‘After two world wars, living between old and new systems, atomic explosions, space rockets, the howl of Ray Charles, the barbaric rupturing of human values, man moves over the earth like boiling lava, destroying himself, procreating, with a spatial thinking apart from the earth. This crazy joyful scream, full of vitality, far above the infinite fantasy bordering on insanity, this explosive overwhelming love for life before the doom of the great master, culture, overcomes the pupil.’
– Karel Appel, 1959
In this electrifying work by Karel Appel, two dynamic masses fizzle and whirl against a white background. Frenetically dancing between figuration and abstraction, a growth of blue paint is chromatically juxtaposed with a nebulous network of fiery red, glowing yellow and monochromatic slashes. Like two figures born out of the ashes of blank neutrality, their formations yet to complete their processes of metamorphosis, Appel’s shapes seem to gyrate and vibrate, as if in motion. With dense, impastoed layers of paint, often applied in an eruption straight out of the tube and onto the canvas, the overloaded energy alludes to the frenzied rhythms produced by the great bebop musicians Appel so admired: Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
Untitled was painted during a period of newfound recognition, exemplified by the Amsterdam Council’s unveiling of an Appel mural in the town hall canteen the same year; a previously controversial decade-old fresco hitherto covered up with wallpaper. The present work was also produced at a pivotal stylistic moment in Appel’s career. Executed shortly after his departure from the CoBrA group, Untitled signals a painterly journey into the heart of the tempestuously expressive. Finding affinities with the New York school of Abstract Expressionists, Appel’s new direction was dictated by gestural freedom, spontaneous action and an emotional response to colour. However, whilst the content of works such as Untitled may appear abstract, he continued to use figurative sources, reducing the ambiguous forms to matter alone. Stirred by the atrocities of the Second World War and the difficult aftermath that it brought in its wake, along with personal hardships, Appel’s masochistic and even claustrophobic approach to painting is paradoxically emancipatory and positive in its dynamism. As art critic Alfred Frankenstein noted, ‘the tumult and storm of those works [from the 1950s] is unparalleled in modern art’, a positive chaos to enliven a confused and confusing, lacklustre and dispirited post-war world (A. Frankenstein, ‘Karel Appel: The Art of Style and the Styles of Art’, Karel Appel, New York, 1980, p. 15).