Karel Appel
Year, Birthplace 1921, Netherlands
Year, Place of death 2006, Switzerland
Nationality Netherlands
Karel Appel studied at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam between 1940 and 1944. At the time he was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and, above all, by German expressionism as reflected by his earliest works. He started to exhibit in 1946, showing his assemblages of pieces of wood and found objects, which he called ‘rubbish objects’, nailed onto wooden panels painted in oil. In 1948 he founded the Dutch Experimental Group with his friends Corneille and Constant and published the journal Reflex. The same year, in November, he took part in the international conference of the Centre de documentation sur l’art de l’avant-garde [Centre for the documentation of avant-garde garde art] in Paris, organised by the members of the former French Groupe surréaliste révolutionnaire. Tired of the Parisians’ political and theoretical controversies, the representatives of the Belgian (Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret), Danish (Asger Jorn) and Dutch groups (Corneille and Constant) abandoned the conference and formed a new group. In the founding anti-manifesto drawn up by Dotremont they proclaimed their desire to work together on an experimental art that would break away from all dogmas, theoretical concerns and pre-war values. Soon afterwards Dotremont called the new group ‘CoBrA’, using the initials of the home cities of its founders, Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam, an acronym referring to the founders’ geographical origins and the group’s international character, but also to the image of a venomous snake. Later, Pierre Alechinsky, as well as Paul Bury, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Bengt Lindström, Jacques Doucet and Jean-Michel Atlan joined the group. They actively opposed the abstraction emerging from neo-plasticism that dominated Europe to express themselves in a completely spontaneous way, in the manner of children or primitive artists, freely searching into their unconscious to give life to roughly painted creatures in bright colours. For them, the place of art was not within the frames of galleries but on the ephemeral walls of everyday life. The first International Exhibition of Experimental Art was held in 1949 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Appel was commissioned to produce a work for the coffee shop of Amsterdam’s Town Hall. However, owing to the scandal it provoked it was covered with wallpaper (and remained so for ten years; by way of compensation, the painter was awarded the task of decorating the auditorium in the Stedelijk Museum). The first CoBrA exhibition was held at Librairie 73 in Paris in February 1951, under the auspices of the critic Michel Ragon. The movement was dissolved the same year due to dissensions, rivalries, and the health problems of Jorn and Dotremont, the two most involved founders. Nevertheless, the spirit of CoBrA, a true laboratory for artist experiments, remained within each member. Appel settled in Paris and Michel Tapié introduced him to the avant-garde milieus and galleries. He was associated with Henri Michaux, Willem de Kooning, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis under names such as 'Informal Art' or 'Different Art'. His first Parisian solo exhibition was organised by Tapié in 1954 at the gallery Studio Paul Fachetti and was followed by another at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. He began to be successful and was commissioned to produce countless mural decorations, for which he used painting, ceramics, glass or concrete reliefs, as well as many sets for plays, ballets and operas. A self-proclaimed ‘man without a country’, this citizen of the world lived and worked in New York, Connecticut, Mexico, Paris, Molesmes in Burgundy, and in several Italian cities. Until his death he continued to undertake multiple experiments in all fields and techniques, all expressing the same state of mind, either violent or moving. AC