From Artaud to Artnet: Philippe Vandenberg’s Beautiful Misery

Philippe Vandenberg "No title", 2008 (alle Bilder: © Estate Philippe Vandenberg, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Foto: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich)
Philippe Vandenberg "No title", 2008 (alle Bilder: © Estate Philippe Vandenberg, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Foto: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich)

"Art is a wound turned into light’, as Braque said. The image I create is an attempt to come and fill the lack inherent in life." [1]
Vandenberg’s kamikaze is a more beneficent art world suicide bomber packed with explosives embedded in canvas, densely laden with equal measures of celebration and despair. In the art and writing of Philippe Vandenberg there is a constant tension between the states of panic and pleasure, and a willingness, even desire, to travel to the sun, knowing one will see great things at the expense of extinguishing life. But it was only through art and poetry – looking, appreciating, making and writing – that Vandenberg found life (tolerable): "some… canvases give me the courage, not only to go on painting, but also go to on living." [2]
For Vandenberg, painting was a waiting game; waiting for something to work, to collide, while consciously and conspicuously cultivating accidents. In pursuing this, he channelled pain, urgency and the unfulfilled desire inherent in the process. But the hope was as palpable as the revulsion; Vandenberg embraced and celebrated failure, and painted through a series of crises and existential dilemmas. Vandenberg painted to capture time, trying to depict a possibly futile attempt to freeze in amber a moment, a life, existence itself. He both failed and succeeded and didn’t seem to have much choice in how it all unfolded; all the while he never stopped questioning (everything) throughout. Somewhat improbably, Vandenberg was particularly concerned with the longevity of his oeuvre, all the while subconsciously aware his limited time was of essence. "That’s one more obsession for the painter. Will the work last? Will a painting continue to be generous"? [3] Curious notion, that of the "generosity" of a good painting, Vandenberg was under the impression that a good work of art continues to give something like a benevolent force of nature.
"I have a perverse relationship with self-destruction and even with destruction in general." [4] This was a very personal struggle enacted on paper and canvas with words and paint – paint as acid thrown in our collective faces. Drugs and alcohol played a constant role, evidence of the inner and outer unrest that dogged Vandenberg with passing mention in his diaries to having paid more than one visit to a clinic to receive treatment for such conditions. Like Samuel Beckett, Vandenberg was forlorn, depressed and alcoholic, but both soldiered on through work until they couldn't any longer. In Vandenberg’s case, very sadly, the possibilities were snuffed too early. We all suffered as a result.
Filling a void in the Kierkegaardian sense of either/or, in the face of misery one must find expression through work and make the best of what is an inherently flawed and meaningless world. Not the cheeriest of sentiments but as you get chosen by the canvas to paint upon it, rather than vice versa (in Vandenberg’s words) you also cannot contrive exuberance. Sounding evangelical and as if preaching on a soapbox, you have the edict that for Vandenberg encapsulated the essence of art: "I believe that art is one of the means that help us to live. It enthralls us, amazes us and comforts us temporarily." [5] Oh well, at least there is respite, albeit short lived, from artwork to artwork.
In his 2003 diary entry, "Letters to a nigger", like the Klansmen of Philip Guston, we have before us a provocation, and an impolite one at that. Regarding the use of the loaded and problematic word nigger, I believe Vandenberg was in fact alluding to himself as that person he so admired, identified with and reviled (or was he referring to societal disdain?), which still doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. Paul Thek also sympathised with what he must have imagined as the subjugation of blacks with his tar baby sculptures and paintings. With Thek, the empathy is more apparent. Sensitivity and etiquette were probably not of paramount concern to Vandenberg, somewhat lacking in empathy and sensitivity though seemingly striving for metaphor. In a certain way, how he meant it is irrelevant. This work is the work and the person the person, though they impact each other. John Lennon and Yoko Ono penned the song in 1972 ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ with the lyrics: ‘When she's young we kill her will to be free.’ When Vandenberg drew: "KILL THEM ALL AND DANCE" or "KILL THE DOG TODAY" he meant to be put down himself, and when he said "…niggers like me" [6], one assumes he was non-prejudicially sublimating.
In the 2003 Vandenberg staged an exhibit entitled "Daily Drawings of Good & Vile 1997 – 2003", where you sense the primacy he placed on the intimacy and immediacy of works on paper, often incorporating text. In the context of an illustrative diary, the closest thing to the materialisation of thoughts, there is a parallel in Thek’s grade school composition books comprised of drawings, watercolours and notes, housed in Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation in New York. Visual imagery involving text for both Vandenberg and Thek was the ideal unification of an impulse into a material, cohesive whole; the very essence of thought in colour, decorated and augmented by letters that formed part of an aesthetic expression. With no fanfare or showy attention seeking, Vandenberg rather referenced a more subtle (though brutal at the same time) state of inwardness. Versus the more sullen but poetic works of Paul Thek’s paintings on newspaper which were a little more forlorn and resigned but cheery all the same. Like Mike Kelley too, they all wholeheartedly and enthusiastically pursued and courted failure like a muse imbued with a sprinkle of melancholy.
Vandenberg painted a series of nondescript, abstracted portraits including those of Antonin Artaud and Meinhof, a (brilliant) nut and terrorist respectively, which goes a way in describing the territory he mentally resided in. What's normative to some is pathology to others. Vandenberg’s paintings were raw, exposed, violent, and wounded. Paintings of and in flesh, worse than Lucien Freud. Artaud’s self-portraits were medical charts but instead of blood tests or heart monitors mapping out the patient's illness, he charted his own wellbeing or lack with pen and paper. In Vandenberg’s drawings, we see a reductive interplay of line and colour that invariably involved a car wreck of one sort or another. Or not; they were never too repetitive or consistent enough to reveal a pattern, a trait he cultivated. There were even traces of delicate beauty on its own.
The surfaces of Vandenberg’s paintings are rough and scabby, marred, scraped and anguished over and upon. The paintings are fraught with evidence of harsh physical activity yet also quiet, studied contemplation. You can taste the stark say-it-how-it-is frankness of Diane Arbus freaks and weirdoes; but in Vandenberg you have the photographs in paint. With Vandenberg, there is the inescapable gravity and weight of art made not solely for the sake of beauty or aesthetics but at the same time employing all to illuminate feelings and emotions no matter the horror of the physical consequences. Paul McCarthy's famed and notorious scatological reference points are excrement to Vandenberg's disgust for life outside of art. Some works display an unspeakable, gnashing abrasiveness like an Asger Jorn canvas, even though jaunty all the same at first blush. Don't get me wrong: it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a certain kind of gleefulness and delirium going on here too. Above all, a cynical optimism glares fiercely and brightly. And otherwise, he simply wouldn't have bothered.
A contrarian to the core, Vandenberg was anti-entertainment in art, a worrying trend that continues to plague current art production. Go and tell that to the brigade that flowed through the Whitney Museum for what was the Koons-fest, the feel-good-about-itself celebration of the summer of 2014. How frivolous it all seems after trudging through Vandenberg’s dense art and writings, practically Hegelian in density.
Back to Mike Kelley, who could have been a casualty of a heartless art system, crushed by the weight of commercial expectations of his success and worse, continued success. He may have died from prospering but his spirit remained firmly entrenched with the ne'er-do-wells. Mike Kelley never lost the mindset of someone who hadn't made it, and in a certain sense, Vandenberg himself concertedly stove to achieve the same.
"The art business in its present-day form didn’t exist when I started in the sixties. But the universe of the studio must be distinguished from that of the art scene. They are two opposed worlds, independent from each other." [7] More anarchistic, nihilist, than market-minded, Vandenberg’s auction record, set in a regional Christie’s auction in 2012, is for an untitled 1990 work that resembles a Sigmar Polke painting rendered as a demented, crack addicted (rather than opiate) expressionist for $24,303.00. And I’m not quite certain Philippe Vandenberg would be too bothered by the lack of the present (at least) international reach of his market. An artist's market is another kind of wellness chart telling stories of its own that reflect upon financial health but also with an irrefutable baring on one’s mental state. Paul Thek lamented his lack of financial collector support while Mike Kelley disdained the responsibility that came from the enormity succeeding at it all, from the responsibility of employing his assistants to running a giant studio enterprise. By the way, Thek spelled Claude Monet: M-o-n-e-y. Vandenberg was sickened by overproduction in art, a blight that is endemic to the overheated market we reside in today. Good thing he never encountered Damien Hirst and his ilk, call them the "overproduction-ists". The painstaking, incremental fashion of building international markets, essential in today's global art machine was not something Vandenberg could or would have chosen to comprehend.
You can sense a conflict in the work, in the artist, between joy and hope, despair and death and how he must have felt pressured to feel a certain way as a seeking, creative force. Vandenberg had a preconceived notion, despite his protestations against it, that the suffering he so explicitly posited was at the core of an artist’s existence, which proved a burden he couldn’t get out from under; something he was never able to fully reconcile until he succumbed to a self-wrought end. Art and writing were the means, the only way he managed to express and avoid the innate panic Vandenberg invariably felt for everyday life. "After all, one tries to paint in order to tame nothingness. How can one manage to do so without painting? That will be the question once the brushes are down. I will need to work on the attitude of a non-painter." [8] For a man that courted and loved mystery, that was one final conundrum Vandenberg never quite figured out.
This is the story of a tragedy, with glimpses of optimism, a battle ultimately lost by resignation. Vandenberg chose to end his life in the same manner he spoke of finishing a painting; that is, wilfully and with determination. He painted the text "KILL ALL" over and over, and in the end, only managed to extinguish the voice within. Being unable to continually conjure or harness the urge to successfully create (in his mind’s eye) any further must have contributed to his premature demise. Ultimately, what he perceived as a dead-end with no exit strategy was for Vandenberg an endgame that spelled game end.

1. Philippe Vandenberg, "L’important c’est le kamikaze oeuvre 2000 – 2006", published by On Line & Musee Arthur Rimbaud, 2006, p. 93
2. Ibid, p. 108
3. Ibid, p. 99
4. Ibid, p. 105
5. Ibid, p. 96
6. Ibid, p. 151
7. Ibid, p. 98
8. Ibid, p. 133

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