Raoul de Keyser died a little over a month ago. Born in 1930, his breakthrough as artist occurred late, as he rose to some prominence following Documenta IX in 1992. The Hayward exhibition Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, curated by Adrian Searle, first introduced de Keyser to a London audience. Following this he held a solo exhibition at the White Cube in 2002, and a widely seen retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2004. A painter with some detractors, his Guardian obituary noted: ‘It does not really pay to compare De Keyser’s fields of colour, or his expressive strokes and splashes, too closely with their American counterparts [in Rothko and Newman]… though his more intimate vision certainly has its rewards”. Four London based painters, Alice Browne, Karl Bielik, John Bunker and Joe Packer share their impressions of de Keyser.
I was introduced to Raoul de Keysers work by a tutor at college and I wasn’t the only one – the catalogue of the 2004 Whitechapel show did the rounds, intriguing student upon student. I loved the freedom, simplicity and colours of the works. Struggling with the never-ending problem of what to paint, his work helped me to realise that responding to the ‘stuff’ of the real world doesn’t only mean representational painting and ‘abstract’ painting doesn’t have to look clean and unworldly. I still haven’t seen an exhibition of his works (I don’t think there’s been one in the UK since?), but was lucky enough to have one of my works exhibited alongside his last year in a group show. I was relieved to find it was different to what I’d expected, larger and more awkward, suitably unpredictable.
Quiet, forceful, bleak, lonely, playful… full of very little, the Ivor Cutler of painting.
I remember first seeing De Keyser’s work at his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in the spring of 2004. What was so captivating was this sense of ongoing painterly transformations coming from every direction, both from everyday reality and the history of abstract painting. What comes across is a palpable sense of mystery. I was reminded of the film ‘Blow- Up’ where the photographer obsessively scrutinises a photograph he has taken in a park. As he magnifies the image over and over the reality we take for granted becomes a contested realm where the influence of fantasy and sinister speculation begins to encroach. This oscillation from the mundane to the extremes of abstraction, together with a sensitivity to the materiality of the painting process, gives his work an intense uncanny presence. As he put it himself……. ‘I don’t want to become the ‘pretty’ painter… Ultimately I want to paint ruthlessly’ (De Keyser, 2002).
I will never look at an empty park or a deserted football pitch in the same way again…
I came to know the paintings of Raoul De Keyser relatively late, not seeing one in the flesh until I saw his solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2004. Before this, he was an artist that had only vaguely registered on my visual radar. Even then, my interest in his work didn’t come from an ‘immediately blown away’ kind of experience, (of the kind one might have as a young painter, first encountering say, a good Willem de Kooning). Rather the paintings gradually grew on me, and he became an artist I increasingly looked at, particularly after a tricky or unproductive day in the studio.
It is of course a cliché to talk about an artist being a ‘painter’s painter’, but none the less one that’s unavoidable in relation to Raoul De Keyser. Many of his paintings seem to consist of few components, but are not minimalist. Works that at first glance can seem sparse or simple are actually visually complex. The paintings often seem a sublime combination of everyday observations, spontaneous painterly invention and Modernist American abstract painting references (but they are domestic in scale, more European in temperament). They are Postmodern, but do not involve a too knowing appropriation or descend into pastiche. The paintings are hard to pin down, some have just enough there for the brushstrokes to have purpose, but maintain a lightness of touch, sometimes to the point of being on the verge of nothing. Their refusal to try and do too much is what provides much of their potency. The relevance and interest in his work, in this poetic reductiveness, for me, grows out of a situation familiar to many painters, when the issues regarding how to make/resolve a painting, become increasingly difficult as one supposedly ‘matures’ as an artist. His work seems to sanction a paintings right to just ‘be’, without requiring further explanation.
Not long after the announcement of his death, I encountered a small De Keyser painting (‘Breaker’) hung ‘In Memoriam’, in the entrance of the David Zwirner Gallery in Mayfair. Understated, even by his own anti-heroic standards, it seemed a fleeting moment of visual frisson, a transient fragment given a temporary reprieve through the medium of paint, but which in the blink of an eye could still be gone.