Organized Anarchy

Karel Appel's Personality I combines African and cartoon elements in primary colors

It's that time again: the doldrums of the South Florida summer art season, when many of the big museum shows have ended or are winding down. This is when the museums typically turn to their permanent collections to help get them through to the fall.

At the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, for instance, the landmark Willem de Kooning show, which has been up since early spring, is about to close, and the museum has turned its main upstairs gallery into a showcase for selections from its vast collection of CoBrA art.

CoBrA was a movement started in 1948 by the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont and a group of Dutch artists, and it derived its quirky moniker from the names of three European cities that were artistic hubs for the movement: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Like so many consciously formed "movements," CoBrA officially lasted only a short time, ending in 1951. Its influence, however, has been extensive, and some of the original artists have carried on CoBrA's style and spirit.

"CoBrA: A Celebration of Anarchy" features nearly a hundred pieces from the Museum of Art's collection of more than 1200 works, the largest such collection outside Europe. One of the museum's smaller upstairs galleries is usually devoted to a smattering of pieces from its CoBrA archives, but this exhibition represents a rare chance to see a larger selection.

In much the same way that Dada was a conscious response to World War I, CoBrA was an organized reaction to World War II. Its eclectic sources included such things as African sculpture, Nordic mythology, folk art, children's drawings, primitive and prehistoric art, and Art Brut (literally "raw art," a term coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to accommodate art by such nonprofessionals as children and the mentally ill). Although the CoBrA artists didn't abandon figurative imagery altogether, they were decidedly anti-intellectual in philosophy and expressionist in technique.

This jumble of influences is readily evident in the works on display in "A Celebration of Anarchy." With their violent brush strokes and thick, impasto pigment, some of these pieces would be right at home in a retrospective of abstract expressionism. Other pieces are of the sort that prompt people to comment, "My six-year-old could have painted that."

The show kicks off with a large serigraph on canvas by Cornelis Corneille called Fairytales (1977), a horizontal rectangle made up of eight panels. It's a near-psychedelic landscape populated by people and animals in the bright colors favored by CoBrA artists, and the distorted imagery suggests cubism run amok.

Early on there's a varied selection of works by Pierre Alechinsky. Four large lithographs from 1980 are grouped together, and the intricate webs of black lines and shapes in these more or less abstract pieces play well off one another. Each is signed in red, and each includes a circle about three to four inches in diameter that's covered with delicate red patterns.

Around the corner are seven large color lithographs by Alechinsky that are similar in style but far less effective. The crispness of the black-and-white imagery gives way to clutter, and the circle accents get lost in the mix. An undated set of a dozen color lithographs, called Crayon Sur Coquille, is likewise of little interest.

The exhibition really kicks into gear when it turns to the work of Karel Appel, one of the original founders of CoBrA who, at age 79, is still working. A dazzling piece called Wafting in the Wind (1975) all but screams out for attention as you approach. It's a medium-size square oil on canvas painted in shiny, saturated primary and secondary colors, and it manages to suggest both a butterfly and a human face. Given the title, the two ill-defined oval shapes that dominate the image are more likely meant to be mismatched butterfly wings, but the shape on the left could also be read as a highly distorted set of facial features.

A few feet away, in Personality I (1968), there's no doubt that Appel is working with the human face. This big portrait, also in vivid primary and secondary colors, has grandly exaggerated features that are simultaneously as frivolous as a cartoon face and as grave as an African mask.

Other Appels, rendered in a variety of media, are scattered throughout the show. There's an untitled gouache on paper from the late '50s, and a colorful silk tapestry from 1970 sprawls across the floor in one gallery. Appel really misses the mark with a chunky bronze sculpture called CoBrA Bird (1950), although he fares much better with the playful Close Together, an undated wood sculpture that consists of layers of brightly painted wooden shapes that look completely different from each side -- in effect, it's two separate sculptures that have been sandwiched together.

To emphasize the affinities of the CoBrA artists, there's a grouping of six pieces -- five color lithographs and one aquatint/etching -- from the mid-'50s through the late '60s. Two are by Alechinsky, two by Asger Jorn (another CoBrA founder), one by Alechinsky and Walasse Ting, and one by Jorn and Ting. The point is made: The CoBrA artists shared sensibilities and collaborated both in spirit and in practice. But the childish sameness of this handful of works cancels them out.

Corneille resurfaces later in the show with Endless Summer (1970), another hallucinogenic oil landscape that includes a woman, a bird, a palm tree, a beach, and a sun that appears to have been melded with a sea turtle. The piece consists of three adjacent panels that have been mounted in a corner so that the work seems to hover in space.

Another strange Corneille oil is more traditionally displayed. It's called L'Oiseau de la Terre (1968), and its subject is a long, thin bird. But like the bizarre sun/sea turtle mutation in the previous painting, this creature, too, seems to have been crossbred, this time with an airplane.

A gallery near the end of the show groups nearly two dozen pieces that share a preoccupation with the female nude. A handful of Corneille color lithographs, for example, are dreamily erotic juxtapositions of nudes with various animals in outdoor settings. And a pair of black-and-white lithographs and a woodcut, all by Corneille, are reminiscent of Picasso's erotic engravings.

CoBrA's darker side is represented by an artist identified only as Lucebert. The oil Des Grensgangers (1988) is a frighteningly intense portrayal of four anguished-looking faces with features so highly distorted that they seem to be melting away.

Then there's the enigmatic Lucebert oil called Ice Man (1980), in which three figures -- again, with highly distorted features -- sit on what appears to be a bench, next to a bare tree painted in a sickly mustardy yellow. The man of the title is wedged, apparently uncomfortably, between two women, with his arms folded tightly in front of him. He and both women bear sharklike grimaces of the sort found in some of de Kooning's famous "Women" series, and the whole image is fraught with a jarring angst.

The work of another dozen or so CoBrA artists is included here, but a lot of it feels like filler. Unfortunately that's often the case with museum shows drawn from permanent collections. It doesn't help that the Museum of Art hasn't bothered to put together even the most perfunctory brochure to accompany the show. And while there's an introduction to CoBrA posted at the beginning of the exhibition, there's no follow-through in the individual galleries to tie everything together.

Despite these shortcomings, "A Celebration of Anarchy" is an agreeable-enough show -- one that provides an adequate overview of an important movement in 20th-century art, as well as a reminder that our own Museum of Art is one of the foremost custodians of that movement's legacy.

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