Bryan R. Monte
(AQ33) Spring 2022 Art Review
Every day, some day, and other stories at the Amsterdam Stedelijk
Every day, some day, and other stories, the Amsterdam Stedelijk’s Museum’s exhibit of artwork from 1950-1980, featuring both old favourites and recent acquisitions, has something for everyone. On display is 1950s figurative work, ’60s Pop, protest, and space-age art and furnishings, and ’70s minimalism, all defining periods for modern art. In addition to the paintings and posters, there is also plenty of photography, video, and mixed media work on display.
The Stedelijk has arranged this exhibition’s galleries chronologically and thematically. They include the work of well-known artists such as Christo, Willem de Kooning, Morris Louis, Henri Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, along with new acquisitions by Armand Baag, Corita Kent, Marie-Louis van Motesiczky, Ganesh Haloi, Batia Suter, Quintus Jan Telting, and Sarah Zapata. As a result, viewers can indulge in familiar as well as new works as they view the exhibition, parts of which have been previously mentioned in Amsterdam Quarterly’s reviews of various past Stedelijk exhibitions.
A good place to start is in Gallery 1.28A entitled ‘Expressive Tendencies’. It includes de Kooning’s painting, Montauk IV (oil on paper on canvas, 1969) with its exuberant abstract cream and yellow bands, but also with somewhat torso-like figure at its centre. In addition, is his The Clam Digger sculpture, (patinated bronze, 1972-79), rough and earthly looking, with knots and clumps of material, especially in the right foot and the toes. In the same gallery is Sam Middleton’s Come Sunday, (mixed media on carton, 1962) with its red, brown, blue, and black bullseye shield on the right and what appears to be an axe on the left.
The next gallery, 1.28B features familiar work from the ’50s and ’60. The queen of this gallery and one of my personal favourites, is Rauschenberg’s combine Charlene (assemblage on softboard, 1954) with its found objects that include an umbrella, a light, a mirror, as well as a letter from his mother, all covered in a brown, grey wash. To the right is Elaine Sturtevant’s Raysse High Voltage Painting (acrylic, collage, and neon light on canvas, 1969) with orange-tinted portrait of young Warholish woman with a pinkish-red neon mouth. Speaking of Warhol, on the facing wall is his Bellevue II (acrylic silkscreen, 1963) with its 12 reproductions of the same photo of police and a white jacketed attendant or doctor around a man who had jumped from the mental hospital’s balcony to his death. The reproduced photos take up much of the wall space and are placed one after another in several rows, so they have the appearance of a few seconds of film footage rather than a single photograph. To the right of Charlene is Claes Oldenburg’s seemingly deflated Saw, Bucket, Hammer, and Ladder, (wood, canvas, and paint, 1968). In the galleries centre is Tetsumi Kudo’s sculpture Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit (mixed media, 1968) It is a greenhouse with a neon light and fake flies inside which are fixed in place. However, the green legs on which the installation stands were too high (1.2 metres) for me to view the artwork in its entirety while sitting in my wheelchair. I had to push myself up, leaning on my cane, in order to view the greenhouse-like, fake fly and insect filled artwork. However, despite its height of the installation, the different types of work and media in the gallery do emphasis the number and range of artistic approaches in the ’60s.
‘Revolution and Protest’, Gallery 1.23B, features a high wall of protest posters and photos and tables of protest buttons and publications from the sixties and seventies for abortion and women’s rights, more public housing, and environmentalism, and against the US, the Vietnam war, nuclear proliferation, and pollution. Among these is Pieter H. Goede’s photo, from the architectural journal FORUM, against mass-reproduced, cookie-cutter, urban housing. A poster protesting the same lack of housing is the infamous ‘Geen Woning, Geen Kroning’, ‘No Housing, No Coronation’, (poster, 1980) which protested Dutch Queen Beatrix’s coronation in Amsterdam that year, and the lack of urban housing. An anti-war poster, from a decade earlier, with the caption ‘My Lai, We Lie, They Die’ protests the Vietnam war. Below its slogan is a naked man with grenade gonads and three, tank turret penises. Included in this gallery or adjacent is Cor Jaring’s iconic photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed Peace, Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam, (gelatin silver print, 1969). However, I had trouble viewing the artwork and navigating between the tables of buttons and publications in this gallery because they were placed just wide enough to slip a wheelchair between, but not wide enough to turn around in.
In Gallery 1.29, ‘Minimal Gestures’, are jewels of understatement and new materials design. (as I suspect the first 3-D printed homes in Eindhoven will one day be). Works I would include in this category include Maria van Elk’s grey and white work Untitled (machine embroidered cotton, 1974), which has a grey triangular area on its right side in contrast to a a white section on the left, and Chavalt Scemprunksuk’s Untitled, (PVC foil, staples, and paint, 1971), which is composed of silver strips, machine-stapled in their centres on a black background. However, one of the stars of this gallery and the exhibition, is the Stedelijk’s new acquisition of four of Ganesh Haloi’s, works, Untitled 20, 15, 25, 14, (ink, ink wash on paper, 2020), that look to me like little, black and white spiral miniatures done in the style of Joan Miro with an occasional green background for emphasis.
In a different media, but in the same gallery is Nan Hoover’s engaging video, Movements in Light (black & white PAL video with sound, 1975-76). It features a 15-minute loop with changing light that exposes a hand half hidden by fabric (such as a bed sheet). In addition, a few galleries further, is Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (black and white video with sound, 1975) which shows a woman demonstrating the use of some kitchen utensils, such as a whisk and a soap ladle, first in their traditional use, and then in a much more aggressive manner as if to fling the ingredients outward rather than to stir or serve them. The text provided for his piece by the Stedelijk states that Rosler’s video ‘offer(s) a parody of television cooking shows by using kitchen implements to present a “lexicon of rage and frustration.”’
Another gallery of particular interest is the black walled and floored ‘Earth’ gallery, (1.22). It features furniture, fonts, photos, and electronics, some within space-age or modern designs. The furniture includes plastic, polyester, or polyurethane chairs and couches such as Gunter Belzig’s white, Floris Chair, with its high headrest (1968, polyester, lacquered finish), Peter Ghyczy’s red, Garden Chair, (PUR ester chair, PUR ester foam, and synthetic textile upholstery, 1968) and Achizoom Associati’s chaise lounge Superonda, (stitched PVC covers, moulded polyurethane, 1966). It also includes a white, astronaut helmet-shaped JVC television Videosphere (model 4240, acrylic, glass, and metal, 1969). In the far corner of this exhibition is also space dedicated to Wim Crouwel’s bit-mapped and rastered typefonts, invaluable to the computer industry. (See AQ26 at https://www.amsterdamquarterly.nl/aq_issues/aq26-borderlands/bryan-r-monte-aq26-autumn-2019-art-review/ for an earlier review of his work at the Stedelijk). It also includes a photo of Buzz Aldrin’s Earthrise (colour photo, 1969) suspended in the air.
An old favourite of particular interest in this exhibition is Henri Matisse’s simple, cut out shapes of The parakeet and the mermaid, (gouache on paper, mounted on canvas, 1952-53). This large art work was produced when the artist was an old man. He cut out shapes to put on the wall similar to what Piet Mondriaan did during his last years in Manhattan in exile during WWII. On a facing wall is Robert Saint-Brice’s, Compositie, (oil on cardboard, 1948) with some similar leaf shapes and colours such as purple and green as in Matisse’s. These last two artworks raise the question of whether their similarities is due to archetypical tropical forms or perhaps artistic cross-pollination. If the latter is true, who influenced who? Once again, the museum guide provides a helpful, partial explanation:
‘In the same period Matisse designed his Arcadian Garden, Robert Saint-Brice and Gesner Abelard were creating painting in Haiti of stylized plant shapes that stem from another tradition entirely. Matisse’s work was characterized by a hedonistic aesthetic. The practices of Saint-Brice and Abelard, however, is rooted in religious traditions such as voodoo, and postcolonial artistic and intellectual discourse.’
Nearby is Morris Lewis’s flowing streaks of black, yellow, orange, and green and brown that seem to create two parallel sides of a valley of unpainted canvas in Gamma Mu, (acrylic on canvas, 1960) or the meditative quiet of Barnet Newman’s serene, blue, large double canvas Cathedra (oil on canvas, 1951) in a underlit gallery with large bench, the perfect place to rest and reflect on what you’ve seen in this exhibition.
Other outstanding new acquistions are Ron Flu’s, Women of Prayer in the Garden, (oil on canvas 1964) and Armand Baag’s, The Fabric Dealer, (oil on canvas, 1979). Flu’s women are painted in a simple, restrained style which pays as much attention to the palm fronds as to the woman walking in the garden. Although the museum classifies the style of this painting as cubist, I think it is closer to the streamlined, simplified effect of Art Deco. In contrast, Bragg’s use of bright and darks colours is much more unrestrained and gives his pictures and added dimensionality and energy. And not to be forgetten, Sarah Zapata’s playful, multi-coloured waterfall-like construction of shag carpet, To Teach or Assume Authority (natural and synthetic fibres, handwoven and wood, 2018), honours an ubiquitous element in any seventies home. All of these pieces are outstanding and I applaud the Stedelijk for these purchases.
There are some disappointments in this exhibition. One is Bruce Nauman’s Playing a Note on the Violin while I Walk Around in the Studio, (16 mm film transferred to video, black and white, sound, 1967–1968), which is literally all he does during this video. This artistic philosophy is based on the belief of ‘whatever I do/make in my studio is art,’ which sets aside standards such as craftsmanship, range of expression, and beauty. Another is Christo’s Package on Table, (metal, jute, and rope, 1963), which has become quite a sad sack (pun intended) and now is covered in a patina of dust. As with most of Christo’s works, you have to be there when they’re wrapped (such as the Reichstag or the Arc de Triumph) in order to get the full effect before the wind, sun, and time decay or unravel what the artist originally intended.
Another complaint I have about this exhibition is that many of its photos are crowded together in the smaller, peripheral galleries. It’s hard to take them in with so many of them mounted on the walls so close together. I felt I did not have enough room to back up and appreciate them properly.
Further criticisms I have of this exhibition are all related to the Stedelijk’s continuing accessibility problems, which began as soon as I entered the museum the day of the press conference. The wheelchair lift next to the main steps, (which wasn’t installed for years after the museum opened after its €170 million renovation in 2012), was out of order. This accessibility issue is one I first raised in AQ6 back in 2013. https://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq6-ekphrasis/the-hms-inaccessible-by-bryan-r-monte/). It was then I suggested that the height difference between the old and the new wings be equalized by a ramp that would zig-zag up and over the steps, and thus avoid any delays caused by a mechanical solution. As I have already mentioned, some of the art on the tables was too high for me to view, such as Kudo’s sculpture/installation and the tables of protest buttons mounted on bricks with their deep yellow sides while other tables with art publications and correspondence were too close for me to comfortably navigate between. Once again, I would like to emphasize the need of anyone organizing an art exhibition to place tables so that top of the artwork on is no higher than 1.2 metres and no closer than 1.5 metres from each other so that all can view and navigate between them comfortably and safely. All of this and more is covered in The Fast Guide to Accessibility Design by Baires Raffaelli, which I purchased in the Stedelijk’s bookstore at the conclusion of my visit. I would advise the Stedelijk’s staff to study this book. In addition, I would suggest that in the future, anyone organizing an exhibition at the Stedelijk or any other museum for that matter, view and navigate between the work they have arranged in a museum in a wheelchair from beginning to end. I’m sure it will help exhibition designers notice obstacles and impediments, and also perhaps gain insight into how some disabled people will experience the art on display. AQ