Rediscovering the cutting edge: A retrospective of Christo Coetzee at Standard Bank Gallery

Words: Dave Mann

Despite Christo Coetzee’s vibrant and multi-faceted career as an artist, his work has all but disappeared from a generation’s public imagination. A new retrospective exhibition at Standard Bank Gallery is hoping to change that.

Christo Coetzee Standard Bank Gallery
Christo Coetzee, Waterspout, Mixed media, 195 x 129 cm

Titled The Safest Place is the Knife’s Edge: Christo Coetzee (1929 – 2000), the exhibition, which is curated by Wilhelm van Rensburg and Shonisani Netshia, will provide a look at the rich and far-reaching works of the late South African artist whose career spanned both countries and genres. Ahead of the exhibition, van Rensburg explains that Coetzee’s work didn’t fit easily into the South African art market at the time, and that the artist’s aim was always to provoke.
     The knife’s edge refers to both Coetzee’s flirtatious relationship with provocative works, as well as his desire to experiment with new forms and methods of art. While the former may have made it difficult for Coetzee to fit into the market, the latter saw him remaining firmly on the cutting edge of the contemporary art world, globally. ‘The point I’m trying to make,’ explains van Rensburg, ‘is that Christo Coetzee was already a world-class artist in the 1950s.’
     ‘He had a solo exhibition in Cape Town where he exhibited a number of paintings,’ says van Rensburg. ‘The next morning, he walked in and slashed his paintings – 23 of them. It was spectacular! Shocking! To Coetzee it was an act of renewal – loosely based on a performance he saw by the Gutai group’s Saburo Murakami… This led to what I believe was his best work, because then he began to repair the works by sewing them back together with bits of string, leather, and shoelaces.’

Christo Coetzee Standard Bank Gallery
Christo Coetzee, Baron I, Mixed media, 86 x 60 cm

     Excitingly, the influence of the Gutai group on Coetzee’s work will also form part of the exhibition through a number of drawings by the group that Coetzee collected in Japan before donating them to the University of Johannesburg. Van Rensburg, who’s curated retrospectives on artists such as Irma Stern, Judith Mason, and JH Pierneef over the years, says that much of the work from this exhibition has been sourced from local universities.
     ‘When you’re putting together a retrospective exhibition, the usual challenge is finding the works. In Coetzee’s case, he had the foresight to donate his larger works to local universities before he passed,’ he explains. ‘I’m taking about eight works from each university, but I really was spoiled for choice.’
     Whether you’re a fan of Coetzee’s early abstract works, his well-known assemblage works, or his later Hermetic paintings, pieces from across the artist’s long and far-reaching career will be on exhibit at The Safest Place is the Knife’s Edge. And for those who’ve never heard of Coetzee’s work at all, this exhibition is the perfect place to start.
     The Safest Place is the Knife’s Edge: Christo Coetzee (1929 – 2000) runs from 5 October to 1 December at the Standard Bank Gallery.

To read more about his controversial and sensational art, the history of his career and the influence of the Gutai group on his work, purchase our September 2018 issue, or to continue supporting Creative Feels role in the arts and culture sector subscribe to our monthly magazine.