English / German
“Man is the creative space amid the complexity of the infinite. This is the positive from which I will continue to work, or rather, from the basis of this idea, which is neither rational nor intellectual, otherwise I would make myself a prisoner.” —Karel Appel
As a founding member of the Cobra group, Karel Appel belonged to one of Europe’s seminal post-war avant-gardes; as a painter of the Nouvelle École de Paris he celebrated his first successes in the 1950s. Shuttling between New York and Paris, throughout his life he sought the artistic confrontation with the unknown: an unfamiliar style, a particular motif, the interplay between sculpture and painting. The book documents four exhibitions of his work at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin and London between 2019 and 2023. Two shows explored the influence of Appel’s first visit to New York: on the one hand, he found his way into action painting—the apex of which is represented by his wall-size picture for Documenta 1964 that he painted on-site overnight—on the other, he took up the academic subject of nude painting in a wholly unacademic way. The book then centers on a retrospective selection of the artist’s three-dimensional work, ranging from bronze and terracotta pieces to object paintings and absurdly poetic assemblages of carnivalesque found objects. Finally, Appel returned to the nude theme in oversized drawings and expressionist paintings from the 1980s and ’90s. Thus the book follows different lines with many ramifications through an oeuvre created over the course of sixty years, which leaves a lot to be discovered.
From the 1970s onwards Appel had his own studio in New York, but he never sought American citizenship since he identified as a European artist. In New York he met jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, and Miles Davis, whom he painted, as well as fellow artists from the New York School—especially Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Soon after his return to Paris, Appel realized Rencontre au printemps (1958), a monumental painting commissioned by UNESCO to decorate its new headquarters, which opened in Paris in 1959 (see also the following chapter). The immense dimensions of this painting correspond to works from the New York School rather than to their European counterparts, and it is stylistically reminiscent of action painting. It is the first painting of what is probably the most abstract phase in Appel’s oeuvre, represented in the London exhibition by two examples, Bataille d’animaux from 1958 and Paysage humain from 1959. In 1961, the Dutch journalist and filmmaker Jan Vrijman made the film The Reality of Karel Appel, which shows the artist as an action painter, comparable to Hans Namuth’s depiction of Jackson Pollock in a film made ten years earlier. Appel’s documenta painting of 1964 epitomises this type of work and the story of its creation is the stuff of legends: In 1954, Appel was invited both to the Venice Biennale, which announced the end of Paris’ status as art capital, and to documenta III. Since the pictures selected for the Kassel exhibition were not released by customs in time, Appel, on the eve of the opening, had four chipboards mounted on the wall reserved for him and ordered paint. He created the painting measuring 2.7 x 6.8 metres in one night. This work was exhibited by Galerie Max Hetzler for the first time since then, more than half a century later.
While one part of the exhibition was devoted to action painting, another section presented a concise overview of the other theme that Appel brought back from New York, which might surprise in this context: paintings of nudes. This historically academic subject seems to contradict both abstract action painting and Appel’s earlier Cobra works, which were often inspired by children’s drawings and outsider art in stark contrast with academic ideals. Although Appel had drawn nudes during his studies at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, and there is a nude from 1953 painted entirely in the Cobra style, the nude did not develop into a full series until 1957. One can assume this was inspired by his meeting with Willem de Kooning, who, like Appel, worked between abstraction and figuration and was already famous for his female nudes …