by John Chilver
published in Afterall 10, London, October 2004, ISSN 1465-4253, p46-53
A friend described a recent European painting survey show to me in shorthand thus: ‘It had a lot of René Daniëls-type painting.’ That remark didn’t ring true because for myself, René Daniëls absolutely cannot supply the basis of, or the model for a type of painting at all. For Daniëls is a painter without a style and without a method, and for that example alone we should be thankful. AT this moment, to be without a signature method is to be n invisible agent, one whose agency appears – if at all – only hesitantly and intermittently. In this sense Daniëls has often seemed a clandestine artist. Twenty years ago Daniëls appeared anything but. It was never surprising that in the early 80s Daniëls became assimilated into the New Image vogue. Of course, it is somewhat unfair to lump in his pseudo-allegorical pictures of the period with the rest of the New Image/ Neue Wilde/ Transavantgardia package, if only because of their humour. Yet even though paintings such as De Revue Passseren (1982), Hotel (1980), Alzumeazume (1984) or Ondergronds Verbonden (1984) are all pictures that through their cursory, impatient brushwork and graphic-expressive hauteur satisfy the expectations of New Image painting, Daniëls’ position within that fold is exemplified by the 1982 exhibition Zeitgeist, in which he showed alongside Kiefer, Chia, Clemente, Cucchi etc. It is not only the context that holds his painting of this period hostage to the Zeitgeist conceit – a propos of which Hegel remarked concerning the shortcomings of allegory, “an allegorical being has no qualities, but is itself one quality and no more.”  Only the relation to the rest of Daniëls’ oeuvre – the later paintings and objects and constructions – can salvage and shield some of these works from the ‘New Image’ rubric. Still several of the early pictures deserve celebration. The excellent Gent (1980-81), with its gables harbouring the noses of the nosey, shows Daniëls at his most succinctly cheeky. The early approach is flippant, cool, insolent and briskly arrogant in the manner of Picabia. Like other of the time – Kippenberger especially – Daniëls marries the Picabia-type grand authorial ego with a finely tuned contextual awareness and antenna for art politics, as in Akademie (1981) or L’Objet (1980).
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Daniëls surely knew he had to direct his audience out of the cul-de-sac of the Zeitgeist hermeneutic. So the paintings that followed – especially the bow-tie pictures – serve as a corrective. They are also Daniëls’ best work. These are crude pictures of a recessive space bounded by three walls. Viewed frontally, the central wall appears rectilinear, while the walls to the left and right taper as they recede from the picture plane. This symmetrical figure – a central rectangle with tapering quadrangles on each side – makes up the bow tie, a simple architectural box using the most elementary perspectival system. What could be more traditional, more Albertian? This suggests that the conception is dumbly, scandalously simple, and to an extent that is true. But it’s in the standoff between the graphic sign – the bow tie, with all that it implies of etiquette and ritual – and the volumetric construction of spatial depth that the paintings accumulate their momentum. The three walls assuredly stand for the display space, the art context in general. The walls are never bare – there are always monochrome panels hanging on them. And while it may be correct to regard the series as mediations on the exhibition context there is a variety of overlapping themes and no single didactic output. There is the scenario proposed in the 1984 painting De Slag Om De Twintigste Eeuw (The Battle for the Twentieth Century) in which the bow-tie sign for the display space is juxtaposed with a stormy ocean surface, floating above the surf and spray. This implies two alternative directions in twentieth-century art: the sublime-versus-context discourse (think of Brancusi with Duchamp working as his Ne York agent). It’s not a pretty painting, but nor is it an attractive choice to confront this double bind. Here is Daniëls at his most concise and brutal. I’m reminded of Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire with the celebrated declaration that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce. For isn’t this painting a retelling of Modernism in which the ocean’s raging sublime (Courbet, Pollock, Melville) is confronted with the painting display qua social construction of space (Lissitzky, Mondrian, Henri Lefebvre) with farcical consequences? Isn’t De Slag Om De Twintigste Eeuw the disenchanted and farcical equivalent of Mondrian’s pier and ocean series?
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It is possible to consider how the bow-tie works through a notion of semiotic aphasia, which adapts freely from Oliver Sacks’ celebrated descriptions of the psycho-physiological condition of aphasia. In Sacks’ case study The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat we follow the pathology of a man for whom the visual becomes affectless, fragmentary, purely evidential and probabilistic. In short the visual as such – as a realm of aesthesis, as a lived embrace of circumscribed optical unities – has become imperceptible:
things and people are recognisable only on the basis of isolated distinguishing features and never as characteristic wholes. The visualisation of faces and scenes, of visual narrative and drama – this was profoundly impaired, almost absent. But the visualisation of schemata was preserved, perhaps enhanced. This when I engaged him in a game a mental chess, he had no difficulty in beating me soundly. 
The patient, Dr. P, survives in a largely computational visual world wherein he cannot distinguish a foot from a shoe, except by computing the balance of probabilities. A professional musician, it is his secure auditory aesthetic sense that carries him through, as his wife explains:
He does everything singing to himself. But if he is interrupted and loses the thread, he comes to a complete stop, doesn’t know his own clothes – or his own body. He sings all the time – eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs, everything. He can’t do anything unless he makes it a song. 
Daniëls’ motif is equally pathological. It is like an acquired inability to feel space after one has become convinced of the autonomy of the sign for space. In this sense, Daniëls’ imagery acts as a description of semiotic aphasia – for isn’t Sacks’ remark that “the visualisation of schemata was preserved, perhaps enhanced” a perfect account of the visual distillation enacted by the tie motif? Daniëls’ painting track the experience of a world in which the schemata of space and structure have replaced the sense of lived encounter altogether. These paintings declare that the trauma for the critical tradition in painting, in Duchamp’s wake, lies not in the readymade or anything as trite and deterministic as the death of the medium, but in the deeply troubling realisation that the only credible space is the display space itself. Yet the display space, these paintings imply, is not given up to the viewer phenomenologically at all, that is, not sensed, not seen. It is a bow-tie first, a volumetric and sensuous space second. In this sense, Daniëls’ proposes the priority of the (pathologically) semiotic over the phenomenological: first it is signified, and only subsequently and secondarily can it be sensed. The display space itself is then the symptom in the pathology: it is a spatial schema not a spatial experience. And so – while it may be correct to distrust any overly didactic or foreclosed reading of an image, and correct to suspect that any image that lends itself to such a foreclosure is impoverished – it does also seem correct to see in the bow-tie series a meditation on the display context that moves beyond the complacency and conservatism of the familiar ‘art is what happens in the art context’ attitude. Do these works not imply that the investment in the primacy of the art context as the decisive force – precisely the complacency of ‘art is what happens in the art context’ – is a pathological investment that amounts to an aphasia. Going back to the earlier paintings, it emerges that aphasia provides clues there too. Consider the 1982 painting Cocoanuts, which in retrospect seems like a subconscious rehearsal for the bow-tie series. While I’m loathe to appeal to the category of the uncanny, das Umheimlich, which is so widely abused in art interpretation, here is certainly an experience of being unable to account for the lure of the image. Finally the penny drops. It is again none other than the matter of the tie, the matter being, in this case, that there is no tie. The beard plays the role of the necktie caught in the wind. Within the economy of this image, tie and beard are confused or fused together, much like Dr. P, for whom foot and shoe are indistinguishable.
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There’s more. And it has to do with transparency. There remains an unwritten history of Modernist painting as a prohibition on transparency. Logically enough, the converse must be the history of Modernist architecture as a prohibition on opacity. I’ll come back to this. In Modernist painting opaque colour is good because it is sheer skin, sheer surface, depthless, it has no subcutaneous layers, no behind or beneath, just all on and along a surface. Transparent colour, like old-master glazing, is deemed bad because it is surface that is not surface, skin as deep flesh, proximity as distance, being as seeming. What happens in Daniëls’ best works, such as the two versions of Painting on the Bullfight (1985), is that as well as the three walls described by the bow-tie, a fourth transparent wall is implied without ever being made entirely explicit. And this fourth wall is almost, though not quite, the picture plane of the painting itself. How do we know there’s a fourth wall? It’s like dark matter: we deduce that it must be there because we see its effects, we can see the paintings hanging on it. And we don’t just see them, we see through them. In these paintings, as in Memoires Van Een Vergeetal (1986), what most attracts the eye of the viewer are those places where the translucent monochromes hanging on the transparent near wall overlap and interrupt the monochromes hanging on the far three walls. These are the nodal points of the paintings that compel sustained scrutiny. What of these fraught points that depend so much on transparency? Certainly they articulate their own astute fouling up of Modernist opacity. But more specifically, they both elaborate on the bow-tie schema and mess it up. They contravene the very flattening that allowed the motif to emerge in the first place. So the schemata are no longer in control of the proceedings: instead the interference – which is all at once perceptual, cognitive and conceptual – that comes with transparency returns us to difficulty, resistance and decontrol, which is to say encounter proper. These paintings think through a particular dilemma that can be narrated as follows. Modernist monochrome painting with its ethic of opaque colour began as a process that blended the artwork with its surroundings. This has culminated in the discursive foreclosure that takes the display space to be the dominant voice. Yet this scenario that began with a prohibition on transparency ends up asserting the primacy of the architectural container over the art contained within it, and, in a moment of lugubrious irony, this architecture turns out to be committed to an ethic and an aesthetic of transparency. This is by no means a metaphorical narrative but can be taken absolutely literally. The contemporary corporate collections that are housed in glass-and-steel buildings, as with the ABN Amro building in London’s Bishopsgate, meet the obvious and idiotic problem that there aren’t enough opaque walls to hang the collection on. Yes, it is a frivolous example, but there are others. Think of Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin where the transparent ground floor is mostly unusable for art displays. This reflects a problem that hasn’t gone away and is not merely a problem of Modernism. If context is understood as asserting the primacy of the architectural-institutional frame, these are the tokens of the kind of aporetic fooling that ensues. Daniëls’ paintings have plotted this scenario and beckon beyond the closure it entails. In them a collision of transparent and opaque realises the encounter of painting and context discourse in which both are messed about and neither comes through uninjured.
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How then does Daniëls’ work resonate now? Certainly his oeuvre has a resilience that is generally lacking in the painting of the 1980s. But that doesn’t say enough, doesn’t tell enough. Much of today’s credible painting has the post-expressive sassiness that Daniëls’ work had all along. But still his painting remains distant from current tactics. There’s the strong sense that Daniëls was never overly respectful of painting nor deferential to its tacit etiquette of unity, resolution and consistency, either at the level of the oeuvre or of that of the single picture. In this he differs fundamentally from current painters. His relation to painting is one of arm’s length affection. Here a key role was played by the objects and constructions. They seem to have been crucial in sustaining the arm’s length embrace. The objects – like the binoculars that sit upon a glass vase, from around 1987 – are small, abrupt, compact, enclosed in on themselves, obtusely pictorial and a little like cartoons built out of things. So they don’t contradict the painting at all, rather they amplify their sense of purpose. The objects offer a cooler place from which to reflect on painting, which, come what may, tends to end up more or less intransitive. It is its abiding intransitivity that permits painting’s problematics to remain substantial and alive. If there’s one ethic above all we – especially we now – should witness in Daniëls’ work, it is that respect for the intransitivity of painting requires a certain disrespect. And, as if that wasn’t hard enough, what’s truly difficult is that this respectful disrespect can’t itself be thematised, strategized or styled.
1 Georg Wilhelm Hegel The Philosophy of History (trans. J. Sibree), New York: Dover, 1956, p246.
2 Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook his Wife For a Hat, London: Picador, 1986, p15.
3 Ibid., p15-16.
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