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 Jan Muller  (1922 - 1958)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts / Germany      Known for: expressionist figure and landscape painting

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Ad Code: 3
Jan Muller
from Auction House Records.
Of This Time of That Place, 1956
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Jan Muller was born in Germany in 1922. When he was ten years old, the Nazis arrested his father for campaigning against Hitler, and though friends managed to secure his release through bribery, the elder Muller realized that he and his family had to flee. The Mullers went to Prague, only to find the city overburdened with refugees already. 

Life became one long search for a home, Switzerland, Amsterdam, Paris. When World War II broke out, the French interned the boy as a German; when the French surrendered, he fled the Nazis again. In time he got to Spain, to Lisbon and finally to the United States.

He worked as a dishwasher, a factory worker, a day-camp instructor, and in 1945 he decided to devote himself to painting. He studied at the Art Students League, six months later he switched to the school run by Hans Hofmann. He worked in many styles, from strict abstract, to mosaic, etc., then he returned to the image which gave him a wider sense of communication. His raw, brilliant color and primitive stylization of figural elements make him a second generation of Die Brucke.

It may be that his latest canvases were the outpouring of a man who knew his time was limited. At the age of thirty-one, a plastic valve was placed in Muller's defective heart and he was to live only four more years with that mechanism which could be heard pounding outside of his body. He died in 1958 in New York City at the age of thirty-six.

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, February 2, 1862
ARTnews, date unknown

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
German emigrant, Jan Müller left Germany in 1933 and went to Czechoslovakia, then to a refugee camp in southern France. In 1941 he settled in New York City and took his first art class at the Art Students' League.

From 1945-50 he studied at the Hans Hofmann School and was an abstract painter at this time. Around 1954 he began to frequently depict brightly-colored nudes, switching to symbolic figurative expressionism.

"A deep attraction to Mondrian kept him alive to the dangers inherent in composing non-figurative fields. Müller settled the dilemma by choosing to maintain the scaffolding figuration provided. " (Mullarkey).

Müller was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter who sought to reclaim the figure in his work, which was considered a very brave move at the time. He died in Provincetown, Massachusetts (1958), at the age of thirty-six, from heart failure due to rheumatic fever. He was esteemed, for evolving the figurative style, at the time of his death.


Maureen Mullarkey, "Search for the Unicorn: Jan Müller & Bob Thompson at Lori Bookstein Fine Art."

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

Biography from Spanierman Gallery (retired):
An Expressionist painter of individuality and power, Jan Müller was known for his ability to fuse “mythic content with iconoclastic composition.”[1] The mystical and often very romantic paintings he produced during the mid-to-late 1950s were uniquely his own and set him apart from mainstream Abstract Expressionism. Unfortunately, his sudden death cut short his promising career--at a time when he began to receive his first recognition from the official art world.

Müller was born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of Henry Müller, a political scientist, and his wife Lisa. He attended school in Brandenburg, where his family moved in 1927. However, seeking refuge from Nazis persecution, the Müllers fled Germany in 1933, residing in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Holland and southern France before arriving in America in 1941. After working on a farm in Ohio, Müller moved to New York, where he was employed as a dishwasher, laborer and film-cutter.

Müller was exposed to art at an early age, for the painter Lászlo Moholy-Nagy was a family friend and his work hung in the Müller home. However, his interest in pursuing a career as a painter was sparked much later in New York, when he first saw the work of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. He received his earliest formal instruction from Vaclav Vytlacil at the Art Students League. In 1945 he began a five-year period of study under Hans Hofmann, the German-born abstractionist who taught in both New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Considered one of the most influential painters of the day, Hofmann stressed a non-representational approach that synthesized high-keyed color and the spatial concerns of Cubism.

Stimulated by his teacher’s example, Müller initially worked in an abstract style, producing canvases comprised of small, mosaic-like squares of color during the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, wanting to introduce the figure back into his painting, he joined forces with a number of like-minded young artists--among them Allan Kaprow, Wolf Kahn, and Richard Stankiewicz--who moved away from traditional Abstract Expressionism and pursued their own aesthetic goals. In 1952, the group formed the Hansa Gallery, an artists’ co-operative where Müller had annual one-man shows from 1953 to 1958.

Upon abandoning pure abstraction around 1953, Müller went on to evolve his own personal brand of Expressionism, drawing inspiration from Northern European and medieval art, as well as early twentieth century German Expressionism, exemplified in the work of the Blue Rider group. Working in oil, watercolor, gouache and pastel, he conjoined simplification of form and innovative compositions with the bright colors advocated by Hofmann.

Müller derived many of his themes from the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, Faust, and other literary, religious, and mythological sources. He populated his pictures with a cast of characters that included nudes, riders on horseback, unicorns, virgins, and witches. Many of his paintings evoked aspects of German mysticism and folklore, or dealt with universal themes of good and evil, or death and resurrection. Some of his finest pieces were done during summers in Provincetown, among them The Temptation of St. Anthony (1957; private collection) and The Search for the Unicorn (1957: Collection Larivière, Montreal). It was there, in 1956, that Müller married the painter Dolores James.  A year later, one of Müller’s Faust paintings was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and his work appeared in the Young Americans exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

A series of rheumatic fever attacks during his childhood left Müller with a serious heart condition in his later years. In 1958, shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen, he succumbed to the disease at the age of thirty-six. Retrospective exhibitions were held at the Hansa Gallery in 1959 and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1962.

Examples of Müller’s work can be found in many public collections, including the Newark Museum, New Jersey and the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in many private collections.


©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery LLC and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery LLC.

1. Martica Sawin, “Jan Müller: 1922-1958,” Arts 32 (February 1959): 38.

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