informal collages

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 academic 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.

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 thereby from the world of social signifying 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.

[source: Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries. chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 20-23.

untitled (collage trouvé), 1959
[untitled (collage trouvé)], 1959. Mixed media on board (28 × 31.5 cm)
[photo courtesy Galerie Conrads, Düsseldorf]