DAAN VAN GOLDEN
The Dutch artist Daan van Golden locates both his life and his art between two quotations: ‘Youth is an art’, (Oscar Wilde) and ‘Dying is an art’ (Sylvia Plath). Although at first sight paradoxical, the statements are actually two sides of the same coin. Originality is not an artistic quality. What we learn from Van Golden’s work is that critical observation is as good, if not better, than the pretension of invention. One tale Van Golden likes to tell is the story of an emperor who commissioned a mural from two separate groups of Greek and Chinese artists. So that both teams couldn’t see the work of the other, a temporary wall was built to divide the room in two. When both murals were finished and the partition came down, the emperor saw that the Greeks had merely polished their wall so that it gently mirrored the Chinese painting.
During the 1980s, thanks to a renewed interest in the re-use of visual material, Van Golden inspired a number of young Dutch painters, as diverse as Rob Scholte and Lily van der Stokker and, retrospectively, we could say that he was dealing with ‘contemporary’ problems of appropriation and simulacra long before these words existed.Yet, perhaps because he is too much of an artist’s artist, van Golden has never received the public attention he deserves.
In 1999 he represented The Netherlands at the 48th Venice Biennale with an important retrospective in the Rietveldpavilion that covered more than 30 years of artistic activity, spanning from 1964 to 1998. In the accompanying catalogue, Commissioner Karel Schampers declared that van Golden did not fit in with the norm of modern art that, according to the writer, ‘subverts existing or recently developed frames of reference’. His argument was that because of van Golden’s ‘self-imposed isolation’, his work doesn't ‘conform with the expectations of modern art’, whatever they may be. But despite Schampers’ words, the exhibition showed very clearly that van Golden’s oeuvre is a constant reflection on (if not perversion of) the development of painting; the result of a confrontation with modern masters such as Mondrian, Matisse, Picabia or Pollock, to name only his most obvious references.
Van Golden was born in Rotterdam in 1936. He trained as a machine operator in a technical school, while being given painting lessons on Sundays from a Jesuit priest. During the 1950s he worked in the Bijenkorf department store as a window dresser. During the 1960s he lived successively in America and Mexico, in Paris, Tokyo, Barcelona, London, where he was active in fashion photography, and Marrakech. In Paris, in 1962, he created a pavement drawing in homage to the late Yves Klein who had died earlier that year and whose exquisite blue has been an important impetus for him. In Tokyo, during the early 1960s, he earned his living as a film extra in gangster movies (mostly in the role of the villainous white man), and as an English teacher. Like his hero Klein, he became interested in meditation and Zen philosophy. And as a relaxation exercise he started to paint copies of patterns from scraps of wrapping paper, handkerchiefs and stylised floral motifs.
In their emphasis on the flatness of the painting and the autonomy of the object – some of the works have been shown leaning against the wall, one behind the other, or lying face upwards, on a base – van Golden’s paintings echo Jasper Johns’ American flag and target paintings, showing us the ambiguity of notions such as abstraction, representation or decoration. And in spite of the old debate between abstract and representational art, we now know that all images are anthropomorphic. For as children see figures in clouds, Van Golden shows us faces in a photograph of pansies. In Study Pollock (1991), for example, he enlarged and copied a detail from an abstract painting in which he saw distinctive figures. And via observation, a quotation from an abstract work becomes a representational painting.
For this reason, the distinction between abstraction and representation in Van Golden’s work has been replaced by the use of ‘objective images’ (borrowed from sources such as newspapers, magazines or other artworks) and ‘subjective images’ (created by the artist himself as the result of his manipulation of pigment or any other material). But even here, van Golden doesn’t make a principle distinction between objective and subjective. Everything he uses comes from somewhere. Creation ex nihilo is a myth. Even if van Golden’s work seems objective, there is always an element of the subjective; it is the artist, after all, who chooses which images to use.
The highlight of van Golden’s career so far was his participation in the 4th Documenta in Kassel in 1968, where he showed in a room next to Yves Klein. Indeed it was such a highlight that for the next ten years he didn’t exhibit any work (he travelled extensively during this time). Then, in 1978, the birth of his daughter Diana gave rise to an important series of photographic works in which her natural, lively, unposed presence plays the central role. The project finished in 1996, when Diana came of age, and a selection was published under the title Youth is an Art.
Daan van Golden’s output is fairly slow because of his critical sensibilities and his meticulous working methods. As he has never been obsessed by the art market – in this context van Golden likes to quote the Dutch poet Roland Holst who stated that ‘Art is not a contest’ – he always maintained the luxury of working in his own slow rhythm, characterised by a strange combination of relaxation and concentrated attention. Therefore, his oeuvre appears to be the result of an almost organic circularity in which one work generates another.
His most recent exhibition at Micheline Szwajcer’s Antwerp gallery is once again proof of van Golden’s coherence and continuity. Heerenlux (2003) reflects the presentation van Golden made in the same space exactly ten years ago. In 1993, he showed under the same title, named after the brand name of the enamel paint he used, a series of four almost identical paintings based on a red on white foliage pattern, taken from a piece of silk cloth. For the current show, he chose a fragment of this painting to make two new series. In the first series the three oil paintings look exactly the same. Closer examination though reveals differences due to the hand-painted technique. The second series shows another fragment in three different seizes. Surprisingly, the smallest image looks as monumental as the biggest.
Oscar Wilde already knew that ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’. This is also what Daan van Golden wants to show. A confrontation with his work drastically changes our conception and perception of that world.
Lieven Van Den Abeele