard with his unlimited capacity for creativity. All of his work projects a purity, an innocence, in some way like Outsider art, naïve art or even folk art, which is also often of flat perspective, like many of Mathiesen’s prints. To some untrained, self-taught artists, like the African American Bill Traylor, this playfulness came naturally. Others, like Picasso, strove for that essence during an entire life. Mathiesen was highly trained, yet his work is intrinsically joyous, unrestrained, and sophisticated in its inherent childlike simplicity and frankness. Mathiesen’s limitless imagination let him have sheer fun with every project, with an underlying bit of mischievousness and whimsical freedom, a boundless willingness to play. Example: ‘Woman with a chicken on her head.’
Gert Mathiesen was born in 1951 in Esbjerg, Denmark. He came to the United States in 1986, initially as a potter in Martha’s Vineyard. He attended the Kolding School of Arts and Crafts. He worked in France, Italy and Germany, worked with a variety of well-known ceramicists, including Bjorn Wiinblad and the German potter Meulindick. Upon his return to Denmark he worked with the manufacturer Royal Copenhagen. In 1986, he permanently relocated to New York. Mathiesen died tragically from an aneurysm in 2013 while visiting in his home country.
Mathiesen was an eccentric and captivating character who redefined the very meaning of the adjective ‘passionate.’ Congenial and joyous, he was in a perpetual state of fascination with something, whatever he was into at the moment. Fervent and even recalcitrant in whatever he believed or felt, whatever he worked on or espoused, he ventured all the way in with total abandon. He had unbridled enthusiasm bordering on obdurate obsession. He chain smoked and could fit in more f-words in a single sentence than any human being on the planet. Socially, he was totally unfiltered. He spoke out whatever opinion was on his mind at any particular moment. It almost seemed as if he wanted to shock, but he had no such preconceived ideas. Mathiesen just gushed out whatever he was thinking, oblivious to how his pontifications would ring to the recipients. Conversely, he disdained pretentiousness, especially the pseudo-intellectual drivel that some
artists use to pat their indecipherable artist statements. He reserved special disgust for snobbishness generally, but especially in the art world. He was an archetypical individualistic artist – a renegade, a bit of an anarchist. All that with relentlessly prolific output and always with a sly smile and a sparkle in eyes. It was part of his inner essence. Yet, he could be as unconventional as he wanted to, because he was absolutely a creative genius, a brilliant artist of profound visual sagacity. He wasn’t given to boasting or self-promotion, but he once told me, after a bottle of wine, that he knew his own greatness and he expected that the rest of the world would eventually see it.
It did. His importance is increasingly recognized. He had already attained success and exhibited worldwide during his lifetime. After his premature death, Mathiesen’s art was shown at the Consulate General of Denmark in New York City, from 2014 to 2018. His biggest posthumous exhibit was in Denmark. Pam Smilow recalled, “In conjunction with Annette Liisberg, owner of the Galleri Liisberg in Hundested, Denmark, we approached the Heerup Museum in Rødovre, Denmark, in hopes of interesting them in an exhibition of Gert’s work. Henry Heerup was a beloved and very well-known artist in Denmark, and Gert’s work had an affinity to his—they shared a similar “esprit” and unpretentious approach to life and art. Together with Annette and the curator of the Heerup Museum, Anni Nielsen, we put together a wonderful exhibition of Gert’s work that covered art from his entire life, starting with early ceramics to some of the last pieces he painted before he died. The exhibition was up for six months.” A traveling exhibition of Mathiesen’s work was also shown at the Museum of Danish American Culture, in Elk Horn, Iowa. In 2017, it was exhibited at the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation, Nordia House Cultural Center, in Portland, Oregon; and at the Schoolhouse Gallery, in North Salem, New York.
His wife Pam Smilow reminisced, “Gert led life on his own terms and didn’t succumb to social convention. He was so wise and so intuitive, he saw things with unusual clarity. He was present when he spoke to you and genuinely listened and was interested. He had an uncanny ability to get inside someone and see the world through their eyes and through their hearts. Wherever he went, he made friends, deep lasting bonds. He was a champion of the underdog from a young age—he told me about a Gypsy boy who waited for him every morning from very early so Gert could accompany him to school because he was bullied by the other kids. Gert made no distinction between owner and dishwasher—chamber maid or maître d'. So many talked of his wonderful sense of humor, always quick to laugh and always with a smile on his face.”
Like Picasso, he could work on more than a dozen different projects simultaneously. The Hammond Museum curator and artist Bibiana Huang Matheis reported that one time she witnessed when he had 27 different paintings spread on the floor. He put a color on his brush and then applied it across the whole spectrum of paintings, every place where that color was needed. Mathiesen regularly met with his Danish friend from art school Lars Ahlstrand to work on projects together. They collaborated in places like Santa Fe, Paris, San Tropez, Maine and New York. The prolific producer set aside one day a week when he did not paint or create art. It was his reading day. At the time he was fond of history books.
He loved music and supported his friends who were involved with musical pursuits. Mathiesen was not a musician, but finely tuned in to his inner musicality. He vividly expressed this love visually. This woodcut series, which he made available for the musical pursuits of this writer, expresses roots music so vividly, you can practically hear the music.
Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he also made a series of posters. While working at the Schoolhouse in North Salem, New York, he had a regular commission to make posters for their musical and theatrical events. The series of 35 posters are by now treasured classics. The wife of the famed playwright and author John Steinbeck even kept his poster and hung it in Steinbeck’s writer’s studio.
His wife Pam Smilow, herself a critically acclaimed artist with a studio in New York City, carries on the legacy and continues to make Gert Mathiesen’s original paintings and prints available for purchase.
Writer. Photographer. Producer.
Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.