New York

Karel Appel

André Emmerich Gallery

The key to Karel Appel’s work is his amazing volume, Psychopathological Art, presented for the first time in the “Parallel Visions” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum. Executed in 1950, during the heyday of Cobra—of which Appel was a founding member and leader—it is a virtual encyclopedia of “instinctive” images. They bespeak Appel’s sense of the madness underlying art as well as life, a madness that is at once a source of vitality and of despair. Ever since then, Appel has produced an art autre, to allude to the title of Michel Tapié’s two famous 1952 Paris shows, subtitled “signifiers of the informal,” in which Appel played a conspicuous part. Constituted by informal gestures, Appel’s figures seem to have a primordial life of their own.

Appel’s paintings now appear more uninhibited and intense than ever, but something new—or not so new, if one has been keeping up with his work over the years—is also apparent: color has become a dynamic force in itself. It achieves a voluptuous and at times violent self-evidence in his recent paintings, whether their surfaces are rough or smooth, whether they represent something or exist for their own abstract sake. For Appel, color is ontologically absurd, and evokes feelings that are uncanny by the standards of ordinary consciousness. To name those feelings is to betray their intensity, just as to name color is to miss its peculiar irrationality. Thus, even when Appel is intent on giving us a message, as in his room of “Beat” graffiti paintings—homages to Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso that cite these poets—it is the friction between the colors that gives the paintings their grating, coarse, even harsh power.

Appel’s line as well as color often seem like ends in themselves, interacting to uncanny effect in a series of marvelous paintings on plywood, in which apparently random lines are gouged directly into the wood. Eccentric color floes “complement” the line in intricate ways. Appel is able to achieve the effect of the unforeseen, which convinces us that we are witnessing a spontaneous “demonstration” of the presence of the unconscious, suggesting that dark forces hide behind and pressure the bright colors.

Perhaps the happiest surprise of the exhibition was a selection of large drawings of the female nude made half a decade ago and shown here for the first time. Color and line converge to constitute the body and to register Appel’s response to it, which has more to do with awe than lust. The body is “classically” concentrated and solid, but floats in the open space of the white paper like a mirage. Appel has essentialized the female body, yet kept it existentially concrete. It is a pleasure to see a figure that does not turn into a signifier of itself—a suicidal, disemboweled representation—but, rather, creates the illusion that it is still possible to experience through art.

Donald Kuspit