Painting as a Type of Mountaineering

There’s always a mountain to climb, particularly in painting. Robert van Keppel does so not to reach the highest peak, but to discover the deepest colours in minerals hidden in the mountains. Over the last eight years, he has been creating abstract paintings that have both the atmosphere of the mountain landscape and the character of minerals as their starting points. For a painter who used to produce figurative work, including landscapes and portraits, this is a radical change in his artistic practice. While you could say that he’s still working with paint on canvas, the non-figurative is a very different story from the narrative of realist painting.

When things get too easy, the true artist looks for something beyond what he has already achieved. He tries to stretch himself so as to develop his work and make it more essential. In this, it hardly matters whether he’s an abstract painter turning to figurative work, like the exponent of abstract expressionism Philip Guston, or a figurative painter turning to abstraction, like Robert van Keppel.

Born in Amsterdam, Robert grew up in De Bilt, in a family where the father was a philosopher, the mother a fashion designer. He loved to draw and paint as a child, but it wasn’t a serious occupation yet. At Werkplaats Kindergemeenschap (formerly the Kees Boeke School) in Bilthoven, Robert’s art teacher Maarten Bertheux encouraged him to take things further, which he did eventually, after a good many years. After completing secondary school and a year of military service, Robert went to the University of Amsterdam to study Philosophy for three years. He then switched to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, where he applied himself with great enthusiasm to painting, drawing and graphics from 1989 to 1993. He opted for a traditional, technical approach to his painting in those days, producing realist work with an expressionist twist. An important series in terms of the content of his work at that time consisted of various paintings, etchings and lithos of the death masks of historical figures, inspired by Das Letzte Gesicht (1929) by Egon Friedell. He was only able to complete this series with drawings of his parents on their deathbeds, first his mother, and later his father, two years ago now.

Over the years, Robert has developed a multi-faceted practice, painting as well as teaching art and art history at various educational and cultural institutions. He considers the one as feeding the other, and doesn’t differentiate between the meaning of these different activities for his art.

Around 2010 Robert began to tire of his successful realist and figurative work. A trip to New York heralded a dramatic change. At the Museum of Modern Art, he was bowled over by the work of abstract impressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Of course, he’d seen their work before, but experiencing them so directly, he discovered that he had something other to explore than what he had done until then. He found a connection between visualising colour, light and space in intangible form, and his walks and climbs in the mountains. Robert regularly travels to the German ‘city of minerals’, Idar-Oberstein, surrounded by steep rock formations where minerals are found that have been cut and polished locally since the fourteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the town included more than 150 workshops, working mostly agate and amethyst from Brazil, as Idar-Oberstein’s own minerals became depleted by the end of the eighteenth century.

It is in this environment that Robert finds the essence of his work. The minerals in his own collection are characterised by a depth of colour that’s almost unseen, its intensity only visible when the minerals are held to the light. That is why minerals are the raw material for pure pigments used in painting – alongside synthetic pigments that absorb and reflect light in a similar way, of course. Besides the overwhelming depth of colour of those natural pigments, the atmospheric mountain landscape is itself a source of inspiration: Robert uses his explorations of glaciers to create paintings that visualise the colours of ice and snow.

After his return from New York, Robert began to produce paintings that one could call lyrically abstract, in which colours and brush strokes dominate in an agile style that directly expresses the act of painting. These canvases lack gravity. In them, the painter is surrounded by paint; swimming around in it, as it were, he uses his brushes to keep the paint in check. These rhythmic movements on canvas have resulted in recognisable, fixed patterns in the work. At a later stage, Robert often used these canvases as a layered base for new paintings, sometimes adding sand or ground marble. His more recent paintings, therefore, have a more material character; more direct in nature, they’ve been reduced to what he wants to convey in painting. The immediacy of his movements has been replaced by a well-thought out succession of interventions enforced, as it were, by the canvas itself.

Painting has been a way for Robert to undermine his own analytical way of thinking, and to combine the esoteric, philosophical element in his father’s character with the purposeful, more visual element in his mother’s. As a result, Robert’s work is characterised by both the hidden and the public in equal measure. In terms of the colour scheme, his work is intangible, yet it’s tangible in the way it has been composed and built up, involving the application and removal of paint. In his work, the immanent beauty of the colour and transcendent quality of the light making the colour visible, melt into a single artistic image. Both the structure and texture of Robert’s work show that he needs to work in harmony with his canvases in order to create his paintings. He no longer stands in front of a canvas trying to execute an idea. Instead, he makes paintings that show us the mystery of the creation of the world, which he attempts to find an equivalent for in his paintings. What he sees is what he has created himself. The possible explanation of how these paintings have developed doesn’t detract from the wonder they induce. You can’t just note your amazement, because it’s not about what we know, it’s about what surprises us. If we are capable of making this our own, we have conquered something in ourselves.

Alex de Vries