In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976

Museum of Modern Art July 19, 2009 – October 5, 2009

Ger van Elk. (Dutch, b. 1941). Paul Klee—Um den Fisch, 1926 (Around the Fish). 1970. Eight color slides (one shown) projected on wood table with white cloth; table dimensions 27 9/16 × 26 3/4 × 21 5/8” (70 × 68 × 55 cm). Collection Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, the Netherlands (Depot VBVR). © 2009 Ger van Elk. Courtesy of the gallery.

While the Belgian painter James Ensor continues to enthrall a large audience on the top floor of the Museum of Modern Art, a much humbler display can be found further below. Visually, the exhibitions could not be more different, and yet In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976 possesses a satirical wit similar in spirit to that of the Belgian master. Though made more than 60 years after Ensor’s most prolific period by a young generation rejecting traditional art practices, the two shows share an affinity for documenting the everyday environment with a touch of self-deprecating detachment.

As is the case with much conceptual art, the approximately seventy-five works by the ten artists here are odd, offbeat and often thrillingly intelligent. They are elegant and restrained in their visual complexity, made with simple materials and technology. They embody the core belief that art can spring from the ordinary at any moment. As a whole, the works gathered by curator Christophe Cherix establish a vivid portrait of Amsterdam during the 1960s and 1970s, when the city became a haven for an array of international avant-gardists, especially Americans and Europeans, thanks to the Stedelijk Museum’s pioneering contemporary art program, an emerging gallery scene, and the city’s progressive sociopolitical policies.

While the exhibition’s focus on one specific locale and timeframe (1960-1976) make it something of a niche project, it nevertheless illustrates the versatility and richness of post-Duchampian conceptual thought during that era. Works by lesser-known artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Ger van Elk, Allen Ruppersberg, and Charlotte Posenenske, as well as those by the more prominent Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Gilbert & George, Sol LeWitt, and Lawrence Weiner, seem to foreshadow ideas tackled in the 1980s and 1990s by such neo-conceptualists as Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, or Martin Creed.

Some of the most intriguing works are based on performance. In two short films from 1970, entitled “Fall 1” and “Fall 2”, Bas Jan Ader topples from a chair perched on the roof of his Los Angeles home and rides a bicycle into the Reguliersgracht canal. Ger van Elk’s equally comical slide projection entitled “Paul Klee-Um den Fisch, 1926 (Paul Klee—Around the Fish),” also from 1970, in which he eats a fish dinner modeled on Paul Klee’s still-life painting Um den Fisch (1926, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art), comments on the faux-elite status of Modernism. Born in Germany to a Jewish family in 1930, Posenenske focused on works that shifted between minimal and conceptual ideas. Her display at MoMA consists of an installation and two photographs from her so-called “Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)” series. Looking like ventilation shafts, these sculptures were conceived as modules that could be adapted to any space and context. In 1968, convinced that art could no longer influence social interaction, Posenenske stopped working as an artist and devoted the rest of her life to sociology.

One of the most elegant bodies of work in the exhibition is by Sol LeWitt. Besides a large, magnificent wall drawing, he is represented by a sequence of cutouts derived from a map of Amsterdam, which are dated by year, month and day. The title of each cutout describes its exact location, such as “Map of Amsterdam Between the Stedelijk Museum, Julianapark, Strawinskylaan, the Corner of Hillegomstraat and Duinstraat and Koningspaleis.” The abstraction of the city is twofold, translated first into a map and then transformed into distinct geometric shapes. The distinct description provided by each work’s title and date, however, offers very real associations with specific buildings, seasons, and the distances between locations. For “The Shortest Day at my House in Amsterdam” (1970), the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets organized eighty color photographs into a grid, each showing the same view from a multi-paned window in Dibbet’s Amsterdam home at the time. Organized in sequence, the progression of the day and its changes of light are revealed incrementally if viewed one at a time, but in a dramatic sweep if seen overall. It is an effect that has been used often by several artists, but Dibbet’s work is a rather poetic example of the passing of time frozen in still frames.

While some of the works in this exhibition were shown at their place of origin at the time they were made, most have not been seen since or, for that matter, presented in the US. Conceptual art often defies a quick survey because the significance of the work grows in accordance with the viewer’s comprehension of its background and the issues it addresses. Hanne Darboven’s extensive installation of 100 mechanically printed books is a case in point. The books are displayed on tables, each representing a year in a century. Spread open with empty pages facing up, they are transformed into an ocean of white paper crests. They also mark the serial accumulation of invisible, inaccessible data. It is as if the history and the knowledge of a whole century have evaporated into nothingness.

“In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976” is a show for an audience with a long attention span, and those who take the most time will find plenty that will prove rewarding.