art informel

  • It should not be surprising that a young artist starting out in the early 1950s, unburdened by the dubious benefits of an academic art training, should first set out to practice what many of the most talented contemporary artists and critics thought to be the most exciting and radical art making of the time. For the young de vries, the expressive informal abstraction of tachisme (characterised by the haphazard distribution of dabs, blobs and strokes of colour) offered possibilities of a non-figurative mode that was not a style but a way of working. It allowed him personal freedom from the constraints of the essentially academig cubist-inspired abstract styles that first emanated from post-war Paris and were influential all over Europe. These might be characterised as either reductively formalist or decoratively abstract in either case an art of intention and design. Tachisme or art autre or art informel on the other hand, was dedicated to the chance discovery of the automatic image. It also encouraged the idea of the brushstroke as expressive of unconscious impulses beyond the reach of logical processes and mere technical artifice.
  • monochrome
    fig. 1 monochrome painting, 1958
    [Photo Bruno Schneyer, Zeil am Main]
    It would have appealed to the youthful artist experiencing his first encounters with the Tao and Zen that the unpremeditated paint stroke (the basic unit of tachisme) or the gestural mark or incision could be thought of as having something of the truthful spontaneity inscribed in the calligraphic or expressive stroke of Japanese and Chinese ink-brush painting. Zen painting was in itself conceived as a work of nature mediated through the artist whose patient preparation was simply that of awareness and readiness. 'The constructive powers of the human mind', wrote Alan Watts, the most widely read western advocate of Zen, 'are no more artificial than the formative processes of plants or bees, so that from the standpoint of Zen it is no contradiction to say that artistic technique is discipline in spontaneity and spontaneity in discipline. [...] when you paint it is the brush, ink, and paper which determine the result as much as your own hand.'
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  • collage trouvé
    fig. 2 collage trouvé, 1959
    [Photo Bruno Schneyer, Zeil am Main]
    de vries at this period created a number of 'found works', each with its own particular interest' In collage trouvé (1959), for instance, he preserved a discoloured filter paperfrom a laboratory experiment, containing traces of plant extract: seen against a dark background this abject object assumes the grandeur of a cosmic image, its stains and tears like the dark marks on the surface of the moon. A second collage trouvé of 1959 which includes leaves and foil anticipates (unconsciously) the many later works de vries created by the laying down and framed preservation of a bed of leaves found on the forest floor, or of bits of discarded 'rubbish' found in wild places.
  • The signature piece of this series is what is rubbish? (1956), which asks directly the question they all pose implicitly. A tattered collage trouvé of layered sheets torn from a much fly-posted wall, it is a fragment of the urban world redeemed by art. Rubbish has been defined as 'displaced matter': like the designation 'weed' it is not a description of a thing so much as an expression of an attitude towards it ('a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place,). Change the context, change the meaning. The question posed by what is rubbish? is both direct and rhetorical, both a general question and a challenge specific to the work itself. It recalls, in reverse, the essential Duchampian question, 'what is art?'
  • We may be tempted here to think, briefly, of Mimmo Rotella's torn-poster works of the same period (of which de vries, as it happens, was unaware), but there is a significant difference: whereas Rotella's décollages sought to look like 'art', de vries's collage trouvé is happy to come into its own, and look like nothing but itself. In Rotella's work, the referential elements - remnant images and names from the popular culture advertised and promoted by the posters - have a social and political poignancy intensified by their defacement and fragmentation. In what is rubbish? the object is itself the subject of the work: it is itself a trace of the transformations its material elements have undergone. It has reverted therebyfrom the world of social signiíying to the indifferent materiality of the processes by which all things, of whatever worth and grade, are 'degraded' to 'rubbish' in the cycle of nature.
    Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries : chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 20-23. © Mel Gooding; courtesy Mel Gooding.
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