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Philipe Vandenberg, No title (2008), from Sketchbook of 111 drawings, watercolor, pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 41.9 x 29.8 x 1.3 cm / 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1/2 inches (all images © Estate Philippe Vandenberg, courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joke Floreal)

Philippe Vandenberg was born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1952, and committed suicide in 2009. The work in the exhibition, Philippe Vandenberg, at Hauser & Wirth (June 27 – July 28, 2017), curated by Anthony Huberman, is from the last three years of his life. It includes paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, and words written large on sheets of paper. The paintings are done on surfaces as disparate as canvas and found objects.

Although the exhibition is spread out over three floors of this tony townhouse between Fifth and Madison, it feels crowded, largely due to the installation on the first floor, where 111 pages from a sketchbook dated 2008 (the year before he died) are placed end to end on five narrow tables of different lengths in two adjacent rooms. The space between the tables is so narrow that I felt as if I were waiting to go through the X-ray machine at the airport.

For this and other reasons, I suggest that you start on the third floor, where the gallery is screening a continuous loop of a film of the artist in his studio. To catch even part of this film serves as a good introduction to an artist who is little known in America. In the part I picked up, Vandenberg, surrounded by his work, declares: “It is trivial to make art from pain.” Later, he says: “All those Saint Sebastians gave pleasure to their makers.” It was not surprising to see a well-thumbed copy of Antonin Artaud’s radio play, To Have Done With the Judgment of god. (1947), lying on his table.

Philipe Vandenberg, No title (2008), from Sketchbook of 111 drawings, watercolor, pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 41.9 x 29.8 x 1.3 cm / 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1/2 inches

Vandenberg, who was raised a Catholic, circled this bond between pain and pleasure throughout his life, never quite feeling comfortable about it. He got pleasure from making art — which is evident in the works done in his sketchbooks — but was haunted by this feeling. From the film, it is clear that Vandenberg was stricken by contradictions and went through periods of immobilizing depression. He had trouble accommodating to life, to the kinds of things many of us take for granted. In order to survive, he had to stay, as he put it, “mobile, mobile, mobile,” which is why many have had trouble with his work. He rejected style and consistency, anything that would have protected him.

A hefty and useful catalog with essays by Wouter Davidts and David Anfam, among others, complements this exhibition. Davidts, who was a longtime champion of the artist, once organized a two-person exhibition of Vandenberg and Bruce Nauman titled Live or Die. One reason for this unlikely and surprising pairing — which we could use a lot more of in our hidebound American art world — was that Davidts believes that Vandenberg and Nauman’s art is a cry of frustration engendered by the recognition that actual communication between individuals was impossible.

There is certainly a bitter humor in many of Vandenberg’s works. In one  piece on the third floor, “No Title” (2007), a pastel on paper, the artist has written in differently colored letters, “BRING THEM ALL TO MY KITCHEN” over the printed image of a shepherd going up a road with his flock of sheep.

Philipe Vandenberg, No title (2008), from Sketchbook of 111 drawings, watercolor, pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 41.9 x 29.8 x 1.3 cm / 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1/2 inches

In a number of sketchbook drawings, the artist writes “Happy Birthday” above the watercolor of a gun. (In the film, we see the actual gun lying on his studio table). In another grouping of drawings that combine different media, including ballpoint pen and watercolor, the artist creates a schematic cutaway view of streets, buildings, and stairs. Two men in bowler hats (descendants of Magritte’s anonymous figures) carrying a coffin, thanks to the perspectival ambiguity, could be trodding through the streets or up or down a set of stairs. In other drawings, there is a whole gaggle of men in bowler or stovepipe hats running through the streets in pairs, carrying coffins. There is no place to put all the dead, it seems. If you cannot hide them in art, where can you hide them? These works alone won me over, as well as piqued my curiosity to know more about the artist.

This is why the catalog published by the gallery is so useful. Although I have not had a chance to read everything carefully, I learned that Vandenberg was an incredibly gifted draftsman who could work in any style. In the painting “Une scene trés intime et secr´te de la vie de empereur (A Very Intimate and Secret Scene in the Life of the Emperor” (1974), which is reproduced in the catalog, we see the artist depict himself surrounded by Napoleon, Leopold II, Adolf Hitler, and two dogs. Within a short time, Vandenberg goes from what Anfam calls a “pictorial style [that] is flat and orderly” to drawing in thick paint. In the 1980s, during the rise of Neo-Expressionism and the Transavanguardia, Vandenberg gained considerable attention for his goopy, wet-into-wet paintings in which he drew all kinds of figures, from cartoons to Yasser Arafat. The link to urban graffiti was obvious.

At some point, it seems that Vandenberg got disgusted with the attention. Perhaps the relationship between his uncouth subject matter and the critical and financial success struck him as hypocritical. He was getting money for his paintings of crude sexual encounters, swastikas, and various forms of violence. I don’t think there was a single reason why he was distressed by the reception. Vandenberg’s response was to walk away from what he had been doing, to reject style and consistency, and to begin making all kinds of other work, from painting on found objects to filling sketchbooks with his bitter humor and writing aggressive, enigmatic words and phrases on large sheets paper.

Philipe Vandenberg, No title (2008), from Sketchbook of 111 drawings, watercolor, pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 41.9 x 29.8 x 1.3 cm / 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1/2 inches

By doing this, Vandenberg did more than disavow his earlier work. He also deflated its value by suggesting it was just a phase he went through, that perhaps the work that brought him attention was not really any good.  Vandenberg hated the self-glorification and pretense that were a big part of the 1980s art world and the generation to which he belonged. In our current situation, where bragging and pomposity are everyday features in politics and art, and critics toss out the phrase “mega-star” without the slightest hint of irony, Vandenberg’s bitterly funny work strikes a distressingly resonant chord.

Philippe Vandenberg continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 28.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...