World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 98 - Ton van Os

Since 2000 the work of Ton van Os is dedicated to the music of Morton Feldman, an American composer from New York, who makes abstract musical sound worlds. If you look at his paintings you imagine yourself in the universe, the galaxy full of planets and moons. Moments later there is an association with braille or a topographic map.

The work of Ton van Os can now be seen on four floors of the Rotterdam Court on the Wilhelminaplein. It was one of the most interesting entrances which I had so far to an exhibition. Before I could see it, I had to pass, under the watchful eye of two guards, through a detection gate, and leave, like at the airport, all metal gear in a tray.

The court as an art stage

A month earlier, I had been at the opening of the exhibition. Judge Leo van Die, a member of the art committee of the Rotterdam court, explained in the court room that the court offers artists a platform for their work. All employees and visitors of the court and other interested persons can in this way come into contact with art.

The art committee has contacts with a number of Rotterdam galleries. Artists and their works are selected in consultation with the galleries. In the case of Ton van Os, it is the Bob Smit Gallery. Also Bob Smit spoke a word at the opening. In March/April there was a show of Van Os’ work in the Gallery.

Morton Feldman

A month after the opening, I am back in the court and I walk with Ton van Os through his exhibition. We start at the top, on the fourth floor.   

Van Os: “The art critic Jan Donia, wrote in an article about my work ‘as soon as a painting leaves the studio everyone is free to give his interpretation’. Feldman’s compositions are in an infinite space, a universe. They are extremely vulnerable, abstract sound worlds, fragments of eternity. As Feldman does in his music, I try to create a hushed image with minimal resources.”

He tells me about Morton Feldman (1926-1987). “Some of his compositions take up to four and a half hours and longer. He had many painters among his friends. Those were the Abstract Expressionists: De Kooning, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko. Feldman is hard to follow, but his influence is large. He is, as his friend John Cage, a cult figure, and important to many composers, such as the American composer John Luther Adams and the Dutch/Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki. To Cage all sounds are music: the steam whistle of a train, the roar of traffic and even the silence was a form of sound. See the famous composition 4’33’’. Feldman also was an innovator, but has less experimented than Cage.   

Later in his life Feldman wrote major works for orchestra in classical notation, but in the beginning he often worked as a painter. He arranged his notes on sheets of paper which he hung on the wall. He went a few steps back to have a new look at it and then started regrouping. He not only has composed, but also much written, about music, literature and visual arts. He gave hour-long lectures, acting as a standup comedian. In the eightties there was in Middelburg the Festival of New Music. Feldman’s lecture at the festival was later written out. These transcriptions, ‘The Middelburg Lectures’ are very exciting and special to read. I myself was once at the festival. Much attention was paid to the new composed music. It was organized by Ad van ’t Veer, a charismatic person.”

We walk past the paintings, and stay longer with some of them. All works are acrylic on canvas. MF behind the title means Morton Feldman. We start right away at (a reference to) a key work.   

AN EXTATIC INSTANT MF XXXV, 2003, 140 x 150 cm

“This is a blow up of a fragment of the large painting of 180 x 300 cm ‘AN OVERALL TEXTURE OF SOUND MF /JP XXXIII’ I made in 2003. This large painting was inspired by the important work ‘NUMBER 32’ of Jackson Pollock. But my big painting did not fit on the walls of the courthouse. Hence this smaller work. Many works which are related to Feldman can be traced back to this. It started in 1999 . With colored lines. In 2000, it started really with the dots. 

On my desk is always a worksheet. At that work sheet developed over time a cloud of dots of ink and felt pen marks with a particular regular / irregular structure. That structure of ‘dots’ gave me the idea to use it for my Feldman paintings. Also to organize my large painting of 180 x 300 cm, a homage to Morton Feldman and Jackson Pollock, I have used the structure of these ‘dots’. The ‘dots’ in this work were small. Then I thought, how does a dot exactly look like? There upon I enlarged such a dot, and once more. And then I knew what I could do.

If something was unsuccesful in a painting, it brought me an idea for a next painting. There are now more than 140 major Feldman works, including many diptyches and even seventyches. It seems a lot and a long time, but writers do sometimes many years about a book. Throughout the period I made no paintings outside of this theme. Before 2000, I made other work.”


The painting reminds me of a musical stave. Van Os: “In each ‘layer’ you see seven surfaces of 20 cm long. Each surface has a certain structure in which the incidence of light is the same. It’s an endless stream of sounds. When I work I mostly listen to the music of Feldman.”


 “You see a large structure. Afterwards I have an elleptical circle of light fitted in. Then it strikes. It is intuitive formed. I put a few dots and then I watched where the other had to come. I had to avoid that one place had an accent. It’s hard to pinpoint a light source, there are so many sources. I hope that the viewer does not ask too many questions.”


An elongate work. “Right in the middle of the painting the light goes left and right. That ain’t actually possible. I equipped the work, after it was completed, with a very thin – almost invisible – veneer in which I had mixed a dot of black to connect all the dots. I have been working from the left and right towards the middle. From the middle the dots give light to each other.”

Then there are the smaller works in the series ‘Study MF’. They are a kind of ‘finger exercises’, with the same approach. We look at a few. “It’s a lot of work to make a large surface obvious. Large works should be faultless. If it does not, it doesn’t work. The studies are also technical exercises. If I had mastered that, I could start again on a large painting.”

WAITING MF/LF XCII, 2010, 180 x 180cm

It reminds me of some of the works of Rothko. Van Os: “If one pulls the resemblance to the works of Rothko, I take that as a compliment. Feldman was more influenced by painters than by musicians. He said that, in addition to Mondrian, the colourfield paintings were the most important for him. That he had developed himself through the works of Guston, Rothko, Newman, De Kooning, Pollock and many others. Their work does not refer to anything in the outside world, it is what is on the painting itself. I made a number of paintings titled WAITING, each painting looks different. WAITING refers to waiting for the right moment. Sometimes Feldman did not work for long periods. But if it happens at the right time, it is sufficient. That also counts for me.”

We walk along a work in which he used silver. “It’s hard to get the background plain with silver. When gray it is not a problem, it dries evenly. Silver sparkles. It gives just a bit more.” He points out at one of the spheres on the right edge. “That edge I made just not opaque. That has a spatial effect. When I was working on a large painting, and I did not know anymore how to go on, I glanced at my studies, which I had hung around.”  

In 2009-2010 he makes a series of works titled CENTER OF ACTIVITY. Big round spheres, in various shades of red and magenta. How he makes the spheres exactly spherical? “Very easy. Of an oblong piece of wood I make with a nail and a piece of chalk a compass to draw a circle.” Has he got a preference for red? “No. I’ve made more black / white than red / magenta work, but also used other colors: gold, silver, yellow, earthy colors.” 

Then we arrive at a painting with not only the designation MF (Morton Feldman), but also LF: WAITING MF/LF, 2010, 180 x 180 cm. “LF is Lucio Fontana. He made cuts in the canvas with a knife. That kind of paintings he called WAITING. You’ll see a globe, and you do not know whether it arises or is on the verge of disappearing. It’s a sound you will hear or which will fade away.”  

It is an example of a painting where you can disappear in à  la Rothko. Van Os: “It’s a miracle if I can achieve that occasionally. I attach importance to that you hardly can see that it’s painted. No streaks or paint drips. That you can not see where I started. As if it has always existed.”

Just before the exhibition at the Rotterdam court the artwork of Ton van Os was at the art fair of the North Sea Jazz festival in the Bob Smit gallery. “There was a lot of interest. The festival was visited by 27.000 people a day, for three days. Two of my large paintings were bought during the festival by Dutch and British collectors.”


Images: 1) IKON OF MAGENTA AND RED MF CXXVIII, 2014, 135 x 135 cm, 2) BIMETALLICAL FLOW MF/PHG LXVI, 2005, 100 x 300cm, 3) AN OVERALL TEXTURE OF SOUND MF/JP XXXIII 2003, 180 x 300 cm, 4) TIME CANVAS MF VIII, 1999-2000, 148 x 150 cm, 5) COPPERY TIME CLUSTER MF/JP XXII, 2001-2002, 130 x 150 cm, 6) WAITING MF/LF C, 2001-2012, 190 x 200cm, 7) VISUAL-AURAL MOBILE MF LV 2004-2005, 300 x 130 cm, 8) NATURAL FLUIDITY MF LVI, 2004-2005, 300 x 75 cm, 9) CAPTURING THE MOMENT MF XXXVII, 2003, 140 x 140 cm, 10) STUDIE MF, 2003, 50 x 55 cm, 11) STUDIE MF, 2003, 55 x 70cm, 12) STUDIE MF, 2011-2012, 50 x 50 cm, 13) Ton van Os, foto Sophie de Vos, 14) Ton van Os,  photo André Smits 



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