Wout Vercammen was an artist and personality who was very much of the ‘couldn’t-care-less’ school. For years, he was a lively presence in the Antwerp art world, with his action paintings, Belgian pop art and happenings. He was part of the revolutionary times in Belgian art and added his own vision and controversy.
He started his artistic career in 1956. As a young artist, he witnessed the start and evolution of G58. This group of artists felt ignored by the Brussels Expo 58 World Exhibition and they were given space in the Hessenhuis by the city of Antwerp. For lack of a clear structure, the movement soon divided into other collectives. In his own words, Vercammen deemed this pure entertainment, and rather childish. This would be one of the reasons why he wanted to express controversy in his art. Vercammen himself felt more attracted to the monochrome art of the ZERO movement, which began to evolve in the same era. He became the first Belgian monochrome painter, before Jef Verheyen. Guy Dorenkens, his gallerist at the time, brought national and international artists together: Vic Gentils and Lucio Fontana, but also oriental artists such as Kusama and Hsiao Chin, who deeply impressed Vercammen. Vercammen abandoned his monochrome period and started to create paintings with swift brush strokes and calligraphy. This style and technique would remain his trademark until the mid-60s.
Together with artists Panamarenko and Hugo Heyrman, Vercammen organized the first Belgian happenings in the 60s: improvised shows in which the public played an active part. It was unusual for art happenings to be organized by several artists at once, who had vague intentions and even vaguer agreements. These happenings were announced in simple flyers that Vercammen designed. Later, they set up Happening News, a paper that was sold in art cafes. The calligraphy of Happening News was revolutionary and was closely related to the images. The text and contents were like the work of Paul Van Ostaijen, a great source of inspiration for Vercammen. Poets and artists became involved in these happenings, such as Bernd Lohaus, who opened the legendary Wide White Space gallery with his wife Anny De Decker in 1966. The gallery was a good location for the happenings, which could no longer be interrupted by the public or the police.
Calligraphy became typography, both straight and radical. At the beginning of the 70s, Wout Vercammen printed a series of pamphlets reminiscent of the work of Andy Warhol. He developed a durable imagery in which words played the main role: short texts with double entendres, references and slogans. The background of these works was often the national triciolor, which was also the palette for much of the non-verbal work. The theme: Belgium. Vercammen saw his home country as a place where theory and ideology met. These works and his later screen prints would become his most famous oeuvre.
In 2015 the MHKA staged a retrospective in three parts, showing all the different phases in Vercammen’s career. As the title indicates, A well-considered idea of an exhibition in three parts consisted of three parts. Curators Jef Lambrecht, Frank Hendrickx and Ronny Van De Velde each concentrated on a certain period in Vercammen’s work. This triptych was accompanied by a book, published by gallerist and curator Ronny Van De Velde. The book emphasizes the visual element and makes a statement about the fact that this versatile artist was undervalued for many years.
Wout Vercammen past away on 2 January 2018.
Wout Vercammen by Fons Brepoels, 1991
Left: Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1970
Right: from the book Wout Vercammen by Ronny Vandevelde
Left: Firestone green monster, 1965
Right: Untitled, “Wout Vercammen became the first Belgian monochrome painter, before Jef Verheyen.” quote by artist Michel Seuphor
Left: portrait for the exhibition Wout Vercammen in Hasselt 1995
Right: Suicide Landscape
Left: Composition, 1956
Right: The young Wout Vercammen next to Last Key at his atelier Blockhuys in Antwerp
Left : Good Morning, 1970
Right: Woe Wei, 1961
WORDS BY STEPHANIE DE SMET