A Karel Appel exhibition opens at the Phillips Collection.
In Jan Vrijman’s 1962 film The Reality of Karel Appel, Appel is seen vigorously—if not violently—slapping paint onto a large canvas in his Paris studio. He hurriedly mixes his paints directly on a nearby tabletop, as if scrambling eggs or whisking a complicated French sauce. The Dutch painter scoops a gob of paint with his palette knife and pivots on his heels. His arm winds back and then hits the canvas, marking it with thick streaks of color. Tubes of paint are hastily squeezed in a jagged, intermittent motion onto the canvas, as well. Appel’s breathing is heavy; he is working hard but intuitively.
In a voiceover the artist says, “I paint like a barbarian in a barbaric age.” (“Barbaric” here seems less in line with the Greek barbaros, which referred pejoratively to non-Greeks, but closer to the philosopher and Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg’s usage in 1916, which pronounced society at the crossroads of a “regression into Barbarism,” meaning the “annihilation of civilization” in light of world war and imperialism.) Vrijman cuts to shots of the city buzzing with activity, set to a soundtrack of Dizzy Gillespie. Back in the studio, Appel continues to paint as before, now with an experimental composition of his own playing in the background. His actions come to an apex, the painting is finished, and then everything is calm; Appel is pictured sipping tea from a teacup. After creation there is a period of rest—God rested on the seventh day after six days of creating the world; the alchemist rests his materials after they have been placed under intense heat so that they might congeal into precious metal; the artist pours himself a cup of tea after battering his canvas with paint and exhausting himself.
Appel was raised in Amsterdam. He began painting in his teens and eventually studied at the Rijksakademie in the early 1940s. He was a founding member of CoBrA (an acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam), which was formed in 1948 and, though short-lived (it disbanded in 1951), proved to be a highly influential avant-garde art movement in Europe in the wake of World War II. Experimentation, spontaneity, and disassociation from all other art movements—naturalism and “sterile” abstraction chief among them—were the tenets of CoBrA. The group’s output primarily consisted of highly colorful semi-abstract canvases with energetic brushwork. Their figures were so primitively simple that their humans, like de Kooning’s women, seemed perverted and their animals seemed sacred. On his own, Appel went on to create work in various media—painting, sculpture, photography, dance—until 2004, two years before his death. Throughout his life, he lived and worked around the world: Paris, Monaco, New York, Zurich, Florence.
Appel, who achieved a great amount of notoriety in Europe during his 60-year career, is not as big a name stateside. In general, postwar European art is not nearly as well known in America as it is in Europe. Americans tend to be more familiar with art made in Europe before World War II. However, museums and galleries in the U.S. are beginning to promote more awareness of European artists who were making art in the wake of war and destruction. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., will mount “Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color” this summer (June 18–September 18), bringing the artist’s exuberant style to an American audience. The show comes on the heels of a gift of seven works by the artist—five paintings and two sculptures—from the Karel Appel Foundation in Amsterdam. The pieces will not only stand out in the museum’s collection as dazzling accomplishments in their own right but will also resonate with the Phillips’ works by Bonnard, Picasso, and van Gogh—names that American viewers are at home with.
“Gesture of Color” is one of a flurry of international exhibitions of Appel’s work. Blum & Poe, a gallery with locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, staged “Karel Appel” in the fall of 2014—the first overview of Appel’s work in New York in over 40 years. A drawing retrospective opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2015 and traveled to the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich; an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Netherlands, closed in May; and a retrospective is planned for 2017 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
The Phillips exhibition will consist of 22 works. Klaus Ottmann, the deputy director for curatorial and academic affairs at the Phillips Collection and the curator of the exhibition, says, “Many of the works in the exhibition are quite large-scale, so it will not actually feel like a small show.” The museum, which is simultaneously opening a large William Merritt Chase exhibition on its third floor (it’s rare that the museum runs two special exhibitions at the same time), will stage “A Gesture of Color” on its second floor, across from the famed “Rothko Room.”
The Elephant (1950, cast in 1989), a theatrical painted-bronze sculpture, will take pride of place in the museum’s outdoor sculpture area. The piece, which stands nearly nine feet tall, looks like it belongs in a utopian playground. Sometimes, as with The Elephant, Appel’s work is so colorful and organic that it’s humorous. Woman with Flowers No. 1, a 1962 oil on canvas that punctuates a woman’s body with plastic flowers, shares this sentiment but also shows how innovative Appel could be. He was at the forefront of breaking boundaries between painting and sculpture, as well as found objects. In the ’80s he created the “Titan Series,” a group of paintings and wooden sculptures that used ropes and life-sized Polaroid photos. At the same time, Appel collaborated with the Vietnamese composer Nguyen Thien Dao on the ballet Peut-on danser le paysage? (Can We Dance a Landscape?), which premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1987 and was later performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ottmann says, “There is a primeval movement in Appel’s painting that relates to dance really well; his painterly gestures have a kind of choreography—not that of the refined conceptual dance of 1970s New York but something very primal that looks back to the roots of humanity.”
Vrijman depicts Appel’s “reality” as one of extremes—the wild man and then the European gentleman. Ottmann describes Appel as an “enfant terrible.” The curator says, “He was very provocative and very much about making a spectacle.” Yet there was another side to Appel, who also composed music and poetry. “He seemed like this primitive madman, but he was also this very sensitive, poetic artist,” says Ottmann.
Primitive, madman, child, animal—these words are frequently used in descriptions of Appel and his work. The artist was influenced by the artwork of children, and at the beginning stages of his career, when he traveled to Paris in 1947, he discovered Jean Dubuffet’s work, as well as Dubuffet’s presentation of outsider art, Le Foyer de l’art brut at Galerie René Drouin. CoBrA, as a group, was influenced by self-taught art, children’s drawings, and the work of Paul Klee. Marcel Duchamp wrote about Klee in 1949, “The first reaction in front of a Klee painting is the very pleasant discovery, what everyone of us could or could have done, to try drawing like in our childhood. Most of his compositions show at the first glance a plain, naive expression, found in children’s drawings.” Klee himself wrote in his diary in 1902: “I will be like a newborn child, knowing nothing about Europe, nothing at all.”
Appel was drawn to the notion of starting from zero, from a point before influence, experience, and education, a point at which instinct guided the body and usurped the mind. Appel’s process of painting, as shown in The Reality of Karel Appel, recalls a child throwing a tantrum or someone in the throes of psychosis. Like a pagan healer who puts him- or herself in a trance-like state while performing a ritual, Appel has one goal: to use his body to let the paint express itself. In 1972 interview the artist said, “Sometimes my works look very childish, or childlike, schizophrenic or stupid, you know. But that was the good thing for me. Because, for me, the material is the paint itself. The paint expresses itself. In the mass of paint, I find my imagination and go on to paint it. I paint the imagination I find in the material I paint.”
By Sarah E. Fensom