– Anette Abrahamsson and Conceptual Painting
Sanne Kofod Olsen, 2022

This text is printed in the Anette Abrahamssons monograph from 2022

Anette Abrahamsson’s activity as an artist stretches back to the early 1980s, a period wherein she is often linked together with the artist group known as De Unge Vilde (the Young Wilds). This is especially due to the fact that she was one of the participants in the exhibition Kniven på hovedet (Knife on the Head) which was presented in 1982 at Tranegården in Gentofte, Denmark. Since that time, this show has been regarded as a ‘generational exhibition’, heralding a return to painting (and sculpture) in the wake of the experimental and conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition signalled a breakthrough for the type of painting that came to be called ‘ungt vildt maleri’ (young wild painting), even if, at Kniven på hovedet, there were also other kinds of artworks and artists busy doing something else. In any event, they came to be labelled De Unge Vilde. In all likelihood, these artists never regarded themselves as making up a decided group. The fact is that all twelve of them were students at Professor Hein Heinsen’s department of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and they had been given the chance to exhibit at Tranegården; and it was really this that was the common denominator. Nevertheless, the exhibition became an epoch-making benchmark for the new type of painting that started to proliferate in Denmark at the outset of the 1980s and which also indicated a re-appearance of painting after the 1970s’ focus on minimalism, conceptualism, feminism and political art. The ‘wild painting’ was inspired by the German wave of activity from the close of the 1970s, the ‘Neuen Wilden’ (New Wild) or ‘heftige Malerei’ (heavy painting), which was centred on a form of neo-expressionism, even though the very idea of expressionism was the topic of a great deal of discussion at the time. Behind the apparently expressive brushstrokes lay an equally serious conceptualism, as had been the case in the decade before. It had only taken on a new and more painterly form.
At that time, in 1982, Anette Abrahamsson’s painting was situated completely within the framework of the new wild painting. In her paintings from the early 1980s, there is a kind of stylistic simplicity brought forth through her use of simple and coarse brushstrokes, and shortly after this, there was a period of heftige (vehement) brushstrokes in figure paintings. The conceptual point of departure for her paintings in these early years was already clear to see: among other things, through Abrahamsson’s frequently employed quotations of art historical motifs. Like other artists of the time, she ‘appropriated’ (took possession of and converted for her own use) art history through the repetition of well-known motifs. Abrahamsson quotes from the Renaissance and the Baroque with figures like Venus, Salome, and Judith and Holofernes, in addition to other motifs that have frequently been used in European art. The art-historical quotations in Abrahamsson’s early paintings embody meanings in themselves. There is a kind of punk feminism lurking about just below the surface in Abrahamsson’s paintings of figures such as Venus and Judith from 1983.
Over the course of the 1980s, Abrahamsson found new inroads into painting. She took hold of the ‘cool’ painting, or new abstraction, which had been a trend that started in the early 1980s, especially in the United States. American artists like Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe, Peter Halley and Sherrie Levine brought forth a new discourse around painting, which took its starting point in abstract painting, in an industrial, minimalist version, which posed an antipole to neo-expressionist painting. Their paintings were stringent and controlled, made use of new painting methods (for example, the airbrush technique) and did everything possible to erase the brushstroke as a painterly sign. This new kind of painting bore an affinity with both pop art and the conceptual. Minimalist painting in the 1960s supplemented ‘cool’ painting’s obvious way of playing with the decorative. Not unlike much of the other art emerging in the early 1980s, the exponents of ‘cool’ painting were drawing on art history as a jumping-off point for their innovations. There are a great many art-historical references to be found in ‘cool’ painting: from Josef and Anni Albers’ work with the pattern and the Gestalt in the post-war years through to abstract expressionism, as seen in the works of Morris Louis and Ad Reinhardt, and the ‘Pattern and Decoration’ movement in the 1960s, to Agnes Martin and many others. Whereas people had previously been speaking about neo-expressionism, one could now speak of new-abstraction or ‘neo-geo’ (new geometry), which it was also being called. Abstract painting had become representational.

In much the same way as minimalism, ‘cool’ painting had been deprived of any form of expressionism in its manifestation, but simultaneously retained an altogether conscious work with painterly seduction; a seduction that could, as in pop art, resemble the seduction of consumer aesthetics and pointed towards the work of art as a commodity. In 1986, ‘cool’ painting, as a movement, was gathered up at the Endgame exhibition, which boasted the auxiliary title: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture. Theoretically, this type of painting had been influenced by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his thoughts on the hyper-communicative information society and the fundamental idea of simulacrum – a condition that can be characterised as the copies’ copy, where the original has disappeared. ‘Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.’ Several artists were working with copying and simulation as artistic strategy, propelled by the argument of a fundamental loss of originality and a paradoxical perception that ‘the new’ could no longer occur, even if it still did, anyhow. The widespread thesis was that abstract painting was also referential. That is to say, it referred to an almost generic notion of abstract painting and accordingly contained numerous references to its own tradition and history. In his catalogue text for the Endgame exhibition, French art historian Yves-Alain Bois asked the following questions, based on the artists’ painting practices: ‘Is abstract painting still possible? In turn, this question can be divided into at least two others: is (abstract, but also any other kind of) painting still possible? And is abstract (painting, but also sculpture, film, modes of thought, etc.) still possible? (A third thread of the question, specifically apocalyptic, would be: is (abstract painting, but also anything, life, desire, etc.) still possible?).’ Bois called the new painting ‘the beginning of the end’, and what he meant in so saying was that this was a finalisation for modern abstract painting, with this kind of painting’s implicit essentialism and faith in an inner truth. ‘Cool’ painting unmasked this ‘truth’ as a lie and revealed itself as a construction between visual seduction and the seductive properties of commodity fetishism. However, the conclusion being drawn here was that painting was still possible, that the abstract was still possible and maybe also that abstract painting was still possible – albeit on altered terms. These fundamental questions posed to painting (and to sculpture, and to the original work of art in general) were often being asked in the postmodern and post-structuralist discourse of the 1980s. The reflection on painting was essential and something that was also seen, to a great extent, among De Unge Vilde in Denmark, who were introducing what was simultaneously a theoretically reflective and patently painterly approach to painting. Although there may not have been the same theoretical discourse around painting that was flourishing on the North American art scene, there was nonetheless a theorising of the painterly standpoint, both in relation to the artwork and in relation to the artist’s role. The thesis that what lay before us was an endgame, then, needed to be subjected to certain modifications. To be sure, art had been declared dead on several occasions, but it was sooner modernism’s death than art’s. It was modernism’s utopian notion of a decisive, conclusive and true end point that had died, and this was being rendered thematic in the paintings.

From Cool to Art History

Anette Abrahamsson’s art practice can be described as conceptual painting that takes its point of departure in the aforementioned postmodern reflections on painting. The paintings are always based on an ideological construction. Maybe this is also why Abrahamsson was able, in the first years of her activity, to move freely between many expressions. From the neo-expressionist in the earliest part of the 1980s, to ‘cool’ painting (or new abstraction) in the latter part of the 1980s and subsequently to the past 30 years of work with figurative painting. At the closing of the 1980s, there is a transition that can be spotted in Anette Abrahamsson’s output towards figurative painting. The shift appears to have been foretold in the almost mystical painting Une Rose from 1991, where the rose makes its appearance as a distinct figure on a mottled, abstract background, and one sees the attention paid to the volume in the rose figure.
At the end of the 1990s, the paintings became consistently figurative, revealing an interest in the surface that could also be seen in her abstract paintings. The elements – people, shoes, flowers and furniture – are always flat and always executed in a very simple way. There is still no attempt that can be seen here to create illusion or volume. The motifs are both classic and everyday: from representations of women, flowers and interiors to more atypical representations of bathtubs, shoes and deck chairs. On featureless surfaces, people and objects stand as distinct imprints, construed through clearly colour-defined areas. The simplicity, the choice of colours and the figures lead the mind toward the Italian gothic and the early Renaissance and, among other destinations, to Giotto’s frescoes from the beginning of the 1300s, where the colour-saturated figures in their simple aesthetic expressions are both relating to and breaking through the surface in their aspiration towards volume. The attempt carried out by Giotto to bring forth a ‘natural’ perspective space is recreated in Abrahamsson’s work in a form of indirect appropriation, where the source-model, ‘Giotto’, is not to be taken literally, but rather represented suggestively as a visual experience of art. This visual experience can also include Henri Matisse and his reckoning with central perspective at the beginning of the early twentieth century, where his interest in form and surface gave rise to a new way of looking at painting. It is, of course, not a squaring of accounts with central perspective that is Abrahamsson’s primary errand. One might sooner say that she appropriates art history’s great masters (Giotto, Matisse, and so on) in repeated adaptations of form, colour, surface and space, which are lying implicitly in the paintings. The obvious quotations in her paintings from the early 1980s (see Venus and Judith) became, later on – at the closing of the 1990s – more indirect appropriations, which seem to be embodied in the colour, in the painterly technique, in the simple composition and partly in the motive. For example, Abrahamsson’s technique is something quite exceptional: after her abstract period in the 1990s, she has consistently worked with tempera on canvas. Tempera painting was widespread in gothic art and during the Renaissance, before oil painting ousted its widespread use. Tempera painting has a different expression than that of oil painting and generates, in itself, a different, brighter and fresher colour scale, which can be seen in Abrahamsson’s aesthetic expressions. The playing with perspective can be seen, for example, in the series Hotel Rooms, where one particularly feels carried back, albeit in the wrong perspective reproduction, and transported into late medieval frescoes and panels.

The appropriation of ‘old masters’ was one aspect of the postmodernist, feminist discourse from the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. It embodied a feminist critique of the cultivation of patriarchal culture, which was deeply anchored in the writing of art history. In 1981, art historians Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock published a book with the ironic title Old Mistresses, which was only one of a large number of books that were rewriting art history in order to get female artists integrated into art history. Female artists had a different way of dealing with their past and with the male art-historical heritage to which they were restricted to relate. American artists Elaine Sturtevant and Sherrie Levine both created ‘appropriations’, which were either direct or slightly adapted copies of male artists’ works. The point was to repeat works by male artists in order to showcase art history’s male genealogy and thereby deconstruct the understanding of art history as men’s history.

Abrahamsson does not avail herself of the same method as either Levine or Sturtevant, in as much as there is no matter in Abrahamsson’s works of direct copies. What we see in her work are rather thematizations around motifs, colours, objects, and so on, from the enormous archive of art history encompassing, particularly, male artists’ works, which are accordingly used as background material for her paintings. In the abstract series of works from the mid-1990s, this indirect appropriation form is already present in works like Composition – Pinky Never Goes Home, from 1995 and Composition – Grey, also from 1995, paintings that refer to, respectively, Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin. This more directly referential form can be seen again in works from the 2010s, which could sooner be called modified appropriations. In the series A Chamber Play with Hunting Scenes (2016), Abrahamsson paraphrases art-historical hunting scenes with a point of departure in the French painter Gustave Courbet and the Swedish painter Bruno Liljefors. In the series Female Muses: An Appropriation Through Art History (2019/20), what we have before us are paraphrases of art-historical masters. Here, it is Francisco Goya, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Édouard Manet, Vittore Carpaccio and a somewhat freer paraphrasing of Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece The Artist’s Studio (1855). A characteristic of the appropriated pictures is that they are portraits or pictures of women that were created by men. The women that populate the original paintings have, in Abrahamsson’s versions, been replaced by friends of the artist and the male gazes in the original paintings have been replaced by the artist’s own. In her painting I kunstnerens atelier (In the artist’s studio), Abrahamsson places herself, exactly like Courbet, at the centre of her own artistic output – a clear manifestation of the artist as woman in a kind of final takeover of the male artist role.

The Reporter

Since the 2000s, Abrahamsson has aimed her focus at the exploration of painting by testing out the different possibilities of image formation. The focus on the object is still very central. Whether it is Palme (2004) or a classic red-coloured Swedish house, as in House (Swedish) (2007), she consistently works with these motif-sets through repetition. What happens when you paint a little red Swedish house over and over again? After numerous repetitions it almost comes to make its appearance as an abstract form, even though one cannot evade its significance as a distinct national reference to Sweden. The same thing goes for the Drachmann bench, as in Bench (Drachmann) (2004), which Abrahamsson has re-created in a painting as well as in a physical form, in miniature format. The bench has been painted, as well, with a particular fascination in its form, but similarly with an implicit meaning in mind. Holger Drachmann was living in Skagen, in the company of the Skagen painters. As such, he is part and parcel of celebrated Danish art and culture. Moreover, the Drachmann bench has now become part of national heritage, a picturesque part of any romantic garden. Like the Swedish house, the Drachmann bench, too, refers to a national culture: in this case, to the Danish one.
On the whole, Abrahamsson’s flat figurative paintings have gradually but discreetly become somewhat more charged with meaning and referential. A ring of cultural or site-specific references is characteristic of her output through the 2000s. This can also be said about the series of works that explore different types of motifs, for example the genre painting, the animal painting and the illustration. In several works from 2007 to 2010, Abrahamsson appropriates various images and tales that are widely beloved. This can be seen, for example, in the painting Grindslanten (2007/8), which is an adaptation of the Swedish painter August Malmström’s renowned painting from 1885. The painting became a very popular reproduction, which hung in many Swedish homes and became a national treasure. Abrahamsson breaks down the familiar motif through pixelation, so that the picture comes to look like an enlarged digital image. It could also resemble the basic ground for an embroidery or a patchwork quilt. Shapes, colours and surface are eye-catching, and we barely glimpse the motif behind the dissolved form. The series, moreover, consists of two paintings that show excerpts from Grindslanten: Grindslanten (flickan/the girl) from 2008 and Grindslanten (betrakteren/the viewer), from 2009. The two figures have been painted in the manner of her earlier paintings’ flat figurations but have now been enhanced with a somewhat simplified Giotto-esque volume. In Grindslanten, Abrahamsson is appropriating unassuming folksy painting in a fine-arts-like form and accordingly establishing a visual analysis of national folk art, its form and its meaning. Grindslanten is a genre painting, in this case a rural scene, and is in possession, like many of these kinds of paintings, of both a sentimental and moral content that can be deduced from the painting’s trifling occurrences. Several examples of this type of motif appeared in the latter half of the 1800s and constituted a type of popular art that enjoyed a great deal of popular appreciation.
The Brothers Grimm’s well-known fairy tales, which were adaptations and rewritings of folk tales, also fashion a starting point for Abrahamsson’s picturesque paraphrases of popular forms of expression. In Little Red Riding Hood (2008), Abrahamsson grabs hold of the sociologically charged story of Little Red Riding Hood as a ‘coming-of-age’ tale, replete with moral lessons to be learned. The Little Red Riding Hood motif is found primarily as an illustration in books and Abrahamsson actually has the picture from her own childhood clippings. Here, Abrahamsson is taking images of another kind that were mass-produced in connection with letterpress printing. Another type of popular and mass-distributed motif that Abrahamsson has taken possession of and converted for her own use is that of animal motifs. Animal motifs were also a widespread, albeit not highly esteemed, genre in art in the 1800s, but were ostensibly regarded more as studies, as well as model studies, for later integration into a larger composition. Today, especially on the internet, there is an extreme mass distribution of animal images and the dog portrait is a sub-genre that Abrahamsson has embraced in works such as Dansk Svensk Gårdhund (Danish-Swedish Watchdog) from 2009, Perro (2014) and the portrait of Lui (2013).
With her interest in the straightforward cultural symbol, in genre- and animal paintings and in the illustration, Abrahamsson has become decidedly less ‘cool’. Mass culture’s popular and banal images, which here become objects of appropriation, are infused with an almost pop-art-like intention. They could even be said to be neo-pop, if one thinks of Jeff Koons’ Banality series, which consists of appropriated ceramic figures.

Image Scavenger

One strategy that has followed Abrahamsson throughout her career is the use of the existing picture as a prototype for painting. Motifs taken from art history, popular culture, postcards, photography and, today, images from the internet, have consistently served as the starting point for Abrahamsson’s output. Back in the 1980s, the recycling of images was a central part of appropriation art’s various strategies. Collage, montage and the direct repetition of existing motifs were widely proliferating methods and the term ‘image scavenger’ came into use as the designation for this manner of using images. Postmodern theory’s philosophy of repetition appears to be ubiquitous.
In recent years, Abrahamsson has increasingly been making use of her own photo­graphs and of photographs taken from the internet as starting points for choosing her motifs. However, in her paintings from the mid-2010s up until today, she has continued to make use of her visual experience and the history of painting. In the series Time – Genre – Myth (2013/14) she has continued working with the everyday realism of genre painting, combined with the holiday image’s (or snapshot’s) instant capturing of a mood or situation. In the series Patio from 2018, there are snapshots that gather up observations of patios from travels around the world as well as more domestic motifs. The Spanish-language titles evoke the experience that these motifs stem from, including trips to warmer climes, although some of the motifs are actually out-and-out local, originating from just around the corner from where Abrahamsson lives. The colour scheme, similarly, gives rise to the perception that these are motifs from southern latitudes. In this way, Abrahamsson is manipulating the viewer’s perception of the exotic. In this series, with the photograph as visual memorandum, Abrahamsson moves completely into painterly work with volume, where the brushstrokes have suddenly become extremely distinct and meaningful, and her interest in the composition emerges very clearly in the series’ diagonal lines. In their simplicity, the motifs become fundamentally baroque in their composition, albeit baroque in a nineteenth-century realistic version, as was expounded by Manet. Once again, it is the visual experience situated between reality and art history that occupies a central position in Abrahamsson’s paintings.
The Escapisme series takes its point of departure from pictures that have been downloaded from the internet. What we have here are photographic sources, which could sooner be said to be images of a National Geographic quality – that is to say, excellently rendered nature images of plants, animals and landscapes, in contrast to the more close-up, snapshot-like holiday images. As the title indicates, this is a matter of escapism in much the manner of escapism you experience when surfing the internet, where you can set out for exactly the destination you want, through the interminable stream of images. Abrahamsson takes us along with her to the rainforest and the desert, and depicts – from a Nordic perspective – foreign landscapes and animals that enthral us with their beauty, but also hold a certain danger: the carnivorous plant, the hidden bird-eating spider, crocodiles in the river, the hunting animal, and so on.
Escapisme was created during the Covid-19 pandemic, which for many people represents a period of relative isolation. The dream appears to be a strong element in the series, and one gets a sense of the intense effort made in the studio to produce this series. Through both her brushwork and her composition, Abrahamsson seems to be taking a step further from Patio in a form of neo-realism that may well have characterised her output for many years, but which now attains new heights with the isolated figures, the brushstrokes and the compositional cropping. The postmodern intention, however, is sustained. It is still a matter of simulacrum, taken directly from the internet’s surfeit of copies’ copies, and Abrahamsson’s paintings are still based on an ideological construction. Escapisme takes the paintings to a new place, both in the motivic sense and in the painterly sense, thus demonstrating an experience and a certainty in both theory and method, and displays Anette Abrahamsson’s longstanding tête-à-tête with painting over the course of several decades.


Peter Michael Hornung, ‘Sult efter billeder’, Ny Dansk Kunsthistorie, vol.10 (1996), pp.93–99.
2 David Joselit and Elisabeth Sussman (eds.), Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture,
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 September – 30 November 1986 (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1986). p.3.
3 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1981), p.3.
4 Yves-Alain Bois, ‘Painting: The Task of Mourning’, in Joselit and Sussman, p.30.
5 Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013/1981).
6 Paula Marincola, Image Scavengers: Photography (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1983).