New York

Raoul de Keyser

Brooke Alexander

Raoul De Keyser’s paintings are at once familiar and elusive, banal and eccentric. Well known in Europe, this Belgian artist is regularly included in important surveys such as “Documenta IX,” and last year’s “Der Zerbrochene Spiegel” (The broken mirror), as well as the more recent “Unbound: Possibilities in Painting” at the Hayward Gallery. De Keyser’s first American solo show suggests that, at the age of 65, he is self-assured enough to conceal the effort that goes into attaining a given effect. The thin paint and limited palette he uses belie the careful layering from which De Keyser constructs the surfaces of his paintings. Through completely abstract means, his work attains the dreamy irony of Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte. Indeed, De Keyser’s abstraction has little to do with purity; it seems based, instead, on the suggestion of a resemblance to other paintings—whether they anticipate or follow his own work. That is, one may be reminded of other painters, generally younger and rarely Belgian, but only long enough to see why the comparisons fail. To speak of a glum Mary Heilmann, a relaxed Jonathan Lasker, or a less remote and astringent Blinky Palermo would be, after all, to fall into oxymoron.

With their damp, suffused atmospheres, the seven untitled paintings on hand here were simple enough. In each, a ground of one color is marked with a few traces (which sometimes amount to out-and-out shapes) in a second color: a handful of black scribbles that vaguely resemble a flock of agitated birds are scattered on a yellow ground; pink striations mark a red ground as if light were reflecting off the surface of blood-saturated water; four overlapping, partially smeared green diamonds rest against a white ground. This last painting seems to speak of something that may be of more general significance to De Keyser. One might call it the inscription, replication, and partial erasure of Suprematism: a distanced reflection on all the utopian aspirations of the Modernist avant-gardes which reached such an intense pitch with Kazimir Malevich.

De Keyser seems drawn to the kind of art that aspires to be either the end of painting or a new beginning for it, though his own work thrives on the contradiction between ends and beginnings, exhaustion and incompletion, pretending to bypass whatever might represent a central phase of development. The relationship De Keyser establishes between precursors and his own creation evokes the one between poet and translator that Walter Benjamin describes in “The Task of the Translator”: “the intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational.” In his work, De Keyser never discloses whether he is the poet, the maker of a painting to come, or the translator of a painting already past.

Barry Schwabsky