Karel Appel (1921-1996)

Karel Appel and Allen Ginsberg in front of their collaborative announcement of the upcoming Jack Kerouac Conference at Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, taking place later that summer – May 1982 – photo c. the Allen Ginsberg Trust

Six years on since his passing, renowned Dutch painter, Karel Appel (1921-1996) is the feature today on the Allen Ginsberg Project. In his essay-memoir, “Playing with Appel”, Allen remembers their joyful collaboration – “The day before May Day, Naropa arts faculty’s philosophe-historian Jose Arquelles and staff set up a big room of Masonite and art boards and acrylic in the old classroom where I’d taught International Heroic Twentieth Century Poetics the summer before. We’d been preparing a Jack Kerouac Festival, 25th Anniversary of On The Road publication for midsummer and had asked Appel if he would make us a poster image. That became the motif of two paintings. I don’t remember the sequence. Karel started the big one with wild colors, “bold strokes”, FauveCobra intuitions. But he knew what he was doing – after a while the classic image of J.K. appeared rough and ready, gleaming giant, unfinished. Then Karel handed me the brush, to put on words. Now that’s where he opened my mind. I had no idea how to hold the brush, what color, where to lay the words. I could think of a few words but why would he trust me not to make a mess of his enormous colored brush-wet visage? “Well, just go ahead – any color that you think”, he said. “I’m afraid”. “It’s alright, what you make is yours. It’s real paint, even if you make mistakes, it’s okay, we can paint it up funny”. So I laid my arm on, climbed a ladder after dipping the brush he gave me into raw acrylic colors laid out on, was it newspaper for a palette? – “All yr graves are open” – meaning all Kerouac’s buried spontaneities have come back to haunt the world and enlighten it, as in Appel’s fearless gesture that made me free to make genius mistake. Then I remembered the original cross airbrushed off Kerouac’s breast as it appeared in the New York Times and Mademoiselle magazine in the original 1956 picture (it was Gregory Corso’s Italian gift, that moment’s crucifix, I misremembered San Francisco’s Pythagorian aristocrat, Philip Lamantia as the poet who handed Jack the cross). So I asked Karel to paint that in, and labeled it, with a Buddhist AH to cap it off. The giant Kerouac head later occupied center stage during the J.K. festival.”

Allen goes on – “There was still need for a poster image, we thought maybe maybe maybe, so Karel set out again; the smaller collage with Kerouac in plaid-like wool, as I described his shirt – Karel funnily dotted breast and arm to continue the motif out to the wrist holding up a placard or mirror for me to write a poem on, an explanation of Kerouac, Karel asked. So I did that on the spot, twelve long lines in biography of K’s essential spirit-art, life, and death. With each succeeding improvised work, Karel left spaces up for me to make up words and put them in all over, big, right on top of his spaces, other times encourage me to make up my own mind, go ahead. Finally I realized he was actually free of shame and proud to let everything happen, with outside forces marrying and merging into his work, adorned by non-ego, a stranger’s words, mine, attentive, mirroring his image, as best we can , I can, rise to the occasion, lose my own mind, no fear, paint the earliest phrases that came into my mind watching his own images splash their way into visibility and coherence, help them cohere even more with my interpretations – freely taking, freely giving. “First thought, best thought”, as C(hogyam) Trungpa would write and Kerouac had spoken – permission to be myself, because Karel was manifestly himself and right there solid, a good guy, helpful, big daddy openness, in a free space he’d been living in and painting in for decades since I was a kid, always eating vegetables!..”

There is also his important Poetry-Painting series (done some years later in Amsterdam) with Allen.
Here, for example, (from the poem “Hum Bom!”) is 1991’s “Armageddon Does The Job” (“Gog & Magog Gog & Magog/ Armageddon Does The Job”

One comment

  1. Great interesting post! Appel/Ginsberg reminds me of Patchen's paintings. Also, its been a while since I read it but Belgrad's The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America was a really fascinating look at the connections btwn art/music/dance/craft/poetry in relation to spontaneity. Great blog!

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