Jan Schoonhoven (1914-1994)
signed, titled and dated 'J.J. Schoonhoven 1970 "R70-42"' (on the reverse)
acrylic on papier-mâché relief on board
51 x 51cm.
Executed in 1970
Studio Grossetti, Milan.
Private Collection, Milan.
Studio Gariboldi, Milan.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016.

To be included in the forthcoming Jan Schoonhoven Catalogue raisonné, being prepared by Antoon Melissen, Amsterdam.
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Lot Essay

Carefully handmade in the small Delft apartment that the artist shared with his wife and son, Ster 2 (1968) and R70-42 (1970) are two virtuoso examples of Jan Schoonhoven’s distinctive minimalist practice. Both were created before Schoonhoven began to employ assistants to aid in his works’ construction, and exhibit the intimate scale and artisanal magic that distinguishes his early reliefs. Ster 2 – which was gifted by the artist to Albert Vogel Jr., founder of the The Hague’s influential Gallery OREZ – consists of eight triangles, or four bisected squares, whose overlapping planes form a radial ‘star’ within a square frame. R70-42 is a three-dimensional grid of sixteen by sixteen squares, which oscillate in a dynamic network of light and shadow. Both works are executed in papier-mâché and painted entirely white. Working with pure, unadorned form, Schoonhoven exalts the simplicity of his materials. Austere yet elegant, the organising geometric principle of each composition is offset by the medium’s hand-finished delicacy. Both works’ imperfect, rhythmically iterated shapes have an irresistible tactile appeal, and their textures are brought to shifting, variable life by the play of daylight across their surfaces. As is key to the great works of the Zero movement, in whiteness Schoonhoven explores an ecstatic primary condition of light: what Zero founder Otto Piene called ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning’ (O. Piene, ‘The Development of the Group “Zero,”’ The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September, 1964, pp. 812-13).

As Janneke Wesseling has observed of Schoonhoven, ‘the order that he depicts in his reliefs and drawings is a direct reflection of his existence’ (J. Wesseling, Schoonhoven: Visual Artist, The Hague 1990, p.8). Working for thirty-three years as a civil servant in The Hague’s Department of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone, he led a life of remarkable regularity, making his art during evenings and weekends at the kitchen table of his home in Delft. For all his quiet humility, Schoonhoven was an internationally successful artist by the time the present two works were made, participating in the São Paulo Bienal in 1967 and Documenta 4 in Kassel in 1968. A student of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague in the 1930s, his early abstract watercolours and drawings had led him to a brief dalliance with the vigorous forms and expressive colours of the late-1940s CoBrA movement. He made paintings of tachiste style in the mid-1950s, arriving at his first colourful, organic papier-mâché forms a few years later; from 1957 to 1960 he was a member of the Nederlandse Informele Groep, who disavowed any ‘formal’ premeditation in creating their artworks. Gradually he left colour and gesture behind, arriving at his mature idiom around 1960, when he formed the Nul-groep together with the artists Armando, Henk Peeters and Jan Henderikse. A Dutch counterpart to the Düsseldorf-based Zero, the Nul-groep’s embrace of the monochrome can be also seen as a direct reaction to the exuberant Neo-Expressionism of CoBrA.

Discussing the relationship of his own work with the Nul and Zero movements, Schoonhoven emphasised the importance of repetitive structural schemes. ‘The geometric aspect of Zero is created by the element of repetition, the placement in rows (“Reihungen”)’, he said. ‘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’ (J. Schoonhoven, quoted in Armando et al., De nieuwe stijl, werk van de internationale avant-garde, Vol. 1, Amsterdam 1965, pp. 118-23). No less fundamental to this ‘new concept of reality’ was his use of entirely monochrome media. Building his serialised rows, squares, triangles and grids from materials like corrugated cardboard, papier-mâché, toilet rolls, and plywood, Schoonhoven avoided any form of visual hierarchy in his compositions, aiming for the stripped-back serenity exemplified in Ster 2 and R70-42. While the Zero motifs of regularity and blankness may seem ascetic or severe, these principles in fact realised a transcendent, almost utopian artistic ideal; such virgin surfaces proposed a blank slate for healing in post-war Europe. In Ster 2 and R70-42, Schoonhoven reveals the simple joy of starting from nothing, and finds lyricism in the humblest of forms.

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