Johannes VanDerBeek 

published in the catalogue
Amazement Park: Stan, Sara, and Johannes VanDerBeek  
to accompany the exhibition at the 
Tang Museum 
Saratoga Springs, NY 
June 6, 2009 - April 26, 2010

Johannes VanDerBeek


The television has been turned off. The signal has gone out. And with it much of the assurance that we might have found in collectively recalling its imagery, or gathering before its reflective light, or looking in expectation to its designated place in the living room or den. The domestic message of broadcast television has gone off air. Even its celebrated moments of historical optimism—a moonwalk, a wall come down, a tank turned away—seem far off and increasingly nostalgic, as does the methodic montage of television advertising with its car commercials cleaning products, fast food and beer slogans. Not that the commodity glut has gone away but the wireless age has replaced the “tube” era with multiple screens, multitasking, and a welter of audiovisual stimuli that requires and expects new levels of dispersed attention and immediate responsiveness.

            Johannes VanDerBeek’s the Big Stone Flatscreen with Static (2010) confronts the ubiquity of such screens and how they inherently contribute to our distraction even as it pays homage to the obsolescence of the analog television era. In the artist’s comic yet elegiac vision, the flatscreen becomes a standing stone and cardboard takes on monumental status. Only as we step back from the roughhewen surface and imposing scale of the monolith does the glow of a television set become visible. As the oval outline of a television screen emerges from the intense blue-and-white, perforated pattern at the center of the sculpture’s abstract composition, the viewer can zoom in or out. Coats of CelluClay slathered on VanDerBeeks’s jigsaw-like shapes give the standing wall and archaic patina, while the panel’s back reveals a black-and-white pattern recalling the glitch and jitter of television static. Borrowing from both Op-Art strategies and early Abstract Expressionist mark-making, the wall typifies VanDerBeek’s unpredictable style and freewheeling references.

            Indeed, technological obsolescence and the repurposing of everyday, disposable materials represent bedrock themes within VanDerBeek’s associative, high-energy practice. Documentation of Body/Building (2007), for example, a large-scale collage composed of black and white photographic images culled from vintage magazines, offers another version of the large screen patina or wall panel. Having sanded down the area in between images, but also some of the pictured faces, VanDerBeek underscores certain gestures and architectural details, working the surface into an agitated pitch as images rotate left and right, up and down in a dizzying rotation that recalls the Constructivist photo-collages of Alexander Rodchenko even as it puts things resolutely in motion: a couple dances; a dour man clutches a steering wheel; a boy sprints in the snow; a faceless young woman pauses above a chess games: an old woman peers down from an apartment window; a staircase unfold; a man lies wounded behind barbed wire; a woman appears to flat above a trampoline; telephones ring and get answered, and everywhere hands upon hands grasp, clutch, reach, hold, and choose. Gestural semblance gone haywire as the corporeal collapses into the architectural and vice versa. 

            The playful kinetic style of Documentation of Body/Building inescapably and unapologetically recalls the extensive collage work of the artist’s father, Stan VanDerBeek, in his film animations of the late 1950s and early 60s. Vertiginous om impulse, Johannes’ collage resonates with a particular passage from Stan VanDerBeek’s 1966 essay “Re: Vision,”  a litany of impressions regarding  what an innovative artist of his time should be concerned with: “simultaneous images and compression, abstractions, superimpositions, discontinuous information, social surrealism, episodic structure.” While this partial list offers an acute assessment of the “screen culture” we inhabit today, it also elucidates many of Johannes VanDerBeek’s own compositional tactics. However, just as his father committed his artistic career, in part, to exploring exponential image production and distribution through such strategies as computer generated animation, searchable image databases, multi-channel projections and satellite broadcasts, so Johannes’s early work has taken up precisely what comes after—after television, after the information age, after software, after dispersion, after images. Compressed and put to use as a readymade material, the circulated and recycled image becomes a primary source for associative connections and gestural affinities untethered from context or context—existing outside of illustrative time in VanDerBeek’s anachronistic vision.

Splayed cans--cut open, welded together, and spray painted--are erected into salutary totems. cartoonish figures, and precarious towers in a group of recent VanDerBeek sculptures. They bring to mind David Smith’s Tanktotem series (1953-1960) in their thematic variation upon figurative form, recycled materials, and animistic leanings if not in their modest scale and lack of solemnity. Pared down, lightweight, and funny, the artist manages a mercurial pace in presenting a series of tactile, upright and witty rejoinders to the common view of the empty tin can as noting more than detritus. From the voluptuous evocation of an archaic fertility figurine, Venus, to the Tatlinesque John Beans Rising, or the clustered profile of A Family (all 2010) the everyday can remains coarsely present in all of its performative turns, underscoring the artist’s comfort with makeshift means. As with the earlier Tin Can Jam (2007), a candelabra-like structure that pops the top and pries open the middle of each component part, VanDerBeek pieces together immediately associative figures that seem to greet the viewer with a knowing nod, including the waggish pose of Dog Horse (2010), and the step it up humor of Little Lift (2010). Betraying a whimsical, on-the-move style, these sketch-like compositions revel in spontaneity. Provisional yet self-assured, they recall the notion of a “prior” technology that Claude Levi-Strauss ascribed to the artist-as-bricoleur, one who works with “whatever is at hand” and allows for an approach that always “references some extraneous moment: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct horse to avoid an obstacle.” This willingness to change course lets the bricoleur accept how “it is always earlier ends which are called upon to play the means.” Through VanDerBeek’s unique embrace of “prior technology,” material ends become gestural means in his highly memetic practice.

            Extending his totemic reach, a 2010 series of six kiosk-like sculptures affixes found aluminum display boxes atop black pedestal in a lineup of surreal figures. Painted in intense acrylic tones of purple, yellow, red, orange, and blue, the boxes contain the most unlikely faces as a magazine page hovers within each, torn into the rudimentary outline of a face replete with eyes and mouths. Encircled with what appear to be halos of neon filament that have gone out, the faces give the impression of spirits summoned from an indeterminate past, re-animated specters from a discontinued circulation. Bent aluminum frames each jagged visage, painted in the same electric tone as the background, buzzing with a neon-like coloring that will never light up. Smiling Lightning, for instance, takes a magazine image of a nighttime storm above a observatory and rips and tears out a bemused expression from the landscape, achieving the simplest of masks cut from an image of primeval wonder. Likewise, Burning Face, makes eyes of two archaic looking coins held up before a burning candle, and Smoke Head, pulls a face from a creepy vintage advertisement for paper lanterns depicting civil war heroes. Resulting in a clan of otherworldly masks, the upright effigies peer at the viewer as if from a burned out elsewhere. The light bulb will never be turned back on, and only the replica of its incandescence remains.

            From the incendiary masks of the kiosk series to the standing aluminum mesh figures in the artist’s most recent solo exhibition “Another Time Man,” at Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, VanDerBeek deftly shifts from the totemic toward transparency and iridescent coloring, imbuing each of these mesh characters with the retinal impression of an afterimage. Blatant titles typecast the hollow figures as characters that have been blown in from a televisual realm. The tie-die acrylic coating of Hippe Ghost, with its bracing stance, portrays a Jerry Garcia-like figures in a state of stoned surprise. Put back on its heels, the figure is emptied into an outline form that boats a cliché headband, sunglasses, and a full beard; just exceeding mannequin scale, the counter-culture personage appears to radiate with the dim glow of having left its image status behind for a tenuous three-dimensionality. Similarly, the standing-on-one-leg pose of Indian Ghost transposes an archetypal figure from television and film into a delusory, retreating materiality. Long spear in hand the warrior was propped stoically before the static side of The Big Stone Flatscreen at Feuer Gallery, while in the Tang exhibition it served as a projection surface for a Stan VanDerBeek slide piece. Along with Woman Ghost, a frontier-like figure with a bustle and hat who peers at the viewer from around a corner, VanDerBeek’s mesh apparitions are brought into three-dimensional focus by still another variation upon the screen. Hovering on the wall behind the pioneer figure, for instance, are two abstract acrylic grids of pleated paper towel paintings adhered to masonite panels. Providing a pixel-like backdrop, Towel Tablet 9 and Towel Tablet 10 (2010) reveals a red grid upon stepping away, a doubling that echoes the composite  nature of the serial composition, as referenced by their designation as numbered tablets. Related to the artist’s longstanding use of magazine pages and newspapers, the paper towels are built up into mosaic-like panels that provide tension and counterbalance to VanDerBeek’s totems and specters. Evincing a Richard Tuttle-like gift for ephemeral abstraction, the grads oscillate with an impression of refracted, prismatic light and emergent or faintly recalled geometry.


The treasures of time lie high, in urns, coins, and monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endless rarities, and shows of all vanities.

--Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial

Beirs, sarcophagi monuments, and ruins abound in Johannes VanDerBeek’s ludic vision. Devoid of the melancholy  often associated with entropy and fragmentation, however the burial motifs that recur throughout his practice emerge instead from the unsettled recesses of gesture and mimetic storytelling, electing “shows of all varieties” in his modeling for the discarded, overlooked, and forsworn. The archeological look of Ruins (2007), for instance, constructs an architectural wall fragment reminiscent of ancient Middle Eastern architecture, but made completely out of magazine pages. Glued and compressed to mimic the contour and volume of stone blocks, the roughhewen paper aggregate was cut, gorged, and sanded down to a worn patina flecked with color—effectively erasing the mass-media connotations of the pages; in VanDerBeek’s inversion of collage methods, images become accreted rather than aligned, the effected surface of an indeterminate past. Ruins (Culture Pants) (2007) also from the artist’s second solo exhibition at Zach Feuer Gallery, used the same worked-over surface to build a life-size bier upon which a pulped male figure lay with arms crossed, only his legs revealing collaged strips of imagery from such iconic magazines as Life, Time and National Geographic. Laid out as if for interment or possible immolation, the figure further reveals VanDerBeek’s fascination with burial and haunting while maintaining a sense of humor as evidenced by the title.

            While smaller scale works from the same period, including Untitled (God head) and Untitled (Old Trashman) (both 2007), maintain a more conventional relationship with collage—in both, VanDerBeek creates the contour of a facial profile by sanding down the outlined area of a built-up, layered collage—Ruins and Ruins (Culture Pants) step fully from relief methods into architectural and figurative scale. Departing as well from earlier tabletop works that depicted ruined cities composed of newspaper fragments, the man lying on the medieval-looking bier and the arched wall fragment mark a transition from collage to decisively sculptural concerns.

            A more recent series continues to explore VanDerBeek’s predilection for the funereal while complicating his formal vocabulary. With such highly suggestive titles asA Rusty Square with Farm Markings (2009) and Devil Torso (2010), the bent and crumpled surfaces of this series of sculptural wall hangings recall, in turn, crypt-like fragments, ancient sarcophagi, discarded heraldic shields and abandoned machinery. Completely transformed from their material underpinning as layers of aluminum foil, dark pastel hues of magenta, sienna, and turquoise lend the surface of each piece in their series an aged, earthen patina—resulting in new relics from a bygone era. The two body-like outlines of Former President (2010), for example, clearly resemble sarcophagi, propped against the gallery wall like museum artifacts from ancient burial sites. Abstract scratches done with ballpoint pen adorn the surface of each work in the series, occasionally approaching recognizable forms, only to recede into archaic-looking incisions that defeat deiphering. Similarly archaic and withholding, It (2009), hangs on the wall like a creased remnant from a fantastical industrial past where the imaginings of workers were recorded onto discarded sheets of assembly-line metal, while The King (2009) appears as bent and banged up as a shield used in repeated military campaigns.

            However, the initially heavy appearance of these fragments gives way to an oneiric lightness. As with much of VanDerBeek’s work, an atmosphere of death, aftermath, and visitation prevails, but always countered with outbursts of gestural mark-making and material ingenuity that exude boundless energy. The ballpoint incisions quiver, crisscross, and ultimately cancel any portentous reading, and the patina of burial encourages instead a view of death as everyday and immediate as well as remote and effacing. If, as Walter Benjamin surmises, “Death is the sanction for everything the storyteller can tell,” VanDerBeek’s license is for an episodic style of narrative that proceeds by variation and comic gesture as well as by memorial and commemoration. Death becomes a variety show in his restless hands, finding seemingly inexhaustible forms of invocation.

                                                                 — Fionn Meade 


1.    Stan VanDerBeek, “Re:Vision,” American Scholar 35, no 2. (1966): 338-39.

2.    Claude Levi Strauss, The Savage Mind, 1962, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966): 19.

3.    Ibid., 21.

4.    Sir Thomas Browne, “Hydriotaphia (Um Burial,” 1658, Relgio Medici, Um Burial, Christian Morals and Others Essays (London: Walter Scott, 1866): 119.

5.    Walter Benjmain, “The Storyteller,” Selected Writings, vol 3. 1935-38, ed. Howard Eiland and William Michael Jennings, trns. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006): 150.

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated