Karel Appel at Blum & Poe New York
By: Alex Kitnick
Karel Appel (1921–2006) was a key member of Cobra, an artist collective that banded together after World War II to survey not only the war’s destruction but also the possibilities of creation: Perhaps more than anything, it sought to bring “outside” energies to the project of Continental reconstruction. The group’s name was a chimera pieced together from the first letters of the artists’ home cities—Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—and there is no doubt that the moniker was meant as a venomous threat to Paris, which at the time was still the (teetering) capital of modern art. To a certain degree, Cobra’s efforts were successful, at least insofar as the group made itself known in the citadels of high culture: Appel’s works are well represented in public collections the world over, though it is only recently that curators have started to bring them back up from storage after a lengthy stay below. The show at Blum & Poe, in fact, is the first significant exhibition of the artist’s historical work in New York in nearly forty years.
It is somewhat surprising how playful the early work is in spirit. In paintings such as Square Cat and Big Bird Flying over the City, both 1951—the cuteness of their titles might cause the contemporary viewer to cringe—Appel creates his protagonists out of colorful geometric fields, which has the effect of bringing those creatures in and out of focus. Ostensibly inspired by children’s art and the art of the insane, both of these paintings smack strongly of the School of Paris as well: They are surprisingly tasteful and designed, given the promise of Cobra’s bite. It is only when Appel moved to New York in the late 1950s, in fact, that his work assumed the darker tint that one might expect from an artist doggedly struggling with postwar realities. Revealing the artist’s immersion in a world of Abstract Expressionism and jazz, Appel’s works from these years possess a certain bloody-mindedness and ham-fistedness: They are thick with paint and look positively crude. Human Landscape, 1959, for example, features a pasty mix of earthy loam and human viscera (eyes, ears, and mouth hide in the upper left-hand corner). In Head as a Tree, from the same year, Appel similarly conflates the human and the natural by clobbering two icons into one opaque blob: The result tests not only the resilience of the human image but also the very possibility of communication—a project that Dubuffet and others were involved in at this moment as well. The most successful work in the show, Between Mud and Heaven, 1962, is a big, allover painting through which Appel must have incessantly raked his fingers. AbEx in method, the painting nevertheless returns to something European and Dutch: It is a kind of scorched-earth version of van Gogh’s already deathly Wheat Field with Crows, 1890.
Certainly, many people will find Appel’s works here simply bad, and a few paintings, such as Flying Head, 1974, offend nearly every rule of taste. That said, Appel’s work bears witness to an earlier moment of post-human possibility and, given the intense interest in the inhuman paces to which the body is subjected today, feels intriguingly relevant. Appel’s creatures do not imagine the post-human as cyborg, but rather as a kind of ground-up ghoul. The inextricable intertwinement of man and nature suggests a new relationship between subject and object. Challenging the traditional figure-ground relationship, Appel offers us the figure as ground (and vice versa), or even a figure in the ground.
Marshall McLuhan wrote one of his final texts on Appel, which might come as a surprise, given that the artist never explicitly positioned his work in terms of media or technology. In this brief note, McLuhan speaks of the close connection between play and “the very nature of touch” in Appel’s work, suggesting that the “world of play erases the border between child and adult.” Ideas of play and tactility also figure prominently, of course, in McLuhan’s “global village”—a “tribal,” nonlinear society that was supposed to be the inevitable result of a culture cathected to TV. While McLuhan knew that both war and peace were possible results of this new formation, he tended to lean toward a utopian view. In the best of Appel’s paintings, he shows us not simply the (crude and creaturely) inhabitants of the global village, but the very terrain such a village would have to occupy. The picture, at once deformed and desiccated, is rather darker than the one McLuhan put forth, though it is perhaps more accurate in its prediction.