SALON, Saatchi Gallery’s commercial exhibition space, launched earlier this year with a fascinating show by the post-war Japanese artist, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, and in keeping with its policy of staging museum standard exhibitions by historically important artists, it is now presenting the work of the Dutch-born Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921 – 2012).
Staged in collaboration with Mayfair’s Vigo Gallery, the show is entitled Witte de Witte,and is made up of nine rare monochrome or near monochrome works executed between 1952 and 2006, which, taken as a group, illustrate the artist’s dramatic and unique contribution to the canon of modernist painting.
Bogart is an artist associated with thickly physical colour – the works for which he is best known are rendered in bright, primary colours, reflecting the enduring influence of both Vincent van Gogh’s painterly idiom and Piet Mondrian’s compositional experimentation on his practice. The nine paintings in Witte de Witte, however, demonstrate a sense of tonal restraint and maturity of practice. Presenting work from the breadth of Bogart’s oeuvre, the exhibition strips back his practice to its elements, and demonstrates Bogart’s technical development and achievement over a more than fifty-year period.
Born in Delft, the Netherlands, Bogart originally trained at a local technical school as a house-painter. After the end of World War Two, he settled in Paris where he became one of the founding members of Art Informel, a group of abstract painters who focused on expression and intuition rather than geometrics. Bogart first worked towards an all-white picture in a series of semi-representational paintings he completed in the South of France in the late 1940s. These works were a response to the light and dust of the Mediterranean, and also the chalkiness of local buildings. Using techniques learnt in his youth, Bogart approximated the walls’ rough matte finish by mixing poster paint to his oils and letting the paint peel off to suggest exposure to the elements.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition, Differentes (1954) demonstrates the ever-increasing weight of material, a tendency toward thicker impasto and a more aggressive facture that would become Bogart’s mature style. Meanwhile, Signes sur Blanc / Witte Tekens (1952), while smaller is scale is no less dramatic.
This work symbolises the beginning of Bogart’s experiment with monochrome. Made primarily in shades of white and grey, the piece alludes to a hint of muted Parisian blue. Despite the lightness of colour, one can feel the weight of the painting visually, as materials have been layered one on top of the other to create three-dimensional structure. Its surface is dashed and dotted with indentations of knots, crosses and lines, marks that are paradoxically both highly structured and organic in nature.
In 1961, Bogart relocated to Belgium with his wife Leni, coinciding with the development of a new resolution of gesture and material in his painting. Friends with Lucio Fontana – with whom he shared the desire to expand the structural boundaries of modern painting – during this time Bogart also met Willem de Kooning, and his paintings acknowledged the all-over structure and expansive scale associated with American Abstract Expressionism. Like Jackson Pollock, after 1960, Bogart painted on the floor, using a mix of oil, siccative, powdered chalk, varnish, and raw pigment applied to heavy wooden supports to ‘build’ his works. When viewed upright, Bogart’s slab-like pictures hold themselves together in way that actively denies gravity.
A painting from this period, Variété (1961), is a bold conflation of sculptural relief and painting, of excessive dripping paint and heavily applied concrete. The work maintains, however, the scale of painting and the restrictions of a square or rectangular support.
A much later work, Sunday Morning (2007), appears comparatively more serene. Its soft peaks of white paint applied in Bogart’s characteristic impasto are juxtaposed with smooth, even layers of the same colour. When asked in an interview to recall the motivation for his monochromatic works, Bogart described them in terms of respite from colour. As he replied: ‘At that time, making a painting in one colour, whether white, black or brown gave me a form of restfulness in relation to the other paintings.’ Vacated of chromatic distraction, Bogart’s monochromes are both indulgent – reveling in the matter of paint – and refined. As a whole, Witte de Witte evidences Bogart’s more nuanced approach to postwar painting, and as such is a welcome contribution to his appreciation.
By Amani Noor Iqbal
Witte de Witte, Saatchi Gallery, closes September 10th, 2017