The post-war period

Claudia Rajlich, Paris, January 2003

In the Netherlands, where the art scene had been isolated and restricted during WWII, abstraction became a favorite means of expression once peace was restored. Although a few artists, like Willem Schrofer (1898-1968), Pieter de Haard (1914-2000) and Lou Loeber (1894-1983), had been experimenting with color theories and Neo-Plasticism in earlier years, this new preference sprang directly from recent happenings. For one, the horrors of war and its aftermath did not allow for Realism, which had been extremely popular in the 1930s, as a means to reestablish a hopeful society. An alternative had to be found and abstraction, which en plus had been condemned by the Nazis, appeared very suitable. Secondly, Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, staged a range of exhibitions featuring artists, key to the maturation of abstract art.

Andre van der Vossen, 1950, gouache.

Andre van der Vossen, 1950, gouache.

Vrij Beelden (1946-1955) was the first association regrouping abstract artists in post-war Holland. It included painters like André van der Vossen (1893-1963) and Josef Ongenae (1921-1993), who worked in the geometric, impersonal, objective vein, as well as artists like Hans Ittmann (1914-1972) and Willy Boers (1905-1978), who were the most illustrative of the gestural, expressive lyrical current. Then there were members like Ger Gerrits (1893-1965), who initially expanded on Cubism, or Will (1923-1986), who leant towards Surrealism, and also Frieda Hunziker (1908-1966) or Jaap Stellaart (1920-1992), who passed through a variety of abstract influences. When Piet Ouborg (1893-1956), among the affiliates whose work still included recognizable figurative elements, won the Jacob Maris Prize 1950, the Dutch press was scandalized. The public was a step behind on the artists, but this was soon to change.

By the end of the decade, abstraction had become the dominant art form. The influential École de Paris faced Abstract Expressionism that had swept the USA. A fusion of the two currents materialized in the works of Shlomo Koren (1932) and Gerard Verdijk (1934): the heavy impasto and spontaneous calligraphy of the French combined with American all-over pattern, monumental scale and unnatural hues. Then, the sixties brought along Minimalism and its focus on ‘objecthood’ from across the Atlantic. ‘Cool’ abstraction was taken up again and stripped of the last remains of subjectivity and spirituality, cf. Joop Vreugdenhil (1904-1969) and Joost Baljeu (1925-1991) in the Netherlands. Willy Boers’s mature work evolved in the wake of both American currents.

Joost Baljeu, 1961, geometric relief construction W11, oil on panel.

Joost Baljeu, 1961, geometric relief construction W11, oil on panel.

A new generation of artists geared their oeuvres, still based on familiar tenets of abstraction, towards eliminating mimesis as a guiding principle and positioning the artwork itself as an object of pure reality. Bob Bonies (1937) took up Hard-Edge painting, yet managed to remain European due to his love for primary colors and hidden systems. Meanwhile in the States, Robert Mangold (1937) adapted the traditional elements of painting combined with Bauhaus principles to the requirements of Minimalism. Likewise, Tomas Rajlich (1940) set out to explore intuitive abstraction versus systematic abstraction; first a mechanical grid fought dynamic gesture, since the mid-1980s the flatness of support restrains radiating color, which is in constant flux due to incidence of light. The contemporary abstract painting creates itself in interaction with the viewer.

Abstraction has undergone an amazing evolution with an even more amazing speed. It has paralleled the quintessential quest for truth in a century of turmoil and innovation. Artists searched for radically new ways to represent their experience of this rapidly changing world. This led them from representation to presentation. The artwork is a messenger or an alter ego. The dialogue between the abstract painting and its viewer should yield more than the sum of parts. Transcendent or immanent, it always comes down to inducing (heightened) consciousness of being. Something tells me there is more to come.