“Nunca Más” I, II & III, m.m., overall size 230 x 690 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1999
“Nunca Más” I, II & III, m.m., tamaño total 230 x 690 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1999
The Soul of van der Grijn
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, 1999
By Frederick Ted Castle
Erik Adriaan van der Grijn, who was born in Holland where he lived until the age of twenty-three, now lives and works in New York City where he has made the most commanding masterpieces of his fifty-eight year life. He had his first New York Show at the mainly abstract expressionist Anita Shapolsky Gallery in 1993, and moved here only in 1996, but he already seems completely integrated, completely chez lui. He has a large studio in South Brooklyn and is at home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He has transformed these spaces with his work and his life in the form of the wonderful collections and arrangements of objects acquiered in all kinds of places, many of which he shipped to New York from his most recent previous home near Louvain in Belgium. Before that he lived in Amsterdam and in many different houses in Ireland for more than twenty years. Erik van der Grijn is a painter who moves house often but his will to paint things as he sees them never wavers. Of course his work has changed considerably during more than thirty years, but in fact his work over time has more similarities than breaks- it is clearly the unique oeuvre of a virtuoso painter.
In November 1972 the highly respected Dublin critic, Dorothy Walker, reviewed a large group show called “Independent Artists” at the Hugh Leane Municipal Gallery, saying, “A large beautifully abstracted painting by Adriaan van der Grijn, Yellow Peril, dominates the painting section. Using the plain canvas as part of his picture… he introduces broad diagonal bands of yellow, orange, black and white alternating with the plain canvas, and injects a counter-rhythm of sharp horizontal intrusions. The result is as lively and syncopated as best Benny Goodman; this liveliness is riding, however, on a cool and calm depth which belies the purely decorative aspect of the painting” (1). This description and conclusion can almost be applied to van der Grijn’s vast masterpiece 1998 made in New York.
Certainly may things have changed in the work, but what is first of all remarkable is that it has remained the same. Furthermore at the time Ms. Walker printed the remark, part of a review of a big show, van der Grijn’s work was not well known in Ireland or anywhere else. So what is this work? It is painting. Although he has done installations, conceptual work, sculpture and prints, Erik is a painter. He usually works with oil paints on canvas. This is the earliest medium, derived from house paint, refined in Flanders and exported to Italy a little over four hundred years ago, which enabled art patrons to transport their treasures from one place to another.
Previously, the pictures were painted on the wall or the ceiling and could not be removed. Oil paint dries slowly which to some extent enables radical changes –you can scrape it off- but also you can add to it in small or large increments before it dries. These characteristics make it perfect for painter to work at his own speed and not be tyrannised by the medium. Actually van der Grijn has worked in many different mediums, but he is loyal to oil paint on canvas as his favourite medium largely because of its malleability. Another wonderful quality of oil paint is the colours: van der Grijn has always used and loved what is called cadmium yellow, a very bright yellow used as an attention-gutter and warning colour on readings in various countries, including Ireland. In the relatively impoverished West of Ireland, where van der Grijn had a house at one time, the yellow warning stripes were painted directly onto rocks along the road, saving the cost of installing signs. This captured his imagination, so to speak, to the extent that for some time he was known in art circles as “the yellow fellow”. He thinks this fascination with bright yellow stems from the moment when, at the age of five, he received a concussion to the head being hit by a laundry van, the trademark of which was a white seagull on a bright yellow ground. He doesn’t know if this is also why he has a strong distaste for birds. In the late ’70s and early ‘80s, van der Grijn became famous in Ireland. He had several shows with the best contemporary art dealer at the time, David Hendricks, who sold his work to both private and corporate collectors. The Irish government bought his work for its consulates and embassies because the work, like all abstract work, was apparently meaningless except to the author himself.
In 1976 Erik Adriaan van der Grijn invented a category for his work called “Hard Edge Realism”. The idea was that although his paintings didn’t obviously refer to external phenomena, as a matter of fact they were completely true to reality. For example, the relationship between the real road painting signs and the van der Grijn paintings which referred to these things but did not portray them. This is a kind of conceptual art, but it is also 100% painting, which the main conceptual artist abjured. Hard-Edge Realism was endorsed by Sir Basil Goulding, an art-loving industrialist, writing the introduction to the ’76 exhibition at the Hendricks Gallery.
With present-day pluralism, in art which results in the fact that most artists are really designers and nobody cares what anybody else does, it is difficult to recall an atmosphere twenty years ago and more when, even in New York, artists cared passionately about their work and that of their contemporaries and every exhibition was awaited eagerly, attended faithfully, and debated hotly. In Dublin, the situation was pressurized because the art world was small and the taste for contemporary art was shared by only a fraction of that group. In that context, van der Grijn took large risks placing shocking colours together, particulary black and yellow and making paintings of apparently arbitrary forms that he insisted were appropriated directly from reality, thus muting the complaints of the haters of the totally abstract an meaningless. He was so forthright that he vaulted himself out of the category of Irish contemporary into World contemporary art. Even the opponents of abstraction in Dublin, such as the Irish Times critic Brian Fallon, had to admit that there was something important about the work of Adriaan van der Grijn, as they insisted on calling him. I would say the Dubliners detected that his work has soul.
It’s unusual, even in New York, to use a religious word which has been re-signified in connection African-American music to characterize painting, but I’m moved to do so by the almost unspeakable aspect of van der Grijn’s work which to viewers seems somehow greater than it is, more emotional, more resonant with personal experience, indeed more beautiful than any description or photography of it can convey. Therefore I say it has soul – a quality that transcends artistic techniques and fashions, a quality that is an essential, though often disregarded, aspect of human life. The source of this feeling may well be related to the care that van der Grijn has always lavished on the actual brushwork of even the most monolithic blocks of colour-everything is made of thousands of tiny strokes.
In the early ‘80s there began to be cracks in the surfaces of Hard-Edge Realism, and with his show at Hendricks in 1983, van der Grijn published a little statement out of which this sentence is the clearest: “Despite the popular concept that there’s a streak of madness in every artist I accept anyone with a certain amount of imagination can be tempted to indulge in the perversion of considering ugly manufactures as beautiful concepts”. I have never seen these paintings, but what photographs tell me is that there appeared flashes of light in otherwise black paintings, and disruptions of white or black in otherwise regular checkerboard paintings of black and white or yellow and white. This is the moment when van der Grijn’s work began a gradual change from minimal to expressionist painting.
Curiously, he also exhibited the colour photographs that had inspired his hard-edge works, the hazard signs in Ireland. In May of ’85, shortly before David Hendricks’ death, van der Grijn opened his last show at Hendricks Gallery in Dublin. The show included paintings that were entirely different from his paintings of the past- or were they? At least they were different enough to prompt this declaration from the artist: Gone are the crash barriers, traffic signs, hard-shoulders in their earlier forms, not by deliberate design, but rather intuitively as suspicions of a broader impact between sky and earth, light and darkness, transience and perpetuity grew to become more urgent and compelling. A more powerful and spontaneous form of expression evolved, aided and abetted by an old-fashioned love affair with the art of painting itself. Inevitably any affair must expand lest it pall and wilt and consequently my intrigue with the form of expression through oil and canvas has moved on to new grounds. He also mentioned that this development left him isolated. Dorothy Walker writing in the Irish Arts Review, Summer 1985, mentioned both the American painter Clyfford Still and the Russian, Kandinsky as well as the wonderful Irish painter Mainie Jellett in her attempt to characterize van der Grijn’s new work. But in fact the new paintings weren’t like the work of any other artist.
Erik van der Grijn is a reader and a thinker as well as a painter and a man of great sensitivities. His intellectual part is not academic but instinctive, like his art. He is a graduate of Royal College of Art in The Hague, but he is really a self-taught painter. Like all great artists, he doesn’t like the work of other artists very much although he acknowledges past masters, the Russian Kasimir Malevitch who died in 1935, the Dutch Piet Mondrian who died in 1944, and the American Willem de Kooning, who stopped painting in the ‘80s and who escaped from Holland in his twenties as did van der Grijn himself. Many years later when Erik moved back to Holland he was astonished that Eduard de Wilde, the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, gave him a free studio and a place to live with an attendant who made up the beds. Later he moved to Belgium and then after a few years to New York. The present exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, under the direction of Jorge Glusberg (2) doesn’t mean that van der Grijn is planning a move to Argentina. It is a fortuitous event, which also demonstrates that van der Grijn’s work is reaching out to many parts of the world.
This has been going on for some time as when he produced in 1968 a wry comment on the American war in Indo-China, a parody of the American flag called Will you walk into my parlour? (3). Soon after his break with hard-edge minimalism (1983), he produced a series of works triggered by photographs of the sight of dead and dying geese near Chernobyl (1986) but including the effects to other pollutions of the earth. In 1989, van der Grijn heard the statistic that a total of over three thousand Irish and British men, women and Children had been killed in the internecine war between the British province of Northern Ireland and the terrorist and secret Irish Republican Army beginning in 1969, which in Ireland is known as “The Troubles”. Although it is too easy to characterize this conflict as one Protestant and Catholic Christians, that is the primary aspect of the undeclared war, which the United Kingdom regarded for a long time as something of a civil unrest in their most ancient colony, six counties of which were annexed to Great Britain in 1922 when the southern twenty-six (mainly Catholic) were permitted to secede from the Union. This incredibly complicated situation brought out the worst of the people, and van der Grijn was shocked when there was scarcely a report that three thousand has died over twenty years- it was as if three thousand wasn’t enough to notice. He produce a large painting of the orange, white and green flag of the Irish Republic called IRELAND 3000, which is included in the MNBA exhibition.
I mention the war in Ireland in some detail because, first of all, Erik lived there with his family for more than twenty years, not in the troubled North but often nearby, and secondly because in all probability it was because of his experience there that he began his longest series of works, which he is still producing, which go by the eloquent and enigmatic name My Temple, My Prison. I must say that beginning in his road sign days, the equilateral cross indicating an approaching intersection assumed importance in his work. Of course he was aware of the significance of the cross in European culture, and over the years he has painted many crosses notably the “Packed Cross” series of 1992. Van der Grijn is not conventionally religious, he doesn’t go to Service on Saturday or Sunday, but like all of us he is impressed by the existence of the world and particularly the position of human beings in the world –self-appointed geniuses who would comprehend the whole universe and all life, while viciously destroying each other both actually and metaphorically as well as extinguishing other forms of life and even desecrating the ambient air and water. Erik is not a member of the Green Party, or any other religion. This is the eloquence of his motif My Temple, My Prison.
This slogan does not mean simply that a place of sanctity is a place of incarceration- it is one’s own place of worship, which might not resemble a church at all, that imprisons one’s self. This motif, My Temple, My Prison, is not merely an anti-clerical or atheistic attitude, but I would say it does mean that we are victimized by our own beliefs. But we all are –it is not only those of the opposing group who are deluded into protesting their correctness, innocence, blame or whatever they believe: everybody jails themselves. It is the human condition once again. Curiosly, while I have been writing this essay, the trial of President Clinton has been unfolding in the American Senate. Even though it is clear that Clinton will remain in the office, his enemies refuse to give up. There is a concept in American politics known as “bi-partisanship”. In the case of this sleazy Washington scandal, all the Senators remain locked up in their own avowals. Nobody will break out of prison –otherwise known as crossing party lines- and as a result the President wins. Of course Clinton himself is imprisoned in all kinds of prevarications, like the crooked walking of a drunken person, and he has already been “impeached” –that is, disbelieved- by a majority of the lower house of Congress. This is an extraordinary example of what goes on all the time all over the world, what I call the “free-for-all of various slaveries”. Erik van der Grijn’s rather cheerless words for our condition do not propose a genial outcome, yet they are not about self-contempt, still less a condemnation of our species.
This expression My Temple, My Prison is centred on the self. The self is the center of a universe called you, which encompasses all your experience and everything you know plus your beliefs and those of your ancestors, teachers, friends and family. A religious debate is raging in many fields of discussion as to whether intellectual ideas can be inherited like the colour of one’s eyes. But it hardly matters because, wherever they come from one’s beliefs still imprison. Since 1992, all of van der Grijn’s work has pertained to what he calls injustice. At law, this is the denial of the rights of another person, but in the broader scheme of things. I would say that justice is a human concept but hardly a human practice. In fact the works have ranged about injustice in various countries such as Yugoslavia and Somalia, even Greece, as well as Northern Ireland, and now, with his monumental work Nunca Más, Argentina. I must be clear that van der Grijn is not bleeding-heart liberal who sponsors lost causes all over the world. The purpose of his work is painting, not politics. He does not want to destroy the murderers of the photographer and journalist José Luis Cabezas killed in 1997 wants to make a painting that says just what other people have said in their own ways, “Never Again!” Erik van der Grijn is a perfectionist: his disorder must be rearranged to his complete satisfaction, a condition he calls “order”. He works for a long time on his pictures – his masterpiece 1998 is made out of twenty-five separate paintings about one metre square which are bolted together from their sides to form the total work, but he requires that each component be a work in itself. When he has finally finished a painting he says, “I’m not going to touch it again.”
This aim of his is very concrete. Every brushstroke must be in the right place and in the right colour. He is the only one who knows when everything is right, but I have seen him working over long periods of time on the same painting, and of different paintings, and I’m able to sense whether or not a work is finished. In this he resembles de Kooning who was constantly altering his work, even over the course of years. For van der Grijn it is hesitation or indecision, it is enthusiasm tempered by his love of painting. It is the ability to handle paint with brushes combined with the will to do it on a large scale. It is the culmination of all his experience, all his ability, his reputation, his ambition and, also, his sensitivity and receptiveness to changes in himself: in his work, he lays his soul bare (4). This exhibition in Argentina of the most recent four years of his work Erik van der Grijn at his best: a painter of international stature at the height of his carrer making work of expressive power and consummate detail in an abstract mode of his own invention.
2. I first met Jorge Glusberg in 1972 in Pamplona, Spain. A group of Spanish artists had organized the first large international exhibition of contemporary art. I was dining in the provided for foreigners with Leandro Katz, the American artist and filmmaker who lived his first twenty years in Buenos Aires, and Dr. Glusberg joined us. I was familiar with his pioneering work in conceptual art through his organization CAYC. The next day we were to visit the enormous inflated building in which the exhibition was going to be held, and as we approached it in the morning, we saw it begin to wave in the breeze and in a few minutes the structure was lying on the earth with all the art inside it, sabotaged by Basque separatist workers. For this show I had written four pages as four works of art, and it was the first and the last time I ever did that. Encuentros en Pamplona, as the show was called, was cancelled and everyone took the train to Paris and eventually to Kassel where Documenta was taking place.
3. Van der Grijn: “I got these legs of mannequins and I did a conceptual piece with the American flag wrapped around these legs sticking out, hung it on the wall, got all kind of plastic roses and wreaths on the floor and sprayed on the wall Will you walk into my parlour? A ladies committee was there to welcome me (this was a long time ago) they were very kind, they said, “Mr. van der Grijn, you can’t do this. Our main sponsor Carrolls, the tobacconist, is paying for the exhibition and this is abusing the American flag!” So they said, “Paint it”. And I did. I was very angry, but I had to do this painting. So I put it in the following day, it was completely wet, and two weeks later I heard I got the first prize from the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, as it was called”. By the way, Erik still has these mannequin legs in his studio.
4. Charles Baudelaire wrote journals called Mon couer mis a nu (My heart laid bare) at the tacit suggestion his protégé the American poet Edgar Allan Poe who thought that only through complete confession could there be any truth. In French there is little difference between the world soul (ame) and the word heart (coeur), recalling the English expression “heart and soul”.