Estate of the art (Part 4) – Joel Vandercam on Cobra pioneer Serge Vandercam

When a great artist dies, those left behind are faced with complicated choices. What will happen to their lifetime of works? To their studio spaces? And what about the more intangible aspects of their legacy? While some heirs hire experts, others take it upon themselves to keep their dear-departed’s house in order. According to the kids and grandkids of these world-famous artists, there’s a certain measure of pride involved in taking care of a loved-one’s artistic legacy, despite the difficulty in escaping from from its far-reaching shadow.

Since the death of CoBrA pioneer Serge Vandercam in 2005, his son Joel has taken care of his legacy.

Although I later understood that I had grown up in a really great environment, as a child you tend to want to conform. So sometimes I wished he was just a ‘normal’ dad in a suit and tie. Especially when other kids made fun of me because of our different lifestyle. Teachers would say things to me like: “Maybe you can do that at home, but not here.” Once we had to paint our feelings and everyone in the class started drawing people and houses. But I had already been in the big museums and seen Miro, Dali and Picasso, and my parents had explained to me what abstract art was. Feelings are abstract, so I painted something abstract and the teacher was not happy. He said “This is just as horrible as Picasso.” My dad took it as a compliment and put me in another school that was not so conservative, and I felt much better. My dad’s studio was in our house and it always smelled like turpentine. He was not one of those artists with a ‘no kids in the studio’ policy. It was the same at the dinner table: I was always welcome, even when we had guests. We would talk about recent exhibitions, books, museum politics… I loved our family dinners: No one ever had the same opinion. One of our biggest fights was about Andy Warhol. When I was a teenager he was my idol but my dad hated him. I tried to rebel a bit, and announced that I would go to business school, something he obviously wouldn’t appreciate. He just laughed and said: “With your math grades? They’re as good as mine were at your age.”

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

In reality I always wanted to do something artistic. But it was very hard to find myself because his name hung over me like a shadow. It was out of the question for me to go into painting. When I went to art school, the professors would draw attention to my family name, and sometimes they even called me ‘Serge’ by mistake. It was very frustrating. My father knew the name could be a problem for me and warned me about it. You always get compared. In the end I went for photography, something I had been doing from a quite young age. And now when I exhibit, I use my mum’s name to avoid comparisons. When my dad found out I was into photography, he gave me loads of photography books and explained the chemical processes, compositions, techniques… He had been a photographer before he started painting but had stopped practicing, which was good for me. After his death, my mum took care of everything, but then she died two years later and everything fell on my shoulders. They hadn’t prepared me for it but I had a lot of people helping me. My dad had told me who to trust. And because we were so close I know his oeuvre very well. I was there when he talked to collectors about his work or gave interviews. I know which pieces belong together in a series and would never sell or loan one of them on its own. But his career started long before I was born, so I’m still learning. That’s why I’m working on a catalogue raisonné. I also made a website because there’s so much misinformation about him. The goal after an artist dies is not to make loads of money. It’s to keep the legacy alive. I make sure he’s included when there’s a CoBrA exhibition, to ensure that the research into his work continues and that his work is part of the right collections. Sometimes I’m scared of making a mistake. I want to do what my dad would have wanted and that thought guides all my decisions. This is not about me, it’s about my dad’s work. It’s bigger than me.