Peeters equated the action of burning holes to that of writing, something referenced in the very term he used to describe it: pyrography. Furthermore, he saw it as producing something closer to his own handwriting than his previous painterly practice. However, there is no place for a signature on Burn Hole 1961 (Tate T13407). Not only would an inscription on the front of the work look out of place, the question of what medium could be used to mark the surface of the PVC is not a completely idle one. Having chosen to work with a material known for its smooth and water-resistant qualities, the use of a pen, pencil or even a brush on the front or the reverse could have had disastrous effects of running or smudging, as well as serious risk of indenting the material. Rather than by inscription, details of the work’s maker, its title (incorporating the date) and materials are provided by a typed adhesive label on the reverse, applied to the top left hand side of the stretcher, which seems to follow Peeters’s studio practice from the Nul moment on. Intriguingly, Peeters also had a number of stamps made for use in his correspondence. These included not only a letterhead and a large ‘0’ but even a stamp for his signature, as if it was somehow too much effort to write it.1
Peeters’s decision to abandon inscription and the use of a signature is part and parcel of the ‘letting go’ of the work discussed in another section of this In Focus.2 It was also, no doubt, inspired by the contemporary critique of the commodification of the artist’s signature. In 1961 Peeters participated in two works where signatures played an ironic role. He made a ‘do-it-yourself’ sculpture after a drawing by Jean Tinguely, which came with the statement that ‘Following this plan, I ask you to construct this “do-it-yourself” sculpture; and I regard the precisely executed result as an original work of mine.’3 Both Tinguely and Peeters signed the statement. Around the same time, Piero Manzoni visited Peeters in Arnhem and signed his forearm, transforming him into a ‘living sculpture’. Peeters commented on this incident in the speech he gave at the opening of a Manzoni retrospective at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 1969:
I stand here not really as introducer of the exhibition but as a component of it. Here, on my arm, washed away by regular bathing, was once the signature of Piero Manzoni. You can see the certificate of authenticity in the exhibition, stating that I have been declared a work of art by Manzoni.4
In the first example, while both Tinguely’s and Peeters’s signatures are of equal size and character, the manner in which they follow the statement describing the nature of the work implies that they say something different about who is the ‘real’ author of it. Peeters signs to acknowledge Tinguely’s claim to origination. Tinguely signs to establish his identity as author but also to acknowledge not having made the work. In the second example, while Manzoni certainly did not make him and did not even mark him indelibly, Peeters considered himself to be evermore a work by the artist. Each case pushes towards the conception of the work of art having priority over its production.
In the case of Burn Hole, we do not have anything directly equivalent to the proto-conceptual stunts of Tinguely and Manzoni. Furthermore, the absence of a signature would initially seem to be unrelated to each of their interrogations of the meanings of the inscription of their names. However, the comparison can help us think about what Peeters has done and how that is registered. What did he actually ‘make’? Rather than adding something to the world, the part of Burn Hole that is produced by his activity is an absence (or series of absences). In order to bring something into being, Peeters took something away. And this was achieved, in all probability, without touching the work itself (after the PVC was stretched). What is there, indeed, to sign? Can one sign a void?
Once again we can perceive the transitional role of a work such as Burn Hole in the move from informel to Nul. Peeters’s previous practice reduced the iconic features of his paintings (those related to resemblance) to virtually nil and also limited their symbolic associations dramatically as well (by eradicating associative titles, among other things). What remained were their indexical qualities (according to the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s classic triad of vehicles of signification: icon, symbol and index).5 The strokes, splatters, pours and drips all recorded the artist’s gestures and activities, with the paint still functioning as a medium, that is to say, an intervening substance through which something is being communicated. Peeters’s move from painting to burning the support left smoke marks and holes that were the direct result of the action, but they did not require mediation. They indexed the fire that gave rise to them without recourse to further means of signification (the marks and holes do not resemble fire, nor do they symbolise it). We cannot, therefore, conceive of fire in the conventional sense of a medium; it is no longer visible to us, despite the straightforwardness with which the holes and smoke invoke it.
The directness of the connection between burning and its result makes it the ultimate trace of the artist’s action, despite the absence of his touch, and, conceptually at least, eliminates the need for any further stage of mediation, such as would be performed by a signature. This is another way to understand Peeters’s rather cryptic statement that the fire ‘writes my handwriting’ referred to in the previous section. Perversely, this can be compared to the signed and dated work 12 vingerafdrukken (12 Fingerprints; fig.1) Peeters made a year or so later, made up of two vertical columns of six evenly spaced and evenly sized fingerprints, the compositional arrangement of which readily parallels many of the works we have already considered, including Burn Hole itself.
As is the case with both Peeters’s abstract and Nul works, the choice of twelve, rather than ten, fingerprints immediately disrupts obvious figurative reference; the equal size of each print suggests that they might all be from the same finger rather than a whole hand. Peeters signed his name at the bottom of the sheet in the very centre, so as not to disturb the symmetry of the composition. The effect is, however, to make the signature more visually integral to the work than would be the case if it was either to the left or the right. The presence of Peeters’s signature implies that these are the fingerprints of the artist himself, while the inclusion of the day and month the work was made, as well as the year, enhances their status as evidence.
The association between the fingerprint and the hole, which Peeters must have been aware of when making this work, plays a double role. It marks the distinctive visual characteristics of a work by Henk Peeters, while at the same time it denies value in the uniqueness of the artistic gesture.6 The fingerprint is the ultimate guarantor of authenticity – it proves that this is a work by Peeters – even though the ever-repeatable mark produced by the inexhaustible printing plate that is the skin on the artist’s finger, devalues the work through its potential for repetition.
The burn holes of the pyrographies share in the condition of effortless repeatability, despite the uniqueness of every scorch, sear or smoky deposit if examined closely. The question remains for the viewer though. Do the works warrant that kind of scrutiny? Burn Hole has detained our attention for some time now but how long can we really sustain interest in the difference in shape between the central hole, with its rounded, ovular form, and the squarer holes above and below it? Or decisions such as the artist made to burn two holes close together at the top to mitigate the drag on the eye down towards the first hole below the central one? Peeters’s desire to promote ‘reality’ rather than ‘art’ led inevitably to a decline in the investment of value in the art object itself. Burning remains a serious and threatening act, though, and, if this is the ‘handwriting’ of the artist, to what extent is he responsible for his actions?
Nul was launched off the back of publicity stunts, such as the non-existent exhibition in Amsterdam in the spring of 1961, and furthered by ‘demonstrations’ such as the one held at the opening of Peeters’s Galerie A in Arnhem in December that year, where a giant, transparent plastic balloon was launched using hot air produced by a petrol burner. The risk of serious damage and injury to those gathered closely around it goes without saying. But Peeters had played with metaphorical fire before then and no more so than in the flyer the Nederlandse Informele Groep released in 1960. This took the form of a Bekendmaking (Official Declaration) that uses semi-official language to promote abstract art, while at the same time ridiculing fellow contemporary artists and proclaiming ‘permanent revolution’ (fig.2). The most upsetting aspect of the flyer to those who saw it, though, was that in form, typography and colour, it had a very close resemblance to the public notices posted in Dutch cities by the Nazis during the years of occupation. Indeed, the very name of the group appeared at the top of the flyer not only written in German (Die Holländische Informelle Gruppe) but set in traditional German Blackletter typography to boot. A storm of protest was unleashed that came close to costing Peeters his job at the Academy in Arnhem. It was only support from the likes of Willem Sandberg, the director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, who had been a prominent member of the Dutch Resistance, that prevented his sacking.7
Could an artist who had been involved in the production of the banned newspaper De Waarheid during the war, whose father had been imprisoned by the Nazis for his political views and whose his uncle was murdered in Dachau concentration camp, be toying with such potent associations? Peeters had lived through and experienced a period when a violent occupying force had not only banned but frequently burned ‘modern’ art and literature and now he was using similarly destructive means to creative ends. Some were able to see the irony in the pamphlet, which, to give it a bit more context, was a riposte to critical comments that had been made concerning the success the informel artists had achieved in Germany rather than their home country. The director of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, for example, wrote to Peeters thanking him for sending the pamphlet, ‘which really amused me’.8
Pyrography, then, encapsulates the general difficulty of judging the seriousness of Nul and of Peeters’s participation in it. On the one hand, there was great earnestness and rigour in the production of Peeters’s non-artworks, to be found in the strictness of the monochrome and the consistent withholding of expression, on the other, there was a lot of light-heartedness, irony and jokes at the expense of the audience. The composition of Burn Hole speaks both of control and organisation by keeping the holes in a strict line at the centre, as well as accident (the precise dimensions and shape of the holes would be impossible to predict exactly) and arbitrariness (the composition is not really a composition at all in an aesthetic sense). There is also the potential, as has happened with other pyrographies, for Burn Hole to be affected by future change and degradation. The static, silent quality of Peeters’s Nul works is interplayed with their potential transience and ephemerality.
An often-told anecdote about Peeters is that his disappointment at the response to the second Nul exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1965 led him to discard all the work he had in the studio. If that was entirely true, then Tate would not have been able to acquire Burn Hole. However, from that point in his career, Peeters made little new work and frequently remade old works, including pyrographies. As conservator Lydia Beerkens has explained, one aspect of pyrography was that it allowed others to make their own ‘Henk Peeters’ by following his example.9 The result does not require the presence of the artist’s hand, and so, like the Tinguely ‘do-it-yourself’ sculpture, is open for others to replicate. One problem, though, lies in the availability of materials. In 1996 Peeters attempted a remake of 59–18, the pyrography illustrated in de nieuwe stijl in 1965, but discovered that more recent plastics have fire retardants that make them much more resistant to burning. Despite the apparent ease of production, it is now far more difficult to achieve equivalent results to Burn Hole. There may well be some value in the ‘original’, after all.
After spending more than a decade in Peeters’s studio, Burn Hole was shown in 1974 at a commercial gallery in Amsterdam as part of solo exhibition. Among what was largely a group of freshly made Nul works, Burn Hole was included in a small, historical display within the exhibition Henk Peeters Uniques 1960–64.10 As museum visitors can experience for themselves today, many of Peeters’s early 1960s works made from such materials as cotton wool and feathers have discoloured, shrivelled, compacted, accumulated dust and generally lost much of their light, springy, nothing-like qualities. The question posed by the artist in 1974 was, could a remake actually be more original than an original, truer to the spirit of Nul, despite its production after the fact? Having made the conception rather than the execution of the work paramount, Peeters was extremely positive about the possibilities of remaking works, and making editions where an original would not necessarily exist.
Towards the end of his life Peeters adopted a new mark of self-identification to reflect his move to replication. It can be seen on a multiple produced at the time of his final exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in 2011. In the spirit of remaking, the exhibition catalogue itself took the form of a reprint, a slightly adapted version of the publication accompanying the 1964 Zero – 0 – Nul exhibition, the cover of which featured a large zero folded across the spine (fig.3). To create his multiple Peeters had the line of the zero machine-stitched, which has the effect of emphasising the symmetry between front and back but makes the catalogue effectively unreadable. Like Burn Hole, a destructive act has been used here to create a new work. The catalogue is destroyed but also perversely preserved as its pages are now protected from the damage caused by thumbing through them and dirtying them. Peeters then added to his printed name on the cover the word ‘Echt’ (Real) and his signature, to read ‘Echt = Henk Peeters’. The potential meanings that the Dutch word provokes are similar to English and, like the work itself, multiple: this work by Henk Peeters is real; this is genuinely a work by Peeters; this is a typical Henk Peeters.
The final one of these meanings approaches the more idiomatic sense of ‘Echt’, which is frequently used in a declamatory way (‘Henk Peeters, honestly!’). While Peeters may now be remembered almost exclusively for the Nul episode of his career, which has now secured a significant place in the history of avant-garde art, the questions raised by his practice, as this analysis of Burn Hole has established, extend far beyond it and invite us to think hard about the intentions we intuit in artworks, the values we give them and the meanings that can be generated out of the most incidental marks on a surface.