The exhibition draws its title from a reference Coetzee made about the role of artists in society in an interview in 1979, four years after he famously slashed his canvases the day after an exhibition of his work opened in Cape Town. ‘Being happy being yourself can be an example,’ he said in the interview, ‘in a sense that other people who have been caught in the machine, find it extraordinary that they can’t have that same kind of non-committed security in themselves. And the safest place is really the knife’s edge.’
Curators Wilhelm van Rensburg, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & co and Shonisani Netshia, Lecturer in Visual Arts at the University of Johannesburg, explore in this exhibition Coetzee’s resolve to be true to himself, secure and certain about his identity as an artist.
At least three times Coetzee was on the cutting edge of artistic practice. The first was when he shifted from the conventions of modernism to embrace a new art, un art autré, or ‘art of another kind’. This new kind of art became known as Art Informel, defining European artistic trends in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and adopting an anti-geometric, anti-naturalistic, nonfigurative, formal stance, stressing spontaneity, looseness of form and the irrational.
The second time, in 1975 – and in quite a literal sense – was the spectacular slashing of most of his abstract works the day after an exhibition of his work opened at the South African Association of Visual Arts gallery in Cape Town. This act sent shockwaves through the artworld that reverberate to this day. Coetzee explained the slashing incident as ‘a Gutai act’, similar to some of the performances by a movement of post WWII avant-garde Japanese artists, the Gutai Group with whom he worked in 1959 and 1960. This development resulted in his series of rich conceptual works of the late 1970s.
The third time was when Coetzee proposed a shift in the way his work was to be interpreted, from a formalist, psychological interpretation to a more hermetic process of uncovering meaning. In a later phase in his artistic career, Coetzee deliberately covered up the image on the picture plane, inviting the viewer, in a teasing, playful way, to uncover or unveil the work as it revealed its symbolism.
The exhibition brings together 120 artworks on loan from private collections and collections owned by academic institutions. It represents the topology and the chronological framework, within which Coetzee’s work could be located. This topology, listing seven different styles in chronological order, forms the basis for the division of Coetzee’s work as well as the way the works are displayed in the exhibition. The styles are: Genre Paintings (1947-1952), Abstract Infinity Symbols (1953-1955), Art Autré Assemblages (1956-1961), Neo-Baroque (1962-1974), Tubular Topologies (1968-1974), Protest/Catharsis (1975-1979), and Hermetic Works (1976-2000).
One of the rare artworks included in this exhibition is Butterfly Lighting in a Diamond, a canvas in mixed media painted in Paris in 1960 that was exhibited in 1961 as part of the exhibition The Art of Assemblage in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. With the inclusion of this work Coetzee became the first South African artist to exhibit at MOMA.
The Standard Bank Gallery – located on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick Streets in central Johannesburg – offers free, safe undercover parking on the corner of Harrison and Frederick Streets.
Gallery hours: Mondays to Fridays from 08:00 to 16:20 and Saturdays from 09:00 to 13:00. Entrance to the exhibition is free.