Jan Schoonhoven

Year and place of birth: 1914, Delft, the Netherlands Date of death: 1994 , Delft, the Netherlands

Jan Schoonhoven played a central role in the Dutch Zero movement, alongside Armando, Jan Henderikse, Herman De Vries and Henk Peeters. Founded in 1960, the group was primarily a reaction to Abstract Expressionism and the CoBrA movement of the 1950s. The Zero group stood for an anti-painting aesthetic: monochrome colours applied in rigid, geometric compositions to “achieve the most objective representation of reality possible”. A contemporaneous Zero movement also emerged in Germany (with Otto Piene and Gunther Uecker, among others), while Azimuth rose to prominence in Italy (with Piero Manzoni, among others) and Nouveau Réalisme developed in France (with Yves Klein and Arman, among others).

Schoonhoven studied drawing in The Hague during the early 1930s. He worked at the Dutch State Post Office until his retirement and pursued his creative activities in his spare time. His early work consisted mainly of drawings and watercolours inspired by Paul Klee and tachism, a European variant of American Abstract Expressionism that originated in France in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, Schoonhoven’s works became more elaborate, monochromatic and less organic. Among other things, he began incorporating pieces of string and cardboard into his drawings and paintings, thus giving them greater relief in a very literal way. This evolved into monochrome corrugated cardboard reliefs – mostly white and abstract – that he mounted on plywood.

The reliefs usually comprise geometric grid-like patterns with a rhythmically repeating motif. Objective in character, the works do not comment on any kind of external reality and are worlds unto themselves. Schoonhoven was able to imbue his reliefs with poetic qualities, whereby light and shadows, enhanced by white, play continuously across the grids. His work shares certain similarities with fundamental painting, which emerged in the 1970s and focused on the building blocks of the discipline, such as light, colour, composition and texture. Because of his attention to the lyrical effect of light on his work, Schoonhoven was sometimes described as an adept of the great Dutch painter of light, Johannes Vermeer.

Schoonhoven achieved international recognition after participating in the São Paulo Biennale in 1967. To meet the growing demand for his reliefs, he outsourced their fabrication to assistants. For much of his subsequent career, his team continued to produce this kind of work. Although never referring to any reality other than the one within the work itself, Schoonhoven’s oeuvre nevertheless reflected the increasing economic prosperity, mass production and consumer culture peculiar to the West in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, he picked up drawing again and tended to create works in pen or Chinese ink. He endlessly repeated pictorial elements such as lines and dots, but now with a noticeably looser hand. The basic principles of the Zero movement also re-emerged: serenity, repetition and uniformity.

Works Jan Schoonhoven

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