In the expressive paintings of Dutch born, Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921-2012) the focus is on paint as physical matter and the medium’s material possibilities. Primarily an abstract artist, Bogart explored how the ‘script’ of a painting or the ‘non-repetitive element of rhythmical brush strokes’ could imbue abstraction with meaning. During his long career, Bogart immersed himself in the formal concerns of painting, working through numerous stylistic shifts including an early period of figuration, followed by cubist geometric abstraction, gestural abstraction and finally sensually coloured sculptural paintings with heavy accumulations of paint, for which he became widely acclaimed. Through a process of ‘building’ with paint he fused gesture with matter, to produce powerfully physical paintings with a sculptural, three-dimensional presence.
Born Abraham van den Boogaart in Delft in 1921, Bogart first trained as a house painter, before working as a commercial sign painter for the cinema in Rotterdam. He studied art via a correspondence course and then briefly at the Fine Arts Academy in The Hague, principally as a way to avoid being conscripted into the German army. After the War in 1946 Bogart moved to France, working in Paris and the village of Le Cannet on the Côte d’Azur. Over the next 10 years, his work evolved from figuration – primarily landscapes and still lives – to more rigidly symmetrical depictions of houses and trees, which emphasised the horizontal and vertical axes of the composition. It was in his cellar studio in Le Cannet that Bogart first began to experiment with mixing water-soluble and oil-based paints, achieving an intense colouration and a chalky, matt finish which was inspired, in part, by the facades of the surrounding architecture. By the 1950s, the figurative aspect of his work had become schematic, resolving into abstract symbols placed within defined sections of the composition. Bogart remained in Paris during the 1950s, renting a shared studio space in an old leather works on rue Santeuil, during which time his work became more gestural and expansive. In paintings such as Cristal Baroque (1959), a gestural script is embedded into a thickly painted, coagulated surface − the paint a register of physical activity having been pushed, drawn or pulled across the canvas.
In 1959, Bogart moved to Belgium, at first living in Brussels, with frequent stays in Rome (where he met Willem de Kooning and Lucio Fontana), and then in Ohain and Kortenbos. While in Brussels he started to paint on the floor, increasing the density of his paint to achieve an almost anti-gravitational effect, a quality that would come to define his later production. Treating the canvas as a kind of wall, he focused on ideas of stability and object-hood, limiting the palette to just a few colours and building up images with large slabs or swipes of paint. In his numerous monochrome works such as Linaabelina (1960), the tangible effects of light, shadow, texture and depth are explored through the plastic manipulation of paint. In some, paint is scraped towards the edges or centre line of the canvas, creating a thick impasto border that frames or divides contrastingly smooth, flat areas of colour. Bogart has described these works as a ‘refuge’ since they resonate with a feeling of calm: ‘[...] making a painting in one colour, either white, black or brown evoked a kind of tranquillity in me, when compared to other paintings’, he said.
During the 1970s, at a time when conceptual art dominated, Bogart continued to paint, edging the paint over the sides of the canvas to create a total and uninterrupted pictorial field. Striving for a balance between absence and structure, order and the informe, he employed an ever-greater mass of paint matter. The paintings resulting from this key period, which included works for Bogart’s representation of Belgium at the 1970 Venice Biennale, have such heavy impasto as to be almost organic, obscuring and softening the edges of their rectangular pictorial forms. ‘I was starting to see how important the borders of a painting were’ he has said, ‘[...] extending the material over the borders of the painting [to give] a certain looseness or broad outline.’
In his later works from the 1980s onwards, such as the colourful ‘dab’ series where unconnected strokes or mounds of paint in bright colours are applied with a brush or trowel, immense fields of colour affirm an idea of ‘building’ with paint and a seamless cohesion of colour, gesture and structure.
Bram Bogart was born in Delft, Netherlands in 1921 and died in Kortenbos, Belgium in 2012. Throughout his career he exhibited extensively in Europe, including solo exhibitions at Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen (2012); Kunsthalle, Recklinghausen (2005); PMMK, Museum of Modern Art, Ostend (1995); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (1964); and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1959). In 1970 he represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. Bogart’s work features in many museum and public collections including Tate, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Mudam, Luxembourg; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands; National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; S.M.A.K, Ghent; and Yuan Art Museum, Beijing.