REVIEW: Manic Modernist: Philippe Vandenberg Wrestled with Aesthetics and Self-Destruction

September 5, 2017

Hauser & Wirth has wisely and inventively brought back to light an eccentric troubled artist who’d fallen under the radar but proves to have been very much of his (and this) time and place. The exhibition, an imaginatively designed installation, emphasized the progressive story-telling nature of the late Belgian artist Philippe Vandenberg by following one curator’s line of reading and interpretation. The installation was laid out on narrow, snaking cleverly designed tables that guided viewers through Vandenberg’s circuitous narrative landscape.

The curator, Anthony Huberman, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, himself took an unexpected turn, falling off his bike and breaking both his shoulders just in time to miss the show’s opening. Yet, somehow the misfortune was in tune with the fractured nature of Vandenberg’s art.

Vandenberg (1952–2009) drew a lot (spontaneously and diaristically), drank a lot, and free-associated compulsively. He also painted, very much in the styles of the moment. He filled a 120-page drawing book with works documenting his many and various states of mind, the politics of the day, and the art that surrounded him—from graffiti to art brut to Surrealism to Disney-derived images and even to high modernism. The works here, from his drawing book, call to mind those of Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois, Ad Reinhardt, and Jean-Michel Folon, among many others. There are minimalist one-line gestures and cartoonish renderings, caricatures, words, and angry Twombly-esque scrawls, and like Reinhardt, another artist of contradictory modes, he created his own reappearing characters.

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