In the Company of Bram van Velde

Kate Brittain

At first glance, Bram van Velde is interesting because of Samuel Beckett.  It was Beckett’s name, at any rate, that prompted me to search out the slim, paperback Evergreen Gallery Book.  The volume, printed by Grove Press in 1960, is the fifth in a series on contemporary artists (De Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Philip Guston, for example) in which, as the back jacket explains, “each work, perceptively presented by an outstanding authority, is richly illustrated.”  This rich illustration, in the case of Bram van Velde, includes nine black and white prints, much as you might expect, with an additional twelve color plates, tipped-in—that is, glued onto the pages along their top edge only.  It’s a process that hardly seems practical, production-wise.  Guide marks on the pages suggest that it might have been a human, and not a machine, who preformed this meticulous pasting.  Nevertheless, I’m glad someone took the trouble, because, as I flip through the book, it appears to me as if these plates have truly been hung on the pages—very much as the paintings they replicate once would have been in, you know, a gallery.

In this gallery, though, the primary attraction is not the art, but the text meant to “perceptively present” it.  The book contains three essays, briefer pieces by Beckett and a French art critic named Georges Duthuit, which were written previously and on separate occasions, and a far lengthier article by Jacques Putman, Parisian friend and mentor of van Velde.

Beckett’s contribution, which turns out to be shorter than this essay I’m now writing, reads like even more of a riddle than his fiction, mentions van Velde only once, half way through the piece, and pointedly neglects to characterize the work he’s ostensibly discussing.  Instead of reaching any conclusions, he writes about being unable to do so.  “What is this coloured plane, that was not here before,” he asks, and answers himself, “I don’t know what it is, having never seen anything like it before.  It seems to have nothing to do with art, in any case, if my memories of art are correct.”

If you’re unfamiliar with van Velde’s work, as I was, this statement might lead you to imagine something far more radical than what’s actually taking place on the canvas.  A few pages on, when Duthuit is, “in the dock,” as Beckett puts it, the art critic has a go at describing this non-art.  “An aborted geometry,” is his first suggestion.  Later he elaborates: “The canvases are breaking down but ordered; they disintegrate, are constructed; are stiff, expansive; somber and aglow.  One and the same surface is both taut and relaxed.”  Since his text is presented alongside the prints, he can perhaps be forgiven for not bothering to explain what they look like, in favor of these musings on their character.

For the sake of clarity, though, I’ll pause a moment to attempt what none of the authors of Bram van Velde ever get around to: a straightforward description of the “art” of Bram van Velde.  The paintings, yes, are abstract, but not so rootless that it becomes impossible to say, for instance, “there’s a face,” or, “there’s a flower.”  He resists pattern and symmetry, but elements such as shape, line and color are not absent.  Looking at one of his “compositions,” as nine of the color plates are titled, the work appears, in fact, composed.  I couldn’t tell you what logic or impulse might have compelled the Dutchman to place this green triangle up here and that white sphere in the corner, but the choices he’s made give my eye places to travel; his palette—sometimes tending toward pastel, at other times more gloomy, nearly always incorporating a network of red or red-brown, snaking lines—certainly creates a mood.  Like all works of art, his paintings are un-paraphrasable, but, like any work of art, they can be productively discussed.

And Beckett is, in his way, responding to the work, even if his response sounds far more like self-reflection.  “My case,” he submits, “is that Bram van Velde is…the first to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.”  If you’ve come for a view of Beckett, it’s a pleasure to read this thesis, which so transparently phrases his own philosophy.

Beckett’s, though, is a small part of this book, and arguably not its best gift.  If he is the curmudgeon in the room, Duthuit is the romantic, regaling us with lines like, “During all our attempt to understand his work this is our only datum: the fact that between this painting and ourselves there was an immediate communication, different from, or rather below the level of, any comprehension.”

Putman, whose essay accounts for the bulk of the text, initially presents himself as our arbiter, tempting us with the possibility of, “an original synthesis,” of the preceding viewpoints.  It quickly becomes clear, though, that, like Beckett, his interest is in refraining from conclusions.  His language is not so dense as Beckett’s, his air more cheerful, but his pattern of evasion is very much in kind.  He follows up the blessedly direct question, “Is his painting representational or not?” with this reply: “I don’t understand the question.”  He further asserts, “There is nothing more impossible than to tell whether or not things mean the same thing.  Except to tell whether they mean anything at all.  It is better to say nothing.”  A sentiment, of course, that we recognize from Beckett.

If I had come to Bram van Velde wishing to learn about Bram van Velde, I’d be left merely vaguely satisfied.  The brief biography that postscripts the essays and a quick perusal of the Internet do a far better job than our three authors at elucidating his life and work (Bram grew up very poor in The Netherlands, eventually moved to Paris, and by 1960 had experienced little commercial success, although that trend later reversed).  What their writings do suggest, though, is a common psychology, an obsession with the Sisyphean nature of life—as these men saw it—which contextualizes Beckett (and van Velde, too, if you like) in a way that makes his lonely toiling toward the minima seem, in fact, less lonely.

In James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, he remarks that, as the writer’s health was failing in 1988, “On one occasion, he watched a program about Bram van Velde, noting with emotion that, as he was being interviewed in a garden, Bram was carrying a copy of Beckett’s book Compagnie.”  In English, of course, that’s Company.  Never mind that the novella leaves us in doubt about the real possibility of companionship; what’s important is that it acknowledges, “the craving for company,” even, “the need for company.”

In the end, it isn’t Beckett or even van Velde that makes this little Gallery Book worthwhile.  It is the book itself, its spirit of inquiry, its esteem of conversation, its willingness to look a long time at something, withholding judgement, and to at last—in a final effort at companionship—bid the reader to take part.  “It’s your turn,” Putman tells us.  I’m going to go ahead and say that, here it is: meaning: in the desire to communicate, in the unfolding of a dialogue.  For what better reason could we strive and could we search, than for company?

Kate Brittain holds an MFA from NYU and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her bicycle, and never enough books.