‘The order that [the artist] depicts in his reliefs and drawings is a direct reflection of his existence’ – J. Wesseling
Dating from 1971, Relief is a virtuoso example of Jan Schoonhoven’s minimalist practice, expressing his distinct and considered aesthetic code with assured clarity. Celebrating the nature of his simple materials, Schoonhoven quietly exalts the purity and power of light and form in a wonderfully textured monochrome. The corrugated tiers of white painted cardboard are austere yet elegant, faintly organic even in their strict order: the organising principle of the row is offset by the fragility and delicacy of the medium, applied carefully by hand. Its imperfect, rhythmically iterated ridges have an irresistible tactile appeal, and the work’s textures are brought to life by light shifting across its surface. As is key to the great works of the Zero movement, in whiteness Schoonhoven explores an ecstatic primary condition of light: what Zero founder Otto Piene called ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning’ (O. Piene, ‘The Development of the Group “Zero,”’ The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September, 1964, pp. 812–13).
Discussing the relationship of his own work with the movement, Schoonhoven emphasised the importance of repetitive compositional schemes. ‘The geometric aspect of Zero is created by the element of repetition, the placement in rows (“Reihungen”). This order emerges from the need to avoid preference. The absence of preference for particular places and points in the work of art is essential to Zero and necessary to provide an isolated reality. The geometric side of Zero is consequently geared to extreme simplicity, an organization of very simple forms, a reality derived from that which actually exists. Zero is first and foremost a new concept of reality, in which the individual role of the artist is kept to a minimum’ (J. Schoonhoven quoted in Armando et al., De nieuwe stijl, werk van de internationale avant-garde, Vol. 1, Amsterdam 1965, pp. 118-23). No less fundamental to this restrained, depersonalised ‘concept of reality’ was the use of unadorned monochrome media. Typically working in cardboard or papier-mâché painted white, Schoonhoven avoided any form of visual hierarchy in his serialized rows and grids, finding in these works a compelling serenity that is exemplified in Relief. His art was created with a deliberate, dignified humility that is exquisitely brought forth in his materials and execution, realising a vision that is at once forthright and masterfully subtle.
Schoonhoven was an artist who thrived on routine. Working for thirty-three years as a civil servant in The Hague’s Department of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone, he led a life of remarkable regularity, making his art during evenings and weekends in the living room of the small Delft apartment he shared with his wife and son. As Janneke Wesseling has observed, ‘the order that he depicts in his reliefs and drawings is a direct reflection of his existence’ (J. Wesseling, Schoonhoven: Visual Artist, The Hague 1990, p.8). He was not always so single-minded, however. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague from 1930 to 1934, the artist’s early abstract watercolours and drawings led him to a brief dalliance with the vigorous forms and joyfully expressive colours of the late 1940s CoBrA movement. It was a total departure from these concerns that saw him rise to prominence. From 1957 to 1960 Schoonhoven was a member of the Nederlandse Informele Groep, who disavowed any ‘formal’ premeditation in creating their artworks, and in 1960 he went further, forming the Nul-groep, a Dutch counterpart to Zero, who were based in Düsseldorf. In this vein he would continue to make beautifully distilled works for the rest of his life. While the Zero motifs of regularity, whiteness and blankness may seem ascetic or severe, these principles in fact realised a transcendent, almost utopian artistic ideal; in Relief, Schoonhoven reveals a universal and absolute appeal in the pure, simple joy of creation.