Raoul De Keyser

Why has Raoul De Keyser’s art assumed international prominence in the last decade? Not only is he the wrong age—over sixty when his work finally began to filter out over the Belgian border in the early ’90s, now in his seventies for his first retrospective, comprising some seventy-five paintings from 1963 to the present—but his work doesn’t seem to have much to do with the big issues of recent painting: Although not programmatically abstract nor based on reduction to the monochrome or the mechanization of the painting process, neither does it evince any special fixation on the medium’s relation to the photographic image, popular culture, the readymade, or linguistic signification. And while the dichotomy between object and image does seem important to De Keyser’s early work—Slice III, 1969, leans against the wall like a John McCracken plank, while Zevende Linnen Doos (Seventh Linen Box), 1971, stands on the floor and is painted on all five visible sides—it has long since become a merely tacit concern. Not that the painter seems anxious to avoid these varied issues; certain works approach them—Ground, 1971/1995, with its white lines on green, clearly depicts a sports field and so might be discussed in terms of popular culture and the everyday; Z, 1990, is a monochrome—but by way of curiosity, not commitment. Likewise, the paintings have subjects, but it is as hard to discern their significance as it is to dismiss them as merely a formalist’s armature for picture building. Walking past one wall at the Whitechapel, for instance, I could see that Untitled (Suggestion), 1995, might show the legs of a swimmer immersed in the water, that Bleu de Ciel (Sky Blue), 1992, is a field of flowers, and that Einden (Ends), 1992, depicts a pair of slender tree trunks (there is little reference to urban life in De Keyser’s oeuvre); but in the brushy field of pale pink sown with bits of peach in Tors, 1992, I could only wonder where to find the torso promised by the title—unless the word is meant in the sense of “fragment”? In any case, the motif permeates the painting without defining its meaning.

What makes De Keyser’s paintings so timely, so attractive to younger artists, may be their self-conscious vulnerability, their sense of unfoundedness and indifference to “the discourse,” the talking points that can so easily distract from the deeper problem they merely point to: that everything about art, as Theodor Adorno once said, “has become problematic: its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.” Not that De Keyser looks to be agonizing about this, mind you—even that would be to give it a sort of false importance. But certain of De Keyser’s works, where, as Adrian Searle puts it in his catalogue essay, “nothing seems to remain except residue,” speak as poignantly to this condition as one could imagine, and all the more so as De Keyser does not make a method or a fetish of it. His response to the situation of painting eschews melodrama, opting (here Searle borrows from Susan Sontag’s description of the Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran) for “nuance, irony, and refinement.” At the same time, there is very little sense of development in De Keyser’s oeuvre; a painting from the late ’70s can look very much like one made today. Yet he certainly does get better, in the sense that the more recent paintings are more clearly or intensely what the earlier ones already were—only now more nuanced, more ironic, more refined. And surprisingly, De Keyser’s consistency coexists with an extreme liberty.

With De Keyser, painting becomes what it has hardly ever been—something like what Gilles Deleuze called a minor language, or in Manny Farber’s more resonant phrase, a termite art. The paintings, generally of modest scale, don’t look like they were made with top-of-the-line paints or with the most solid of stretchers; there’s an iffiness about them that seems to go right down to their materials. There is often something a bit grimy or blanched about their color, as if they didn’t want to be too noticeable. The paint handling can look almost slapdash, and where it becomes more vigorous, this can be read as betraying frustration rather than insouciant bravura. And yet that slapdash handling gradually begins to seem surpassingly sensitive—or is it? The grubby color, fresh and beautifully calibrated—but is it, really? The sense of doubt never quite goes away. These are paintings on the edge of emptiness, of awkwardness, of a sort of visual inaudibility, and even when you see them as beautiful—as I do—their beauty somehow incorporates rather than banishes those qualities and therefore always feels threatened from within.

“Raoul De Keyser” (curated by Hendrik Driessen, director, De Pont Foundation; Ulrich Loock, deputy director, Fundação de Serralves; and Anthony Spira, curator, Whitechapel Art Gallery) travels to the Musée Départemental d’Art Contemporain de Rochechouart, June 5–Aug. 29; De Pont Foundation, Tilburg, Sept. 11–Jan. 9, 2005; Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Jan. 2005–Apr. 2005; Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, May 2005–Aug. 2005.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based critic.