New York

Jan Schoonhoven, Relief, 1964, wood, cardboard, paper, emulsion paint, 20 1/4 × 10 7/8 × 1 3/4".

Jan Schoonhoven, Relief, 1964, wood, cardboard, paper, emulsion paint, 20 1/4 × 10 7/8 × 1 3/4".

Jan Schoonhoven

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Jan Schoonhoven, Relief, 1964, wood, cardboard, paper, emulsion paint, 20 1/4 × 10 7/8 × 1 3/4".

Writing in 1965 about his friend and fellow cofounder of the Dutch Group Nul (Zero), Henk Peeters recalled the words of Jan Schoonhoven’s supervisor at the Dutch postal service, where Schoonhoven was employed from 1946 until his retirement in 1979: “There are no better bureaucrats than Schoonhoven, who pursues his work with such scrupulous precision.” For an artist committed to removing both content and intent from his work, such praise was high indeed. As the selection of handmade reliefs and drawings at David Zwirner made clear, Schoonhoven, who died in 1994, never strove for an aesthetics of administration. He simply followed rules with pleasure, and the pleasurable latitude he revealed within a set of rules pervaded the exhibition.

Schoonhoven takes us through many variations within the narrow parameters of serial, monochrome constructions, yet none of these are as appealing as one emblematic body of work: those made by gluing bands of corrugated cardboard perpendicularly to a board, covering them with torn paper that had been soaked in paste, and sealing the entire construction with white latex paint. Relief, 1964, is a memorable example. The grid of eleven horizontal and twenty-three vertical boxes, each less than an inch across and about as deep, exaggerates the vertical rise of the approximately twenty-by-eleven-by-two-inch piece. The weight of the paint has softened the right angles, and the imperfections of its application give the grid an organic, even humane, feel.

The show opened with two impressive pieces: an early Paul Klee–inspired painting (Motel, 1956), whose pictographs were fashioned from cardboard strips, and the even stronger R60-21, 1960, one of Schoonhoven’s so-called destroyed structures (constructions détruites), which the artist created by trampling or smashing a completed piece, then “fixing” the newly crumpled shapes with papier-mâché. Hanging close to one another, they tidily encapsulate the methods Schoonhoven, like so many other artists at the time, found for excluding himself from the production process: repetition and chance. As he labored through options for creating patterns of light and shadow within his minimal means, there were less successful experiments, like the circular Schotelrelief (Dish Relief), 1963, with its radiating pattern, or the undulant diamonds of R69-23, 1969. But mostly, there were grids, some with squares, some with rectangles, a few with sloping inner planes that alternate directions.

Humble in materials, domestic in scale, and modest in ideological ambition, Schoonhoven’s objects have fared well in the current reevaluation of all things Zero. Even while they were exhibited with the work of Zero artists throughout the 1960s, Schoonhoven’s objects avoided the glossy sheen and exuberant ideals evinced by the work of his German counterparts. And though he pursued his practice with precision, he never relinquished the hand,nor was his evacuation of the self meant as a transcendence of the body. His was a small victory of the body over the machine. For two decades, Schoonhoven rigorously produced works each evening at his kitchen table, his own household bureau. As the veins of cardboard start to show through the thin layers of paint and dust collects in the recesses, his attempt to reach order through repetition takes on an unassuming dignity.

Rachel Churner