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Arts: What Van Gogh Missed

2 minute read

At 39, burly Karel Appel is Holland’s best-known living painter, but greater fame and fortune came to him from out-side his native land. Last week, out of 131 paintings from 28 nations, most of them on display at Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Appel copped the $10,000 Guggenheim International Award, the fattest of all international art prizes, for a violent, swirling abstraction called Woman with Ostrich, in which neither woman, nor ostrich was particularly recognizable except to those who have been overexposed to the Rorschach inkblot tests. At the Martha Jackson Gallery a few blocks south, 28 other Appel canvases hung last week, all looking as if they had been done in a rage.

The son of an Amsterdam barber, Appel has had a career as turbulent as his paintings. When he did a mural for the canteen in Amsterdam’s city hall, some diners threw their lunches at it.’ Some years later, when he designed six stained-glass windows for a new church in the town of Zaandam, 300 parishioners refused to contribute to the building fund. In Paris, a city more used to the out-rageous in art, Appel decorated a restaurant in the UNESCO building. And in Britain, Sir Herbert Read solemnly declared that Appel has found the world “Van Gogh was seeking but did not find the world of abstract expressionism.”

To Appel, painting is “a battle.” He pops his colors directly out of the tube, smears them around with fingers, palette knife, and occasionally a brush. “I am interested in force,” says he, “not esthetics.” When the heavy, screaming colors look curdled enough, Appel appends a title, Head in the Mountains, Smiling Grasshopper, Personage with Parrot. Where is the head, the grasshopper, the parrot, or the woman and the ostrich? “For me,” Appel once explained, “painting is destroying what I have done before.”

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