Daan van Golden at his studio in Schiedam in Holland in 2014. Photo © Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen

Daan van Golden: reluctant icon

Nine things to know about the Dutch artist who became an idol of the Swinging Sixties — and then turned his back on the contemporary art world for years. Illustrated with works offered in Amsterdam

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  • His first art teacher was a Jesuit priest

Born in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam in 1936, Daan Van Golden first received artistic training at Sunday school, where he was taught painting by a Jesuit priest. In his late teens, he started work as a lathe operator in a factory but he maintained an interest in art, taking evening classes at Rotterdam’s Academy of Visual Arts (now the Willem de Kooning Academy).

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  • He was an inveterate traveller

One of Van Golden's earliest trips took him to the United States and Mexico for several months when he was in his early twenties. By this time he’d decided to devote himself to a career in art.

In 1962 Van Golden was on the move again, travelling to Japan with his girlfriend Willy van Rooy via Turkey, Iran, East Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. In Tokyo, where the couple lived for two years, his painting took a wholly new direction. He was inspired by the meditative simplicity of the patterns found in Japanese wrapping paper, and would go on to paint numerous works adapted from their floral and chequered motifs.

Upon returning to the Netherlands, in a bid to erase his artistic past, Van Golden used white primer to cover up the black-and-white abstractions he had painted years before.

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  • He was an icon of the Swinging Sixties

In 1966 Van Golden was named one of his country’s most stylish men by Dutch magazine TIQ. A year later he moved to London, where he worked as a fashion photographer. Willy was often his model, and his shots of her appeared in Vogue  and numerous other publications.

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  • His art often paid (sometimes playful) homage to Modern masters

Van Golden regularly appropriated from the most famous artists of the 20th century. Sometimes his source was clear, as in Study A.G., his silhouette of an Alberto Giacometti sculpture.

At other times, the reference was more playful and oblique. In Study H.M., for example — offered in Amsterdam on 12-13 December — he isolated the silhouette of a parakeet from Matisse’s famous cut-out La Perruche et la Sirène, and set it against a plain blue background.

Interestingly, in his silhouettes, Van Golden gave equal importance to both background and subject. This may have been influenced by the Japanese concept of ma, according to which empty space is an equal area of focus.

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  • It wasn’t only 20th-century masters whose work he adapted. Often, it was his own

Van Golden regularly used his own art as a starting point for a new painting, referencing, copying or tweaking an earlier piece.

He also produced Magritte-like compositions in which existing works recur as ‘objects’ within new ones. In Schilderij 1964 Recht van Voren Gezien (Painting 1964 Seen Directly from the Front), for example, he painted what seems an exact likeness of a canvas from the previous year — Compositie met Gele Ruit (Composition with Yellow Square) — but set it, slightly off-centre, on a grey panel.

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  • He disappeared in 1968

In 1968, having achieved acclaim across Europe, the artist was invited to participate in the fourth edition of Documenta, the prestigious contemporary-art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Growing tired of the art scene, however, Van Golden withdrew from the limelight that same year. His biggest international show after Documenta would not be until 1999, when he represented his country at the Venice Biennale.

Van Golden decided to take part in a Dutch government scheme to support contemporary artists, as a result of which the artist sold his work directly to leading museums in the Netherlands. Thanks to this arrangement, the Stedelijk Museum, in Schiedam, and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, today hold a wide selection of his work.

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  • His daughter was his greatest muse

Van Golden made a number of pieces featuring the French actress Brigitte Bardot. (Interestingly, the images of Bardot from which he worked were taken from the discarded scrapbook of a Bardot fan, which Van Golden found in a flea market in the Hague in 1969.)  His dearest and longest-standing muse, however, was his daughter Diana, born in 1978.

The artist documented her growth in a series called Youth Is an Art, featuring more than 100 photographs of Diana from birth through to her 18th birthday.

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  • He embraced a Zen way of working

His time in Japan led Van Golden to regard a controlled, meditative state as key to his creative method. As a result, he worked slowly and produced relatively few works over his career.

This also meant a disposition to creating works that were similar but subtly different. Perhaps the best-known of these is Heerenlux, named for the artist’s preferred brand of enamel paint, which features the red-on-white floral pattern from a scrap of fabric Van Golden had found in Morocco.

In each work, the artist’s focus changes slightly. By framing, shrinking, enlarging, rotating and cropping, successive elements gain or lose prominence. The overall result is a mood of stillness reflective of the environment in which the paintings were made.

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  • Blue was his favourite colour

Van Golden’s favourite colour was blue. His colour of choice across several decades, it appears again and again in his oeuvre. Perhaps most unusually, the colour appears in Agua Azul, a 1987 installation for Amsterdam’s botanical gardens.

Filling the garden paths with blue pebbles, Van Golden cast flowers, plants and trees in a different light. Although the botanical garden has long since been restored to its original state, Agua Azul  lives on in photographs taken by Van Golden, including a self-portrait of his own shadow against the blue backdrop.