Bram Bogart

Bram Bogart in his studio, 1990
Bram Bogart in his studio, 1990

Although I had previously come across, and liked, individual paintings by Bram Bogart, nothing prepared me for seeing his large retrospective at the Musee de Mons, in Belgium, six years ago. What power! What passion! I was bowled over. I owe this revelation to my friend, the philosopher, Marcel Paquet, who had invited me to the opening. I thought that I knew post World War II, European painting, but here, was a truly towering figure, perhaps the greatest of all, and I had no idea of his accomplishments.

It turns out that I was not alone in my ignorance. Bogart, who is now eighty, has had over two hundred one man shows in Europe, but only two in the United States! He has produced extraordinary, distinctive and very consistent body of work for over forty years; the story of painting in the late twentieth century cannot be told without him. Yet he is barely known in this country.

Bogart is of the generation of painters who matured in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, which, in the U.S. saw the advent of Pop Art and Color Field Painting. But Bogart should be seen, first of all, in the context of a distinctly European tendency of that time: pieture matiére, or, as it is called in this country, Matter Painting. This includes Alberto Burri, Nicolas de Staël, Antonio Tapies, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Willi Baumeister and others. All have made relief-like paintings, which feature a viscous materiality, heavy textures, and the brute, physical existence of the work. Their oil paint was often freighted with mortar, cement, sand, modeling paste and other inert, gritty and dense substances. They usually favored neutrals and earth colors, and their pictures were often linked to old walls and topographical maps. In his mature style, Bogart might be said to take Matter Painting to a whole new level.

In 1961, having settled in Brussels, Bogart broke though to his present style. His paintings became larger, simpler and brighter. Working on the floor, he spreads his unique, cement-like, paint substance (color pigments, oil, varnish, water, siccative, lime and powdered chalk) over a surface of jute attached to canvas and wood. For this he employs huge brushes and trowels which can be up to six feet wide. All of this involves enormous physical effort. A giant of a man, Bogart likes the width of his largest paintings to be within his own wingspan. This work can weigh up to 600 pounds. They can be hung on walls but are often exhibited on sturdy, steel easels. Their surfaces are unframed, indeterminate at their edges and as much as eight inches thick. They are unique in the way that their massive bulk and weight create a thunderous, expressive power.

Bogart’s work also can be said to relate to the other main European tendency of the post war years, l’art informel or tachisme. This approach stresses large size, free form, gestural drawing, creating an immediate, kinesthetic appeal to the viewers own body. Bogart’s work of the fifties, before he broke through to his present style, were closest to the German tachiste painter, Emile Schumacher. Bogart regards his personal ecriture, his “hand,” as the most important feature of his art; it gives his work a dynamic energy and sense of titanic struggle.

So too, Bogart’s art relates to American Color Field Painting in its scale and broad areas of clear, declarative hue (occasionally his painting reminds me of Hans Hoffman). Like Yves Klein, Bogart was one of the few Europeans to be enthusiastic about Color Field.

A Dutchman who has made Belgium his home, Bogart, might also be seen as combining the extremes of modern Dutch painting: Van Gogh and Mondrian. Like them he seeks to convey a profound, spiritual message. Van Gogh’s painting too is a vehement, visceral identification with paint, making of it a living substance. And as with Mondrian’s, there is in Bogart’s art a lofty ideality and purity, a love of contrasting primary colors, geometry and dry, matt surfaces.

I hope the above references will help an American audience put Bram Bogart’s art in context. Most important though, is to see what a significant personality he is. His vision is Baroque and Bunyanesque; he monumentalizes lyrical feeling. His is a joyous, extravagant, affirmation of painting and our being in the world.

Bram Bogart
Bram Bogart “Day Break”, 1997, 93″ x 74″