Christo Coetzee: A look back at an artistic game changer

Christo Coetzee famously damaged a number of his own works during one of his first exhibitions in South Africa.. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Die Burger / Jean Du Plessis)

From incorporating assemblage or working with the avant-garde Gutai group in Japan, the artist made a global impact.

When one thinks of famous South African artists who have made a global impact, the list will feature names like Esther Mahlangu, William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto and Pierneef.

So it’s exciting when someone who made an impression internationally but was never at the forefront of South African consciousness is rediscovered.

Christo Coetzee, who died in 2000, is one of those figures. He included a sense of spectacle in many of his works, from incorporating assemblage or working with the avant-garde Gutai artists group in Japan, Coetzee made a global impact. The Gutai group was the first radical, postwar artistic group in Japan. It was founded in 1954.

He also had foresight and donated a lot of his work to galleries, like those of the University of Johannesburg, North West University, University of Stellenbosch and University of the Witwatersrand.

Now, senior art specialist at Strauss and Company Wilhelm van Rensburg is curating an exhibition that explores the different eras in Coetzee’s art at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Johannesburg.

“It really is to show that there are parallel histories in South African art. Here is someone who completely broke away and was hugely successful, but was not part of our consciousness,” said
Van Rensburg.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) has loaned several pieces from its collection to be exhibited in three international exhibitions and the Coetzee exhibition.
Earlier this year, the MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art in Debrecen, Hungary, requested to loan 56 works of art from JAG’s permanent collection for an exhibition titled From Monet to Warhol: Masterpieces of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Thereafter, the 56 artworks will be exhibited in the Palazzo Ducale in Genea, Italy in a similarly titled exhibition.

Through JAG, the City of Joburg has previously engaged in cultural exhibition projects where JAG works of art were displayed in important locations in Europe, reaching an international audience that might not have been exposed to South African art before. At the Standard Bank Art Gallery, three pieces by Coetzee will be from JAG.

“I got to know Christo when I was a student at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) when he came to exhibitions,” said Van Rensburg.

Since then, he’s had access to Coetzee’s work through Strauss and Company.

The retrospective exhibition celebrates Coetzee’s evolution as an artist, starting with still life paintings and portraits and moving on to incorporated assemblage and neobaroque. A total of 90 pieces from university collections and private collections will be featured.

“It’s great to see how his work changed and how he changed the abstract part of him,” Van Rensburg said.

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