The Hague

Robert Zandvliet, Red Studio, 2009, gesso and tempera on linen, 80 x 91".

Robert Zandvliet, Red Studio, 2009, gesso and tempera on linen, 80 x 91".

Robert Zandvliet

Robert Zandvliet, Red Studio, 2009, gesso and tempera on linen, 80 x 91".

Robert Zandvliet’s exhibition “I Owe You the Truth in Painting” posed an interesting question: Should a painter copy another’s work? While the history of painting is filled with celebrated reinterpretations—Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet’s The Sower or Picasso’s series based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas come to mind—a lingering suspicion seems to attach itself to copies today. Perhaps now that we have long since entered the age of mechanical reproduction, turning one painted world into another seems like too small a step, less significant and personal than transforming reality itself into paint on canvas.

But Zandvliet has taken that small step without hesitation. “I Owe You the Truth” consisted of personal interpretations of works by painters such as Hokusai (Volcanic Eruption: The Appearance of Hoeizan), Piet Mondrian (Pier and Ocean), Roy Lichtenstein (White Brush Stroke I), and
Jackson Pollock (Lavender Mist). Slavish copying was clearly never Zandvliet’s goal; identifying the original painting often necessitated checking the titles (which Zandvliet left unchanged).The main drawback of the exhibition was that by referring so directly to originals that were not on display, “I Owe You the Truth in Painting” sometimes threatened to degenerate into a game of Trivial Pursuit for art buffs. Moonlight on the Shore? Edvard Munch, 1892! The Lorelei? Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1896! In this way, visitors could become distracted from Zandvliet’s own painting.

But viewing the history of painting through Zandvliet’s personal lens helps to clarify his own style and system of thought. These paintings remind us that, above all, he has a strong reductive tendency: His copies almost always seem spare and empty compared to the originals. Furthermore, his style leans heavily on the use of spalter brushes ranging from about eight inches to a foot wide, with which he makes short, sharp brushstrokes on the canvas. This signature “Zandvliet stroke” is central to many of his works, keeping the composition airy and preventing the canvas from getting too crowded, as well as disrupting painterly illusion and thereby, at times allowing the artist to stake out a critical distance from his models.

In a way, “I Owe You the Truth” gave the impression that Zandvliet wanted not simply to continue learning from and about the artists he admires but to use the series to define his place in art history. His titles refer back to canonical works, while his signature spalter brushwork sets his paintings apart, creating spare, powerful images that seem to convey an almost Platonic essence of reality. The effectiveness of this combination of reference with abstraction was nowhere more evident than in the scintillating Shell, 2009, in which Zandvliet transformed a small Rembrandt etching into a painting measuring some six and a half by twelve feet. Proving himself once again to be one of Holland’s best contemporary painters, Zandvliet made the shell itself seem light, almost transparent, like the clouds above the Dutch landscape—a thing made out of breath.

Hans den Hartog Jager

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.