42 Carlton Place, Glasgow, Scotland

Perhaps most widely known for having been ‘discovered’ by Marcel Duchamp in 1919, the American Louis Michel Eilshemius has long held the fascination of fellow artists. Stefan Banz’s recent monograph runs to an obsessive 768 pages, while painters Merlin James and Carol Rhodes, citing him as their ‘eternal contemporary’, have staged a concise exhibition of 13 of his paintings and four drawings at their project space, 42 Carlton Place, which also serves as their studio. A cursory comparison of all three oeuvres suggests a shared feeling for the balance of faintness and intensity: a sense of a glimpse; a memory; a view being brought, precariously, into focus. Eilshemius’s Volcano (c.1911) appears as the product neither of pure fantasy nor empiricism but, rather, someone imagining how an observation might look. It’s a quality shared with Henri Rousseau, with whom Eilshemius was grouped in Museum Folkwang’s recent ‘In the Shadow of the Avant-Garde’: both were ambivalent about academicism, both somehow avant-garde and vernacular, both candidates for the contested status of ‘outsider artist’. (In a 1943 review, Clement Greenberg wrote of Eilshemius’s ‘febrile, erratic intensity’ as ‘the result of a mutilation’.)


Eilshemius, Nymph in a Pool, 1919, oil on canvas, 25 x 24 cm. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York

Eilshemius, Nymph in a Pool, 1919, oil on canvas, 25 x 24 cm. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York

In Glasgow, Sunset (c.1910) is a cute nautical scene dumped in a bath of the ‘yellows, acid greens’ with which Greenberg identified Eilshemius’s ‘“deranged” period’. Yet there was no hint of derangement in the roughly contemporary,  Interior (c.1909–13). Here, one figure busies herself at an enormous bed, while another is outlined against a vast window through which pale golden light looms. The space of the room is unreadable, its shadows picked out in a muddied ultramarine. Both bright areas and dark ones evoke something dreamy, even transcendent; as these intensities pull awkwardly against each other, however, escape is stalled. It’s an aching evocation of yearning that also feels alert to its own awful melodrama, like something in an August Strindberg play.


Eilshemius, Interior, c.1909-13, oil on board, 13 x 22 cm. Courtesy: 42 Carlton Place, Glasgow

Eilshemius, Interior, c.1909-13, oil on board, 13 x 22 cm. Courtesy: 42 Carlton Place, Glasgow

At still other times, Eilshemius does folksy unsophistication: the storybook green landscape of War (1917) features a stricken figure plunging from a cliff with all the physical heft and emotional gravity of a dropped gingerbread man. Indeed, it’s precisely Eilshemius’s naivety that’s widely been supposed as the ground for Duchamp’s advocacy of him: the Dadaist championing ‘bad’ work as strategic provocation. (The 1917 exhibition at which Duchamp made his ‘discovery’ was the same that had declined his Fountain.) This account has been challenged, with Banz recently arguing for the influence of Eilshemius’s several nudes by water as an influence on Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66). Landscape with Figures (1919), whose central nude features the same bent leg and raised arm as the figure in Duchamp’s final work, is not on display here, though Bathers (1904) shares Étant donnés’s polished creepiness. A magazine blonde stands upfront with a rictus grin and, inexplicably, only one arm – more mannequin than human. Eilshemius’s habit of painting frames within his compositions, seen here in Volcano, among others, has also been positioned – plausibly – as a precursor to Duchamp’s use of the peephole.


Eilshemius, Volcano, c.1911, oil on paperboard, 22 x 42 cm. Courtesy: 42 Carlton Place, Glasgow

Eilshemius, Volcano, c.1911, oil on paperboard, 22 x 42 cm. Courtesy: 42 Carlton Place, Glasgow

Yet, if anything, the show turned my thoughts not to what came after Eilshemius but to what came just before. How, say, the exquisite, pastel-like Untitled – Exotic Scene (c.1916) looked like something Paul Cézanne, in the moment of A Modern Olympia (1874), might have turned out: both these paintings are the work of an artist looking at art history, doing something more or less uncomplicatedly libidinal, but also pulling at the elements of a picture, letting them slide apart, abase themselves and recoalesce. Like all the works in this show, it’s not without eccentricity; nor was Eilshemius himself, whom Louise Nevelson (another surprising champion) recalled giving instructions to the figures in his canvases as he painted them, and who hated being touched – another trait shared with Cézanne. In the peculiar light of Eilshemius’s scenes, eccentricity appears not as an automatic artistic handicap, but as part of the story of modernism.

Matthew McLean is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Issue 180

First published in Issue 180

Jun - Aug 2016

Most Read

The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018