Emo Verkerk – American Dream

Emo Verkerk – American Dream
American Dream @ Willem Baars Projects, photo's by Gert Jan van Rooij, Amsterdam

Emo Verkerk has a new exhibition at Willem Baars Projects, entitled American Dream. We spoke to him about Zappa, Spinoza and Hockney and about the concept of flow. 

Emo Verkerk – American Dream 

In the 2015 portrait Carin Goeijers made of Emo Verkerk for the Dutch Masters documentary series, the feature playfulness was discussed. “You are born with that, it’s not something you can learn. You can only retain it by organizing your life in a certain way”. How Verkerk succeeds in this can now be seen in American Dream, his new exhibition at Willem Baars Projects.

Painter and sculptor Emo Verkerk (1955) once discontinued his studies in philosophy to commence a postgraduate course at the Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem. He tends to paint portraits, sometimes of relatives and friends, but it’s mostly the greats of philosophy, literature or art and music history that concern him, from René Descartes to Charles Ives and from Baruch Spinoza to Gerard Reve. You can hardly call Verkerk's style academic. His portraits are not realistic, but rather Verkerk's interpretation of the personality of the subject.

The American Dream (2018) - Emo Verkerk

Zappa en Spinoza

Verkerk also portrayed the namesake of the exhibition. The title refers to a statement by Frank Zappa, who once said he embodied the American Dream. But when Zappa (1940-1993) says something like that, you know something isn’t right. The American band leader-composer was a born provocateur. In his first TV appearance, for example, he played a bicycle and almost he questioned the achievements of flower power almost from the get go.

Verkerk is a great admirer of Zappa. Like Spinoza, he appears twice in American Dream. At first sight the two seem to have nothing in common, but according to Verkerk the similarities are "striking". In his Ethics, Spinoza outlines that man is in pursuit of happiness, but uses the wrong premisses for that. Happiness in the form of fame and prestige, according to Spinoza, is perishable and concerns so-called disorders, which cause distractions in your head. This also applies to the traditional image of the American Dream; an image of status, superficial beauty and material wealth.

If you manage to remove those disorders and noise, you’ll get to the essence. "Then there is a reciprocity between projection and reflection and you get into the flow." By this, Verkerk means that you no longer just project your desires, but also reflect on your environment. The essence is different for each person, but Zappa and Spinoza automatically embraced it. And if you start from the two core values of the American Dream, namely freedom and individuality, Zappa comes pretty close all of a sudden. In his music, Zappa reflected on his own music by recording countless variations of the same song over the years and he entered into a dialogue with other genres by responding to it.

Spinoza en Descartes (2019) - Emo Verkerk


A product of Verkerk’s flow is the inverted thermos flask called Frank Zappa. The thermos flask is half sawn through, so that the mirrored glass container becomes visible and the neck with handle remains intact. The handle now forms Zappa’s hooked nose with a striking combination of mustache and goatee in oil paint. The work was quickly made, but the thermos flask lingered around Verkerk's studio for years before the essence became clear. In the context of this exhibition the thermos flask comes into its own. 

On the canvas The American Dream (2018) a native American girl is standing in a doorway looking very surprised and puzzled. She is in full dress, as if she is participating in beauty pageant. Mounted in front of her is a piece of hardboard that evokes associations with a native American vase. That vase bears the name Frank Zappa. The mysterious vase and the thermos flask contrast strongly. According to Verkerk, this is a good example of the reciprocity between projection and reflection.

Confusion of speech

At the end of the conversation, Verkerk likes to mention one more thing. In the interviews with David Hockney in the run-up to the exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, the British artist says that Van Gogh taught him to see space. "Hockney is a great painter and it is his right to say so, but it is a confusion of speech. Van Gogh did not paint space. Van Gogh painted vibrations, he painted time. Those who want to experience space must come to my exhibition. "

Verkerk defines space and spatiality as more than just a vanishing point or a horizon on canvas. His ideas for this go back to the work of Francis Bacon, who, according to Verkerk, abandoned the classical perspective and imbued his spaces with emotion. This lends the space meaning and is no longer a formal solution to a problem or a set of mathematical rules. In works such as Spinoza and Descartes (2019) you see this idea very strongly elaborated. The portraits of the two Enlightenment thinkers are depicted against a background of Dutch land consolidation and an even, lead-gray sky. The space seems to express the lucidity of the two philosophers and the tone of their prose.


At the time of the Dutch Masters documentary, Verkerk had just bought his first pair of glasses. He struggles wearing them. After all, glasses limit what you can see. "You experience space differently with glasses. It took a long time before I got used to it, but at some point your eyes and brains put one and one together and get used to looking through glasses. Now, I also wear them when I paint."

View the episode of Dutch Masters with Emo Verkerk here

The Dutch Masters in the 21st Century is developed with support from the Media Fund and the Mondriaan Fund. The series was produced by Interakt on behalf of the Hollandse Meesters Foundation. Gallery Viewer thanks Stichting Hollandse Meesters for the use of the films by galleries on the platform.

American Dream - Emo Verkerk can be seen at Willem Baars Projects until 6 April.

See the exhibition page of American Dream Emo Verkerk

Read Emo Verkerk's biography