KAREL APPEL (1921-2006)
Deux mondes
signed and dated 'Appel 59' (lower right)
oil on canvas
130 x 195cm.
Painted in 1959
Galerie Charles Lienhard, Zurich.
Galerie Schindler, Bern.
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above circa 1963).
Anon. sale, Schuler Auktionen Zurich, 7 September 2001, lot 3688.
Private Collection, Winterthur
Galerie Guy Pieters, Knokke.
Private Collection, Belgium.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's Paris, 6 December 2016, lot 25.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Karel Appel, 1964, no. 4.
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Lot Essay

'What counts for me is impulse, energy, speed, action. That's when the really unexpected things happen; the true expressive image that rises undefinably out of the matter, speed and colour' – Karel Appel

Painted in 1959, just two year after Karel Appel’s move to New York City, Deux mondes, is a large canvas featuring grand swaths of deeply toned, thick oil paint. Waves of dark and light blues, pale yellows and burgundy red are swept up across the canvas as if by wind, with confetti-like spools of multi-coloured threads that wind in and around them against a cream white background. Karel Appel said of his application technique: ‘I don’t paint, I hit’ (K. Appel, quoted in De Werkelijkheid van Karel Appel, Jan Vrijman 1998). Like so many of Appel’s most striking works, Deux mondes allows the viewer to reflect instantly on how the painting came into being: through grand gestures, the artist striking the canvas with his knife and self-mixed paint. But the current work, while bearing all the hallmarks of an action-filled Appel, also contains a restrained elegance reflected in its title, its delicately-assembled composition and warm grey tones.

Appel had been living in Paris for four years when he was introduced via Michel Tapié to the New York gallerist Martha Jackson in 1954. Tapié had encouraged her to visit Appel’s studio, whereupon she immediately purchased two paintings and some gouaches. The visit marked the beginning of what would become a seventeen-year long friendship and professional partnership. That same year he would go on to represent the Netherlands at the Twenty-Seventh Venice Biennale, for which he won the UNESCO award, and enjoyed his first exhibition in the United States at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York.

Three years later, in 1957, Appel travelled to New York with Jackson. He was introduced to jazz singers Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Count Basie, all of whose portraits he would go on to paint in Sam Francis’s studio. That same year he would also be introduced to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whose work would have an enormous influence on Appel.

What makes Deux mondes so unique is its immediate and intentional bond to the fresh influences of abstract expressionism and jazz that Appel had been exposed to over the past year. Its form is reflective of the same shift De Kooning himself made in the late fifties, from semi-figurative artwork to pure abstraction, while its title and playfulness speak to the grand figures of the jazz world he had come to know and portray. Appel often spoke of his work as expressive, impulsive performances, and so his affinity for improvisational jazz musicians would come as no surprise to those familiar with his work. Six years later, in 1963, Appel would venture into music himself with his creation of the three track record Musique Barbare, co-created with filmmaker Jan Vrijman. As the title suggests, the compositions are a combination of jazz, acid rock and a ‘barbarous’ atonality that recalls the aggression and unsettled nature of Appel’s earlier oeuvre.

The direct connection found between Appel’s surroundings and Deux mondes could be likened to his theme from the late 1940s, Questioning Children. Appel, Constant, and Corneille had been invited to Copenhagen by Asger Jorn to participate in an exhibition in the winter of 1948. Upon returning to Amsterdam by train via war-devastated Germany, Appel witnessed impoverished children begging for food at a station. The next year he completed his mural Questioning Children for the cafeteria of Amsterdam’s City Hall, its intrinsic tension and unusual composition inciting so much controversy that it was covered with wallpaper for a decade.

It could be said that Deux mondes represents another emotional marker or influential shift in the life and work of Karel Appel. Reflecting on the 1950s, Appel once said: ‘In the Fifties I had the 'angst' to survive materialistically. In the city Paris it was a battle. I painted with a knife and called the results 'human landscapes', abstract landscapes with human faces here and there. Today I can do without fight or struggle; every brushstroke now is ready, goes by itself: la peinture depouillé you could say. I discovered that in Picasso's late paintings. You look very closely but there is nothing anymore. He painted here and there a little bit; it is not finished, but once you step back you see a fantastic image, life by itself. I'm not fighting anymore; I'm floating, surfing on the wind’ (K. Appel quoted in H. de Visser and R. Hagenberg (eds.), Karel Appel the complete sculptures, New York 1990, p. 95).

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