Karel Appel was born in the Netherlands in 1921 and studied in Amsterdam at the Rijksakacademie van Beeldende Kunsten. Appel traveled extensively and lived in France, Florence, and New York. During the 1950s he painted alongside, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. The thirteen, “Out of Nature” paintings were made just ten years before the artist’s death. It does not look as if these paintings came easily to Appel. Great struggles appear to have taken place upon their surfaces. Forms look as if they are attempting to emerge from the fleshy folds of paint. Either that, or Appel strove to bury the figure once and for all. This tension is greatly interesting because of the human impulse to engage and recreate the physical world to make sense of what exists around them.
At five feet by four feet, Karel Appel’s canvases hang vertically, are evenly spaced with enough room to let them breath, and occupy three of the four gallery walls. The paintings, teeming with color and movement, are scaled just larger than a human torso. On close inspection they look as if they were prepared with black gesso. They are more elegiac than elegant, or pretty. The paint is thick, plastered, oozing—like open wounds manifesting sickness. Most of the gestures have a north-westerly orientation, with horizontal interruptions and occasional curves that serve to connect lines.
Many of Appel’s painting were fueled by emotion, which generated great gestural outbursts. Footage of a younger Appel at work, available in a smaller accompanying gallery as well as on YouTube, demonstrate how engaged he was, and how intensely he applied the paint to canvas. Appel squeezed out mountainous amounts of paint from large 225ml tubes. Brushes, trowels, or gargantuan palette knives were loaded to capacity, and in great flurries he furiously and violently stabbed, slapped, jabbed, smashed, and gouged at the canvas. Paint rammed onto the surface mauled the marks already lain. This brutal layering came to an incomprehensible end only when the artist was either spent of energy, or somehow satisfied with the result of his energetic outburst. At the end of his painting process Appel took the time to smooth some areas of the painting with his finger, suggesting that the resultant image did not arise by accident.
“Out of Nature” is a rare body of work that is unlikely to be exhibited again in its entirety. To fully appreciate the gestural marks and subtle formal changes from one painting to the next, as well as experience first hand Appel’s turbulent engagement with the surface, it’s worth seeing this significant period of his creative output.
Blum & Poe Gallery: September 8 — October 27, 2018