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 Iwill 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 tot he 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 tot 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 un common. But when it did occur, it was often because the artist accommodated his style tot he 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 bet he 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, wit hits 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.
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 tob e cheated while collecting a pretty penny for it, as often as not from out taxes. Is there such a thinh as the style of Pieter Engels? I would answer tha 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.