Day-glo Rothko

Ruben de Haas and the clash of the felt-tips.

The artist’s dilemma: a black marker pen, the blank page. At his kitchen worktop in Amsterdam, Ruben de Haas waits for inspiration. Pen moves towards paper. For years, this is how de Haas has worked: “By the time the pen hits the page, an idea has arrived and the execution starts”. 

Until one morning, about a year ago. Nothing. No idea lands. Blank page - lege bladzijde, blank mind. 

De Haas felt pangs of self-doubt, he told me - twijfelachtige gedachtes, doubtful thoughts. Staring down at the paper, his helicopter view - helikopter perspectief - yielded nothing. Negative thoughts crowded into his mind. But don’t despair. This story is its own inspiration: an art experiment, conceptual and contemporary. 

The ‘magic marker’ was invented in the 1940s by Sidney Rosenthal, an American artist in Richmond Hill, New York. Rosenthal attached a tightly bound wad of wool to a small bottle of permanent ink - an inventive step. This new form of pen quickly became popular across the world as a versatile tool for labeling, lettering and posters. 

Rothko’s Color Field Paintings achieved the ultimate quest in abstract expressionism: an absolute flatness like melted butter on toast

Fast forward to Amsterdam in late 2019. With growing trepidation, de Haas began to write a catalogue of anxieties: “You don’t have any good ideas”, “You can’t make fun things anymore”. He wrote until this maudlin scrawl filled the entire page, a document of self-rejection - zelfafwijzing

Mostly, de Haas doesn’t worry about keeping his first drafts to himself. Friends often leaf through his notebooks and sketches. Not this time. Embarrassed, he began to black out the words. He blocked in each letter, meticulously. When the page in front of him was half-black, opaque, he wondered when the pen would run out.

He decided to find out. The felt-tip became his inspiration, an experiment. De Haas tested a variety of  colours and brands, one at a time. He coloured each page until the ink faded and ran dry: one page, then another, sometimes a third. The results were displayed recently in a solo exhibition at the LTS artists’ studios in De School, West Amsterdam. 

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The results are in

As his hand moved down the page, De Haas kept vigilant watch. The work never bored him. When you are a child you have all the time in the world, he says - als kind heb je alle tijd van de wereld. How much ink does a felt-tip contain? The same childlike spirit of discovery made him greedy to find out, for newness - nieuwsgierig. 

Which felt-tip is the best? The longest-lasting, most vivid, most capable? On a strictly need-to-know basis, these are his findings: 

  • The lifespan of a felt-tip is between one and two hours

  • IKEA pens contain the most ink: enough to fill three pages

  • Wibra pens are the most consistent, with the least variation between pens 

  • Bruynzeel and Stabilo have the richest and most vivid colours

  • The cheapest pens are Wibra, at €1 for a pack of 12

  • The most expensive are Stabilo, at €4.99

  • HEMA pens have a unique palette unlike the other brands

  • The Wibra ‘brown’ contained purple ink

De Haas mounted each page under glass in simple square wooden frames, one frame per page, 30 pictures in all. The empty pen from each work was attached with a metal clip to the wall. The most vivid pages were for sale only as a complete set, he stipulated: you could buy just one picture made with an IKEA pen, but the more potent Bruynzeels were available only in sets of two or three. 

The spirit of abstraction

At the exhibition, I was struck by the sheer exuberance of this work. Each slab of colour is different. Look closely and you notice tiny shifts and gradations, the points when De Haas stopped to drink tea or look out of the window. The squares of colour suggest obvious metaphors: for power, for the varied fading intensity of all life. Each feint mosaic of textured paper, a gridwork of slabs and slopes and smudges, brings its own framework of interruptions and perseverance. 

It’s impossible, frankly, not to be reminded of Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist whose giant canvases dominate lofty public galleries in New York, London and Berlin. Revered by millions of visitors. the barely undulating surfaces of Rothko’s Color Field Paintings are landmarks in the canon of modern art. The comparison to De Haas if not exalted, perhaps, but inevitable. His fading felt-tips invite the unwary eye, a reaching for abstraction. 

The late American critic and novelist Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant short book, The Painted Word (1975) charting the rise of abstract expressionist art in the style of a high social comedy. Rothko, whose first solo exhibition was in 1933 at Portland Art Museum, is cast in a dominant role. Emerging from the margins to become the apotheosis of his movement, Rothko represents the ultimate rebellion of abstract expressionism against the long art-historical traditions of figurative painting. 

Wolfe himself was a pioneer of new critical forms, who championed the so-called “saturation reporting” of the New Journalism movement in the 1960s. Rothko had mastered a different, visual medium of saturation: his canvases realised the abstract expressionists’ quest for absolute flatness. Their meaning relied on theory: the paintings demand their own epistemology, a framework of knowledge. Wolfe compared Rothko’s achievement in paint to melted butter dissolving into the granular surface of hot toast. 

Raised in the Confederate capital of Virginia, Wolfe, who died in 2018, described his own cultural politics as counter-Bohemian. An outsider in 1960s New York, his “acrobatic prose” was excited by the city’s rising prosperity and shifting social mores, wrote Robert Butler in 1843, the Economist’s sister magazine. Later, Wolfe wrote novels constructed from “awesome feats” of research and “a complex theory of status”. One reviewer dubbed him a “day-glo Dickens”.

None of which can be said, directly, to have inspired Ruben de Haas to apply his childlike kinderlijke nieuwsgierigheid - novelty-seeking curiosity - to the humble felt-tip. For more on that creative process - spanning hours at a time - I can recommend his short film which, in just 11 minutes, juxtaposes the work with the many distractions available from the artist’s Amsterdam kitchen. 

Bruynzeel, a Dutch company founded in 1897, stands up to the global competition

De Haas doesn’t take it too seriously. But the legacy of pop art is implicit and unavoidable: the methodical energy and attention to detail, the theoretical and perhaps even philosophical baggage of abstract expressionism. All this bursts out, via the humble felt-tip pen. De Haas has channeled (for me, at least) the satirical spirit of Wolfe contemplating Rothko. Many visitors said they could feel the playfulness in it - velen zeiden de speelsheid erin te kunnen voelen.

Playful is beguiling. Inside the day-glo colour palette of felt-tip pens, the viewer gazes into a world history of invention, from Sidney Rosenthal to the globalised supply chains and disposable plastics of mass production. In cheap inks and brighter ones, a creative project is delivered to the eye via products of varying performance, quality and value for money. Bruynzeel, a Dutch company founded in 1897, emerges ahead - on colour, not price - of its international competitors.

De Haas has crafted the felt-tip pen into a talisman of post-pop culture. Each empty husk, its power spent on paper, is an emblem for creativity and impermanence. So too for the artist hinself: De Haas achieves his own metamorphosis through work and play, a man emptied of ideas is revived as a conjuror of emotions. He saw that his art made his audience smile - dit liet ze glimlachen, and leave the show with a happy feeling - ze verlieten de show met een blij gevoel.

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