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The all-encompassing gesture

Ger van Elk

Does a society have a colour? Wherever I am I ask myself this question and try to come up with an answer. Sometimes a colour is easy to determine for a house, a street, a village, a city or a landscape, but for an entire country it is an impossible task. The questions that follow, concerning, for instance, the reason and significance of that colour, are often more difficult to answer, but they do help one identify the mutual differences between people, times and places. For example, how have we been influenced by the red colour of our bricks, what effect do the grey slate roofs have on the Belgians and English, and the dark-green of the rainforest or the ochre of the desert on their inhabitants? Or, how does the kaleidoscope that is the modern metropolis affect how we feel about life? This is a game that I enjoy playing.

In recent years the artist Ger van Elk has made work that touches on these questions. In his Conclusions he applies many layers of paint onto a photographic image, thus creating a monochrome surface as a fusion of all the colours in the original depiction. Only the thick edges around the canvas still give some indication of what that depiction once was: a snow landscape in Sankt Moritz, for instance, or the facade of the Clermont-Ferrand cathedral, which is built with volcanic rock. What Van Elk does here is actually in keeping with a classical tradition in art, namely that of the repeated attempt to comprehend or convey a perception of how the world is constructed: what does it look like behind what we see, how does it really fit together? The constant re-visualization of ‘the all-encompassing gesture’, or at least the attempt thereof, is one of the finest tasks that visual artists have undertaken through the ages. The freedom they assume in this sets them apart from science, philosophy or religion and that fact alone justifies their existence.

In 1971 Van Elk embarked on another ‘all-encompassing gesture’, the result of which was recently acquired by the Kröller-Müller Museum, as were two of his recent Conclusions from 2008, with the support of the BankGiro Lottery. With La Pièce he wanted to make a work of absolute beauty, in a double sense. Firstly an exquisite white-painted block of wood, and secondly, painted in a location where there is no dust: in the middle of the ocean. To do this he boarded a cargo ship heading for Greenland and painted the block in question to the west of Iceland.

Many artists have preceded him in this search for the elemental, the starting point of all creativity. Van Elk was able to make his gesture with such humour and ability to put things into perspective thanks, in part, to the intensely serious searching of artists such as Ad Reinhardt, who in the late 1950s reached the conclusion that art could only still find expression in shades of black, arranged in geometrical surfaces. The museum has also acquired an important work by Ad Reinhardt: his Ultimate Painting # 39, with the support of the Rembrandt Association and its Titus Fund, the Mondriaan Foundation and again the BankGiro Lottery. Both works are on display from 11 September 2010 in a presentation of predominantly black and white works from the museum’s collection, dating from the 1960s and 70s.

During those years there was a strong desire for reflection in art on the basic assumptions of art and the ultimate poles of black and white were explored by a great many artists in a surprising variety of ways. The search for the all-encompassing gesture continues to occupy us today and that which occurred in those magical years remains a source of inspiration. In the museum, we notice from our visitors’ reactions that the radiant white and mysterious black in works of art exerts a powerful force of attraction. The ultimate all-encompassing gesture will probably never be made, just as the colour of a society can never be determined in an objective manner, thankfully so, because the search itself can give life an intense colour and that can be extremely gratifying. 

Evert van Straaten
September 2010