Painted in 1958, just one year after Karel Appel’s move to New York City, Sortilège (Spell), is a large canvas featuring grand swaths of deeply toned, thick oil paint. Waves of dark and light blues, pale yellows and burgundy red are swept up across the canvas as if by wind, with confetti-like spools of multi-coloured threads that wind in and around them against a cream white background. Karel Appel said of his application technique: ‘I don’t paint, I hit’ (K. Appel, quoted in De Werkelijkheid van Karel Appel, Jan Vrijman 1998). Like so many of Appel’s most striking works, Sortilège allows the viewer to reflect instantly on how the painting came into being: through grand gestures, the artist striking the canvas with his knife and self-mixed paint. But the current work, while bearing all the hallmarks of an action-filled Appel, also contains a restrained elegance reflected in its title, its delicately-assembled composition and warm grey tones.
Appel had been living in Paris for four years when he was introduced via Michel Tapié to the New York gallerist Martha Jackson in 1954. Tapié had encouraged her to visit Appel’s studio, whereupon she immediately purchased two paintings and some gouaches. The visit marked the beginning of what would become a seventeen-year long friendship and professional partnership. That same year he would go on to represent the Netherlands at the Twenty-Seventh Venice Biennale, for which he won the UNESCO award, and enjoyed his first exhibition in the United States at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York.
Three years later, in 1957, Appel travelled to New York with Jackson. He was introduced to jazz singers Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Count Basie, all of whose portraits he would go on to paint in Sam Francis’s studio. That same year he would also be introduced to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whose work would have an enormous influence on Appel.
What makes Sortilège so unique is its immediate and intentional bond to the fresh influences of abstract expressionism and jazz that Appel had been exposed to over the past year. Its form is reflective of the same shift De Kooning himself made in the late fifties, from semi-figurative artwork to pure abstraction, while its title and playfulness speak to the grand figures of the jazz world he had come to know and portray. Appel often spoke of his work as expressive, impulsive performances, and so his affinity for improvisational jazz musicians would come as no surprise to those familiar with his work. Six years later, in 1963, Appel would venture into music himself with his creation of the three track record Musique Barbare, co-created with filmmaker Jan Vrijman. As the title suggests, the compositions are a combination of jazz, acid rock and a ‘barbarous’ atonality that recalls the aggression and unsettled nature of Appel’s earlier oeuvre.
The direct connection found between Appel’s surroundings and Sortilège could be likened to his theme from the late 1940s, Questioning Children. Appel, Constant, and Corneille had been invited to Copenhagen by Asger Jorn to participate in an exhibition in the winter of 1948. Upon returning to Amsterdam by train via war-devastated Germany, Appel witnessed impoverished children begging for food at a station. The next year he completed his mural Questioning Children for the cafeteria of Amsterdam’s City Hall, its intrinsic tension and unusual composition inciting so much controversy that it was covered with wallpaper for a decade.
It could be said that Sortilège represents another emotional marker or influential shift in the life and work of Karel Appel. Reflecting on the 1950s, Appel once said: ‘In the Fifties I had the 'angst' to survive materialistically. In the city Paris it was a battle. I painted with a knife and called the results 'human landscapes', abstract landscapes with human faces here and there. Today I can do without fight or struggle; every brushstroke now is ready, goes by itself: la peinture depouillé you could say. I discovered that in Picasso's late paintings. You look very closely but there is nothing anymore. He painted here and there a little bit; it is not finished, but once you step back you see a fantastic image, life by itself. I'm not fighting anymore; I'm floating, surfing on the wind’ (K. Appel quoted in H. de Visser and R. Hagenberg (eds.), Karel Appel — the complete sculptures, New York 1990, p. 95).
Following his move to New York in 1957, Appel spent a large part of his life in the United States until his death in 2006. Sortilège represents a breakthrough, a turning point for the artist, and was recognised as such when it was exhibited at Documenta II in Kassel in 1959, and three years thereafter when it numbered among the first purchases by Belgian collectors Roger and Hilda Matthys-Colle. And, though not mentioned by way of its title, the current work’s compositional source of inspiration might best be reflected by a poem Appel wrote in memory of his friend, Willem de Kooning, decades later: ‘And his painting is like the wind, like a breeze blowing the paint across the canvas, so unreal, so loose and far away from worldly life’ (K. Appel, …And Now I want to Talk about Willem de Kooning, February 1990).