In & Out of Amsterdam at the Museum of Modern Art
In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960-1976
July 19 – Oct. 5, 2009
In & Out of Amsterdam: Art & Project Bulletin, 1968-1989
July 15 – November 9, 2009
11 West 53rd Street
New York City, 212 708 9400
Since it emerged in the 1960s, Conceptual art has seldom left viewers on the fence. Detractors are deaf to its dry wit, wary of its subversive cerebral bent. Often, Conceptual art wasn’t really built to last, but as a movement it most certainly has endured, perhaps because it launched a way of thinking about society, mobility, and culture that subsequently inspired generations of artists. Early proponents foresaw that Conceptual art would alter the status of an art object and impact networks of promotion, distribution, and provenance in the art world at large.
In 2007 MoMA acquired a significant cache of Conceptual art from Geert van Beijeren and Adriaan van Ravesteijn, founders of the Amsterdam gallery Art & Project. Dedicating the gallery to new art of their time, van Beijeren and van Ravesteijn presented exhibitions from 1968 until 2001; they also published the influential Art & Project Bulletin from 1968-1989. Their gift of 230 works to the Modern spans no less than five curatorial departments. Conceptual art thus enters an interesting phase of cross-disciplinary art historical assessment. No doubt this process will burnish the museum’s credibility as one of modern art’s key authorities even as the works themselves add depth to the museum’s holdings.
In & Out of Amsterdam inaugurates MoMA’s 21st-century institutional perspective on Conceptual art. A two-part exhibition, the 3rd floor Special Exhibitions Gallery features films, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations, while the Paul J. Sachs Prints and Illustrated Books Gallery displays the entire run of Art & Project Bulletin. Curator Christophe Cherix, a specialist in printed art of the 1960s and 1970s, joined the museum’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books in 2007. His judicious choice of works honors the movement’s diverse and combinatory media, including performance.
At the press preview someone asked, Why the focus on artistic activity in Amsterdam? Cherix, a trim, almost ethereal presence, noted several reasons. Amsterdam had unusually progressive social policies for the times. Government subsidies were available to artists regardless of their nationality. The city itself represented a long tradition of international trade and commerce. But most of all, young artists thrived in an atmosphere of congenial support and inspiration. During the 1960s, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum collaborated with other museums, notably Moderna Museet in Stockholm, to mount pioneering exhibitions of global trends in innovative art. Following their lead, Art & Project played an increasingly influential role in a network of galleries across Europe and America that showcased the cross-fertilization of artistic ideas shared by Conceptual art, Minimalism, Pop Art, Fluxus, and lesser-known movements.
Indeed, the complexity of the period borders on pandemonium. To sort things out, Cherix highlights Conceptual art’s beginnings by narrowing the curatorial focus to ten European and American artists’ activities in this one crucial location. The artists include Bas Jan Ader; Stanley Brouwn; Hanne Darboven; Jan Dibbets; Ger van Elk; Gilbert & George; Sol LeWitt; Charlotte Posenenske; Allen Ruppersberg; and Lawrence Weiner. Because these artists quite literally sought to depart from traditional studio art and conventional modes of presentation in art institutions, the theme of travel unites their disparate approaches. All of them participated in key exhibitions in Amsterdam during the years from 1960 to 1976, no matter where they were based.
Indicating the centrality of Amsterdam’s location for Conceptual artists’ travel routes, Jan Dibbets’s “Project for Art & Project Bulletin 15” from 1969 features four commercially produced maps marked by the artist in ball point pen. From a local city map to increasingly large portions of the world, Dibbets charts routes within Amsterdam as well as between Amsterdam and major capital cities in Europe, then overseas to the USA (Los Angeles as well as New York). Sol LeWitt created map works as well, cutting an irregular polygon of Amsterdam in “Area of Amsterdam between Leidseplein, Jan Dibbets’s House, and Kunstijsbaan Jaapeden” (September 4, 1976). Stanley Brouwn took inspiration from the simple act of walking through the city. In 1960, a work titled “Steps of Pedestrians on Paper” is just that–drawings formed as someone’s shoe left its mark on pieces of plain paper he scattered on the ground. For his series “This Way Brouwn,” the artist would ask pedestrians to draw directions to a nearby destination, then preserve the artifacts as art.
While such works play on the inherent abstraction of maps and diagrams, they also suggest that travel was a rich metaphor for Conceptual artists. In their quest for an unbounded studio practice, they dissolved restrictions on perspective, gravity, time, and space. Sculpture, released from its pedestal, was unconstrained by any sort of plinth. The entire world surface could serve as a ground for performance and time-based works, for social interactions such as those initiated by Brouwn. Gilbert & George conceived of themselves as living sculpture. Charlotte Posenenske’s six films of the Dutch landscape seen from a moving car suggest an ambient blur of agriculture and infrastructure.
Most poignantly, Bas Jan Ader was lost at sea while completing a multi-part piece titled “In Search of the Miraculous”. One learns of the tragedy via wall text in a small room where eighty faded color slides of a small choir click past, accompanied by sweet voices singing sea shanties. Also on display, a thing I truly coveted, was the invitation card for the ill-fated show – a beautifully distressed photolithograph of the artist on his twelve and a half-foot boat. He attempted to sail this fragile yacht across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lawrence Weiner is still one of Conceptual art’s abiding lights. His ubiquitous presence on the international art scene, his bi-continental lifestyle in New York and on his houseboat in Amsterdam, are as legendary as his works. In & Out of Amsterdam features the artist’s ingenious homage to Amsterdam’s open social policies of the 1960s – 1970s. Leading into the exhibition, porthole-like apertures in sheets of opaque mylar are affixed to windows and festooned with the letters “XXX” rendered in the artist’s characteristic graphics. These Xs echo Amsterdam’s ancient logo, the St. Mark’s cross. After Amsterdam legalized the sex industry, “XXX” became indelibly associated with the city’s red light district.
In addition to this installation, Weiner contributes a text “displacement” from 1971. On each of four windows facing East 53rd Street it reads: “IN AND OUT.” “OUT AND IN.” “AND IN AND OUT.” “AND OUT AND IN.” On the acousti-guide, Weiner speaks of this work as an homage to his early life in New York. Viewers of In & Out of Amsterdam should not deny themselves the pleasure of this recording, for Weiner’s voice is deep and hypnotic. The treble-bass purr of his diction adds opulence to his thoughts.
As these mercurial installations, films, and performances indicate, Conceptual art often yielded works of great elegance in novel forms of presentation. Cherix’s exhibition is eloquent on this point. Sol LeWitt’s subtle “Wall Drawing #109” may evade viewers who pass through the exhibition too quickly. Hanne Darboven’s epic “100 Books 00-00” from 1970 stands out for breadth of conception as well as quiet determination. The nearly blank books, rhythmically opened on plain wooden tabletops supported by sawhorses, allude to forgotten history, landscape, and the mystery of time. Profound or boring? The viewer’s engagement with the work, or not, is the key.