82 Timothy van Laar


Born 1951, Ann Arbor, MI / BA, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI; MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Grosse Pointe Farms

What do an oscillating fan and a Josef Albers “square” have in common? Nothing. Nothing at all. They aren’t even in the same category of things. A fan is a fan, a practical object in the world. An Albers square, by contrast, is a study in color and shape. It’s an abstract work of art that has no obvious purpose.

So why did Timothy van Laar make a painting (Fan, 2009) that consists precisely of one fan and one Albers square? Van Laar, who is currently the Chair of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies was, for thirty-two years, a professor of art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s also published three books on art. Van Laar has been thinking about and making art for more than forty years. Surely, then, he put these two strange items together in one painting for some reason.

The first step in figuring out this conundrum is to look at a lot of other pictures by Timothy van Laar. What you learn in doing so is that van Laar is a fan of visual puzzles, enigmas, irony, and puns. Some of his paintings are, as he himself admits, basically dumb jokes. He once painted a canvas (Heron, 2009) that contains a bunch of colored wavy lines in one corner, the name “Mondrian” in another, and a tall bird (presumably the heron), in the center. The joke is that Mondrian, a painter of straight lines and hard geometry, hated curves and birds. So, van Laar painted a “tribute” to Mondrian that is replete with curves and birds even down to the typology of Mondrian’s name, which is a bunch of curvy letters.

Van Laar has also created hundreds of collages composed of picture postcards from all over the world. Generally, he takes three or four postcards and places them side by side in a frame, lengthwise. Looking at the postcards in their new setting, you begin to notice similarities in certain shapes, colors, structural elements, and designs that speak to one another across the cards. One such work, Berlin 1 (2012), consists of a braille postcard, two Modernist buildings in Berlin, and a statue of someone wearing a robe. The first thing you notice is that the “holes” of the braille look just like the holes in one of the Modernist buildings. As you look closer, you begin to see tons of subtle variations on the themes of curves and angles throughout all four of the postcards.

Or take Comparing Theories from 2003. Van Laar has taken an utterly banal postcard showing an anonymous suburban landscape. He transferred the image from the card onto a canvas and then painted large Xs and Os in bright colors over the image. The gods have been playing a giant game of tic-tac-toe. But as you look closer, you realize that the landscape itself was already a game of tic-tac-toe, since many of the buildings and streets, seen from above, form the shapes of letters. Are we looking at a system of secret signs, or just the dumb accidents of urban design?  

Coming back to Fan, we can now understand better what van Laar is up to. He starts with an enticing witticism-the funny and absurd juxtaposition of a mundane object (fan) and a bit of “high art” (Albers square). Then, the mind and the eye begin to dig deeper. Gradually, interesting relationships are discovered. First, the number four: four squares of color in the Albers square, four blades to the fan. Next: motion. Fans whirl around and the blades take on different visual forms as they move. But the Albers square moves too. Albers created his squares to be visually dynamic, with colors vibrating and pulsating against one another. So here’s another, deeper, van Laar joke. When we first started to look, we thought of the fan as the more “real” object. But now, it is the Albers square that moves and lives.

Deep questions about art and representation filter out from what began as a visual gimmick. The more van Laar paintings one looks at, the more one becomes convinced that there are relationships to be found between all things. That’s to say, in van Laar’s painterly universe, there is always some way to connect one thing to another thing, via structure, or meaning, or sign, or association. These connections are, in a sense, the means by which things communicate with one another and thereby with us as well.