No oeuvre of any substance is easy to approach. Confronted by an artist worthy of prolonged attention, there will always be contradictions, mysteries, historical connections to establish and to discredit, accretions of misinterpretations to scrape away, even as new layers of misunderstanding appear. In this, the body of work (mostly paintings) that Dutch artist René Daniëls created between 1977 and 1987 is no different from many other historically significant accomplishments. Yet there are aspects presented by Daniëls that make thinking about his work especially challenging.
Born in 1950, he emerged in the late 1970s as part of a generation of artists in the U.S. and Western Europe who embraced a mode of art-making that had been more or less forbidden for the previous decade: representational painting. And here we encounter the first of our problems: the artists with whom Daniëls was initially grouped—the so-called Neue Wilde neo-expressionist painters—were artists with whom he had little to do. Yes, he was “returning” to painting; yes, he indulged in loose, intentionally “bad” brushwork and cartoonish figuration; yes, he was interested in reconnecting to repressed aspects of modernist painting. But unlike his mostly German counterparts, Daniëls implanted subtle humor in his art, relied greatly on the punning references of his titles, and, increasingly, foregrounded the problematics of painting rather than wallowing in the newly available sensuality of the medium. He noticed this discrepancy himself, and actually welcomed it. “The comic elements in my pictures made a strong contrast with everything else, and this did not exactly go down well with the organizers [of the 1982 "Zeitgeist" show in Berlin], as I could tell. But that in itself made me feel really good and strong. I felt ‘alone at last.’”
Here, to give you an idea of what I mean, are a few examples. A brushy gray and blue painting from 1982 which features some dozen skinny fish swallowing each other as a frustrated fisherman watches from a boat. The title of the painting is New Dutch Herring (New Dutch Herring Discovers how New Dutch Herring Tastes). Although playing off the Dutch love of herring, the painting is an allegory of how, in the early 1980s, an expanding art market was driving ambitious artists into a frenzy as they pursued quick success. As Daniëls, with typical candor, explained in 1983: “Then suddenly the idea hit me over the head: imagine what would happen if they [young painters] discovered how delightful they all are. They might eat each other up.” His series “Palais des Beaux-Aards” (the repeated aa’s pun on the Dutch word boosaards, meaning evil or angry people) includes what seems to be a lyrical abstraction (Schoorsteen in de Wolken, 1983) that conceals a glaring face, a rising cobra and a chimney. An insincere abstraction that belongs next to Polke’s Moderne Kunst and Kippenberger’s Preis Bilder? Yes, and yet, as nearly always happens chez Daniëls, the painting is available as an engaging visual statement. It’s important to note, as well, that Daniëls declines to engage in the audience baiting, that aptitude for insult, that so often marks the work of Polke and Kippenberger.
Daniëls seems to have worked fast, especially in the early 1980s. Rather than linger on a problematic canvas, he was more likely to paint over it, destroy it or simply retitle it. (Captions to documentary photos of his gallery shows, in particular his 1984 show at Metro Pictures, all too often carry the distressing notation “work no longer exists.”) His painting The Battle for the Twentieth Century (1984), another allegory of modern art history, was originally called A Room Above the Pacific. It marks one of the first appearances of what would become his central motif: a bowtie that doubles for a perspectival view of three walls of an exhibition space featuring monochrome paintings. In the “Beautiful Pictures” series that followed he turned the somewhat ridiculous motif of the bowtie into a perfect vehicle for meta-painting.
From today’s perspective, Daniëls’s points of reference and conscious influences seem impeccable: Broodthaers, early Polke, Magritte’s periode vache. But we shouldn’t forget how unlikely these choices were for a young painter in the late 1970s. Also worth noting are his frequent literary references. The Venal Muse, a title given to innocuous looking early paintings (1979) of swans and mussels, is borrowed from a Baudelaire poem depicting his muse (and, by implication the poet) as a prostitute. In 1984, Daniëls painted a marvelous big imaginary portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire in a bowler hat with an artist’s sketchbook under his arm. Adding poetry to Rasuchenberg’s formula, Daniëls once admitted to “using the former no-man’s-land between literature, the visual arts and life.”
Writing about Daniëls it’s hard to know which tense to use. Since the artist is still living, it seems only right to refer to his oeuvre an ongoing project, and yet, knowing that he has not painted since suffering a brain aneurysm in December 1987, it also seems accurate to treat his 1977-1987 works as a closed set. The implications of Daniëls’s tragic debilitation are many, not least that with so few works available to the market (most of his painting are owned by Dutch museums and foundations), his work is rarely seen abroad. It is situations like these that make you realize the extent to which offerings of contemporary art, even in museums, rely on a collateral market. (The Chicago Arts Club mounted a show in 1993 and the Camden Arts Center in London in 2010; for those who would like to learn more about his work, the catalogue of “René Daniëls Most Contemporary Picture Show,”which traveled from the Stedelijk to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and the Kunsthalle Basel in 1998-99 is an excellent place to start; I’ve relied heavily on it for this account. Since first posting this entry I’ve learned that the Reina Sofia in Madrid is presenting a René Daniëls show through March 26, 2012.)
At a certain point, Daniëls began covering some of his paintings with a final wash of thin paint which he called “fleece.” For the artist, this layer of “fleece” was (here, unwillingly, I shift into past tense) an intercession between “reality” and “idea” and, he said, “it’s what these works are about.” In some ways, our knowledge of his tragic hiatus itself constitutes a thin unavoidable barrier through which our vision must penetrate to view his art. It inevitably complicates our approach, but it is not, now or ever, what the work is about.