A Painter’s Painter—The Legacy Raoul De Keyser Gifted the Art World
The late Belgian painter Raoul De Keyser (1930–2012) is one of those rare gems in the art world, an artist who left an indelible mark influencing generations of contemporary painters after him. Artist Chris Ofili said of De Keyser, “His paintings exist in that place very few of us dare to go—the silent, the imperceptible.”
Among Belgian artists, Harold Ancart described De Keyser’s painting as having no vanity, such that “the work encompasses all sorts of things that happened in the history of painting.” Luc Tuymans, who has not only exhibited with De Keyser, but whose paintings together have at times been the topics of scholarly discussion, said of the artist, “Raoul, for me, resonates as the painter for painters that Albert Marquet once was.” At a time when the art world seems more in favour of new technologies, De Keyser’s paintings are a gentle nudge to the evergreen relevance of painting as a medium and its irreplaceable position in the canon of art.
At David Zwirner Hong Kong, selected paintings spanning the last 25 years of De Keyser’s immense five-decade oeuvre are spread chronologically across two floors. As one makes the journey through each of the four rooms, we are able to observe the breadth of the late artist’s material experimentations with canvas and paint. We are immersed in De Keyser’s surrounding world through works that cumulatively stitch a beautiful, abstracted portrait of his quaint hometown Deinze, in East Flanders, Belgium.
De Keyser was born in 1930 in Deinze, where he continued to live and work until his passing in 2012 at the age of 82. The son of a carpenter, De Keyser began to explore painting on his own during his formative teenage years. He went on to study briefly at the Academy of Fine Arts in Deinze between 1963 and 1964 under the painter Roger Raveel, and during this time, participated in New Vision, a Flemish art movement led by Raveel. While in pursuit of painting, De Keyser had a successful, three-decade career as a civil servant working for Ghent University, taking early retirement in 1990 at the age of 60. De Keyser also had a passion for literature and journalism—he befriended writers and poets, and he wrote about sports and arts for local newspapers. The influence of De Keyser’s literary flair seeps into all his paintings.
A painter’s painter.
Raoul De Keyser was born, lived and passed away in Deinze, Belgium. There were no stints in New York with the Americans; no rendezvous in Paris for inspiration. Inspiration came from the mundane; the ordinary. De Keyser subjects — while always lapping at the fringes of abstraction — are servants of the everyday. Door handles. Chalk lines. A favourite monkey-puzzle tree.
It’s the intimacy of everyday life. Objects and places and things and corners so firmly etched into humdrum familiarity they no longer register as things worth noticing. De Keyser, however, noticed. And painted.
It comes to me as I paced through the cavernous, whitewashed rooms of David Zwirner’s Hong Kong location. How incredible an achievement — yet, too, how finite — to have half-a-lifetime of work summarised in such neat squares and rectangles. Work at its most tangible — framed, hung and walked through in mere minutes.
“If you talk to 10 painters, probably 7 of those painters will start talking about Raoul De Keyser,” said Hanna Schouwink, senior partner at David Zwirner Gallery, which represents the late Belgian artist in New York. De Keyser, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, left behind a body of work that is deceptively radical and exciting in ways that are difficult to elucidate. As Schouwink alluded to, he cast a long shadow in terms of how he influenced later generations of painters—including Luc Tuymans, who has long been a vocal advocate of De Keyser’s importance. “[De Keyser] is a painter’s painter,” Schouwink added. “That’s become a bit of a cliché, but I do think it really applies to him.”
Artists adore the Belgian’s energetic, enigmatic abstractions, and collectors around the world have followed suit. In tandem with Frieze London, Zwirner dedicated its buzzy online viewing room to De Keyser, subtitling the virtual exhibition “Modern Master.” Trio in Red, a 2006 painting of three uneven shapes floating against a pale ground, had an asking price of $300,000, well ahead of De Keyser’s current auction record. An untitled watercolor on paper from 1999, measuring a mere 9 by 12.25 inches, was on offer for $45,000. The painting Across 2 (Avond) (2000–01) bore an asking price of $280,000. According to the gallery, six of the eight available works have sold.
The popular image of De Keyser is of a man removed from the hustle and bustle of the art world, happily toiling away for decades in his home studio in Deinze, Belgium (a town with a population of around 30,000). His early paintings were brushy, figurative depictions of ordinary things, all close to hand: the corner where the wall meets the floor; a simple doorway or door handle. A representative canvas of this type—a depiction of a hose with sprinkler attachment, completed in 1968—sold for €31,500 ($39,800) in a 2014 sale at Belgian auction house De Vuyst.
Over time, recognizable elements got scrubbed away from De Keyser’s paintings, though they never completely disappeared. Oever (Shore) (1969) looks like a stack of abstract forms, with only its title hinting at the fact that we might be looking at a pared-down depiction of sea, sky, and land. Kalklijn (Chalk Line) (1970) is an austere rendering of a soccer field: flat green turf interrupted by the bright white boundary line, with a shimmer of teal hugging the horizon. That painting set a new auction record for a work by De Keyser when it sold at Christie’s in Amsterdam on Monday, more than tripling its high estimate of €70,000 ($77,000) to sell for €237,500 ($261,000). The result eclipsed De Keyser’s previous auction record of £130,000 ($159,000), set just last month at a Phillips sale in London.
Raoul de Keyser, STEDELIJK MUSEUM VOOR ACTUELE KUNST (SMAK)
THE PIANIST CRAIG TABORN described how, observing the venerable Art Ensemble of Chicago as a young man, the group’s five members would warm up, practice, and start playing backstage before the show, so that “by the time the concert began the music had already been happening . . . they were simply bringing it out with them.” Likewise, Raoul De Keyser’s art gives the distinct impression of having been carried from somewhere upriver, of having coalesced long before taking form on canvas—and of lingering in the air even after you’ve stopped looking at it. When De Keyser began to gain a reputation as an artist, following his careers as a sports journalist and civil servant, he started keeping a catalogue of his completed work—opening not with opus one but with number four. The beginning is not really the beginning.
“Raoul De Keyser: oeuvre” was the first retrospective of his work to take place since the artist’s death in 2012, at age eighty-two. The show, curated by Martin Germann and Bernhart Schwenk, surveyed the Belgian painter’s work on a generous scale, with more than one hundred paintings as well as works on paper, displayed mainly in chronological order. The time line was broken at the center for an unusual presentation of primarily smaller paintings from across the artist’s life, a synoptic mise en abyme, in a setting designed by the architects Robbrecht and Daem, who often worked with De Keyser on his exhibition spaces. “Oeuvre” included that first-or-fourth painting, which is called Z.t. (Rand) (Untitled [Edge]), 1964, and which already seems to contain, in nuce, the entire “abstract realist” aesthetic that De Keyser would stubbornly, and yet with an almost disquieting non-chalance, unfold over the next five decades. The painting’s modest scale—8 1⁄4 × 12 3⁄8"—is belied by its forceful presence; the work is not tentative but rather is oblique in a way that suggests an artist quite sure of himself. It seems to be a fragment of something larger, an arbitrary sample, yet one that is replete. Clearly based on a landscape, the image can also be experienced as an abstraction.
Later in the 1960s, De Keyser would temper his paintings’ implicit naturalism with a Pop tinge; his handling would become less painterly, his colors a bit brighter and less inflected, with shapes sometimes bordered by a thick black outline. Gampelaere-omgeving (Gampelaere Surroundings), 1967, shows the twisted bristle of barbed wire, rendered in white with black outlines, against a green-and-blue background. In these years and throughout the early ’70s, De Keyser also made freestanding works, which were painted on both sides as well as on the three visible edges, and paintings that lean against the wall, à la John McCracken’s planks. In both bodies of work, De Keyser seems to consider not only Pop but also Minimalism, and both of these in relation to everyday life: The white lines marking three edges of the otherwise green Zevende linnen doos (Seventh Linen Box), 1971, are a motif in his work of the time, standing for the white lines marking out a soccer field next to his house in the Belgian town of Deinze—and of course it is probably not irrelevant that he had only just given up his job as a sportswriter.
It’s been ten years since Raphael Rubinstein’s essay ‘Provisional Painting’ (2009) defined a long-smouldering painterly ethos. Depending on your sympathies, this style of dislocated and often hesitant brush-marks, deployed without concern for any recognizable standard of composition, represented either an incongruous punk-asceticism or a cynical daubing in the sad residue of painting. Within the diversifying landscape of contemporary art, painting seemed of its authority, but Rubinstein’s articulation of a ‘tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling’ aesthetic suggested a way to keep touching brush to canvas while eliding the medium’s conservatism. In the intervening years, memory of this approach and its spirit has become muddied. A kind of mannered, off-handed painting – variously derided as ‘crapstraction’ or ‘zombie formalism’ – took over, its conveyor-belt production fed by the blue-chip market.
Hence the pertinence of Raoul De Keyser’s retrospective, ‘Oeuvre’. The late Belgian painter was Rubinstein’s opening case study, and S.M.A.K.’s capacious presentation – spanning 1964 to the artist’s death in 2012 – reminds us what the painting that inspired the essay really felt like. From the vantage point of 2018, De Keyser’s concerns – the painterly flickering between flatness and depth; the elusive presence of the grid; the flowing of cracks and shadows – might seem familiar. But here, through the deceptive texture of De Keyser’s project, it is affect that sounds, with moments of perceptible strangeness jarring like pitch changes or unexpected turns of phrase.
This reduced language has vibrant origins. Many works from the late 1960s and ’70s see canvases wrapped around stretchers and slim rectangular boxes and painted in opaque arrangements of green, yellow, blue and black. De Keyser’s inspiration for these pieces – Homage to Brusselmans (1969–70), for example – was a football pitch, visible through the artist’s window, which he transmuted through a slightly depressive interpretation of pop painting. At points, this self-referential approach risks navel-gazing. In another room dedicated to De Keyser’s early works, many green and black paintings, gridded or overlaid with white stripes, read like a pensive breath – more for him than us. But, invariably, the mark-making and palette loosen ups up and diligent improvisation reigns. One floating crescendo of small canvases echo our stained, ripped, blotted visual reality. Z.T. (2012) is a thin drag of red paint on diluted white, descending from a protruding nail; Overflow (2012) is a rough yellow and green grid inscribed in chalky pink, like a game of tic-tac-toe lingering on a pavement.
THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT of experiencing Raoul De Keyser’s work twice during the spring of 2001 (at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, and at David Zwirner, New York) struck me deeply. I was incredibly excited by Raoul’s paintings but overwhelmed by them too, flooded by an intense longing to be an artist who could make a body of work like his. Here was a career’s worth of art at play, a way of composing and building an image that was personal yet also utterly open and generous. It was plainly visible that this was something he had developed for himself, and over time. I wanted that. At seventy, he had the years; at thirty-two, I did not.
I went home to LA and painted a lot. I named one of those pieces For R.D.K. It doesn’t look like Raoul’s painting per se, but it has the spirit and the lean-styled confidence. It’s a funny story—three years later, in 2004, I would meet his art dealer, Barbara Weiss, fairly randomly. When I learned she was Raoul’s German gallerist, I freaked out. I felt very American in my unbridled enthusiasm, but she seemed charmed, and we connected. Later I began working with Barbara, and she bought For R.D.K.; it became a connection between the three of us. This painting was shown in the group exhibition “Ambigu” in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 2010. Raoul’s work was also in the show, and my painting was hung in a room with his, a moment I still savor. At the exhibition, I met his son Piet and grandson Niels; later that summer my now husband, Greg Kozaki, and I made a plan to visit Deinze, Belgium, and meet Raoul.
The importance of this afternoon for Greg and me is unparalleled and stays with me still: the delicious lunch laid out on a bright blue-and-white-checkered tablecloth, the monkey tree framed in a window looking out from the living room, the garden hose outside the house, the door handle that led to the garden path.
Raoul was very kind and showed us his new paintings hanging on the white brick wall of his studio, awaiting an upcoming show in London. During lunch, he kept sneaking off to bring us old catalogues and posters to take home as gifts. His graciousness was touching and inspiring. Frankly, it was all a little crazy for us.