03.05.18 – 26.05.18
Charles Gassner’s Marks of Exquisite Mystery
Charles Gassner was a master of the language of lines and the calligraphic clarity of the concentrated. At a time when much art seems conceived for the luxury goods market, he reminds us of the power of that purity.
Carel Antoon Gassner was born in 1915 in Enschede, a small Dutch city on the German border. He studied art at the private Schule Reimann in Berlin from 1936 until 1939, when the Nazis closed the school down. He continued his studies at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in The Hague from 1946-47.
The trauma and restlessness of the war and post-war years – an enduring personality trait – saw him travel to South Africa in 1948 to start an art career as Charles Gassner. After his first exhibition in 1949 at the South African Association of Arts gallery in Cape Town, he left for Australia in 1950, where he exhibited as an active member of the Australian Contemporary Art Society.
In 1953, he returned to South Africa permanently, save for a brief period at the end of the 1950s when he lived and tutored in London at the Camberwell College of Arts. It was a particularly prolific part of his career, a defining time for a most personal style of abstraction.
He stuck up a professional friendship with Joe Wolpe, Cape Town’s dynamic art dealer, with whom he had a solo show in 1965. By this time Gassner was ensconced as “artist’s artist” locally. Other artists acquired his art, and Wolpe would forever be his enthusiastic agent.
In 1975 Gassner, an older participant, was chosen with three other South African artists for the Sao Paulo Biennale. He died two years later, to be celebrated with small memorial exhibitions in 1985 in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. Remarkably, there has never been a retrospective of his work, and his work remains in a small number of public and private collections.
The limit of his reach is an indication of the person that he was and the art that Gassner made. Most are what one could call “chamber pieces”: artworks made for the private spaces, for close-up visual and intellectual pleasure, for meditation and as abstract keys to the imagination – both that of the artist and the viewer.
Because Gassner seldom punted his own art, it remained for fans to discover his magnetism. That, in itself, makes his work – in oil paint, mixed media, pencil, charcoal – so individual and intriguing. Over a relatively short career, his subject matter followed a limited range of still-lives, some portraits, interiors, and, the finest of his work, visual abstractions with no figurative reference; gestural conceptions anchored in emotional reflection and intuitive response. In other words, a language of lines, colour, and markings.
Much of his signature visual simplicity can be relayed to the war years, the dynamics of a post-expressionist abstraction that bloomed in Europe as with the Jeune Peinture Belge group, and the magical markings of a Hans Hartung. The size of his works, the media (primarily simple: paper, pastel, mixed media), and that gorgeously naive but loaded signature, are indicators of a talent concentrated to the purest.
Text by Melvyn Minnaar