Failure as Success in Painting: Bram van Velde, the Invisible (Part 2)

Bram van Velde, “Untitled, Tardais” (1959), oil on canvas, 51 x 76-3/4 inches, private collection, Belgium (via

The postwar art scene in Paris was dominated on one side by a disproportionate humanist optimism (exemplified by Jean Bazaine, Alfred Manessier, Maurice Esteve, Vieira da Silva, et al.) bent on reconnecting with the great French tradition of Cubism and Fauvism, as if nothing had happened in between, and on the other by the dark broodings of the Existentialists, Miserabilists, (mostly figurative, such as Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier, Francis Gruber, Bernard Buffet) and Informel painters (Wols, Georges Matthieu, et al.). Bram van Velde’s own ambivalence towards Cubism and Fauvism, paired with a clear allegiance to an Existential type of abstraction, made him especially difficult for the critics to understand and categorize. Were it not for Samuel Beckett, Georges Duthuit and Jacques Putnam, the almost complete miscomprehension that his work met in Paris would have matched the early unresponsiveness of New York’s art world.

Cubism offered a structure, which by the end of the Second World War had ceased to be relevant enough to offer a future on its own. One can only wonder then why Bram van Velde did not become an Informel painter. Perhaps because of his work’s refusal of automatisms of any kind: holding on to the painters’ conscious act of painting, and at the same time withdrawing the ego from the painting process. “Painting is a destruction of the personality” as he explained to one of his interviewers in 1968. There is also in his work a conscious withdrawal from production plethora. It is said that Bram van Velde painted fewer paintings in his whole life than Picasso did in his last year, but with the clear benefit for van Velde of an opus almost devoid of second-rate works.

In van Velde’s painting, the ego, distanced from the act of painting, becomes the pained spectator of its own “failures.” The structure that Cubism offered was a perfect point of departure for the deconstruction of its belief system. It is not by displacing belief into another system, such as the Informal for example, that van Velde would find his voice, but by pushing Cubism towards its own dissolution, as a metaphor for the dissolution of all belief systems.

Van Velde’s insistence on “failure” in painting has been too often misunderstood as an epiphenomenon of Expressionism, when it is actually quite the opposite. If we understand Expressionism as the putting forward of an ego, as the vehicle for an existential angst driving the act of painting, to the contrary, what a painting by van Velde’s shows us time and again is the spectacle of the debacle of the ego, the failure of the painter to impose his will over the painting. Every time van Velde made a painting, he found himself in the position of watching himself “fail.” But this hesitant, groping and grappling process was the point of the whole exercise, hence the jubilation of the failure, the splendor of the colors, as demonstrated in “Untitled Tardais” (1959), underlining Beckett’s own saying about the creative process in Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Bram van Velde, “Untitled” (1970), oil on canvas, 78-1/2 x 98-1/2 inches, collection Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao, Spain (via

For what narratives are worth, and we all know how much fiction and wishful thinking goes into them, let me venture the following hypothesis, very sketchily: Bram van Velde’s work represents a direct result of the philosophical questioning of the consequences of World War II, which would continue and develop from the fifties to the seventies through the works of Simon Hantaï and Supports/Surfaces, among others. From a position of embrace, the painter’s individual involvement with painting would progressively retreat to a position of doubt and distance. This doubt, at first conceived on an individual existential level in the ‘50s, progressively spreads to a questioning on a societal plane in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when painters could no longer be naïve about what their involvement with painting meant ideologically.

Hence the slow displacement from the expression of withdrawal — as in Bram van Velde’s work — to a distanced analysis of painting by the painter as a predetermined code/language, as an object of knowledge, in Supports/Surfaces’ work. Hantaï’s own motto of the “pliage [folding of the canvas] as method” or of “painting with eyes closed” reinforces our understanding of a withdrawal of the painter’s control from the painting process, so that painting might speak through the painter’s body. Hantaï is the pivotal figure in this narrative.

As for Supports/surfaces interest in van Velde, it is worth noting that some of the best documentaries made about him, in 1963-67 and again in 1981, were the work of Jean-Michel Meurice, a Supports/Surface unofficial member, while (full-fledged member) Jean-Pierre Pincemin’s late friendship with van Velde was well known.

In this sense, we are already very far from Expressionism on one side and from Minimalism’s positivist reductionism on the other. If the ego is now at least partially removed from the act of painting, it doesn’t mean yet that “What you see is what you see,” to recall Frank Stella’s famous one-liner from his early Minimalist days. In fact, as we all know, if a work is to hold our attention for more than fifteen minutes, it is never only what you see. There are always layers of subtext behind any formal “games.” Later, with Donald Judd’s definition of the Specific Object, the artist’s role is further reduced to that of an object producer: the ego is entirely evacuated.

The difference between the “French” approach and the “American” might very well boil down to what degree of ego is allowed in an artistic practice on either side: evacuated in Minimalism, it is withdrawn only in Supports/Surfaces — a last vestigial remain of the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism?

If I had to place Bram van Velde in the landscape of American painting, I would probably locate him somewhere between two other painters of roughly the same generation, but stylistically very different: Philip Guston and Agnes Martin.

In his late phase, Philip Guston is the only American painter coming to mind who seemed to have accepted failure to the same degree of success (so to speak), reintroducing self-doubt, self-criticism, an acceptation of human vagaries and limitations, a questioning of the validity of the ego. But the “failure” in Guston is not as personal as van Velde’s. It is a failure of style. The failure of the sublime, his previous Abstract Expressionist style.

Agnes Martin, with the use of the grid, seemed to have struck the difficult balance between maintaining both emotional distance and a subjective involvement in the painting process.

Bram van Velde, “Untitled, Burgundy” (1954), gouache on paper, 59 x 79-1/2 inches, private collection (via

In order to better grasp the role of failure in Bram van Velde’s work, it might be useful to conjure up Robert Smithson’s concept of entropy and extend it to the individual, to the “subject” (a term always used here in a Lacanian sense), instead of limiting it to an exterior landscape, as if entropy were to include the human psyche as part of a bigger picture of its role within nature.

What brought Van Velde and Bishop together might be the distance that each of them maintained from the formal structure that informed their work, be it Post-Cubism for van Velde or Post-Minimalism for Bishop. Their common need to start from a structure and put it in crisis seems to have been very similar. But above all, what binds them together is their fascination with the fluidity of their medium, whether oil or water, as a way of surrendering some control over the outcome. Post-Minimalism, after all, was attempting to reintroduce the participation of the subject in the production of the object.

A quote from Terry Eagleton on Beckett in the Guardian (2006), which fits van Velde’s work as well, will introduce my final point: “A champion of the ambiguous and indeterminate, his fragmentary, provisional art is supremely anti-totalitarian.” There is, in van Velde’s work, a quality of indecision and incompleteness, of being improvised rather than planned, of being left in a transitional stage, in other words, of Provisionalism — as defined by Raphaël Rubinstein in his now famed article from 2009 — which makes it relevant to today’s state of affairs in abstract painting as well as to the young painters loosely grouped under the name of New Casualists. In my view, it can only be beneficial to relate present practices to past examples if one wishes to avoid endless repetition. It is only when such a past has been fully understood and digested that a real step forward is ever possible in painting.

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