“Throughout a career spanning almost six decades, Appel pushed his studio practice to extremes, often shifting between abstraction and figuration, and never content to settle on one style, media or body of work. He endlessly experimented with styles and methods of painting that elude categorisation. This began with the playful and childlike tableaux of his early work and continued with his late ‘theatrical sculptural fantasies’, which combined painting and photography with found objects, and which are infused with African, Indonesian and Native American mythologies.”
K. Ottmann, ‘The Appel Effect’, in Karel Appel: Retrospective, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016, p. 42
Nude no. 32, 1995 is part of a series of extremely visceral paintings from the mid-1990s which strike for their fierce sensuality. Across dense and richly coloured compositions, figures materialise in expressive paint strokes of varying impastos, exhibiting themselves without reserve. Nude no. 32 depicts a nude in a colourful mass of strokes displaying various qualities: at times continuous and smooth, in other places short, scratchy and thick, the strokes demonstrate Appel’s unrestrained use of the traditional material of oil paint. In a near sculptural undertaking, Appel applied paint with brushes, spatulas and sometimes even straight from the tube, his compositions guided by the material. In Nude no. 32, there is a push and pull between the figure and the ground, the nude depicted, and the colourful strokes that comprise him. The latter exude a sense of autonomy, appearing like living matter before the viewer. Outperforming the characteristic dynamism and force found in Appel’s paintings, Nude no. 32 is a wonderful statement of his vision of painting as a “tangible, sensory experience”.
“For Appel, red is the starting point of any painting, as it was for Delacroix, Bonnard, Matisse and Rothko. […] Red stands for mere possibility, prior to knowledge and representation.”
K. Ottmann, ‘The Appel Effect’, in Karel Appel: Retrospective, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016, p. 44
“The large nudes of 1988-1989 are suddenly fundamentally different, and they give the impression that Appel was in need of a radical clarification of his method, as though he felt that the previous method was in danger of becoming routine. The nudes are paintings without a second layer. They are drawn from a model whom he had adopt various poses. They are rendered with a continuous, almost uninterrupted line of paint, which has been squeezed directly from the tube onto the bare, lightly prepared canvas. There is no colour. […] They deal with the establishment of a contour line that stretches across the surface in one fluid movement. The paintings seem to be like exercises (comparable to the movements and positions that a dancer tries out, simply exploring the body’s physical capabilities), but exercises in painting at its most elementary. They are paintings that are actually yet to become complete.”
R. H. Fuchs, ‘Studios’, in Karel Appel: Retrospective, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016, pp. 36-37
Nude Series no. 27, 1987 forms part of a series of larger-than-life nude drawings executed by Appel between 1984-1992, working from live models. The nudes are set against blank backgrounds in predominantly black, grey and white lines, with colours occasionally appearing. Appel mainly combined acrylic paint and oil stick to execute these works, varying the drawing technique throughout the series. A focus is set on the figures depicted, with a characteristic sensuality and, at times, eroticism, at play. Having been said to “turn bodies into landscapes”, these monumental works on paper broadcast what art historian Franz W. Kaiser summarises as “the body as humanity’s ultimate reality, surpassing what the rationality of the intellect can comprehend.” (F. W. Kaiser, in Karel Appel: Monumentale Aktzeichnungen, exh. cat., Vienna: Albertina, 2007, p. 12)
“My colours have changed bit by bit. […] I’m exploring new combinations: yellow-green, yellow-lemon. No rigid symbolism, no fixed ‘keyboard’. Colours for me have a simple emotional significance. Red suggests freedom, life, blood, violence - it’s an elementary colour. Yellow is sometimes the spring leaf that already foretells the autumn. Some greens help me to get into the depths of matter and nature. Greens in general explode and signify space.”
K. Appel, ‘Conversation: Karel Appel - Frédéric de Towarnicki, Paris, May 1977’, in Karel Appel, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980, p. 168
“Towards the end of 1977 and early 1978 Appel began working out a new manner, employing broad, rich, often thick brushstrokes of contrasting colours lying side by side. These brushstrokes - worlds apart from the rush and tangle of the 1950s - are the piers and columns of a new pictorial architecture. […] They suggest that at the age of fifty-seven Appel had achieved a serenity in which to synthesise the many aspects of his experience.
‘I now see all shapes and things as a still life, a living still life’, he wrote in 1978. ‘The shapes and things appear to me, not being tied to my own ego, in repose; they are like a mirror.
I portrait my vision of these things on that single moment which surpasses time and place; only those details, the ‘brushstrokes’, which connote the emotional strength of the scene, are reproduced, and as directly as possible, without any vagueness. It evokes what cannot be expressed in words.’”
A. Frankenstein and K. Appel, ‘Karel Appel: The Art of Style and the Styles of Art’, in Karel Appel, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980, p. 16
“Since 1958 or so I’ve done a lot of relief paintings, ceramics, and sculpture in wood, metal, and polyester. It’s a way of exploring space that differs completely from the purely painterly way. In sculpture I’m working at space itself. Every hole in the metal or the wood is meant to capture space, or else, show its liberation. What I like about a sculpture is that as the spectator turns around it, he reveals the secret life and multiplies its existence, for as he moves through space he’s recreating both the sculpture and its background. The spectator plays with it in three dimensions, while its forms and colour vary with the light.”
K. Appel, ‘Conversation: Karel Appel - Frédéric de Towarnicki, Paris, May 1977’, in Karel Appel, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980, p. 169
“Painting is a tangible, sensual experience, intensely moved by joy and the tragedy of man. A spatial experiencing, fed by instinct, becomes a living shape.
The atmosphere I inhale and make tangible by my paint is an expression of my era.”
K. Appel, 1950
“The Appel effect represents painting and sculpture at their best. It is close to the heart, animalistic, idealistic and thoroughly experimental. It playfully combines ideology with matter and form, and pushes us beyond the boundaries imposed by the human condition. It is art which has been liberated by imaginational magic, and which strives for those momentarily arrested states of the ‘absolute’ described by Schelling as ‘free and unbespoken of any kind of necessary forward motion’.”
K. Ottmann, ‘The Appel Effect’, in Karel Appel: Retrospective, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016, p. 45
“To paint is to destroy what preceded it. The destructions of systems, ideas, logic, and routines. It is the dynamic and explosive force of intuition; in the mind there is room for more than one ism. I never try to make a painting, but a chunk of life: it’s a scream, it’s a night, it’s like a child, it’s a tiger behind bars.”
K. Appel, 1955
“With the inescapable legacy of Cubism and Kurt Schwitters behind him, Karel Appel has made paintings with an ambiguous or multiple structure throughout his entire life - paintings in which forms, colours, segments of space intersect, tilt one another, orbit about each other. The multiplicity and complex layering was ‘stirred up’ even more by the bold and dynamic treatment of the material.”
R. H. Fuchs, ‘Studios’, in Karel Appel: Retrospective, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016, p. 36
“As early as 1949, Appel drafted his own manifesto alongside the official Cobra manifesto written by Constant. Appel’s ‘counter-manifesto’ was not published until 1988. It distinctly deviated from Constant’s revolutionary call for relinquishing artistic individuality for a new artistic practice that is cooperative and social, and less focused on tangible works of art […] Instead, Appel strongly advocates for art that is divorced from any political or didactic purpose (echoing the early nineteenth-century l’art pour l’art movement). Appel’s concept of art is individualistic rather than social and focuses on the effect of the work of art on the viewer’s imagination after it is created by the artist rather than in a participatory creative act.”
K. Ottmann, ‘A Painter for the Imagination’, in Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color, Paintings and Sculptures, 1948-2004, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; Munich/Berlin: Sieveking Verlag, 2016, p. 15
“Founded in the aftermath of the collective moral and physical breakdown of European culture of World War II, CoBrA was ‘the only real new art movement after the war in Europe’ and the last avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. CoBrA artists combined thickly applied radiant primary colours with fiercely figurative, almost grotesque content. […]
Cobra’s focus on the imagination of children and other ‘original’ cultures was the result of an acute distrust of representation in art. As Appel would later recall:
‘We threw away all these things we had known and started afresh, like a child - fresh and new. Sometimes my works look very childish, or childlike, schizophrenic or stupid, you know. But that was the good thing for me. Because, for me, the material is the paint itself. The paint expresses itself. In the mass of paint, I find my imagination and go on to paint it.’”
K. Ottmann, ‘I. A Painter for the Imagination’, in Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color, Paintings and Sculptures, 1948-2004, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; Munich/Berlin: Sieveking Verlag, 2016, p. 12
All works: © Karel Appel Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2019