Art Market

Painters Love Raoul De Keyser—Now the Market Is Catching Up

Scott Indrisek
Nov 27, 2019 4:53PM

Raoul De Keyser, Come on, play it again nr. 2, 2001. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

“If you talk to 10 painters, probably 7 of those painters will start talking about Raoul De Keyser,” said Hanna Schouwink, senior partner at David Zwirner Gallery, which represents the late Belgian artist in New York. De Keyser, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, left behind a body of work that is deceptively radical and exciting in ways that are difficult to elucidate. As Schouwink alluded to, he cast a long shadow in terms of how he influenced later generations of painters⁠—including Luc Tuymans, who has long been a vocal advocate of De Keyser’s importance. “[De Keyser] is a painter’s painter,” Schouwink added. “That’s become a bit of a cliché, but I do think it really applies to him.”

Artists adore the Belgian’s energetic, enigmatic abstractions, and collectors around the world have followed suit. In tandem with Frieze London, Zwirner dedicated its buzzy online viewing room to De Keyser, subtitling the virtual exhibition “Modern Master.” Trio in Red, a 2006 painting of three uneven shapes floating against a pale ground, had an asking price of $300,000, well ahead of De Keyser’s current auction record. An untitled watercolor on paper from 1999, measuring a mere 9 by 12.25 inches, was on offer for $45,000. The painting Across 2 (Avond) (2000–01) bore an asking price of $280,000. According to the gallery, six of the eight available works have sold.

Raoul De Keyser, Kalklijin (Chalk Line), 1970. Courtesy of Christie's.


The popular image of De Keyser is of a man removed from the hustle and bustle of the art world, happily toiling away for decades in his home studio in Deinze, Belgium (a town with a population of around 30,000). His early paintings were brushy, figurative depictions of ordinary things, all close to hand: the corner where the wall meets the floor; a simple doorway or door handle. A representative canvas of this type—a depiction of a hose with sprinkler attachment, completed in 1968—sold for €31,500 ($39,800) in a 2014 sale at Belgian auction house De Vuyst.

Over time, recognizable elements got scrubbed away from De Keyser’s paintings, though they never completely disappeared. Oever (Shore) (1969) looks like a stack of abstract forms, with only its title hinting at the fact that we might be looking at a pared-down depiction of sea, sky, and land. Kalklijn (Chalk Line) (1970) is an austere rendering of a soccer field: flat green turf interrupted by the bright white boundary line, with a shimmer of teal hugging the horizon. That painting set a new auction record for a work by De Keyser when it sold at Christie’s in Amsterdam on Monday, more than tripling its high estimate of €70,000 ($77,000) to sell for €237,500 ($261,000). The result eclipsed De Keyser’s previous auction record of £130,000 ($159,000), set just last month at a Phillips sale in London.

Through the 1970s, De Keyser’s language grew simpler, and stranger: a fairly muted palette, with an emphasis on quiet marks and gestures. Consider Tegendraads (Against the Grain) (1978), a four-part polyptych of gray monochrome panels with almost accidental-looking slashes of colorful pigment running along their edges. Through the 1980s, color begins to play a stronger role in the work, though a sense of casual play and effortlessness is still at the forefront. In a series from the mid-’80s, De Keyser appears to have taken moody, ultra-minimalist abstract works and streaked their surfaces with uneven lines of white paint.

Written descriptions of these paintings can make them seem half-formed, if not lazy⁠—a precursor to the wave of work that would cause a brief art-market swell decades later (before being scornfully dubbed “crapstraction,” among other pejoratives). But if De Keyser is indeed a “painter’s painter,” he’s also someone whose canvases possess a remarkable energy that belies how simple they appear⁠—and how simple it might seem to mimic their style.

Raoul De Keyser, Front, 1992. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

That energy comes into sharp focus in the 1990s, which also aligns with a key moment in De Keyser’s rise to prominence: inclusion in 1992’s Documenta 9, overseen in that iteration by a Belgian artistic director, Jan Hoet. Before then, De Keyser had primarily been exhibiting within his native Belgium, as Daniel Herleth, co-director of Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin, noted.

“The work from the early ’90s through the mid-2000s, that’s really his heyday,” said Schouwink, an observation echoed by other dealers. The paintings that hung in Documenta⁠—works like Front (Front) and Flank (Face), both from 1992—are brutally spare; the former painting features a wash of faded red, vaguely resembling dried blood, and marred by little erratic splatters of darker pigment.

“The work is very sensual, and it’s very much about the gesture on the surface,” Schouwink said of De Keyser’s work. “He really makes you scrutinize and question what a painting is…sometimes the gestures are very crude, but there’s always a lot of life in them.”

Other milestones followed from Documenta. Frank Demaegd, co-founder of Zeno X in Antwerp, noted a few, including De Keyser’s participation in 1993’s “The Broken Mirror” in Vienna (co-curated by Kasper König and Hans Ulrich Obrist); a 2001 solo survey at the Renaissance Society in Chicago; and inclusion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, curated by Robert Storr.

This steady curatorial support has been matched by rising prices, with many De Keyser works far surpassing their estimates at auction in the lead-up to the recent record-breaking results. In a 2018 De Vuyst sale, Cordon (1999–2000)—a floating array of green and brown ovoid shapes—achieved €60,480 ($69,400) on an estimate of €40,000–€50,000 ($46,000–$57,000). A hazy 1991 watercolor on paper, offered in an online Christie’s auction that same year, walloped its $3,000–$5,000 estimate to reach $13,750. A modest 17.5-by-11.2-inch abstraction on cardboard, painted in 1996, blew past its €4,000–€4,800 ($4,700–5,600) estimate to hit €17,500 ($20,500) at a 2018 auction hosted by Karl & Faber.

Raoul De Keyser Hayward 3 , 1993. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

De Keyser still inarguably has a broader base of support in Europe than he does in the United States, but that balance might be shifting. Schouwink nodded to “Drift,” an exhibition that Zwirner staged in New York in 2016. While she thinks that “it’s only a matter of time” before American institutions catch up with those across the pond, the gallery wanted to make its own statement. There has yet to be a De Keyser show in the U.S. as prominent as the survey that opened at S.M.A.K. in Ghent in 2018, later traveling to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.

“One of the reasons we organized ‘Drift’ [is that] we thought: If museums [in the States] aren’t doing it, we’ll try to do a modest survey ourselves,” Schouwink said. During the run of that show, she was struck by her own informal observations of who was streaming into the gallery to see the work. “I noticed a lot of young people,” she said, “and a lot of Asian people. De Keyser has traction in Asia⁠—a following among young collectors there.” Beijing’s M WOODS, the museum founded by collectors Lin Han and Wanwan Lei, is planning a major De Keyser show, slated to open in March 2020.

Raoul De Keyser, Come on, play it again nr. 4, 2001. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

Surely, De Keyser is not for everyone⁠—and that is part of the appeal. Collectors must possess a certain “sensitivity,” said Demaegd. “The collectors of Raoul’s work have, in our experience, a mutual understanding of the sensibility and the subtleties of his work, and also look for this in other artists they collect,” added Herleth.

“Our goal is to get De Keyser the recognition that we think he deserves,” Schouwink said. “In our estimation, he’s one of the greatest post-war artists.” Far from being sales bluster, that’s an observation that appears to be shared by many at David Zwirner⁠—from the gallery’s art handlers to prominent artists on its roster, like Chris Ofili, Harold Ancart, Marlene Dumas, and Tomma Abts.

“De Keyser’s work seems simple and direct,” Abts observed in the catalogue for De Keyser’s survey at S.M.A.K. “But it doesn’t confront you, as it is quite a gentle proposal.…You recognize something, and what you recognize is in this moment true.”

Scott Indrisek