EssaysWeekend

Failure as Success in Painting: Bram van Velde, the Invisible (Part 1)

James Bishop, “Middle” (1972), oil on canvas, 74 1/4 x 74 1/4 inches (© Paul Rodgers/9w Gallery, NY)

Last summer, at a press preview before the opening of his exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, the painter James Bishop, recounting his early Paris days in the sixties, mentioned in passing his strong interest in Bram van Velde’s work. Even though he had previously mentioned it in 1993, in an interview with Dieter Schwarz on the occasion of his retrospective traveling in Europe (“a painter that I admire enormously now is Bram van Velde, but I did not know his work then”), this reference was so unexpected that I felt I had to probe him more about it. In his laconic way, he then confirmed that he was as fascinated by Bram’s work as he was by his persona. I asked him if he had met him, as they were both in Paris at the same time, but he had not. The mention of the almost completely unknown figure — at least today in the United States — of Bram van Velde by the famously reclusive Bishop was a surprise, particularly because it is a rare occurrence when an American painter of his generation would publicly admit to a postwar Paris-based painter of being of any importance to him. Although when one looks into it, it is not that surprising as they both have a lot in common, if not stylistically, at least in their own unassuming approach to their work.

One of the most elusive figures of postwar European painting, Bram van Velde was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1885 and died in Grimaud, a small village on the French Riviera, in 1981. Like a lot of artists at that time, he spent his early years (1924-1940) in misery traveling in Europe in search of cheap living arrangements, as his work slowly moved away from Edward Munch’s influence toward that of Henri Matisse and Cubism. In 1936 he met the Irish writer Samuel Beckett in Paris through his brother Geer, also a painter: two Protestant expatriates meeting on Catholic soil. During the Second World War years, while secretly working for the French resistance, Beckett became van Velde’s only moral and financial support and may have drawn inspiration for some of his characters from him. Just as the artist was discovering his own voice (his work came into its own around 1939-1940), the German Occupation of France and the hard times that came with it forced him to stop painting altogether from1941 to 1946. When he started painting again, his style and esthetics were fully formed and would not change until the end.

Characterized by uncertain shapes and colors, loose compositional arrangements, unfinished passages, uncontrolled drips, and a wobbly line, as exemplified in “Untitled Paris-Montrouge” (1956), van Velde’s work forces the formal vocabulary and structure of Fauvism and Cubism into crisis, leaving a sense of precarious but oddly satisfying resolution. While van Velde continued to work in oil on canvas until 1970, a major part of his production would be in gouache on paper, such as “Untitled Burgundy” (1954), Gouache, a less historically loaded medium than oil, suited his nomadic lifestyle better (he never had an actual studio), not only for its cheaper cost and uncomplicated technique but also for its easier control of pigment fluidity. A first impression of a typical painting today, such as “Untitled” (1970), in the collection of the Bilbao Museum, Spain, might lead us to regard it as an early example of Bad Painting, as defined in the 1980s to describe an Expressionist facture ironically exaggerated. No irony intended here, though.

Bram van Velde, "Untitled, Paris-Montrouge" (1956), oil on canvas, 51 x 76-3/4 inches (via members.chello.nl)
Bram van Velde, “Untitled, Paris-Montrouge” (1956), oil on canvas, 51 x 76-3/4 inches (via members.chello.nl)

The usual temptation is to read his work as an extension of Northern European Expressionism in the vein of Edward Munch and Emil Nolde, which was indeed his point of departure in painting, and his friendship with some members of COBRA, such as Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinski, helped reinforce that view. The next common mistake is to relate him primarily to Paris-based Existentialist and other writers from the thirties to the fifties, including Beckett, Emmanuel Bove, Maurice Blanchot or Robert Pinget. If he offered a role model for some of Beckett characters, in his early days of stark poverty he could as well have stepped straight out of the pages of Hunger from Knut Hamsun, Armand from Bove or Thomas the Obscure from Blanchot.

Samuel Beckett’s taste in painting was fairly wide and eclectic, ranging from Avigdor Arikha to Francis Bacon; still, in the late forties he wrote and spoke extensively about the van Velde brothers and more specifically about Bram, almost all of it in French. In “Painters of the impediment,” his most straightforward text on them, from 1948, Beckett tentatively sketches an esthetic program for the van Veldes which could be summed up as follows: since the essence of the object is to evade representation, what a painter is then left to do is to represent the conditions of this evasion. As Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian, back in 2010, on the occasion of the publication of Charles Juliet’s translated dialogs with Beckett and van Velde, “Bram van Velde could have been made for Beckett. He could, come to think of it, have been made by Beckett, not only in the sense that he has the characteristics of the typical Beckettian character, but in that it was as much thanks to Beckett’s private and public support as to his own talent that he was able to lift himself out of the extreme poverty which he had suffered for much of his life.”

Bram van Velde and Samuel Beckett, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1975 (sfcdt.wordpress.com)
Bram van Velde and Samuel Beckett, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1975 (via sfcdt.wordpress.com)

In a famous photo taken on the occasion of Bram van Velde’s 1975 opening at the Maeght Gallery in Paris, he and Beckett stand side by side and look so much alike that one may wonder which one of the two of them is the creation of the other. If in many ways Beckett’s support did help establish Bram’s status in the Paris art world, in others it also annexed it for its own purpose: a career blessing turned into something of a critical curse. Beckett was well aware of the issue and as early as 1949, decided to stop the damages.

Nonetheless, from the fifties to the seventies, the French critical discourse on van Velde kept the artist squarely in the shadow of Beckett, and his work suffered from a severe overdose of literary commentaries. In 1970 Marcelin Pleynet, reviewing van Velde’s retrospective at the Paris Musée d’art moderne for Art International, pointed out for the first time the similarities between Bram van Velde’s reading of Picasso and Cubism in the late thirties and what Arshile Gorky was doing at about the same time. Only in the 80s was his work finally separated enough from Beckett’s aura to be examined more formally on its own terms. After his death, his status as one of the most important European postwar painters continued to grow, with major retrospectives organized in France in Paris and Lyon; Maastricht (The Netherlands); Geneva (Switzerland); Valencia and Madrid (Spain).

Even if the secondary market has not yet caught up with him, his work should clearly be considered on a par with that of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, both of whom rejected abstraction. Van Velde reached the same level of achievement in abstraction.

The contrast between his established stature in Europe and the almost complete lack of recognition today in the US is quite striking, if not too surprising, unfortunately. After all, the New York art scene only “discovered” the French group Supports/Surfaces a few months ago, 40 years or so after it had dissolved.

The history of this invisibility in the US right after the war has been thoroughly examined by Serge Guilbaut in a fascinating article published in French on the occasion of the artist’s 1989 retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, entitled Bram van Velde in America: the invisible painting. In it, Guilbaut points out the historical parallels between van Velde’s work and the emerging Abstract Expressionist esthetic and the missed opportunities for a dialog between two esthetics so fundamentally close to each other, but separated by their ideological contexts.

The most telling episode is that of Bram’s first exhibition in New York, in March 1948 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery, just a month before Willem de Kooning’s first exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in April 1948. Bram was exhibiting with his brother Geer and their work was introduced to the American public by an essay from Samuel Beckett. The van Veldes’ show was a financial and critical flop, while the de Kooning’s show, praised by Clement Greenberg, launched that painter’s career with the sale of “Painting 1948” to the Museum of Modern Art. Van Velde’s biographers recall that, if Greenberg most likely did not see the show at the Kootz gallery, de Kooning apparently did and he praised it verbally to his friends.

Born in Holland 19 years apart, the two painters follow an eerily similar path in their youth and formative years. They both came from broken families and went on to learn the decorative painter’s trade before immigrating to Paris in 1924 at age 39 for van Velde and to New York in 1926 at age 22 for de Kooning. But the similarities stop there. The difference is that van Velde knew he wanted to be an artist before he came to Paris, while de Kooning discovered himself as an artist years after arriving in New York. On the occasion of one of his shows at the Knoedler Gallery in 1962 in New York, Bram van Velde met Bill de Kooning through the poet Walasse Ting. They met again in 1968 and one can understand their affinities, beyond those of their nationality, when one remembers de Kooning’s close friendship with Arshile Gorky when Gorky was also working his way out of Picasso and Cubism. Bram van Velde’s last exhibition in New York was at the Lefebre Gallery in 1982, a tribute to the painter who had recently passed.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

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