Thursday, July 31, 2008

Essay: Kees Salentijn: Between Abstraction and Figuration

Miss Saigon, 1996
Mixed media on paper
15 x 23 in.

Kees Salentijn: Between Abstraction and Figuration
By Wim Roefs

When Amsterdam’s famous Rietveld Academy rejected his application for a second time, Dutch painter Kees Salentijn (b. 1947) simply showed up for classes, hoping no one would notice he wasn’t supposed to be there. That worked for three months. By then, his talent and work ethic was evident, and Salentijn was allowed to stay. At graduation in 1968, the Netherlands’ National Academy of Art accepted him. 

After completing the academy, Salentijn persevered through hardship as he carved out a career as an artist without taking a teaching job. He established himself fairly quickly in the Netherlands and then beyond. From the early 1980s, his work has been represented by galleries and at important international art fairs and biennials in cities such as Bilbao, Basel, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hannover, Paris, Cologne, Maastricht, Dusseldorf, London, and Chicago. These days, Salentijn is among his country’s most prominent painters. Brisk sales and rising prices, several small retrospectives, and three books about him testify to his status.

After a post-academy impressionist period, Salentijn in the late 1970s increasingly became enamored with post-war American art. His inspiration came from painters such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Tom Wesselman, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, and above all Willem de Kooning. It also came from Spanish painters such as Antoni Tapies, Antonio Saura, and later Manalo Millares. 

Through such influences and travels to Mediterranean countries, Salentijn turned from more realistically rendered landscapes to freer, more intuitive ones. The emotional, liberated, intense approach of the Americans and Spaniards suited his temperament. The light of Greece sealed the deal in Salentijn’s switch to more felt, interpretative landscapes, which, he decided, are all about composition and abstraction. 

After he learned from looking at de Kooning how to combine abstracted landscape and figuration, 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 swat 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 continued to travel to warmer locales, especially Spain, where he moved for a while. Spanish culture increasingly influenced the moods and subject matter of his art, and his titles are usually in Spanish. In the early 1980s, bullfighting became the core inspiration for a highly successful body of work that he exhibited as “The Madness of Spain.” The mid-1980s was Salentijn’s “black period,” as personal worries and attempts to develop new ideas expressed themselves in heavy blacks and reds clashing forcefully on his canvasses.

In 1986, the sun broke through again in Salentijn’s demeanor and paintings. A lightness that had characterized his early work returned. His palette became brighter, his colors more abundant and upbeat even as his paint application and draftsmanship remained full of force. Inspired by the poetry of Catalan folk songs and a nostalgia for childhood imagination, Salentijn’s Spain became that of beaches and ocean blue, his new Spanish madness that of mass tourism’s cattle and tanning culture. The sun, a clunky ‘circle’ with beams that a child would draw, became an ever-present symbol in an oeuvre that Salentijn calls “Mediterraneanism,” which is a mindset more than an esthetic style.

In a sense, Salentijn came full circle, certainly within a Dutch art-historical context, when he combined vigorous painting with childlike imagery. It squarely placed him in the tradition of CoBrA art, of which Salentijn’s art-loving but traditional father had disapproved when he dragged the boy Kees through Amsterdam’s museums. CoBrA was a movement named after Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, the hometowns of many of its members. It existed as an organized group in the late 1940s - early 1950s and included Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Asger Jorn, and Pierre Alechinsky. 
CoBrA art 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. This esthetic is not developed as widely in the United States, although Gottlieb’s 1940s pictographs are related, as are Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. 

And then there is, of course, the Dutchman/American de Kooning. More than anyone else among the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning retained figuration. As such he formed a de facto bridge between the American movement and one of its European variations, CoBrA. As such, de Kooning also provided Salentijn with a backdoor entrance into a tradition that began when Salentijn was born, around the corner from where he was born.

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. He did so often by creating loose grid-like compositions in which the grids’ individual blocs are or contain figurative elements. These compositions suggest apartments and condos, stadium audiences, parades, or a portrait gallery on the wall. They also depict narratives about people on the beach or in a neighborhood, town, or region.

Even as Salentijn in the late 1990s moved into what he, with some trepidation, calls “my, I guess, figurative phase,” abstraction remained important. In addition to the grid compositions, he began to depict one, two, or three bodies or simply a head in his paintings, mixed media works on paper, painted ceramic plates, lithographs and silk screens. In those works, instead of using many figurative elements to build a composition, one or a few figures are the composition, dominating the space. Salentijn may use an onslaught of wild but controlled lines and marks to create figures and faces or, for that matter, cows or cats. Often they emerge subtly from a background of equally ferocious marks. 

Salentijn also uses abstracted planes to build up figures and their surroundings. Loosely rendered angular and circular fields with quickly drawn patterns and adornments represent pieces of clothing that form the figures’ bodies. Spots of rolling scribbles or solid blocs of color function as hair, framing the face. Patterned planes, solid rectangular blocs, and quick but thick, organized splashes create back- and foregrounds, suggesting flower gardens, fields, a side walk, wallpaper, clouds, or just a sky. Salentijn’s compositional approach to still lives is, by the way, essentially the same.

Salentijn suspects his current, strongly figurative work is an interim phase, in which he’s trying to develop new ideas for his next artistic move. He worries that his work of the past few years gets stuck in figuration at times. But even when there is that danger, there’s always more to see than the figure. What impresses is Salentijn’s ability to create 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 the sweetest of subject matters, done in the loveliest of colors, with raw energy. And always his markings serve the figures no more than the figures are an excuse to make the marks. 

© Wim Roefs

Columbia, S.C.
November, 2003

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