Picture of the Week: Nothing to Do by Karel Appel

June 26, 2023

Karel Appel Nothing to Do lithograph in color 1974 28 x 41 in.

Karel Appel was a Dutch painter, sculptor, and poet. He was born on April 25,1921 in Amsterdam. Appel began painting at the age of fourteen and went on to study at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam from 1940 to 1943. He had his first solo show in 1946 in Groningen and was included in the group exhibition Jonge Schilders (Young Painters) that same year. Appel’s influences at this point in his career included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Jean Dubuffet. 

In 1948, Appel joined Nederlandse Experimentele Groep (Dutch Experimental Group); He also established the CoBrA group (1948-51) with longtime friends Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys) and Corneille (Guillaume Cornelis Beverloo), along with other painters from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. CoBrA was a twentieth century avant-garde movement inspired in part by Surrealist  automatism. This movement drew inspiration from ancient Nordic myths, children’s drawings, and primitivism, along with artists Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Additionally, CoBrA privileged collaboration among artists rather than “the solitary, artistic genius.” In 1949, Appel, along with other CoBrA artists, came together for an exhibition at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which faced a lot of backlash. 

Given that the CoBrA art movement was not well-received in the Netherlands, Appel moved to Paris in 1950. Writer Hugo Claus introduced Appel to the art critic Michel Tapié, who put together several exhibitions of Appel’s work. His success in Paris led to continued success throughout the world. In 1953, he was featured in a solo show at the Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels. The following year he earned the UNESCO Prize at the 1954 Venice Biennale. In 1957, Appel was awarded a graphics prize at the Ljubljana Biennale in Yugoslavia. Appel visited the United States that same year, where he was introduced to Action Painting, a practice in which “paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied.” In addition to being featured in numerous exhibitions, he was commissioned for countless murals for public buildings throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His success continued into the 1970s, with a major exhibition at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Netherlands (1970), and a retrospective that traveled throughout Canada and the United States (1972).

The sense of freedom Appel found in the CoBrA movement and Action Painting is evident in his lithograph Nothing to Do (1974). Appel fills the composition with bright, expressive colors and dynamic forms. He appears to have constructed an abstracted face, with red circles for eyes and a curved line for the mouth. The abstract forms beside the face are reminiscent of a sock puppet, which harkens to the childlike wonder of the CoBrA movement. The varying curves in the forms creates a sense of weightlessness, as though the face and other forms will continue floating through space, morphing into different shapes. Perhaps this weightlessness and free-flowing movement reflects the title of Appel’s work as well. While having nothing to do may lead to boredom, in Appel’s lithograph he proposes that to have nothing to do can contribute to a sense of freedom and possibility. The forms in the work are not restricted to one space or to one purpose within the composition. Perhaps to have nothing to do in this context communicates that Appel’s forms can do just about anything.  

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/karel-appel



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