René Daniëls

“It always comes down to painting,” René Daniëls once said, a statement that resonates with some dissonance across a body of work permeated through and through with writing, word games, literary references, visual puns, and allusions to art movements, institutions, and mass media. Yet walking through the artist’s recent show, I was in fact struck by the immediacy and dynamism of paintings, mostly medium- to large-scale, that ranged from hectic cartoons to monumental portraiture. Engaged in an ongoing dialogue with gouache and watercolor-and-ink drawings, the canvases are animated by fluid brushstrokes, broad fields of color laid down in transparent and semi-opaque layers, and forms that have been flattened, simplified, or outlined. One has a strong sense of painterly spontaneity and control, of free gesture and concentrated reflection. As the works here evince, Daniëls can and indeed does paint.

The exhibition in question is a retrospective, and the oeuvre in this case is apparently sealed shut and complete, available for full and final appraisal. Daniëls’s career as a painter lasted just under a decade. Emerging around 1978 with solo shows in the Netherlands, Daniëls, who was born in the southern Dutch city of Eindhoven, not far from the Belgian border, gained international attention with his inclusion in Documenta VII, “Westkunst” in Cologne, and the Zeitgeist show in Berlin. A subsequent stay in New York and one-person exhibitions at Metro Pictures in ’84 and ’85 marked the onset of critical scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic. Late in 1987, at the age of thirty-seven, the artist suffered a stroke, and has not painted since.

Daniëls situated himself along a Dutch-Belgian-French axis, an axis comprising Duchamp, Picabia, Magritte, and Broodthaers. In 1983, he spoke admiringly of Duchamp’s “struggle” against art commerce and located his own practice in the “former no-man’s-land between literature, the visual arts and life.” In earlier remarks he had singled out a few paintings as “important steps” in his development: a dense, exuberantly painted 1977 image of a phonograph record and a paintbrush, which is linked to later pictures of such reproductive media and everyday objects as movie cameras, books, and skateboards; and a painting of mussels and one of swans from 1979, both works titled La Muse Vénale after Baudelaire’s poetic evocation of the corrupt entanglements, commercial and otherwise, of artistic inspiration. If the title imparts a cynical dimension to the darkly colored and somewhat sinister scene of swans, the image of mussels and an eel on a bright beach points fairly specifically toward Broodthaers’s mussel assemblages and, we might suppose, toward the model of Broodthaers as both a self-professed “fraud” and demystifier of artistic “sincerity.” A particularly rebarbative model, but not one Daniëls really attempts to emulate: There seems to be, across his work, an insistence, “sincere” if divided by doubt, on the value and viability of the singular image, the auratic object, the enterprise of the Artist.

Ferreting out references and unpacking rebuses can be a tedious and misleading business. Sometimes it’s unclear whether Daniëls is inviting or frustrating such undertakings. In the 1983 paintings and drawings sharing the title “Palais des Boosaards,” or “Beaux-aards” (the Dutch referring to something like angry or malicious people), there appear various groups of faces, interior furnishings, and a magician before a conjurer’s hat––a figure who mutates into a bullfighter in other pictures––but whatever critique of the museum may be on offer dissolves into exceedingly lush and painterly illegibility.

In 1984 Daniëls came up with the motif of a bow tie decorated with a series of small rectangles, which was at the same time a perspectivally skewed view of the back and side walls of an interior space punctuated with windows or hung with pictures. The following year, under the collective heading “Mooie Tentoonstellingen” (Beautiful exhibitions), he exhibited a series of variations on the motif: gallery and bow tie, the site and ceremony of the art show. Daniëls continued to play with the motif in later works, from picture planes loaded with myriad flat, abstract bow-tie forms to more or less illusionistically “correct” renderings of rooms containing a few monochromatic wall decorations, pianos, or microphones on a stand: the stage set (and the stage-set) for a performance, devoid of human presence. In Doorlopend naar buiten (roughly, “Continuing outside”), 1997, the “Beautiful Exhibitions” arrangements are covered by a thin, translucent layer of white paint, on which float a number of bow ties, reduced here to simple outlines. Daniëls used the English word “fleece” to describe this layering, which he employs elsewhere, characterizing it as occurring between the “reality” of the painter’s subject and the “idea” for the work. The artist never seemed much given to deep theoretical explication of his practice, but it’s possible to see this “fleece”––which is one translation of the Dutch word vlies, also meaning “membrane” or “film”––as a kind of veil or screen interposed between the viewer, the audience, and the “real” of the work, at once blocking and offering (partial) access, in the form of a radically simplified schema, a map of the beautiful René Daniëls exhibitions.

Around the time of his move from Eindhoven to Amsterdam in 1987, Daniëls produced one last extended series of paintings in which titles of earlier work, dates, Amsterdam locales, and various notes and musings are written alongside branching, Standard Stoppages–like lines: a tree, a chart, a genealogy, a map of canals or traffic arteries. In one of these, an untitled drawing, the word-and-branch plan is superimposed over the printed floor plan of an art gallery.

A plan perhaps, in both senses of the word, and in hindsight, imbued with an unavoidable melancholy: a look backward and forward; an announcement and way of summing up and refining; a reflection on and consideration of leave-taking (I wonder) from figuration and illusionism. A beginning and an end.

Robert Simon is a writer based in Amsterdam.