Conversations with the contemporary artist Jan Beekman

by Rickword Lane


     "This contemporary artist explores space as concept, a space as dreamlike as it is real." This was how art historian Martha Keller described Jan Beekman's work in his first U.S. show in Ann Arbor Michigan in 1983. But this no longer seems an appropriate description of the work Beekman has prepared for two upcoming shows, one in Belgium and the other in the U.S.   We see the experience of the intervening six years, which he spent for the most part in the U.S., unmistakably reflected in the significant new directions his work has taken. However, this is not to imply that the work represents a complete departure from previous concerns or ways of presenting those concerns. It is rather a development clearly influenced by his exposure to the different physical dimensions of North America and perhaps a different culture, both contemporary and ancient.

     This development was already apparent in his 1986 show in the U.S., at the Zaks Gallery which consisted entirely of mixed media works on paper. Though the   majority of works used cut and folded paper rather than the flat surface, there was still a very clear relationship between this work and that of the immediately preceding period: a preoccupation with duality, with opposites - light and dark contrasts, cool and warm colors, hard and soft edges, solidity and dissolution - and with the geometric line. In his most recent work some of these preoccupations seem to have been set aside or superseded by the reappearance of the elements of tactility and physicality, but we still see a concern with finding the balance between the perception of reality and the concept of reality. The American landscape, not simply in its visual terms but especially in its physical presence seems to have afforded new scope for the exploration of this concern. Beekman's own view of the developments/changes in his work to some extent support this impression, though he acknowledges that viewers may well perceive elements in his work that he was not aware of.

jan beekman artist chicago

jan beekman chicago


G.R.L. Critics and art historians seem to have difficulty classifying your work, but you do not consider yourself an abstract painter, is that correct?

J.B.      I don't think I have ever really been an abstract painter. If I use a geometric construction in my work it is certainly not in the way that the constructivists used geometry. My painting has always had a strong relationship with my environment; it was never abstract, it was rather a balance between perception and concept. The geometry was basically a structure, like a window, opening on to the space, a space strongly related to the environment of my studio in the far corner of the Westhoek in Flanders.

G.R.L. After seeing your show in Michigan, Martha Keller compared your work with that of Richard Diebenkorn, in your shared preoccupation with space. Is that an appropriate comparison?

J.B. Yes, I think that Martha Keller was right in referring to Richard Diebenkorn in the sense that I had at that moment the same concerns about space but, as she pointed out, my approach to colour/light is totally different. One could say that even though the composition of certain of my paintings is occasionally very minimal and seems constructed, minimalism and constructivism have never been my concern.

G.R.L. The paintings in that first U.S. show were strongly geometric, rather formal and, if I may put it this way, contained. The surface was flat canvas or paper, the paint was applied smoothly, without clearly defined brush movement and the delineation was precise. Your subsequent work has seemed to break progressively further and further out of this containment: you moved into the third dimension when you started the works on folded paper and canvas; the movement of brush or pencil is free and sometimes agressive; in your latest oil paintings and acrylic works you have broken completely from the geometric line; and in the "Impact" series, which will be in your show at the International Art Gallery in Lasne, you have introduced another element of three dimensionality in your treatment of the paper. Are all these changes related to your experience of being in America?

J.B. Certainly. The discovery of new spaces, immense spaces, has been very important for my work; also the discovery of an encroaching and aggressive nature which sometimes overtakes us and which seems to me, as a European, very hard and sometimes inhospitable. In this sense, the serenity of my earlier work has disappeared with the horizontal line and the vertical line has strongly reasserted itself in my work. It seems to me that, in America, everything is vertical; vertical in height, vertical in depth. . . .

G.R.L. And is this the reason why you have moved into the third dimension?

J.B. The use of relief in my work is certainly not new. I sometimes think that I work in cycles. There is the working and manipulation of paper today: there was the accumulation of plaster and paint and the introduction of raw materials such as copper and lead in my shows at the Zodiaque Gallery in 1963 and 1967.   Relief - and the dialogue between the flat surface and relief - have always fascinated me. It was working with relief that brought me into confrontation with the idea of light and shadow two elements which have fascinated me greatly in the past. They fascinate me less today, although the relief of my latest works on paper has still, nevertheless, a tendency o reflect my concern with contrast. It's true too that during my travels in the U.S., I 've been strongly impressed by the dimension of depth; that is to say, the geological element has seemed to me very profound and very apparent, and it certainly can be felt in my recent work, in contrast with my paintings from the period just before I came over to the States.

G.R.L. At the same time that you have moved away from a preoccupation with strong horizontal and diagonal lines you have begun to introduce a new geometric form into your work: the circle.   Is this form a symbol for you?

J.B. The circle is certainly entirely new in my work, not as a symbol in the sense that it represents the sun or the earth, but as human interference - or inhuman, if you like. It's an imprint, in nature, which could be made by an underground explosion, or a cosmic impact, or the remains of a dwelling.

G.R.L.. Some of the titles of works you have done in this country are quite place specific, for example, one is called Mesa Verde.   Should the viewer be looking for some representation of that particular place in your work?

J.B. If there was a balance in my work in Flanders between perception and concept, I may say that in my confrontation with Mesa Verde and the American Indian country, perception became less important than concept. My visit to Mesa Verde deeply impressed me because of the way that minimalism is apparent in the everyday life of the ancient people who lived there in the rocky cliffs of the canyon. It's pre-Western, non-art in the purest sense. There was no separation between art, life and nature in that culture.

G.R.L. You have said that working on commissions for specific places in Illinois has been an interesting experience for you because it is in a certain way a return to a classic idea of art vis à vis its environment. Can you expand on that a little?

J.B. I don't want to go into a debate about public versus private art, because that problem has not yet been resolved, but, yes, I will explain what I meant. Historically speaking, the canvas on its stretcher took the place of the wall, which led us to the equivocal idea of "the picture" as an object that can be moved and taken out of its original environment, unlike, say, the fresco or cave painting. The notion of privately owned art started then, when the object became movable and therefore commercial. By going into a specific place and creating a work for it, I feel that I am exploring the dilemma of public/private art. I don't think we should have too many illusions that public art is the solution to the relationship gap between the artist and the public today, but, who knows, it may lead us closer to that solution.

G.R.L. The emphasis in your show for the Zaks Gallery is on oil painting, while most of your work in the past four years had been in acrylic and mixed media. There must be a special reason why you have returned to oils.

J.B. You mean, why do I suddenly start to use a traditional medium to express myself? Well, conceptual art has rejected every manual tradition, but this tradition, particularly oil painting, has always fascinated me. At the same time I'm concerned with the rejection of tradition and the reason for it, and it's this duality that I am trying to explore. The problem of the writing versus the message is the point of departure for my show at the Zaks Gallery. The message is concerned with our interference with nature, our destruction of our habitat; it's about a broken equilibrium and the overwhelming threat of isolation.

G.R.L. And to go back to what you said before about the geometric aspects of your earlier work creating a window opening on to the space, it seems that in these oils, and in the acrylic on paper "Impact" series, there is no longer a window, but that the viewer is there, in the space. The confrontation is more immediate.

J.B. Yes, the viewer is more involved, and that's what I want.

G.R.L. Your acrylic works are more three dimensional than the recent oil paintings, aren't they?   The canvas is sometimes not stretched at all, and sometimes the work is even free-standing, almost like a sculpture.

J.B. Yes, this goes back to what I was saying before about the history of painting. Acrylic has liberated us from the concept that a picture is first of all a flat surface. The traditional support of the canvas by stretchers has become superfluous with acrylic, which opens up unlimited possibilities. Certain of my acrylic works have a solidly constructed center around which the canvas can extend into infinity. With my free-standing works my preoccupation today is still that of a painter rather than a sculptor, whose work is usually created to be totally independent. My free-standing works are still to be viewed in relation to the wall.

G.R.L. Finally, given that you are preparing for two shows simultaneously in the U.S. and Europe, one must ask what you feel about the different approach to art in these two continents.

J.B. That is too big, too vast a question to be resolved in this interview. I must simplify my reply. Perhaps I can say that there are fundamental differences in the approach to art in America. I believe that European art is more complex, more ambiguous, more ideological and that the complexity and ambiguity are often consciously maintained. American painting seems to me more explicit, more radical in its conception. What you see is what it is                     

Rickword Lane

[Jan Beekman was interviewed in Chicago for the Zaks Gallery by G. Rickword Lane, in connection with his upcoming one man show at the gallery in late November. He will open a one man show at the International Art Gallery in Lasne, Belgium at the beginning of November.]