PIETER ENGELS: VARIABLES AND CONSTANTS
Those who have followed Pieter Engels’ activity as an artist fort he past ten or fifteen years will probably remember it as a chain of incidents. His production, including not only objects but also texts and actions, is more diversified than we are used to. The confusing effect this has no doubt brought about was intended. Engels wanted as much as possible to avoid committing himself tot he usual catagories or identifying himself with any particular style or trend. He once put this in words in an interview by saying “…I am very inconsistent. That is actually my greatest strenght.”
But the seemingly unconnected events of a fifteen-year period may show a certain coherence when viewed in retrospect, as can be done at the present exhibition. Although Engels’ publications and actions are less in evidence than his objects, this is an opportunity to examine simultaneously artistic expressions that came upon us consecutively. We can now try to determine whether his work contains constants as well as variables – in other words, whether there is after all any such thing as “Pieter Engels’ style.”
That is the main purpose of this introduction, although to accomplish it I will have to follow sidetracks here and there to observe the role played by the concept of style in the work of other twentieth-century artists.
In the most general dictionary definition, style in art is a set of characteristics that is regarded as typical of work of a single artist, group, school or movement, or of the art of a period. One can speak of “Vermeer’s style,” but also of “the Gothic style.” This in itself is an indication of the flexibility of the concept. What is more, the “set of characteristics “ we mentioned does not have to pertain to the form of a work of art: it can also have to do with content, the artist’s intentions or any other of the manyaspects of artistic production. In a word, the concept of style is subject to many different interpretations. In normal speech, however, it is most usually applied to the formal aspect of art, and that is how we wil use it there.
As we have noticed, Engels’ production is extremely diversified. Judging by the visual appearence of his work alone, it cannot be said that he clings to a style. A painting of 1960 and one of 1974 have nothing more in common than that both are oils on canvas, and even works closer in time may have more differences than similarities. We can single out groups of works made with the same kinds of materials or techniques: from 1963 until about 1970, Engels tended to use “clean” materials like aluminium, stainless-steel, chrome, formica and plastic; in the same period, however, he also produced work of very different formal qualities.
A repaired piece of furniture of 1964 looks nothing like a letter piece of 1965, and very few people would be surprised if one were to tell them that the two works were made by different artists. Other examples of hybrid oeuvres of this kind can be cited in the art of the recent past. Apart from the related phenomenon of an artist practicing an academic, or at least traditionalistic style at one time in his career and a new style at another (Mondriaan is a well-known case, but Willink has done the same thing, if in reverse order), there are enough artists who consciously employed a multitude of styles simultaneously in their mature work. Picasso did it, and so to lesser extent did Theo van Doesburg and Joan Miro; prehaps the best examples from before the war are Francia Picabia and Marchel Duchamp.
In more recent years we encounter artists of this type more frequently: Richard Hamilton and Bruce Nauman come to mind at once. Before the twentieth century, variation in the work of a single artist was not uncommon. But when it did occur, it was often because the artist accommodated his style to the demands of a particular commission of challenge, following the written rules that prevailed in that area: a religious painting for a church was approached in a diffirent way than a portrait. The differences that come about in this way can be termed, in analogy with music, modes. In older art the modes did not have to affect the recognizability of an artist’s style all that much. Today the situation has changed, as we can see in the works of the four artists named above: Picabia, Duchamp, Hamilton and Nauman. They seem to be searching for one new subject and problem after another, and treating them in ways that have no precedent in their own earlier work. Instead, they often prefer to find out whether anyone else has cast the subject of problem in useful form, from which they can borrow. This explains why the work of these artists contains so many quotations or paraphases of existing forms. The latter are by no means always works of “art.” They can also be more “vulgar” sources such as advertisments or illustrations of machine parts, charging them with erotic meaning, while Hamilton quoted from the work of Roy Lichtenstein, but also from automobile ads.
Seen from the point of view of form, Pieter Engels’ work is nearly as erratic as that of the above-mentioned artists, while it also contains references to existing imagery. Some of his objects from the 1960s, characterized by a strict line and the use of immaculate, often shiny materials, seem to be inspired by the market in luxurious conversation pieces and consumers’ goods that are poured out on us. He reinforced this impression by presenting his work as the stock of Engels’ Products Organization (housed for a time in a showroom on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam), selling it with folders filled with the superlatives and promises of publicity prose.
Engels’ work is, as we have said, filled with references to existing art, especially that of the past few decades. His work is connected with such various currents as abstract expressionism, zero and fluxus, nouveau, pop art, process art and conceptual art.
This is most apparent in his drawings. Some have the prosaic, pseudo-documentary character of a work of conceptual art, such as reverse event a/a no 1, monument for a monument of 1969; others are executed in a fluent drawing style like that used by architects and modern interior designers fort heir fantasies, like sky event z/d no 4 of 1966. Still others, like comfortable situation for a lonesome tree of 1970, have the virtuosity of Oldenburg’s drawn designs for a monumental sculpture.
Pieter Engels uses quotations, commentaries and paraphrases as so many weapons. His artistic activity seems to be intented, like that of Duchamp and others, to undermine the concept of style in the sense of a set of outward characteristics. He is aware of the danger inherent if formalism that style can be mistaken for personality and consistency for quality – a danger that is perhaps greater in the twentieth century than ever before because of the pressure on an artist to perpetuate any perfected method that is commercially successful. He escapes this himself by his “ inconsistency “ and the tremendous variation within his work. At the same time his work calls into question the value of style in a strictly formal sense.
The typifying characteristics of an artist, a current or period do not have to be a formal nature to merit the designation style. They can also be the ideas that are expressed in the works of art. with this criterion, Engels’ work suddenly shows a much greater coherence; we discern certain constants throughout the oeuvre which have nothing to do with the date of a work or its medium.
One striking constant is the important role of destruction in the creative process. In itself this is hardly new. In the 1950s in particular art was often discussed in these terms, and much work of that period still bears the scars of aggressive behavior. A prime example is Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning – which is exactly what the title says: the work of Luciano Fontana also comes to mind, with its slashed and pierced canvases. Engels carries this premise to an absurd conclusion, as in his repaired pieces of furniture and bad constructed canvases of the 1960s, and in the wonder events which he offered in brochures of that time: “ engels cuts any valid banknote for ten guilders; engels damages your car for twenty-five guilders; engels damages your car beautifully for one hundred guilders.”
The sublimated agression was sometimes aimed not on the object itself but, through the object, at the public, as in the electric suicide pieces of 1968. He also concieved a no less morta, if figurative attack, on a hall full of philatelists by cutting off the perforations of the most valuable stamp in the world.
the possibility for a front of an endless painting, disappearing into the universe in four directions of 1970
Another constant in Engels’ work is his application of the principle of reversal. The most ordinary situations and objects are turned upside down, or so altered that the familiar framework we constructed in our day to day life is broken. This can already be said of the early repaired pieces of furniture, which Engels removed from the sphere of houshold use by swaing them apart and repairing them completely unfunctionally. Other examples are some of the drawings of reverse events and the prototype of the paramarche shoe, a shoe with a high sole and a low heel, not exactly made for walking. The principle of reversal is applied most concistently of all in the possibility for a front of an endless painting, disappearing into the universe in four directions of 1970, a work that puts the human perception of space severely tot he test. Engels is apparently trying to convince the beholder that the “ normal “ perception of reality is no more normal than any other, and that it is based solely on convention. Engels put his relativistic concept of the world into words, extensibely and imaginatively, in several philosophically tinted tractates of 1963 – 64, a period when he did not have enough money to buy materials for his objects. He has only published fragments of them, under the title futuristic projects, in the catalogues of the 1965 manifestation in Zeist and his 1969 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Some of the ideas in his writings, however, have found form in his works of art. the drawings of sky events, for example, which shows clouds in geometric forms, rely directly on a science-fictionlike tractate on the manipulation of matter.
Hardly less constant than the two aspects of his works just treated is the occurrence of paradoxes in Engels’ work, as in the way he questions, in some of his objects, the value of art. The price of weight of a modern art piece of 1968 is apperently determined by the weight of the piece. An even stranger case is golden fiction of that same year: an inscription gives the price on a certain date, and under it one reads “ thats why it is an art piece . “
Equally paradoxical is the way Engels has been pretending for years now that his work is not made by him personally, but by a firm of which he is director: in 1964 he founded Engels’ Products Organisation, Engels’ Third Institute and most recently by Engels’ Genesis Foundation. By doing so he posits a view of art a industrial production against the dominant view of art as individual expression.
It is not overstating the matter to say that the central motif of Engels’ art is the maening of being an artist. All of the constants we have found in his work have to do with this theme. In his work the various conceptions of the artist are interwoven into a complex whole. On the one hand the artist is nearly elevated to divine omnipotence, as in the last examples named: because the artist proclaims that his product costs a certain amount it is art. on the other hand Engels is not afraid to make use of the most banal notions of the modern artists. His modern art piece ( the clothes of the emperor) of 1967 comes close to endorsing the public’s predjudice that the artists is a charlatan who cheats whoever wants to be cheated while collecting a pretty penny for it, as often as not from out taxes. Is there such a thing as the style of Pieter Engels? I would answer that question, posed at the beginning of this introduction, by saying that Engels’ style is expressed in the manner with which he relativizes the current notions on the meaning of the artist’s activity.
COFFIN WITH 10,2 L.
Lately, a phenomenon that has been constantly latent in the twentieth century has manifested itself very clearly in the visual arts: the tendency toward introspection. For remarkably many contemporary artists, the reason for what they create no longer lies outside, but in the art itself. Instead of relying on their imagination or on their direct perception of reality, they choose as their starting point the form in which imagination and reality have already been represented. Thus, in their work, they subject visual art to an internal investigation; in other words, they make art about art. This has probably not made it any easier for the public to understand and appreciate contemporary art. The inexperienced viewer probably cannot get a grip on such art, and even the viewer who is used to dealing with art, but art with many relations “to the outside,” and who bases his judgment partly on those external relations, will have difficulty finding points of reference in art with a predominantly introspective character.
He does not get far when he uses criteria related, for example, to the degree of recognizability of a representation, or to the closeness of the composition or the richness of color in a painting. Instead, the viewer must judge the significance of an idea and how it is conveyed in the manifestation of a work of art. One of the leading artists in the Netherlands who engages in what I have called introspective art is Pieter Engels. He has been doing this for quite some time: his work from about 1962 / 1963 onwards is an ongoing commentary on the phenomenon of visual art and what is related to it. By work in this case I mean not only Pieter Engels’ visual work, but also what he writes, says and does. In his case, these are inseparable categories; in principle, they are equally important, complementary expressions of his artistry. The means by which Engels has commented on the visual arts over the years may be very different, yet in my view two, related problems are central to his entire work : what is the meaning of artistry and what makes art art. Engels’ question and its answer both contain a good dose of irony. For he does not express himself in terms usually used for visual art but in paradoxes. One such paradox, closely related to the question of the meaning of artistry, lies in the fact that for years Engels has pretended that his work does not come from him personally, but from his factory.
In 1964 he founded the first of a small series of companies under the name Engels Products Organization, EPO for short, which was set up in detail as is customary in business: the EPO had a director and a sales manager. Those who called were told the name of the company, for a time there was a showroom on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam where Engels Products were displayed, and leaflets were issued with the recruiting prose familiar from advertising, full of superlatives and clean promises. The paradox of the situation was that Engels contrasted the prevailing conception of art as individual expression with art as a mass product, contrasting the unique work of art with the branded article manufactured in large quantities, and contrasting the non-monetizable value of the work of art with the hard argument of the price tag.
Yet it is wrong to infer from this that he really believes that art is or should be a mass product, as some other artists believe. In fact, Engels’ relativizing attitude toward the traditional conception of art applies equally to possible alternative conceptions of art. Therefore, to the question formulated above about the meaning of artistry, one might expect Pieter Engels’ answer that that meaning rests on the artist’s ability to put things into perspective, as expressed in his art.
Remains the second question addressed in Engels’ work: What is art or what makes art art? In answering this, he also makes use of paradoxes. An often-quoted example is “Golden Fiction,” a large panel covered with soft mirrored aluminum, with a hatch that folds out at the bottom; a sign states in four currencies what price was to be paid for this work on May 28, 1968, and after mentioning the purchase price, the text concludes with “that’s why it is an art piece,” which is why it is a work of art. Again, Engels has precisely reversed a commonly held view, namely that the price of a work of art depends on its quality. Consistently following this line of conduct, Engels provides with his work, which explicitly includes his writings and his actions, a kind of proof from the absurd for the proposition that art is art because it is made by an artist. One might think that is an absurd answer, but it is no more absurd than the question of what art is. The answer that Engels implicitly gives , at least, is in the tradition of twentieth-century thinking about art. It is in the same vein as Kurt Schwitters’ comment ‘what the artist spits is art,’ or Donald Judd’s observation, ‘it is art if the artist says it is. ‘
Engels’ work produced hereby, “Coffin for 10.2 l. drowned water,” dates from the time when he had founded another firm besides the EPO, the Engels New Internment Organization. I do see some connection between these imaginary enterprises. In both, the focus is on an elusive phenomenon, in one art and in the other death; quite apart from the connection that psychologists have made between the urge to create and the urge to die, it can be said that both art and death have been given such strict meanings over the centuries that behavior toward these phenomena has been codified, and a completely free position has been ruled out in advance. Although Engels ‘ offers in the as always abundant, ironically stated advertising texts with which he presented the ENIO concerned mainly the burial of persons, he has had to limit himself in his work to provisions for dead things for obvious reasons. In doing so, he once again expresses himself in paradoxes. He makes an artwork in the form of a coffin for the ashes of exactly such a coffin, and our “Coffin for 10.2 l. drowned water” is a similar case. The coffin is filled with water and inside is a ‘ drowned ‘ plastic bag of water. In Engels’ view, art is pre-eminently something that cannot be approached rationally; it has nothing to do with logic. The complex whole of his visual work, his texts and action, is the best conceivable demonstration of that view.
Carel Blotkam, Vrij Nederland.