Drawing on Humanity’s Animal Nature
By: Joseph Nechvatal
Karel Appel would start drawing by shimmering bright muck or line around until it eventually formed into semi-abstract philosophical lava, or monkey shit, or the poetry of release. That shimmering never really ends. His spontaneous drawings haunt his art practice as a sort of lost demon of pure exuberance. Appel’s graphic enthusiasm — rooted in Expressionism, Vincent van Gogh, Joan Miró, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, and the art of children — privileges physical blossoming. This burgeoning reminds us of how much of the art of our time seems to have been led by cynical, mercenary minds and vulgar, secret wealth cults. But Appel’s Expressionism requires more from us than brooding and mute feelings of solitude. He requires our exuberance to match his own.
The Centre Pompidou’s current retrospective of the Dutch artist’s messy, cacophonous works on paper brings together a selection of 85 drawings dating from between 1947 and 2006, the year of his death. In them, Appel asks us to puzzle with him, reminding us again that art language isn’t always (nor essentially) communication, but keeps a difficult score.
Appel, who as a young artist was influenced by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Comte de Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror, and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, was closely linked with the activities of the COBRA group. As such, he made a profound impression on European art in the aftermath of the Second World War. While Appel underwent a revival during the 1980s with Junge Wilde, Neo-Expressionism, and the Neo-Fauves (favorites of the art market for how they restaged historical engagements with a crude, macho consciousness), there’s a constant somatic demand in his drawings, urging us to rewire our bodies and nervous systems.
Almost like unconscious activities, Appel’s imaginative drawings have an immediate and apparent reality to them that moves the eye toward penetrable, shifting expectations by removing some traditional areas of closure. The dynamic and subtly-colored gouache “Untitled” (1949) has the swing of change about it: change of mind, heart, feeling, rationality, calculation. Likewise, the drawing “Créatures venues de l’espace n° 2” (1948) resonates with loose visual intelligence and discharges a far-out sentiment without sentimentality. In it, Appel seems unafraid to render perspectives that recall the protean charge of our insanely complex and connected contemporary existence. The enchantments of the aforementioned gouache, “Untitled” (1949), extract the essence of Paul Klee into a way of bringing everything — no matter how childish — into Appel’s circle of intent. These drawings’ winsome figures seem to have a semi-transparent relationship to each other. Appel’s idealized human forms transcend our embodied situation and might fool us into thinking that we, too, have the power to transcend the material world.
Another, related drawing in which humanity appears transformed is “Personnage” (1947). A good look at it reveals a primal person haunted with the maledictions of being something of an animal. Looking at “Personnage” makes us feel like children, like foreigners, like jokers. It could even serve to illustrate the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social. According to Latour, the ‘social’ is not at all static or essential, but constantly in process and under construction. So the ‘social’ conditions we think of as making up a person cannot fully explain an individual’s social situations because the social is the very thing that always needs to be boxed off and explained fully — and never can be. Examining “Personnage” shows us the limits of wobbly social and personal constructs. It asks us to think about a ‘person’ in a more free, rigorous, and nuanced way.
Picking up on the social theme running through Appel’s work, the caustic gouache “Animal n° 14” (1951) plays, contrasts, and jams visual inquiry into balanced fragments. The image’s irregular arrangement of forms, lines, and colors seems to have forgotten what it started out to do or become. Perhaps “Animal n° 14” and the nearby “Animal n° 6” (also from 1951) never intended to have any final heft, a gesture that could be taken as a political stance on freedom in that they stress the roles of both human and animal actors in forming social networks. Appel’s beasts seem to be mediators rather than mere intermediaries, so we cannot simply think of their genetic situation as an object produced in a fixed political context.
There’s a marvelous, hard-won simplicity and directness in these drawings that evokes the physicality of a wild spiritual journey recalibrated as allegorical satire. In “Animal n° 6” the fragmentary, decentered body is everywhere. Given its deeper tones, it has a wonderful way of showing heartbreaking routes away from human civilization. It is a drawing both public and private, with narrow roads to the interior organs literally broken up. “Animal n° 6” could also be read as an erotic convulsion, almost deathly, that urges or induces human flesh to become decent again, like that of an animal. These two animal drawings are just savage and self-aware enough to wobble with a deeply humanistic esprit fou that imagines the possession of an outrageous animal consciousness.
Appel’s collage “Visage de femme” (1961), perhaps my very favorite piece in the show, organizes a collision of mutable elements of the everyday with an excessive, unavoidable degradation of sensibility. With it, he’s responding to Pop art as much as to the technologies of propaganda, information, and opinion that are churning every minute of every day. As with “Personnage” (1947), the mismatched eyes in “Visage de femme” are a wink at the idea that human identities are collections of broken but hip syntax — at once polyphonic and forever marginal. These drawings are not about our animal side confessing itself to itself in moments of unified solitude. Rather, Appel makes the opposite point vividly with the almost entirely abstract and shamanistic “Tête bleue” (“Blue Head”) (1961). This human head, built up out of collaged print clippings, is in a media frenzy. It portrays the thinking self as outcast, invoking a fantasy world where we’re remote from both human intimacies and media manipulations.
These wild drawings build a symbolic space for us to examine ourselves in an almost animal state. They remind us of our free, untutored activities. They might even startle us out of complacent acquiescence and so change our minds, helping us think what hasn’t been thought before, or reminding us of what is as yet unseen. “Tête bleue” depicts the messy headspace that requires minds to critique, so criticism becomes something essentially enthusiastic, too. Even in Appel’s late, tortured piece, “Untitled” (2006), his art seems concerned with the guts of living life as a one-way whirlwind. The drawing is of a very uncertain face — deformed, perhaps ecstatic — rattling around in an abstract style similar to the zombie formalism so fashionable today.
Appel was one of our best, last bets on visceral enthusiasm, so if anyone can restore zeal to our stumbling world of art, devouring whole the evil spirits at play in the market, that artist or group of artists will have something of his fervor about them. To run wild under the banner of Appel is to ask how art is complicit or subversive in its social context. Art will always need something of his loose gesturing toward hidden animal forces — those forces that explain art as the process of tracing connections, attachments, and conflicts.