Raoul De Keyser, Drift, 2008, oil on canvas, 13 5/8 × 17 1/2".

Raoul De Keyser, Drift, 2008, oil on canvas, 13 5/8 × 17 1/2".

Raoul De Keyser

David Zwirner | London

Raoul De Keyser, Drift, 2008, oil on canvas, 13 5/8 × 17 1/2".

Although this exhibition, “Raoul De Keyser: Drift,” curated by Ulrich Loock, included forty-eight paintings spanning four decades, at its heart were the artist’s final works, from 2012: a group of twenty-two small paintings collectively titled “The Last Wall” and installed as they had hung in his studio. Situated on one central pale-gray wall and arrayed unevenly along its entire length, these pieces, like his earlier paintings, tantalized in their rough-hewn, unrefined nature.

The casualness of their grouping accorded with the spirit of their production. For example, Flooded in Brown, 2012, measuring less than six by nine inches, is, as its title implies, predominantly brown; two thick lines of white paint have been dragged stutteringly across the top and a thin swath of green has been laid onto the bottom plane. Suggesting a horizon or landscape, or even a sideways Barnett Newman, it has a picture hook protruding from its stretcher at the top. Several of the paintings sported these casual hanging devices, selected for pragmatic reasons, no doubt, but also reminiscent of Robert Ryman’s use of hardware as a pictorial element, and serving as a reminder of the painting’s objecthood. Like several of the other works on display, the canvas on which Flooded in Brown was painted has been very simply folded over two edges, leaving the plywood panel or stretcher exposed on the other sides. In the aptly titled Underskirt, 2012, the white monochromatic canvas doesn’t even cover the panel. Perhaps its name is a playful hint at its physical structure.

De Keyser’s paintings have always drawn from the world, but instead of representing objects, the Belgian artist used them as a point of departure. “The things I see,” he once said, “come back in one way or another.” A neighbor’s monkey puzzle tree viewed from his studio or shapes drawn from a piece of linoleum gave rise to paintings like Bern-Berlin-hangend (Bern Berlin Hanging), 1993, and Avondversie, (Eveningversion), 2003, respectively. In comparison to the rough, tentative, juddering quality of the “Last Wall” pieces, De Keyser’s earlier paintings appear more seamless and, in a sense, conventional. Yet his approach to constructing a painting remained consistent to the end, with a simple and largely unsophisticated application of paint to surface whose results are somehow quite rich and nuanced.

It is not the origin that matters, but the point of arrival. These are not pictures but paintings—that is, the accumulation of physical acts or events that happen on canvas. These late works walk a line between abstraction and representation, between painting and object. They can sometimes be frustrating. Is the vertical Z.T., 2012, consisting of a mere downward drag of vermilion paint on a long white vertical panel, visually fulfilling? Or is it simply oblique? Is De Keyser’s work an ode to failure? Or was he simply concerned that matter and gesture declare themselves? There’s an awkwardness in the matter-of-fact quality De Keyser cultivated, but the result is a personal, even intimate modernist vernacular. In place of the certainties of the modern masters, De Keyser conjures a speculative poetry.

Sherman Sam