The artist René Daniëls and the Van Abbemuseum have shared a very special bond for many years. Daniëls was born in Eindhoven in 1950 and in 1978 he had his first solo exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, followed in 1986 by a review of his work from 1976-1986.
Regrettably, the large exhibition dedicated to his oeuvre in 1998 was retrospective in the literal sense of the word. In December of 1987, Daniëls suffered a stroke that ended his painting career and cut short an oeuvre that is as current and intriguing as it was twenty years ago.
Apart from the works that the Van Abbemuseum acquired from Daniëls, the museum also manages his archive at the request of the René Daniëls Foundation. It contains hundreds of drawings and over ninety paintings in different stages of completion that were in his studio in late 1987. A series of drawings from 1987 was recently added to the collection, which were made to be published life-sized in the form of a book. The project ended prematurely and the Stichting Eén op Eén (One on One Foundation), which was going to publish the artist’s book, also ceased to exist. Nevertheless, on the initiative of the Paul Andriesse Gallery and the René Daniëls Foundation, the drawings have finally been published in facsimile. To mark the occasion of this publication, the series is being exhibited here for the first time, along with several paintings and a number of related studies on paper.
For his series ‘Onvermijdelijke aantekeningen’ (Inevitable notes), Daniëls used black paper and white ink. Only a few contour lines allow the picture to emerge from the depths of the black background. Sometimes, a drawing is built up of hasty crosshatchings, which instead counter the three-dimensional effect. To those familiar with his work, his drawings offer numerous recognisable features. Daniëls often refers back to his own oeuvre, just as he did in the 1987 series ‘Lentebloesem’ (Spring blossom). In these paintings the works are represented by their poetic titles that adhere like blossom to the branching lines. In the drawings, Daniëls makes variations on themes and motifs, ‘reviewing’ earlier paintings and thereby recalling the title of one of his works of art from 1982 (‘de revue passeren’).
Daniëls was very conscious of the fact that a work of art is not an isolated entity. It derives its significance from its position within an oeuvre, but also functions in a much broader context. In an interview with Anna Tilroe in 1983, Daniëls claims that ‘A disease is raging that is typical of our day and age: art historians’ interference with art. They all seem to be looking for a confirmation of their personal ideas about art. This means that the works are interpreted in a much too one-sided manner in order to leave their mark as quickly as possible. (…) I think commerce has, for a large part, killed art. What do you see nowadays? Somebody makes a discovery, everyone catches on and it is exploited. Even by the artists themselves.’
His canvases often depict both open and covert references to the functioning of the art world and its need to appropriate the work of art. Even more important than that message is the artistic mentality with which Daniëls has always fought the encapsulation of his own work. The ability to continue generating new meanings was, in his opinion, one of the most essential characteristics of art. Fearful for its loss, he made ambiguity one of the most characteristic elements of his art.
The painting ‘Memoires van een vergeetal’ (Memories of a forgetful one) exhibited here is a convincing example of this. It is one of the paintings created in 1985-86 where the gallery itself has become the subject. The gallery is represented by a rectangle flanked by two trapezoids tipped on their side. Monochrome planes symbolize works of art hanging on the walls but the visitors are missing. Within this summary staging, Daniëls navigates between abstraction and figuration, playing off the illusion of space against the affirmation of the two-dimensional plane. A three-dimensional exhibition hall could just as easily be interpreted as a bow tie, with all the connotations that entails. One could also wonder whether the white shapes in ‘Memories of a forgetful one’ allude to paintings or rather offer an opening to the space behind it. The most intriguing aspect is the presence of several yellow shapes that do not comply with the rules of perspective and seem to be parallel to the pictures’ surface.
In his studies related to the ‘Mooie tentoonstellingen’ (Beautiful exhibitions) series, Daniëls gives us several totally different perspectives on one single theme. Through the use of visual rhyming, the paintings on the walls assume the semblance of windows, doors and pianos. One of the motifs can be interpreted both as a keyhole and as pawn, while in one of the drawings the pawn has become the leg of a scale balancing the paintings on the left and the right. In a playful reference to Manet’s painting of a Spanish beauty, he wrote the words ‘Lola de Valence - Lola de Balance’ in the bottom right-hand corner. A watercolour from 1985 shows an exhibition room with a pot-bellied stove, reminiscent of Helen Van der Mey’s gallery where Daniëls had his first exhibition in 1978. This tangible representation has its counterpart in a collage from 1987, where the motif has multiplied itself around a shape that looks most like a top hat.
Daniëls admired artists like Duchamp, Broodthaers and Picabia, who were not trying to achieve a personal style but rather an independent artistic vision. About Picabia, Daniëls once said, ‘That man had a freedom, a playfulness and a vitality that is seldom found,’ a characterisation that applies at least as much to Daniëls himself.