You Can’t Hang People From Palm Trees

Article originally published in Let’s Panic Issue 01
Art by Arsen Roje
Words by Blaire Hansen


You may not know the name, Arsen Roje, but chances are you’ve seen the late artist’s work.  He designed the iconic poster for Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H.  It shows a man’s hand (the artist’s own) flashing the peace sign.  The index finger is wearing an army helmet, and a pair of shapely women’s legs descends from the base of the palm into kitten-heeled shoes.  This surreal, mashed-up “figure” is pressed to the fore against a bright yellow background.  Perhaps because it’s now a familiar emblem of the Vietnam era, it might be easy to overlook the innovation and oddity of the poster.  Not only is there no movie star visage, a daring departure—but the face itself is entirely negated.  In its place, we have the “v” of the peace sign, which is also the “v” of a woman’s crotch, thereby making the hand/body both all crotch and crotch-less.  This is an image of the human form redundantly anthropomorphized, body parts becoming the body whole in a gesture at once off-putting and comical.

In this way, the M*A*S*H poster brilliantly sums up the era’s–and the film’s–spiral of humor, sex, power, and war.  It’s also a strong example of the Pop Art movement, which had knocked art down from its elitist pedestal and sunk it into the muck of popular culture’s mass-produced, mass-disseminated imagery. Roje’s poster design is in step with that movement’s reliance on pastiche and collage and print techniques to de-contextualize and re-contextualize, as well as its high-contrast, superficial eroticism (think Tom Wesselmann’s reductive nudes or Lichtenstein’s static, comic-strip heroines).  And, despite closely related compositional ideas in later work, this advertisement was about as close to Pop Art as he would ever get.

Roje, who received a traditional painter’s education in everything from Michelangelo to the Abstract Expressionists, was one of several key artists to have come to us via the world of advertising (others include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha).  Pop Art’s history was largely forged by illustrators, sign painters and commercial advertising “creatives” whose skills prepared them for a crossover into fine art that maintains the power of the graphic and the role of the artist as an expert “packager.”  Roje had these sensibilities, but he chose not to deploy them as the primary techniques of his art practice.  The New York ad firm that commissioned the M*A*S*H design from Roje offered him a lot of money to stay on with them after its huge success.  But Roje turned the offer down. He decided instead to move to California with his family, to be an artist, in his studio, to be in love with paint for the next 40 years.

This breaking away not only from the ad world but also from art’s growing celebrity-industrial complex is crucial in Roje’s life as an artist.  It helps explain his artwork’s disinterest in Pop’s vernacular of pleasantries (whether sincere or ironic).  Instead, Roje’s paintings are abrupt and disturbing, and they retain the subjective expressiveness of their maker. Take his series of body part paintings, for example, which were based largely on photographs of his own hands or feet or limbs: the forms are often isolated—or disembodied —with a linear incision and proposed in high contrast to a ground of slick, monochrome auto-body paint.  The strategy retains some of Pop’s interest in reduction and choppiness.  But the robust, gestural approach to flesh is more closely affined to the psychologically charged impasto of Lucian Freud or Willem de Kooning than to any Pop artist. For Roje, the artist’s body, his facility (both in the sense of his tremendous skill and his physical “house”) is his subject. The resistance against the requirement of a subject is his subject.  “How can a painting signify anything but the condition of being an artist?” his work seems to ask, with a nod to Samuel Beckett, a major influence on Roje.

In a manner also reminiscent of Philip Guston (who famously broke away from the prevailing style of his day), Roje seems to have been almost painfully unable to stray from self-portraiture.  The gnarled fact-hood of the artist is laid bare—broken, oil paint-stained fingernails and all—unprotected by group trends or conceptual tactics.  Even in the most quickly rendered sketch of himself, we can easily, viscerally sense what it was for him to spend his life making artwork.  One simple self-portrait shows his fingers, oversized and cartoonish, pushing up into his brow in frustration.  And yet he also gives us clownishness, as in a casual photographic self-portrait with an inflatable canoe on his head and a cloth draped around his shoulders like a cape, aping the garb of a matador.  This is Roje “taking a stab” at the big bull, Pablo Picasso—the great perpetrator of a painter’s anxiety of influence.

In part because he left New York, in part because he didn’t understand the finesse of the art world’s endgames, and chiefly because he could not pledge stylistic allegiance to the movement, Roje is linked to the Pop legacy but ultimately left off its roster.  In 1980, he had a solo exhibition with Ivan Karp who, alongside Leo Castelli, had ushered in all of the most important Pop artists.  But by 1980 the apex of the movement had come and gone.  And Roje’s work would remain insoluble in any subsequent trend.

Perhaps Roje’s early biography helps explain why he would remain an outlander. Unlike the masters of his generation (the Pop artists, the Conceptualists, the Minimalists), Roje was not the product of a Western European or American upbringing. He was four years old in 1941 when the Nazis invaded his home country, turning it into their puppet Independent State of Croatia.  When he was a boy, his father had dressed him smartly and taken him to see the bodies of Croatian patriots publicly hung, decomposing, along the streets of the seaside city of Split.

Roje remained in Croatia for another 25 years, waiting for the moment to head westward, first to Paris, then New York, and eventually Los Angeles. Even in Los Angeles, he never closely affined himself with other artists in the city, choosing the individual life reminiscent of an older time and a different place.

Roje’s daughter tells an anecdote of driving home with him at dusk one evening in Los Angeles. As they pulled off the highway, his eye found that quintessential LA silhouette: a towering palm tree, backlit by the glowing hues of the polluted sunset. Roje observed in that moment, with characteristic black humor, “You can’t hang people from palm trees.”