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Karel Appel
Nationality: 
dutch
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1921
Birth Place: 
Amsterdam
Death Date: 
2006
Death Place: 
Zürich
A Dutch painter, printmaker and sculptor whose colorful Expressionist works were often inspired by jazz and rock music, Karel Appel was one of the founders of the postwar group of artists known as CoBrA. Born in Amsterdam in 1921, he received his first art lessons from an uncle. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam from 1942 to1944, where he became friends with his fellow student Guillaume van Beverloo, known as Corneille (1922-2010). Appel’s first solo exhibition was in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1946 and his works were included in the exhibition Young Artists in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Appel then began creating collages and sculptures composed of found objects. In late 1947 or 1948 Appel and Corneille met Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005). The three young artists exhibited together in an Amsterdam gallery in 1948 and later that year formed the “Dutch Experimental Group.” While attending a conference of avant-garde artists in Paris in November, the three Dutch artists, Asger Jorn (1914-1973) of Denmark and the Belgian painters and writers Christian Dotremont (1922-1979) and Joseph Noiret (1927-2012) formed CoBrA, named after their home cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The group published a journal and sponsored exhibitions. Although CoBrA lasted only a few years, the group had a strong influence on the path of postwar art. The pleading faces of hungry children in Appel’s 1949 mural Questioning Children, commissioned for the cafeteria in Amsterdam’s City Hall, was so controversial that city officials covered it with wallpaper for ten years. Appel settled in Paris in 1950, where he met the art critic and collector Michel Tapié (1909-1987) and became part of the group of avant-garde artists promoted by Tapié, which included Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Sam Francis (1923-1994). Embarrassed by the covered City Hall mural, Amsterdam’s city council commissioned Appel to paint a mural in the foyer of the Stedelijk Museum’s auditorium, which became known as the Appel-bar. Appel’s work was featured in a large one-man show in Brussels and appeared in the São Paulo Biennale in 1953. Tapié introduced Appel to the American dealer Martha Jackson (1907-1969), who mounted a one-man exhibition at her New York gallery in 1954, as did Tapié in Paris. Also that year Appel won the UNESCO prize at the XXVII Venice Biennale. Appel’s commissions during the mid-1950s included painting a 100-meter-long wall for an exhibition in Rotterdam, a mural for the Stedelijk Museum’s new restaurant, a mural for the UNESCO building in Paris and stained glass windows for a Dutch church. In New York in 1957, Appel met both Abstract Expressionist painters and jazz musicians; he painted portraits of the musicians Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) and Miles Davis (1923-1991), among others. For many years thereafter Appel spent part of each year in New York. He won first prize at the Guggenheim International Exhibition in New York in 1960 for his painting Woman with Ostrich, which was purchased by the Stedelijk Museum. The Dutch filmmaker Jan Vrijman (1925-1997) made a documentary film on Appel in 1961, with music composed by Dizzy Gillespie and Appel. During the 1960s and 1970s Appel received commissions from architects to decorate some forty projects with murals, tiles and stained glass. A portfolio of his lithographs was published in 1962. His sculptures included painted terra cotta works. Appel bought and renovated the Chateau de Molesmes near Auxerre in Burgundy in 1964, making studios in which he created large polychrome reliefs and freestanding sculptures of wood and polystyrene. In 1964 he contributed five color lithographs to Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) ground-breaking book of illustrated poems 1¢ Life, which combined works by Abstract Expressionists such as Francis, Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) and fellow CoBrA artists. Appel came to San Francisco in 1970, where he recorded an album of his music compositions with the jazz musician Chet Baker (1929-1988) and others. He then began making large sculptures using polychrome aluminum. In 1977 he sold his Chateau and Parisian studio and moved to Monaco and then to Zurich, while continuing to spend the fall and winter months in New York. Appel had designed sets for a play in 1962, and in 1987 the Paris Opera commissioned him to create and design a ballet, entitled Can We Dance a Landscape, with Japanese choreographer, dancer and actor Min Tanaka (b. 1945), which was later performed in New York and Amsterdam. In the late 1980s Appel made huge sculptures using Polaroid photographs, painted wooden panels and rope. Three Dutch museums celebrated his 80th birthday in 2001 with exhibitions. Appel died in 2006 in his home in Zurich. A group of some 400 of his drawings, which had disappeared in 2002 en route to Amsterdam, was found in a British warehouse in 2012. (TNB 2/2014) Selected bibliography: Frankenstein, Alfred. Karel Appel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980. Fuchs, Rudi F, Gerard H. Meulensteen and Florian Steininger. Karel Appel, Retrospective 1945-2005. Exhibition catalog. Bratislava: Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, 2005.