Harold Ancart

- Selected Press

The Belgian painter Harold Ancart, 40, lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but spends his days in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in a ground-floor studio strewn with errant bits of clothing, Ping-Pong paddles, tomato plants and astonishing quantities of oil sticks, his medium of choice. On a recent visit, one corner held several plinths topped with cast concrete reliefs of miniature swimming pools. (Colorfully painted, they appeared like three-dimensional riffs on Josef Albers’s squares.) On the walls hung massive canvases depicting individual trees, and two sprawling triptychs — a mountain scene and a seascape, painted in homage to murals by the Swiss-Californian artist Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945). Ancart saw them a few years ago in San Francisco at the de Young Museum and was moved by what he described as their “naïve, quiet beauty.”

 

Much of this work will appear later this month in “Traveling Light,” the artist’s first New York solo show with David Zwirner Gallery. The

exhibition’s title is a triple entendre that references Ancart’s preferred mode of travel (carry-on only); his effort to shed the “heavy luggage” of art historical precedent in his work; and the physics of how light carries color from a painting’s surface to the eye. Movement is a theme in Ancart’s art and in his life — from his decision to immigrate to the United States after art school in Brussels to his breakthrough body of work, a series of drawings he made in the back of his car while on a cross-country road trip, which were later exhibited at the Menil Collection in Houston (some of the pieces for this show was created in Los Angeles, where Ancart temporarily decamped during the Covid-19 pandemic). He compares making his paintings to taking the kind of walk where you don’t chart a course, and on his studio door he’s stenciled the words “Grand Flâneur.” It’s a sort of self-imposed nickname — not, as he puts it, in the “19th century lazy dandy” sense, but rather as “one who walks around and tries to isolate poetic moments out of the everyday urban landscape. I think that’s how I’ve learned to be an artist: walking the streets, not torturing myself in a studio.”

 

That wasn’t always the case. Ancart’s early love of drawing led him, in 2001, to enroll at art school at Belgium’s École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuel de la Cambre, where postconceptualism was in fashion and his teachers insisted that painting was dead. He now laughs at the notion — “if painting died, it was for two minutes between 1981 and 1992” — but it took him years, and a trans-Atlantic relocation, to deprogram. These days, he rejects the notion that his art should have to mean anything at all, a philosophy firmly rooted in the belief that there’s nothing new under the sun. “The idea of wanting to do something new,” he cheerfully declares: “I find that pretty stupid.” When it comes to painting, Ancart seems both intense and playful, the latter impression reinforced by the fact that he often spends his days on the floor, scribbling on his canvases with souped-up Crayolas. His compositions seem to take a page from Pop Art, or at least from the comic books he’s read since elementary school. But his surfaces, smudged and gouged with the imprint of his oil sticks — he likes that the medium offers “nowhere to hide” — have none of Pop Art’s factory-smooth flatness.

 

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Following the temporary closure of their galleries, David Zwirner has sought out inventive, multiplatform means of exhibiting and sharing content. Access to the David Zwirner Books series has been expanded and podcast episodes will be published more frequently – conversations with artists Diana Thater, Rachel Rose and Luc Tuymans are on the horizon. The gallery has also built upon its series of online-only exhibitions and special collaborations. The programme kicks off on 10 April with a new series by Belgian contemporary artist, Harold Ancart. Titled, ‘Pools’, the sculptures draw on the vernacular architectural structures of swimming pools. The work falls somewhere in between concrete sculpture and relief, with a semi-abstracted, block-coloured pop reminiscent of a David Hockney or Peter Halley. As Ancart himself says, ‘Their compositions are fairly simple. The “basin” can have any size and take any shape, so can the ‘staircases,’ and the color, well, the color can be anything too.’

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With dozens of exhibitions moving online due to shuttered galleries and museums, David Zwirner has unveiled its latest online exhibition featuring the work of Harold Ancart. Titled “Pools,” the show features a series of three-dimensional relief forms that evoke the shape of swimming pools.

Ancart began working on the sculptural works in the summer of 2017 when he realized that almost nobody in New York City had a swimming pool due to real estate prices and the density of the population. “But what if they were smaller?” Ancart remarked. “Who cares that you can’t swim in it; everyone knows that once you own a pool you never go in…We cast the first one on the same day.”

Each of Ancart’s pools are constructed from styrofoam remnants from the artist’s studio, cast in concrete and painted with rich colors. The composition consists of a “basin,” which can take any size or shape, and a staircase that leads to the pool. Intentionally ambiguous, the sculptural works present a number of dualities; form and space, abstraction and figuration, sculpture and painting.

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Painting almost died in the '90s and came back
as a powerful, fresh medium for a new generation of artists.
we asked a successful young belgian painter based
in new york about this explosive rebirth
and if there's such a thing as a painter's brain

OLIVIER ZAHM - There's been a massive comeback of painting over the past decade. There are paintings everywhere today. For a moment there, it was dying…
HAROLD ANCART - Considered dead, even.

OLIVIER ZAHM - Exactly. And artists were deconstructing painting, using painting as a reference, but not actually painting as such.
HAROLD ANCART - Yeah. Like Daniel Buren with BMPT [a Paris-based art group made up of Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni].

OLIVIER ZAHM - That's it. That was some serious deconstruction, using the instrument of the painter as the final stage of painting. Whatever happened?
HAROLD ANCART - I'm not a historian, but I guess that compared with the history of painting, from the caveman till today, this little death of painting is not significant at all. There's always been a massive fascination with painting. And this death of painting lasted for maybe 10 to 15 years, at most. If we want to talk about the history of painting - or the history of art in general - painters have dealt with the same challenges from the very beginning until today. There are a lot of classifications, but that's the job of the historian. The historian cannot be a historian if they don't make classifications - basically inventing drawers in which to put things.

OLIVIER ZAHM - So, for you, the conditions haven't changed for the painter…
HAROLD ANCART - The conditions have changed, of course, and the medium has changed a little. But people are dealing with the exact same problems.

OLIVIER ZAHM - Painting hasn't changed much, technically speaking.
HAROLD ANCART - I don't think so. What happened - and this is my personal point of view - is that very few things can be considered as significant shifts within the entire history of painting. There are actually two significant developments. One is the understanding of perspective and the capacity for painters to create the illusion of depth, though this is not primarily a painter's discovery. It's linked to mathematics, geometry, and a natural evolution of the understanding of the world that surrounded mankind at that time. So perspective has nothing to do with painting itself. Painting itself was always the same thing. The other change was that at some point painting became abstract… The deconstruction of painting happened after abstraction - as a consequence, probably, of breaking it down to its most elementary stage. BMPT members did not consider themselves painters. I believe they wanted to demystify painting. They were not interested in the illusion that a painting can be, which is interesting.

 

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Harold Ancart has a feverish approach to putting out work. He’s produced enough of his large-scale paintings—of matches, icebergs, and other abstracted forms—to be in 14 shows in 8 years with his New York gallery, the influential Bushwick- and Brussels-based hub Clearing. He got so restless to paint on a road trip across the United States that he built a makeshift studio in his trunk. And since signing on with mega-gallery David Zwirner in 2018, Ancart has made enough work to fill walls at fairs such as Frieze New York and Los Angeles, Art Basel in Hong Kong, ART021 in Shanghai, and FIAC in Paris.

In the spring of 2019, Ancart received his biggest commission yet when the Public Art Fund (PAF) asked him to turn a handball court into a work of art—just one you can lob balls at. “Ancart puts immense passion and dedication into his work,” explained PAF curator Daniel S. Palmer, who spearheaded the project. “There is nothing he’d prefer to be doing more than painting. He’s now receiving opportunities at an even more significant level, allowing him to work even more boldly.”

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There are, according to the city Parks Department, 649 handball courts scattered throughout Brooklyn, but only one of them, in Cadman Plaza, is intentionally a work of art. It’s fully functional, but don’t despair if you lack the hand-eye coordination to play on it. “I just want it to be open to any possible interpretations,” said Harold Ancart, who created Subliminal Standard with the help of the Public Art Fund, standing at the fringe of his court with a cup of Starbucks coffee. “Any action will ultimately have meaning because people will interpret it one way or another. So you don’t have to load whatever the fuck you do with meaning.”

When Ancart, who grew up in Brussels, moved to Brooklyn in 2007, he noticed that the concrete walls of the many handball courts became accidental paintings after being touched up to mask graffiti and weathering. With Subliminal, Ancart encourages the public to notice these invisible artworks wherever they appear in our lives: in the clouds, clumps of dirt, or the decay of a wall along the highway.

“When you start looking around you notice all these patterns and things that are present everywhere, it becomes endless,” said Ancart.

The “subliminal” in the title references how these inadvertent artworks often exist below our level of consciousness, and also, the way in which the colorful structure that exists in nature evokes the sublime. The court sits among large London plane trees, whose yellow-green leaves blend spectacularly with the canary-yellow paint on one side of the wall.

“Standard” alludes to the more formal conventions of the handball court. At 16 feet tall and 20 feet wide, the freestanding, double-sided wall has the dimensions of a regulation court. The base of the structure, however, where the players typically zigzag and try to swat the ball, is slightly shorter than usual. That, combined with the fact that the wall isn’t surrounded by ball-stopping fences like most courts, might make it tricky to play a serious game.

That the public can engage so rigorously — whether running along the base or smacking a ball against the wall — makes Subliminal unique. But the accessibility of the work also leaves it vulnerable. Imagine, for instance, that someone decides to graffiti the wall. It would be fitting, in a sense, since the work is based on the abstract compositions that emerge after a court has been defaced. Daniel S. Palmer, who curated Subliminal, is wary of the work becoming a “performance piece” for Ancart, who will return to repaint the wall should it get scuffed, graffitied, or otherwise vandalized.

“If worst-case scenario, somebody does graffiti this wall, first of all they should know that they’re defacing a very beautiful and important painting,” said Palmer. “It certainly will not be tolerated or permitted.” Ancart, on the other hand, wouldn’t be offended if someone defaced his artwork. It just might involve slapping a bit more paint over the top.

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The familiarity of handball courts in parks and playgrounds across New York City can render them almost invisible. But seen through the eyes of Harold Ancart, an artist and immigrant who first encountered them after moving to the city from Brussels in 2007, these free-standing concrete walls are tableaux of beauty and fascination.

“The parallel between this vernacular phenomenon and historical abstract painting is remarkable,” says the 39-year-old painter, as he flips through Xeroxed photographs of some of the city’s 2,000-plus handball courts. With their many coats of slightly mismatched paint patching over areas of graffiti or damage and the patterns of wear from the rhythms of the game, these chance compositions echo abstractions by artists such as Mark Rothko, Kazimir Malevich and Adolph Gottlieb.

For his first public project in the US, which opened on 1 May and was commissioned by the Public Art Fund, Ancart has created an homage to these found works of art. Located in Cadman Plaza Park in downtown Brooklyn, Subliminal Standard is a 16ft-high concrete wall bisecting a concrete floor. Ancart has painted all four vertical and horizontal planes of the wall and base, evoking the game’s lines of play as well as presenting his own slightly surreal riff on handball’s naturally occurring abstractions.

“I hope it’s going to be a contemplative object that is just going to come out of nowhere,” says the artist. On one side, molten red vertical bands at the two outer edges frame a lower half of snowy white and an upper expanse of beige, all dappled with smudgy purplish patches of paint and the glancing shadows of nearby trees. The implied landscape on the flip side sparkles more radiantly, with a grey-blue ground set against a blotchy yellow sky. A ghostly block of white hovers on the horizon line like a distant mountain or iceberg. “I wanted both sides different enough so that you feel like you’re at a different time of the day or in a different environment,” he says.

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1. Harold Ancart and Christopher Williams at David Zwirner Since 2013—the fair’s second year in New York—Zwirner has opted to show only solo and two-artist exhibitions at Frieze. This year, the gallery’s booth pairs rising art world star Harold Ancart, whose Public Art Fund commission titled Subliminal Standard debuted today at Cadman Plaza Park, and conceptual artist and photographer Christopher Williams. Both artists’ works were created specifically for the fair. Ancart, whose paintings and sculptures often take the natural world on as subjects, debuts paintings of larger-than-life matchsticks. Williams is known for his work examining the role of photography in our post-industrial society; his Frieze presentation includes five new photographs adapting and restaging his earlier work.

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I don’t think I ever noticed the handball courts of New York—or just rarely and only then through trees and fences on my way home from work. What eventually drew my attention wasn’t their canvas-like geometries and the graffiti they inevitably attract, nor the city’s slapdash beige band-aid responses, but instead the smack of the ball— making its sonorous boomerang from hand to wall and back again. But that was before. Now, I can’t stop seeing their accidental abstractions. They are everywhere. And maybe it’s a curse because they are so humble and complete that they sneak up on you.

When I tell Harold Ancart this, the artist recommends The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001), Matt McCormick’s short, tongue-in-cheek documentary narrated by Miranda July, which does in fact provide a momentary prophylaxis. “Graffiti removal has become one of the more intriguing and important art movements of the early 21st century with roots in Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Russian Constructivism,” July rattles as inadvertent compositions flash in and out of view. “What makes graffiti removal particularly intriguing is that the artists creating it are unconscious of their artistic achievements.”

Ancart certainly doesn’t miss the merits of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s painters, nor their illegal counterparts. In fact, he is creating a kind of homage to both parties this April in the form of a mammoth handball court sculpture, backed by the Public Art Fund for Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza. When discussing the installation’s details, commissioning curator Daniel S. Palmer connects the work to an earlier installation the Public Art Fund erected on Cadman Plaza: David Hammons’s Higher Goals (1986). “Like Hammons’s basketball nets, Harold’s sculpture won’t be about the sport of handball but perhaps more about a court as a flexible monument, a space for others to be in dialogue,” he explains. “Of course, I hope that people play, but I also hope they host impromptu concerts, take photographs and picnic.”

Ancart concurs, and even goes as far as to say he’d be happy if someone pissed on it. Vandalism in all its forms is almost proof of concept. “The handball court is something invisible, a ghost in this city,” Ancart says. “It’s something where if you don’t want to see it you will never see it, but it’s everywhere. The court is an extension of the playground, so it is by its definition abstract. What makes it useful to me is that it is already framed: two abstract canvases put together to become something functional.”

Like the city laborers who wet-roll over hard-won tags with only coverage in mind, Ancart plans to wash his commission in his idiosyncratic psychedelics as if the multiple-ton sculpture was just another stretcher. In preparation, this February, the Belgian transplant was testing concrete- friendly colors amidst a sea of wooden maquettes-turned-sculptures, the first of which he made more than two years ago.

Ancart’s practice revolves around these exercises of seemingly endless repetition. They help the painter get “out of his head” and into the impulses of his hand. This is a man who brings watercolors in his carry-on to pass the time between New York and Tokyo.

“Painting has hardly anything to do with control in that it only becomes interesting when you almost forget you are doing anything at all,” he says. “There are the things in life you do that define you: he is a writer, he is a painter, he is a lawyer, but those titles hardly say anything about you. What makes you unique is not that you are a lawyer but the way you love or the way you pick your nose or the way you walk. When you forget, you are natural. You have to have that when you paint. I guess if everyone was following the movement of their own arm, everyone would end up being a very good painter, but, people, they like to blend with the rest.”

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For his first solo show in the UK, the Belgian artist Harold Ancart has landed a whale. I meet the 38-year-old painter at David Zwirner’s London space, where he is inaugurating his first show at the behemoth gallery. “It is a great honor,” he tells me breathlessly, as if he can’t quite believe where he’s standing. “David Zwirner’s program is probably one of the best in the world.”

Ancart has had a winding path to art-world success. Several times, he almost gave up on his work entirely due to poverty and lack of recognition. But now, as his star is rapidly rising, he says it was all worth it, even just for the look of pride on his mother’s face at his first big opening in London. (A stalwart supporter, she comes to all of his shows, and is currently beaming from the sidelines at the tony Grafton Street gallery.)

The show, aptly titled “Freeze,” is full of colorful abstract paintings of icebergs that conjure thoughts of rapidly melting glaciers. (Asked whether climate change concerns him, he answers rhetorically, “Doesn’t climate change concern every one of us?”) Each painting includes a bleak horizon line that Ancart says serves to make the work feel rooted in the history of Western art and to project the viewer into the future. “Without a horizon line, one gets lost and eventually dies,” he says.

A Brussels Sprout Born in Belgium in 1980, Ancart started drawing in elementary school. “I remember that a tall redhead guy with glasses named Mr. Antoine gave me gouache to paint with,” he recalls of his artistic debut. “Since then I never really stopped.”

Drawing was a reliable pastime for Ancart, who recognized it as “a great way to escape the boredom of being at school without getting into trouble.” He also voraciously read comic books and manga growing up in Brussels, a city where comics are close to the hearts of many. As a young boy, he was inspired by the Belgian creator of Tintin, Hergé, as well as the work of Peyo (the creator of the Smurfs). Ancart would doodle his comic book heroes on every scrap of paper he could find.

Later, he moved on to more highbrow comic creators, including Jean Van Hamme and Yves Swolfs, who he still reads today. “I like the fact that this medium has the ability to open unthinkable universes by means that are really simple,” Ancart explains. “An outline combined with some color and text is enough to make you travel far away.” As he grew, his artistic tastes expanded to accommodate other draftsmen, including the Belgian artists Léon Spilliaert and James Ensor, as well as Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and Frank Auerbach.

Despite his intense interest, Ancart says he never really saw himself becoming a professional artist. “I guess I never liked the bohemian vibe that surrounded the persona of the artist,” he explains, free-associating the likes of “bread crumbs, stinky cheese, cheap red wine, poverty,” and, of course, that hallmark of artistic life: “struggle.” So after graduating from high school when he was 20 (he was held back twice for poor grades, math presenting a particular hurdle), Ancart went on to study political science at university, hoping to become a diplomat.

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The paintings of Harold Ancart can be alluring at first. Bright canvases with images of plants and tropical vistas. But the paradise he depicts, on closer inspection, turns out to be imbued with darkness, the surfaces flecked with small, clean marks of paint that appear like chips, disrupting the viewer’s immersion in the escape that is seemingly on offer. A picture-perfect pool might be fringed by a black flame. Or the walls of an actual room itself turned into a drawing, marked by a horizon line composed of black pigment pressed into the walls.

For a new body of work, on view in the exhibition “Freeze,” at David Zwirner in London, Ancart’s subject matter is icebergs. Lumpy white and blue masses float lugubriously against mysterious smudgy backgrounds or are cut off by a black ground, as if the painting were an image not yet done loading on your mobile device, creating a sense of anxiety and interrupted beauty.

“Do you remember the last time you saw an iceberg?” says Ancart. “I have personally never seen one, yet I know how to paint them.”

Ancart, who is represented by Xavier Hufkens in Brussels and Clearing in New York (Zwirner does not represent him), paints with a jagged line reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still. But unlike Ab Ex gesturalism and the self-expression it embodied, Ancart’s paintings seem like a modest attempt to communicate something both specific and universal.

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