Drift, curated by the De Keyser scholar Ulrich Loock, marks the artist’s first major career survey in New York since his death in 2012. It is centered on The Last Wall (2014), De Keyser’s final project at age eighty-two. This ensemble of twenty-two paintings was left carefully arranged on his studio wall when he died. It is presented here in New York in the same arrangement, and as it was at Zwirner’s London location last year.
On ViewDavid Zwirner Gallery, 20th Street
March 18—April 23, 2016
The generous selection of works dates back to the 1990s; it couches The Last Wall in the context of the artist’s practice and includes some of De Keyser’s most iconic paintings, like Front (1992). Outside a gallery context, De Keyser’s subtle canvases, some barely more than a fog of turpentine and a blush of color, like Tors (1992), might be mistaken for unfinished works; on Zwirner’s expansive walls, under airy skylights, they come to life.
De Keyser was adamant in his commitment to the most economical use of materials and compositional strategies. Dalton (1990) is only four Cobalt dots organized on a flat ground the color of dead grass. The whisper of that same blue flashes through just where the canvas turns across the stretcher bars. This small, unassuming painting does a lot with a bare minimum of tools. The four dots reflect the boundaries of the canvas itself, making it a kind of object painting; they suggest a grid structure. The wobbly brushwork blurs into the wet ground—obviously painted, erased, and repainted. These visible imperfections intentionally reveal De Keyser’s mistakes, his rethinking during the process of painting. After relentless scrutiny and repeated editing, only the most essential elements remain.
At a cursory glance, Drift might look like some of the contemporary abstract painting shows so hotly discussed in recent years. While De Keyser is one of the touchstones for these younger painters, he couldn’t be more different. He had a seemingly endless reserve of ideas, and his experiments remain continually surprising. De Keyser borrowed freely from his everyday life for his abstract images. Closerie I (Berliner Ensemble) (1998) is based on a folding metal security grate in his studio. In Bern-Berlin hangend (“hanging”) (1993), three blue windows hover in front of tree branches scattered in the snow. A crude pink sky hovers over irregular ice shelves of turquoise in the show’s namesake, Drift (2008).
The Last Wall is a remarkable departure. Several works display robust sculptural elements: one hangs from a meaty eye-hook; another’s top is pitched forward at forty-five degrees, suspended by a hand-wound wire; LI-AI-SON (2012) is two pieces of gessoed wood stapled together on its surface, like lips sewn together. De Keyser organized the twenty-two objects into three groups, which he labeled, numbered, and outlined—the way the placements of a woodworker’s tools are outlined where they should be returned in the workshop. De Keyser composed the irregular shapes and sizes of the objects according to complicated diagrams given to his assistant (his son) but the logic behind them is indecipherable.
These illuminating insights into the technicalities of De Keyser’s process appear in the catalogue, a multifaceted portrait by Loock, who, since 1991, has written extensively on De Keyser. It contains a new essay, a biography, and a series of texts based on interviews he conducted with the artist’s close friends and family.
This retrospective-like survey, accompanied by the painstaking representation of The Last Wall, is indicative of the gallery’s museological efforts. It is no wonder that De Keyser immediately follows Morandi at the same location: both were essentially museum shows. Morandi and De Keyser shared a steadfast dedication to their idiosyncratic and lifelong projects: making modestly scaled paintings of limited, almost ascetic means. Their light touch and straightforward brushwork is similar. The background and negative space between the objects is just as important as the objects themselves. Through exhaustive repetition, they both empty out their work of whimsy. They forge new ideas through making and remaking. Most of the action occurs off the final canvas; the real work is in what was scraped away rather than what is presented.
De Keyser is unpredictable; he eschewed formulas, which kept his fifty-year-long practice fresh and open to radical invention. The eloquence and conciseness of De Keyser’s works are like poetry. At a moment when New York seems to be turning its back on abstraction, this late, esoteric, Belgian painter might revitalize our belief in the value of a life dedicated to painting.