White Cube Hong Kong is pleased to present the first exhibition in Asia of the late Dutch-born Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921–2012). Featuring works drawn from across an extensive career focused on expressive abstraction and the formal possibilities of painting, the selection of paintings pays particular attention to Bogart's unique exploration of paint as sensorial, sculptural matter.
In his essay 'Sculptural Paintings', published in 1986, Bogart wrote that 'many terms have been used to describe my work: peinture relief, peinture mixed, peinture sculpture, peinture Baroque, peinture matière. More important to me than terminology, however, is the ever-returning problem of how to make good paintings.' During his life, Bogart became known for his dense, object-like paintings which fused gesture with substance, sensual colour with minimal form. Eliding the mediums of painting and sculpture and rejecting the association with any one genre, Bogart pursued his own singular path, with a practice grounded in a search for integrity: that of technique, structure and form. Immersed in the formal concerns of art, his was an art informel where the 'handwriting' - the rhythmic brush strokes - of painting could be used to ignite abstraction with meaning.
The earliest painting in the exhibition, which includes works dating from 1952 to 2009, derives from one of the artist's most prolific and significant series, the 'signs', produced from the late-1950s onwards. These paintings are characterised by a pictorial tension in which formal and informal mark-making and the devices of frame and plane meet and converge. Typical of his early 'sign' works, which feature crosses, circles or squares embedded within thick painted surfaces, Les signes (1952) combines dark letter forms incised into four white squares set against a background of intense midnight blue. Hailing from a time when the artist was living and working in Paris, the work reduces the figurative to the schematic, in pursuit of the simplification of shape. Signaling the start of what was to become Bogart's signature language, the manipulation of the painting's 'skin', through the augmentation of chalk, pigments, oil, glue and many other substances, the 'sign' series asserts Bogart's belief that 'everything in nature, in a simplified form, leads back to the sign: rectangle, square, cross, circle, etc. These are forms which have had considerable impact throughout the development of my work.'
Equally minimal in their composition but with increasingly complex surface textures, the works from the 1960s and '70s embed the sign within the very material of the painting, emphatically asserting the interconnectedness of painting and sculpture to arrive at an exhilarating, intense physical presence on the canvas. Ruitveld (1964), a square in deep blue, roughly drawn and arranged on a diagonal, is set against a bright green monochrome ground, the bold colours and dark graphics of the painting offering a dynamic journey for the eye. Geelruitblauw (1967) features a meridian blue diamond sitting proud on a rough, sunshine yellow plane – these two primary colours cohabiting on the canvas surface.
During the 1960s, Bogart moved regularly, working between Brussels, Paris and Rome, before finally settling permanently in Belgium during the latter part of the decade. Here, he swapped easel for floor, using wooden, jute-covered panels to enable the application of ever heavier painting matter. Exchanging pencil for brush and knife for trowel, the works are marked by their massive accumulations of paint and by folds, ridges and valleys animating viscous, tactile surfaces. Deeply connected to the history of painting, in particular the work of Van Gogh and the Belgian expressionist Constant Permeke, Bogart applied defined structures to his compositions, favouring what he saw as a Nordic tendency for clear vertical and horizontal axes. Using different thicknesses of brush, gestural drags leave a thick build-up of paint around forms, spilling over the canvas edges to further assert the objecthood of the paintings. 'I couldn't imagine myself [at all] ever making paintings weighing 200 to 300kg again,' Bogart wrote. 'But by continuing to work on the signs I ended up with a more liberated way of working, i.e., the signs were depicted in a bigger way and more spontaneously, more like the script. The non-repetitive element of rhythmical brushstrokes. I still consider the script the most important part in a painting.'
In the ensuing years, Bogart further explored the potential of the frame as a formal device, either by contrasting just two colours within a painting or through the use of relief, by drawing paint from the centre of the canvas towards the edge. Both Bleu Noir (1973) and Geelinhetmiddenrood (1965) use two bold colours, one framing the other, while in La Porte Rouge (1977) a pure, red monochrome surface is animated by the residue of paint left around the edges of the canvas to form a darker, internal frame.
By contrast, in the 'Dabs' series, produced from the 1960s onwards, of which Visite de couleurs (1997) is a late example, Bogart followed the natural flow of the material, using thick paint poured directly from a bucket or dropped in small quantities from the end of a trowel. Made using the tools of the building trade, these works are, conversely, less 'constructed' than the earlier paintings; more intuitive and determined by the inherent properties of the medium. In other works from the '90s, such as the sublime white monochrome Maagd (1991), soft mounds of pure-white paint create an undulating surface landscape, while in Teinter (1996), Bogart fully extends the plasticity of his paint, manipulating its mass into shapely, abstract form. The late work Ronde (2009), a swiftly drawn blue circle fused into a white ground, or Zonnewit (1996), where blobs of white paint form a monochrome tondo, appear to meld gesture with material in one direct, resolute manner. Of this latter style of pictures, Bogart remarked: 'I am again using the circle or oval and even the sign, which has now become one round, coagulated movement. This precise and tense application of the strokes is the movement I have always strived for.'
Bram Bogart was born in Delft, Netherlands, in 1921 and died in Kortenbos, Belgium, in 2012. Throughout his career he exhibited extensively in Europe, including solo exhibitions at Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen, Netherlands (2012); Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Germany (2005); PMMK, Museum of Modern Art, Ostend, Belgium (1995); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (1964); and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands (1959). In 1970, he represented Belgium at the 35th Venice Biennale. Bogart's work features in many museum and public collections including Tate, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands; Mudam, Luxembourg; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands; National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; S.M.A.K, Ghent, Belgium; and Yuan Art Museum, Beijing.
Press release courtesy White Cube.