The Hague

Karel Appel

Kunstmuseum Den Haag

This retrospective of 65 paintings and sculptures by the 70-year-old Karel Appel demands a good deal of art-historical revision. It becomes clear that Appel’s Cobra paintings were among the most innovative European artworks made in the half-decade immediately following World War II, and that they had a significant impact on the development of German neo-Expressionism in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It also becomes clear that Appel’s contribution to “Un autre art”—Michel Tapiés’ movement in Paris in the early ’50s—is as great as that of Jean Dubuffet, who shared many of his visual ideas with Appel (for example, the use of graffiti and the art of the insane). Appel’s wooden sculptures of the ’60s—made from the roots of thousand-year-old olive trees—are among the most vital sculptures of this century. Additionally, Appel’s work of the ’80s—the exhibition juxtaposes new and old works, sometimes to stunning effect deserves its due place in the history of Expressionism. It is less reified than most neo-Expressionisms, that is, more authentically risk-taking and automatist. Appel’s ’80s gesturalism bridges the gap between Modernist and post-Modernist—unconscious and self-conscious—Expressionism, as well as between European and American Expressionism (he has spent half of his time in New York since 1957). His recent sculptures, made of fragments of photographs, mirror, wood, and paint, show how sustained his experiment has been. Most Expressionist artists tend to be sprinters, but Appel has shown himself to be a long distance runner.

The Cobra works are startling for the somber grayness of their ground—a kind of comment on the colorfulness of the fantasy figures. This ground reappears—sometimes in white, sometimes in black—in the ’80s figure paintings, as a symbol of the cosmic void into which human beings are hurled, twisted into bodily as well as emotionally insane shapes. Indeed, Appel has stated his intention of articulating the underlying—and not so underlying—insanity of existence, expressed as the tension between life and death forces. Thus, in his famous painted sculpture Questioning Children, 1948—one of his first wooden assemblages—he not only conveys the dementia of the starving children begging for food but of the spectators they address. In general, Appel’s art is subliminally sociopolitical, but this meaning is embedded within an intense impulsiveness that precludes its interpretation as a univocal message.

While Appel typically works with figures, he has also painted a number of abstracted images of the ocean and windows that are forceful but at the same time astonishingly tranquil, even serene. In these sublimely sane works one feels the strange pulse in the paint without being entirely overwhelmed by it; the painterliness registers the traumatic inner effect of external reality, without identifying with it. This exhibition is the first mounted by Rudi Fuchs in his position as the museum’s new director, and it fittingly acknowledges his Dutch roots, in an astute catalogue essay that addresses the heritage of a Dutch sense of light and matter in Appel’s paintings.

Donald Kuspit

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