At 87, This Icelandic Pop Artist Is Still Making Eye-Popping Work

Alina Cohen
Jan 10, 2020 

For over six decades, the Icelandic artist Erró  has made paintings that forgo gentle aesthetics in favor of riotous visual assaults. His canvases feature overlapping, appropriated, painted images from everyday sources including comic books, advertisements, and the media. A representative work, Baby Rockefeller (1962–63), is a triptych brimming with pictures: grapes, flowers, a butterfly, Santa Claus, a stork carrying a child in its beak, a Native American warrior, a dog with a sign that says “Happy Birthday,” a revolver, and a covered wagon. And that’s just a fraction of it.
Years before the internet saturated our lives with more information than we could possibly absorb, Erró was bombarding his viewers with such amalgamations of kitschy figures, cartoons, and political references. Working in Paris, he espoused the mid-20th century
 movement that swept across Britain and the United States. He befriended major figures of the New York art world and helped break down the barrier between high and low culture.
“Erró represents the nomadic spirit of how Pop images related to consumption and consumerism were collected and transposed across the globe,” says Erica Battle, associate curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). In 2016, the PMA mounted “International Pop,” a survey of Pop Art (organized by the Walker Art Center, where it was shown the year prior), that included Erró’s Foodscape (1964). The canvas is an overcrowded visual feast made up of cheese plates, cakes, canned goods, and candy wrappers.
Over the past few years, Galerie Perrotin has helped raise the artist’s profile among Manhattanites. A new show opening on January 14th gathers the artist’s collages on paper, spanning the 1950s through 2019. They’re relatively tame works, which offer a quieter—perhaps more salable—side of the artist’s exuberant practice. Martin Bremond, associate director at Perrotin, believes the collages make Erró an “approachable artist, easy to understand and discover.”
Erró was born Gudmundur Gudmundsson in Iceland, in 1932, to a single mother; he enjoyed a happy, if unconventional childhood for the time. He once recalled growing up in the bucolic countryside, “on a farm where you could ride a whole day on a horse and still be on the same farm.” Early creative skills and dedication led to his admittance at the Oslo Academy of Fine Art in 1952. He worked in a figurative mode, painting blocky nudes and Inuits with kayaks.
Marc Chagall
 visited and praised one of Erró’s anatomy studies.
Throughout the early and mid-1950s, Erró further defined himself as a unique, leading artist. He entered a brief apprenticeship at Ravenna Mosaic School in 1955, where he made a mark for himself. He changed his name to the more easily pronounceable “Ferró,” after staying in the Spanish village Castel del Ferro. He eventually dropped the “F.”
Throughout the late 1950s, Erró painted battling, cartoonish skeletons and received an illustrating commission from Spartacus publishing house. He married an Israeli artist, Myriam Bat-Yousef, and settled in Paris. Erró was a master networker. His friend, poet and painter Jean-Jacques Lebel, introduced him to the Parisian Surrealists. Painter Roberto Matta
 visited Erró’s studio, and Erró vacationed at Irish painter Philip Martin’s Formentera home. All the while, he pushed his own practice into ghostly new realms, creating haunting, apocalyptic scenes of monsters merging with machines. Despite this dark material, European and New York galleries began showing the work. In 1961, Manhattan’s March Gallery exhibited Erró’s pieces alongside those of Yayoi Kusama and
Allan Kaprow.

Yet Erró didn’t visit New York until two years later. The extended trip proved pivotal. He met American art luminaries including
Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol,
Claes Oldenburg, Carolee Schneemann (with whom he had an affair), Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist
. Inspired by the country’s conspicuous consumerism, Erró began scavenging supermarket aisles and city streets, gathering products, magazines, and postcards. His new paintings, which reveled in excess, quickly followed. In 1964, New York’s tastemaking Gertrude Stein Gallery gave the artist his first one-man show in the U.S.
Over the decades, perhaps the most conspicuous shifts in Erró’s practice regard his source materials. Bremond notes that throughout the 1970s, Erró incorporated ideas about the Cold War into his work. Eastern and Western figures appear together, in strange juxtapositions. The New York Office (1976), for example, depicts former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong sitting in a New York skyscraper, while other works feature a poster of former Chilean president Salvador Allende, a swastika, or a likeness of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. The Soviet satirical publication, Krokodil, eventually became one of his favorite sources. Throughout the 1980s, more pop culture icons appeared. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman reside amid machines and political figures.

Since the 1990s, Erró has continued to fill his canvases with icons of culture and advertising, such as cars, Disney figures, and crop tops. In a recent paper collage, the recycling sign—three arrows curving towards each other into a triangular shape—appears. Environmental concerns surface, if only at a superficial level.
Erró’s work, according to Bremond, doesn’t explicitly suggest a political agenda. Instead, he says, “Erró just wants people to question politics.”
The artist himself, however, had a different view. “Political paintings and speaking about politics was not welcome in New York,” he recently explained over the phone, from his Paris studio. He notes that he no longer solely relies on his own devices for source material. While he buys American and Japanese comics from a local bookstore, people also send him images to use.
At 87 years old, Erró is still looking forward. “The future of art is street art,” he said. It’s easy to see the vibrant hues, pop culture references, and rejection of formal aesthetic principles that unite the artist’s work with what one might find along the walls of Bushwick, Wynwood, or Saint-Denis. Erró is friendly with Parisian street artist
Speedy Graphito
, whose own cartoon-inflected designs suggest the elder painter’s influence.
Whether Erró’s work is any “good” is beside the point. “His Pop-style work is shamelessly derivative, technically facile, illustrative in the most obvious and superficial ways and completely without sensuous physical appeal,” Ken Johnson wrote in a New York Times review of Erró’s 2004 Grey Art Gallery retrospective. And yet, he countered, “despite your better judgment,” you may find yourself engaged in the artist’s “manic graphic activity, antic humor, and promiscuous sampling.” So it goes with the fever dream that is our 24-hour news cycle. It’s difficult to look; it’s even harder to look away.