Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Essay: Kees Salentijn

Vaca Con Tres Cabezas, 1998
Mixed media on paper
11 x 15 in

Kees Salentijn 
By Wim Roefs
August 2008

Kees Salentijn’s work fits the tradition of the Northern European, post World War II movement called CoBrA, which featured artists such as Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Asger Jorn, Jacques Doucet, Lucebert and Pierre Alechinsky. CoBrA combined the energy, spontaneity and painterly qualities of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel, the subject matter and imagery of Art Brut, children’s drawings, Nordic mythology and African figuration, and Surrealism’s subconscious approach to making art. It produced an esthetic that became a mainstay in Western European art but is not developed as widely in the United States, although Gottlieb’s 1940s pictographs are related, as are Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings.

Initially, though, Salentijn’s inspiration did not come from CoBrA, which was named after Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the cities of its leading members. Salentijn at first looked at post-war American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, and above all Willem de Kooning. He also had great affinity with Spanish painters such as Antoni Tapies, Antonio Saura, and later Manalo Millares.
Salentijn learned from looking at de Kooning how to combine abstracted landscape and figuration. More than any other Abstract Expressionist, de Kooning retained figuration. As such he formed a de facto bridge between the American movement and one of its European equivalents, CoBrA. In the process, de Kooning provided Salentijn with a backdoor entrance into a tradition that began when Salentijn was born, around the corner from where he was born in Amsterdam.

By studying de Kooning, Salentijn established the parameters of his art. A duality between abstraction and figuration became central. He developed a personal style that combined the expressionist, painterly, vigorous swath with smaller but equally expressionist marks that are quick and slightly nervous but sure and on-target. Salentijn, wrote Leo Duppen, the former director of the Netherlands’ CoBrA Museum, draws like a painter and paints like a draftsman.

Salentijn’s work since the early1990s has confirmed his link to the CoBrA legacy as figurative elements have become more pronounced in his work. In the duality between abstraction and figuration, his emphasis changed somewhat. Rather than lacing abstracted spaces, including landscapes, with figurative forms, Salentijn increasingly used figuration to create abstracted spaces.

Salentijn’s recent work is strongly figurative, and sometimes he worries that the work gets stuck in figuration. But even when there is that danger, there’s always more to see than the figure. What impresses is Salentijn’s ability to create raw compositions as well as sweet renderings of little girls, old men, couples or women from a whirlwind of bold lines and marks. In its most figurative form, Salentijn’s work is still a marvel of organized turbulence that infuses any of the work, even those done in the loveliest of colors, with raw energy. And always his markings serve the subject matter no more than the subject matter is an excuse to make the marks. 

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