Jan Schoonhoven’s drawing exhibition at Peter Freeman was the artist’s first solo show in the United States since 1999. A cofounder in 1960 of Nul—the Dutch complement to the German Zero Group—Schoonhoven (1914-1994) played an important role in the reductionist, materially conscious, and conceptually motivated European art scene of the ’60s and ’70s. He participated in many of the Zero Group’s exhibitions, along with Otto Piene, GuÌ?nther Uecker, Heinz Mack, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana, among others.
The goal of these artists was to reimagine art, to start back at zero. European radicality was framed by a pervasive modernist tradition that provided a road map of articulated avant-garde opposition, and seemed, more often than not, to have engendered a low-key formal elegance in their productions, along with a certain sense of propriety in their provocations.
In some ways, Schoonhoven’s life says it all. A quiet, conscientious 30-year clerical employee of the Dutch Postal Service (whose career advancement there was thwarted by the publicity he received for having his nude body painted in polka dots by Yayoi Kusama in a 1967 performance at the Stedelijk Museum), he was also considered by many to be the most advanced and uncompromising artist in the Netherlands.
Schoonhoven’s work from the ’60s onward consists of two parallel projects—gridded, white cardboard reliefs and black ink drawings. The drawings were, with few exceptions, small and vertically oriented. The show offered a selection of the more tightly executed grid-based work of the ’70s along with a number of gestural and architecturally evocative drawings from the ’80s through 1991. While the later pieces display a lexicon of spirited mark-making and are spatially sophisticated, I find the deceptively simple grids to be especially compelling.
T 76-20 (1976), for example, gives us a tall horizontal stack, approximately 15 by 9 inches, made up of many moderately thick, neat, hand-drawn ink lines arrayed rather like a venetian blind. The stack is divided into thirds by two slightly wavering white vertical lines, with each of the three divisions bisected by a sharply ruled black line. Upon examination, however, the white line is formed by a break in the black and is not a drawn line in itself: each of the more than 100 horizontal lines is, in fact, composed of three equal sections. Adding to the drawing’s perceptual complexity is the shifting play of dark and light generated by the subtle irregularity of the black lines.
T 78-44 (1978) is structured in a similar way. Here the horizontal lines are more widely spaced and display greater variety in their brushing, and they are broken five times, creating a denser set of white verticals. In addition, Schoonhoven cut every line with 12 evenly placed vertical flicks of black, creating the perception of a series of tall, stuttering columns.
In Schoonhoven’s drawings, the straight and narrow coexists peacefully with the offhand and approximate. They are simultaneously straightforward and elusive, meditative and matter-of-fact. His work deserves to be better known in the U.S.
Photos: Jan Schoonhoven: T 78-44, 1978, tusche on paper, 195⁄8 by 123⁄4 inches; at Peter Freeman.