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First retrospective of Dutch artist Daan van Golden opens at WIELS, Contemporary Art Centre
Installation view of Daan van Golden's Apperception at WIELS, Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels.

BRUSSELS.- WIELS presents the first retrospective of Dutch artist Daan van Golden (b. 1936, works and lives in Schiedam) in Belgium. The exhibition Apperception presents the various facets of his work, through a selection of major works and others which have never yet been exhibited, and illustrate the singularity of this visionary artist. Although he has worked since the early 60s, Daan van Golden has produced a limited body of work, resulting from his ‘meditative’ painting process which favors slowness and concentration. Van Golden’s work has gone through several phases since the 1960s, phases that might seem to bear resemblances to the concerns of contemporaneous artistic movements such as pop art, conceptual art, postmodernism, or appropriation art. However, van Golden’s art should not be interpreted as having espoused each of these various art-historical trends in succession. His works contain elements of each of these movements, reflecting a practice that essentially questions painting, everyday imagery, perception, and the beauty that is inherent to the world around us.

An ‘apperception’ is perception that is assimilated to a reflection and awareness, as distinct from perception that is strictly the sensory ability itself. Throughout his career, van Golden has appropriated fragments of reality, perceptions he reproduces meticulously. The artist’s gaze thus captures the often minute details of the visible world that surrounds him to reveal hidden forms – apperceptions. The visual experiences the artist invites us to share with him thus form the basis of a conception of art that is intimately connected to life, revealing to us the extraordinary concealed in the ordinary.

Van Golden works slowly. Throughout his career, he has had few exhibitions: his work was shown at the ICA in London in 1967 and at Documenta 4 in 1968; he represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale in 1999; more recently, he held exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre in London as well as at Culturgest in Lisbon and Mamco in Geneva, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. His work rhythm could be labelled anti-productive in an art world in which ubiquity tends to have become the norm. His works, however, are the result of a meticulous meditation-inducing method, close to Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of the Far East that has been an important source of inspiration for the artist. Faithful to the principle according to which art and life are one, van Golden does not consider art as an end in itself, but rather as a means to sublimate a transient reality that is difficult to perceive, yet within reach of one and all.

The exhibition opens with Buddha, a work dating from 1971–73. Highly evocative of the 1970s through its choice of subject but also its use of dried flowers, this work can be interpreted as a self-portrait. The pun on the artist’s name (‘Golden’) and the gold colour that is to be seen not only in the painted face but also on the framework emphasizes the autobiographical element of the work. The sky-blue background against which the Buddha’s head seems to be floating is another colour that is characteristic of van Golden, an indication of his admiration for the French artist Yves Klein. Like him, van Golden uses this colour to denote immateriality.

Geometric Abstraction
Van Golden’s stay in Japan between 1963 and 1965 led to a radical transformation in his work. He relinquished the gestural aspect of lyrical abstraction in favour of a quite particular geometric abstraction. The artist reproduced, with remarkable precision, the chequered motifs of cloth handkerchiefs and napkins, following a detailed and time-consuming technique. Van Golden thus substituted the very physical act of painting for a more ‘intellectual’ attitude that consists in defining a subject.

While their vernacular origin and their perfectly flat colors bring them close to pop art, these geometric Compositions are very similar to the work of the forerunners of minimalism who, at this time, advocated the modular grid as the fundamental compositional structure. The choice of the three chromatic versions shown here – the primary colours blue, yellow and red – refers to the strict colour scale of the Dutch De Stijl movement.

From this pivotal period onwards, van Golden would raise the question of painting as object, which would go on to become the very subject of his White Painting dating from 1966. This work depicts a blank canvas floating in a meditation-inspiring blue background.

Organic motifs
The works gathered in this room are all characterized by organic motifs. These floral ornamentations come from tapestries, curtains or wrapping papers. Following the same principle as that of the paintings with geometric motifs, van Golden once again took his inspiration from domestic ornaments, which he faithfully reproduced. In some cases, the work of art and decorative ornament coincide completely: the wallpaper thus intrudes on the frames hung on the wall it serves to cover, or, conversely, the image overflows the mat frame that is meant to demarcate or highlight. Contrary to modernist dogma, the work of art here loses its autonomy and becomes amalgamated with its immediate surroundings and the decorations. This close tie between art and life, a legacy of the historical avant-gardes, recurs throughout van Golden’s work.

Agua Azul
In 1987, invited to take part in Century 87 in Amsterdam, van Golden decided to cover the pathways of the city’s botanical garden with sky-blue gravel, one of his favourite colours. A direct intervention in the public space, this action evoked Japanese gardens and confirmed the artist’s aspirations to create a work of art in which art and everyday life would come together.

Decoration vs Abstraction
From the early 1990s onwards, van Golden started work on his longest series of paintings, entitled Heerenlux, a direct reference to the brand of varnish he used to create them. Reproducing a floral motif taken from a piece of cloth found in Morocco, the artist altered the focal point either by painting general views of the motif or by concentrating on details. This method thus highlights the photographic approach to painting taken by van Golden, who will zoom in on and reframe his subject until he has exhausted it. This series also clearly illustrates the artist’s ongoing to-ing and froing between figuration and abstraction. Starting out from a floral motif, the artist arrives at a non-figurative motif. As their names indicate, the two Study Pollock paintings consist of details of drip paintings by Jackson Pollock, another iconic figure of abstract art. In this series, the artist sets out from a non-figurative subject in which he has identified certain figures, such as birds.

Another key symbol of abstract art, the monochrome work of Yves Klein is staged in Insel Hombroich, a series of photographs from 1988 in which the artist captured his daughter doing a cartwheel in front of the French artist’s painting. The monochrome here becomes the setting for a family scene in which the artist has brought together his greatest passions: his daughter Diana and the history of painting.

Van Golden has always been interested in random silhouettes gleaned from a wide range of sources: photographs, press clippings, reproductions of art works, etc. In the early 1980s, he thus extracted the silhouette of a bird from a reproduction of the famous painting by Matisse, La Perruche et la Sirène. Van Golden isolated and enlarged the outline of the bird before positioning it against a plain background in several works, such as the two Study H.M. paintings from 2003 and 2004 shown here. The scalloped edges of the bird are not to be found in the original painting, but are the result of the enlargement, by means of a projector, of the reproduction found by Van Golden.

Dating from 2007, Study Giacometti finds its source in the reproduction of a work by the eponymous sculptor drawn from an auction catalogue. In his work on silhouettes, however, no importance is given to the original subject. On the contrary, van Golden explores the tension between subject and background, thereby highlighting the importance of the void in defining the shapes of the silhouettes and thus challenging the viewer’s visual certainties.

Celuy qui fut pris
Three identical versions of Celuy qui fut pris are assembled here, offering clear illustrations of the reproductive activity, itself based on reproductions, that is dear to van Golden. For this series, the artist was inspired by the picture of a nineteenth-century sculpture of which he only retained the silhouette. Stripped of all detail, the matrix sculpture has become a red smudge, functioning like a Rorschach test.

For several years now, van Golden has systematically painted four copies of each work, a choice motivated by his belief in the symbolical value of the number four. In the age of ‘technological reproducibility’ – to quote the famous essay by Walter Benjamin – this repeated act of hand-copying might seem antiquated. And yet it is precisely thanks to this extremely slow, precise and meditative work method that van Golden has returned to art some of its lost aura.

Based on a photograph taken by the artist that is presented further in the exhibition, the recent Mozart series also resorts to the practice of two-coloured silhouettes dear to van Golden. One of the two portraits included here nonetheless gives pride of place to emptiness, thus becoming the very subject of the work that seems to have been interrupted prior to its completion.

Study Dürer, on the other hand, presents a reproduction of a well-known work by Albrecht Dürer, turned on its side. The bird motif recurs throughout van Golden’s work, and it is also to be found in the readymade Birds. This banal plywood board, which the artist has merely framed, reveals bird shapes in the wood veins. In his quest for images, van Golden is open to all possibilities, thereby demonstrating that ‘beauty’ is indeed to be found at the heart of life.

The iconic figure of the French actress Brigitte Bardot, the subject of much media attention from tabloids in the 1960s, has more than once been a favourite subject of van Golden. In the late 1970s, the artist acquired a notebook containing many reproductions of the actress that had been collected by an anonymous admirer. The artist took photographs of the notebook before mounting these pictures in gold-coloured frames. By reproducing each page as such, without even concealing the notebook’s spirals, van Golden not only shows the reproducibility of mass images (by tabloids), but also their anonymous and original recuperation (by a secret admirer).

After taking part in the prestigious documenta 4 in Kassel in 1968, van Golden retired from the art scene. For the ten years that followed, the artist travelled the world and developed a new photographic practice. The selection of photographs shown in this room includes images that have never been exhibited before and reflects the variety of van Golden’s interests.

Musical imagery has been a constant presence in van Golden’s work. From classical music to jazz and punk rock, the artist’s passion for music crosses genres and is proof of his eclectic tastes. Although van Golden learned to paint in a Jesuit college and is painstaking in his work method, his life has been filled with sensory experiences, journeys to distant lands, and a fondness for hippie culture… Among the works on display, the painted portrait of Fats Domino clearly shows the printed source of the picture. Indeed, the singer’s portrait comes from an enlarged press clipping of which van Golden has faithfully reproduced the grid of dots that compose it.

Youth is an Art
On the side walls, the series entitled Youth is an Art completes the exhibition. Named after a sentence by Oscar Wilde, this series brings together photographs of the artist’s daughter, from her birth until the age of 18. The selection shown here consists of the framed pages taken from the exhibition catalogue published on the occasion of the first display of this work, at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 1997, the year Diana van Golden turned 18.

Although it resembles a simple family photo album, this series cannot in fact be reduced to a strict autobiographical documentary undertaking. The choice and sophistication of themes, compositions and colours echo the artist’s pictorial practice. Like his paintings, van Golden’s photographs also find their source in the beauty that is to be found in the real world. Van Golden favours an approach based on ‘seeing’, and not on ‘doing’. In painting as in photography, the artist follows the same process, one that consists in seeking out and imitating the art that is to be found in what the world around us has to offer, no matter how ordinary.

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