Jan Schoonhoven concentrated on his famous white papier-mâché compositions only after five o'clock in the afternoon after returning from his job at the PTT (Royal Dutch Post). Similar as in his art, he had a compulsory need for regularity and order in his life and out of sheer necessity. Even when he became a successful artist, he kept this job until his retirement. He found his definitive handwriting at the beginning of the 1960s: the varied reliefs and drawings filled with systematic repetitions which he produced in the evenings and during the weekends. He used a simple but effective numbering system: R stands for relief; the first number is the year that it was made and the second number indicates the sequence within the year (for his drawings, he employed the same system with the T).
Order is the key word for Schoonhoven: the order that he depicts in his reliefs and drawings is a direct reflection of his existence. Since 1960 Schoonhoven has limited himself to the arrangements of horizontals and verticals. By doing so, he has come close to the dividing line between art and non-art and has thereby made it all the more distinct. It all has to do with the right feeling for rhythm, with a sublime execution of line, with a fine play of light and shadow, with subtle aesthetics based on sobriety and regularity (J. Wesseling, Schoonhoven. Visual artist, The Hague 1990, p. 8). Maybe more important than these practical aspects was the fact that this new working method was very much in line with Schoonhoven's political and philosophical ideas. His special relationship with uniformity and mass, the überpersönliche (the transpersonal) was very well reflected by the works from this period. The absence of hierarchy, within the works as well as in the process of creation reflect the contradiction is his ideas. On the one side there is need to be a creative artist, on the other side there is his urge for an anti-hierarchical society in which he could mingle inconspicuously and anonymously.
Schoonhoven's work came to prominence with the formation of the NUL Group in 1960 with fellow artists Herman de Vries, Henk Peeters, Armando and Jan Henderikse. Nul was closely related to the Dusseldorfer group ZERO founded in 1958 by the artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack. Advocating the integration of light and movement into a two-dimensional painted surface, they wanted to emphasize expression by means of monolithic plane and repetitive forms. The first major exhibition of this international group, called NUL, took place in 1962 in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Schoonhoven built a wall relief of cardboard boxes for this exhibition.
In 1964, Schoonhoven articulated his own understanding of ZERO, and in doing so provided a window onto his own practice. As he explains, '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. The ZERO artist only chooses, isolates parts of reality (materials as well as ideas taken from reality) and shows these in the most neutral manner. ZERO's primary task is to reveal the essence of reality, the true reality of materials, of localized things in isolated clarity ... Its aim is to establish reality as art in an impersonal way' (J. Schoonhoven, quoted in Armando et al., De nieuwe Stijl, Werk van de internationale Avant-Garde, deel 1, Amsterdam 1965, pp. 118-123). With its exquisite formal clarity, Schoonhoven's reliefs represent the most concise visual expression of these convictions.
R 69-32 is a clear example Schoonhoven's search for perfection, as well as his inner struggles: His search for anonymity against the hand of the master, as well as the tendency to undermine his own created order. There is virtually no visual hierarchy between top and bottom, or left and right. The serial grid made from repetitive diagonal traversed cubicles is one of his iconic schemes. It is created by the light that is cast across it, and it owes its existence to that play of light. By using white in combination with variations of height, a rhythm of light and shadow is brought about, and this changes with a built-in modification of cast light, thus changing the look of the image as well. His grids are used for an ultimate isolation of light, and the surrounding edge emphasizes these properties.