In physical terms Burn Hole 1961 (Tate T13407; fig.1) is a sheet of white PVC, stretched over a wooden frame around one metre wide and eighty centimetres high, into which has been burned five holes of unequal proportions. The holes are aligned along the central vertical axis with the largest hole in the middle of the sheet. It is different in shape and character to the others, which are cleaner and squarer, indicating the use of different heat sources in the production of the work. The dominance of the central hole, both in scale and prominence compositionally, has possibly motivated the current title of the work, Burn Hole, in the singular. Wisps of smoke have left sooty deposits around all of the holes, linking them in a line and suggesting their connectedness. Areas of soot at the top and bottom are suggestive of holes that might have been made, places where the artist was satisfied enough to merely scorch rather than puncture the surface. While the uppermost hole has a dirty brown aura to it, the work is largely dominated by the contrast between the whiteness of the PVC sheeting and the blackness of the holes, with the soot providing some subtle shades of grey in between.
Burn Hole is one of a series of works that Henk Peeters (1925–2013) began making in 1959 that he called ‘pyrographies’ (‘fire drawings’), which feature holes burned into canvas. The very minimal aspects of Burn Hole’s production and its colourlessness have led to it being seen as a characteristic work of the Nul (Zero) group, of which Peeters was a founder member and key organiser. The central tenets of Nul, which was formed in the year Burn Hole was made and lasted until 1965, were the total rejection of representation and expression in art. For the Nul artists, the artwork was a part of reality itself, rather than a surrogate for other objects or for the artist’s emotional state. Thus, the arbitrary alignment of the holes in a straight, vertical line eliminates the possibility of reading their arrangement as in some way representational or as obviously connected to Peeters’s state of mind at the time of their creation, while the use of a flame or other heat source allowed him to mark the surface without leaving a gestural trace of his hand. The physical qualities of the material are also brought out by the act of burning. It draws attention to the behaviour of the PVC under different conditions, and makes this an artwork that, on the face of it, speaks only of itself; it is part of reality and not a second-order communication of something else.
Burn Hole has a label on its reverse identifying it by an alternative title, 61–01, suggesting that it was the first work Peeters produced in 1961, shortly before the formal appearance of the Nul group, the identity of which was cemented by the publication of the first issue of its eponymous journal that November. The anti-artistic characteristics of Nul were presaged in publicity stunts staged earlier in 1961 by Peeters and his Nul collaborators (Jan Henderikse, Jan Schoonhoven and Herman Dirk van Dodeweerd, known as Armando), who were at that point calling themselves Groep 1 (Group 1). They released two flyers, Manifest tegen Niets (Manifesto against Nothing) and Einde (End), both of which advertised an exhibition titled Niets (Nothing) due to take place in a gallery in Amsterdam.
Although acting as promotional material for the Niets exhibition, each flyer strongly implied that there was little point trying to visit it. The Manifest tegen Niets declared that ‘a painting is just as valuable as no painting’,1 while Einde announced the artists’ decision ‘to suspend the creation of artistic products’ and ‘to promote the liquidation of all institutions that enrich themselves through art’.2 Anyone who did not pick up on these hints, and the not-so-subtle clue that the exhibition was supposed to open on 1 April, found the gallery empty on arrival. From this point on, Peeters would declare on many occasions that his interest was no longer in art but in reality.
It is highly tempting, then, to make a direct association between the anti-art gestures and statements carried out by Peeters and his associates in 1961 and his action of burning holes in a stretched piece of PVC, and thereby to perceive the work as indicative of Peeters’s determination at this point to bring about the destruction of art, in particular by enacting the termination of its long history in the form of easel painting. To regard this link as the sole meaning of the work would be to miss a couple of important points, though. Burn Hole may well have been the first work Peeters made in that pivotal year but it was by no means his first to feature holes created by burning, a practice he had begun earlier, as far back as two years prior to Burn Hole. Secondly, and less straightforwardly, Peeters’s desire to engage with ‘reality’, as expressed by the formation of Nul and the anti-art works produced under that banner, had been matched for a while by his persistent invocation of absences and voids. He tried to convey the experience of reality by what we might otherwise take to be its opposite: emptiness, nothingness.
To elucidate how Peeters came to this paradoxical position, it is important to consider the connections between Burn Hole and the abstract paintings Peeters produced in the years immediately preceding the formation of Nul, which are characterised by the interplay between a brute, material treatment of the paint surface and an obstinate illegibility. As much as Burn Hole appears to stage the end of easel painting, it also can be seen to extend crucial debates about abstract art and its connection to human experience, despite its lack of recognisable visual content. Rather than describing Burn Hole as initiating an entirely new practice on Peeters’s part, one that is seen to end in 1965 with the disbanding of Nul, this project will consider four interconnected themes (reality, materiality, tangibility and authenticity), each of which relates Burn Hole to its wider artistic context. Not only will this allow us to assess Burn Hole as less a break with previous forms of art making than a transitional work in the formation of Nul, it will also help us to understand the legacy of Burn Hole in Peeters’s career after 1965, when he largely abandoned art making. As will become apparent, the emptiness, silence, vapidity and elusiveness of Burn Hole are profoundly linked to types of serious and often highly contentious content that occupied Peeters for his entire career. The project’s final chapter on the work’s physical qualities, written by Carla Flack and Emma Richardson, offers a deeper understanding of what happened to the material when Peeters burned the holes into the work and of the piece’s likely future.