File Note 55: René Daniëls - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Silke Otto-Knapp



The Return of the Performance Images References Quotes Biography Credits

The Return of the Performance

One painting by René Daniëls that has always stayed in my mind is called A Fountain in Africa. It shows a vaguely exotic-looking landscape, constructed symmetrically around a central perspective: the sides of the canvas are filled with loosely painted trees and foliage, with palm leaves jutting into the middle on both sides, leaving the central vista open for a clearing. Right in the centre, just below the horizon line, three small figures each raise an arm, pointing upwards to where a single giraffe floats in the sky. In contrast to the loosely painted landscape, the giraffe is depicted as a simple line drawing. It seems to be hovering, occupying its own space, disconnected from the rest of the painting but depending on it at the same time. A Fountain in Africa was first exhibited in New York in 1984 and photographs from the time show René Daniëls adding the giraffe to the painting during the installation of the exhibition in the gallery. I have always wondered if Daniëls had planned to put it there all along, or if he acted spontaneously. His gesture turns the landscape painting into a backdrop, and it becomes the scenery for the giraffe. The symmetrical, almost circular composition adds to this shift – the foliage now reads like side panels of a theatre set with the empty central axis becoming the stage. Daniëls’ ability to add a crucial element at the last moment underlines the temporary quality that a lot of his paintings seem to have: the sense that their current state represents only one possible scenario that could be reconfigured at any moment, like a test arrangement reflecting on its own conditions.

Daniëls finished A Fountain in Africa in the same year (1984) as De Slag om de Twintigste Eeuw [The Battle for the Twentieth Century], a painting with an impressive title, that introduces the motif central to Daniëls’ work during the following years. Again, the background is a seascape, roughly outlined – the waves of the ocean merging into the yellow sky without a clearly defined horizon line. Into this murky sky Daniëls places a shape outlined in black that looks like a perspectival drawing of a room, two side walls, the back wall between them and open at the front. The walls are interrupted by coloured rectangles that could be both pictures and windows, turning the room into a basic representation of an exhibition space. However, the shape and rendering of the room has been simplified in such a way that it could also be read as a bow tie or a butterfly floating in the sky. Like A Fountain in Africa, De Slag om de Twintigste Eeuw [The Battle for the Twentieth Century] seems to suggest a form of rehearsal, depicting a temporary scenario ready for an event to take place. In the years between 1985 and 87 variations on this motif of the exhibition space filled with blank images appears in almost all of Daniëls’ paintings, from a single floating room in the foregroun to many small ones spread out over the entire space of the canvas. Sometimes he introduces other elements like microphone stands (De Terugkeer van de Performance [The Battle for the Twentieth Century], 1987), buildings (Mystic Transportation, 1987), branches (Lentebloesem [Spring Blossom], 1987) but generally the paintings stay with the motif of the room and exist as a series under the overall title Mooie tentoonstellingen [Beautiful Exhibitions]. These floating-room constructions are spaces of potential; they act as abstract compositional devices with specific figurative elements, and reflect both on the process of making a painting and the conditions of the exhibition situation itself.

The exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, Painting on Unknown Languages, refers to two paintings of the same title made in 1985. One shows a large group of mostly white and grey ‘rooms’ emerging from a green background. The background appears filled in but patchy, first with a light green and then gradually over painted with darker shades. Each of the rooms are similar in size, evenly distributed across the surface of the painting, their walls coated in a semi-transparent layer of white paint, rendering the blank rectangles invisible. They appear as individual shapes floating on the green ground, as if waiting to be assigned to one of the empty walls or as if they had just escaped from one. The constellation in the second painting is different. Here the white rectangles are emerging from a dark blue brushed-out background. The walls they usually appear on have been painted over, leaving only a small corner visible through a gap in the blue. Despite their graphic simplicity, it is difficult to describe Daniëls’ paintings. They are concerned with concealing and revealing their principles of organisation; they share formal concerns but find different solutions. The fact that both paintings have the same title (Painting on Unknown Languages) emphasises Daniëls’ desire to depict temporality: like two states or perspectives, each painting is complete in itself whilst anticipating different formal arrangements. The title translates this ambiguous state of expectation into language, adding yet another layer of meaning without offering an explanation.

The music of Punk and post-Punk produced in the 70s and 80s influences Daniëls’ work throughout (he even documented many concerts on film); its immediacy, formal rigor and self-reflexivity is reflected in Daniëls attitude to painting. His ambivalent and matter-of-fact approach doesn’t seem cynical or strategic but invested in the possibilities of the medium. He constructs a conceptual framework and searches within it for intuitive solutions. The programmatic decision for one motif allows him to freely experiment with colour, composition, gesture and material, to approach each painting on its own terms and let the process determine the decision. Working with an absolute economy of means, Daniëls doesn’t seem to be seduced by the materiality itself or the gesture of the painted mark. It is exactly this ambivalence that leads him to the intelligent (and often funny) experiments that make their argument as paintings. Each one is articulated clearly with a distinct style but feels like a proposition up for discussion and not a final statement.


Mathilde Beckmann Mein Leben mit Max Beckmann Piper (1983)

Louis Paul Boon Mieke Maaike’s Obscene Jeugd Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers (1975)

Luis Buñuel Mon Dernier Souper (My Last Breath) [translated by Abigail Israel] London Cape (1984)

Anne Frank Het Achterhuis: The Diary of Anne Frank (June 1942 – August 1944) Unicorn Books (1960)

Heinrich Heine Die Harzreise (The Harz journey and selected prose) [translated and edited with an introduction and notes by Ritchie Robertson] London Penguin (2006)

Patrick Süskind Perfume: The Story of a Murderer London Hamilton (1986)

Laurie Anderson Live at Town Hall:  New York City 19 – 20 September 2001 Elektra Records (2002)

Beck Mutations DGC (1998)

David Byrne Music for the Knee Plays (1985) + Grown Backwards (1994)

Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food Sire (1978)

Philip Glass Songs from Liquid Days CBS Records (1986)

Sinead O’Connor I do not want what I haven’t got Ensign Records (1989)

Lou Reed Transformer RCA Records (1972)

Velvet Underground Peel Slowly and See 5 CD set recorded July 1965  –  August 1970 Polydor (1995)

Tom Waits Bone Machine Island (1992)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Dir.) Querelle (1982)

'René Daniëls is the Don Juan of late Twentieth Century painting. An exceptional charmer on all kinds of levels. Daniëls is not just brilliant with language and images, but also with turning language into images. He is not just special for making forms dis- and re-appear but also for his understanding of painting as a performance of and in space. But because of his lighthearted yet deep seated conceptual magic, his qualities as a colorist have been overlooked. Daniëls can make colours breathe, take a walk on the wild side, smile like Matisse and untie Mondriaan with a bow. He gives you oxygen.' Marlene Dumas, 2010

'René Daniëls’ paintings have this economy (of touch) and deftness (content) that is so rare. Most painters add too much or not enough. His work is spare like the some of the best music (from the 80s). René Daniëls is right there on the edge – his paintings are like some dreams. Visions that float across the back of your eyes. Mystic Transportations by one of the (very) best from the 80s.' Peter Doig, 2010

'René Daniëls is a pictorial player. A mental painter of reduced and archetypal images. The somewhat unfinished look helps these works to continue their journey and communication with the viewer. But what you see is not necessarily what you get.' Michael Raedecker, 2010

'Images recurred: a kind of branching tree that in one case he drew over an architectural plan for an apartment and elsewhere he linked with lists of names and places, making genealogies. He painted swans, landscapes and figures, gaudily, almost haphazardly; mostly, he explored the image of the receding inside of an art gallery, often simplified into a bow tie, the bow tie also painted as if on a scrim in front of the gallery. Layering, seeing through things, was a subject. The art world was another. Ambiguity mattered, as did humour. The work counts now for reasons apart from timeliness: it wrings symbolist poetry from ordinary imagery, effortlessly. There’s something going on in the work; you just never know exactly what. This is good.'

(Full text published in Sputterance, texts on and by René Daniëls (2007) De Pont museum of contemporary art. Original article printed in New York Times, 28 April 2000. Review of his exhibition at Metro Pictures Gallery, NY) Michael Kimmelman, 2000


René Daniëls was born in Eindhoven in 1950 and graduated from The Royal Academy in Den Bosch in 1976. His first exhibition, shared with Hans Biezen, was at Stadt-Sparkasse, Düsseldorf (1977). Following this, Daniëls participated in exhibitions such as; Schilderijen, gouaches en tekeningen, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1978); Zeitgeist, Berlin (1982); Documenta VII, Kassel (1982); Daniëls/Dieleman: Tekeningen, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1983); René Daniëls: Schilderijen en Tekeningen 1976–1986, Stedelijk Van Abbermuseum Eindhoven, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and Kunsthalle Basel (1986); Art from Europe, Tate Gallery, London (1987); Documenta IX, Kassel (1992); De Aankoop I: René Daniëls, Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastrcht (1993). More recently Daniëls’ work has been included in: René Daniëls, Bloomberg Space, London (2002); Archipeinture: Painters build architecture, Camden Arts Centre, London (2006) and Robbrecht and Daem: Pacing Through Architecture, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2010). In December 1987 Daniëls had a stroke from which he has not fully recovered. However he has made work since, some of which was exhibited recently alongside older work in Drawings and Paintings 1977–1987, De Pont Museum, Tilburg (2007).


Silke Otto-Knapp is an artist based in London.

Supported by the Mondriaan Foundation.