‘Done! Straight in the shop with it. (…) A hundred and fifty guilders.’ In his yard, at the home he built with his own hands, among his five wives, a man wearing white make-up frantically commits an image of a dancer to paper in about three minutes, as the cameras of a Dutch television sketch show look on. This is how the Dutch remember Anton Heyboer (Sabang, Indonesia, 1924 – Den Ilp, 2005).
What most people do not know is that in the 1960s and 70s Heyboer was a celebrated artist whose work was purchased by the MoMA in New York, shown at Documenta in Kassel and was the subject of major exhibitions at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. In 1975 he was even presented at LACMA in Los Angeles as one of the most important European artists of the time, alongside David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Forty years after his last major museum exhibition the Gemeentemuseum is keen to shine the spotlight on the international quality of Heyboer’s work once more. The exhibition will show how his work developed, focusing on the period 1956-1977, but it will also look at the ‘system’ Heyboer used to make life bearable for himself, revealing how his life and work were inextricably linked.
In 1960, Anton Heyboer made a drawing for his wife Maria. He called it Accounting for My Life, and it was his attempt to make clear to her who he was and how he envisaged their life together, with her as the centre and structure of his life. Together, they left Amsterdam. Heyboer, heavily traumatised by the war, having survived a labour camp in Germany, and with one spell at Santpoort psychiatric hospital already behind him, would otherwise probably have been destroyed by the drink and chaos of his life in the city. His marriage to Maria was his fourth, but she was the first of the five women he would eventually live with in Den Ilp. The drawing will be on display in the first gallery of the exhibition, as a clear example of how Heyboer created a system in his etchings and drawings that allowed him to face his demons. Art saved his life.
Heyboer produced mainly etchings in the 1960s and 70s. In the artistic hierarchy, graphic art is generally regarded as a lower art form. It is used mainly for reproductions and work produced in series. But no two etchings by Heyboer are the same. He used the etching as a visual resource on which would continue working after the printing process. He also used a lot of photographs. There is a clear connection between all his work. Heyboer’s mysterious, mystical and highly personal visual idiom is unique and it puts his work at the other end of the spectrum from the dominant no-nonsense art movements of the time, like Pop Art and Minimal Art. One cannot help but compare him with contemporaries like Joseph Beuys, who also used his own symbolism, again influenced by the horrors of the Second World War.
The power of Heyboer’s work and its unique status in the art world did not go unnoticed. MoMA in New York repeatedly bought work from him from the 1960s onwards. He showed work at several editions of Documenta in Kassel, in 1959, 1964 and 1969. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag also bought pieces from him, starting in the 1960s, and in 1967 Hans Locher, a curator at the time, was instrumental in the organisation of the first major retrospective of Heyboer’s graphic work. Locher was also one of the first art historians to interpret Heyboer’s symbolism, and he developed a close bond with the artist.
In 1975 Anton Heyboer, by then an artist with a very strong international reputation, was offered an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. For the first time, he showed some large paintings. The exhibition can be seen as a high point of his career, but it also marked the end of his steadily growing international reputation. Heyboer was having increasing difficulty coping with his role as a successful artist. After the exhibition almost all the paintings were returned to his yard, where he set about essentially destroying them with red paint. He withdrew from the art world, adopted a roguish attitude and only sold his work from his home in Den Ilp. The art world would never take him seriously again, but he conquered the world of show business and the gossip columns.
A catalogue will be published (in Dutch) to accompany the exhibition, containing essays by Kees Keijer, Doede Hardeman, Hans Locher and others (Hannibal Publishing, €27.50).