In Memory of Ger van Elk

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

In memory of Ger van Elk who died on sunday 17 August, we present the last article we have published, a conversation between Nathalie Zonnenberg and Jan Dibbets & Ger van Elk about their contribution to the glory years of Dutch concept art from the late sixties and early seventies.

‘Important Art Collection Leaves the Netherlands’ was the headline in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper in August, 2008, when it became known that the conceptual art collection of the renowned Amsterdam gallery Art & Project had been donated to the MoMA in New York.1 The indignant tone set by the article did not last long. After a couple of brief reports, the Netherlands paid no further attention to the ‘lost’ collection. The MoMA exhibition, In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art 1960-1976, escaped most people’s attention, in itself a denial that the New York show has written this period in Dutch art into the annals of art history.

The vivacious and progressive cultural climate that prevailed in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notably in Amsterdam, attracted many foreign artists and art professionals. According to Jan Dibbets, prominently represented in In & Out of Amsterdam, this heyday of Dutch art, which began in the late 1960s, only lasted a short time. ‘In 1973-1974, it was actually already over.’ The New York exhibition, in his view, has not generated more interest in his work. ‘The MoMA was always interested in my work,’ but he does underscore the exhibition’s importance. ‘What it amounts to is that we did not even know how important Amsterdam was at that time, and now they have put it on the map.’

According to Ger van Elk, the MoMA exhibition, in which he is represented significantly as well, is important because for the first time, the connection between the development of international conceptual art and the Netherlands has been made visible. ‘Of course, the Netherlands is only a small country. If you talk about conceptual art, you are talking about Dibbets, Brouwn and Van Elk…. It used to just be about the American artists, and what was happening in Europe was not really important.’ Even so, in Dibbets’ opinion, it was Europe that defined conceptual art – a claim that also seems to be indirectly made by In & Out of Amsterdam.2 Dibbets’ own role as an intermediary in this cannot be underestimated, and Van Elk also played a significant role in mediating between the various parties. How do they view that themselves?

Dibbets: ‘I did not play a role as such: it was simply something that you did…. The art world was incredibly small in those days, so the apple never fell far from the tree. You got to know everybody in no time. At the beginning of 1967, I didn’t know anyone, and by the beginning of 1969, I knew everybody.… Just think of how you met people: I came across Paul Maenz when I was hitchhiking. I wanted to go to Cologne to see the cathedral. A car stopped, and in it sat Paul Maenz and Peter Roehr. They told me about the exhibition Serielle Formationen that they wanted to organize, and when I told them I was an artist and mentioned my name, they knew exactly what I had been doing. Peter Roehr even had a list with my name on it. They had seen my show at the Riekje Swart gallery in 1966, and they knew everybody: Peter Struycken, Ad Dekkers, Jan Schoonhoven. They kept very good track of it all. But in those days, if you talked about Dutch art, and not about Karel Appel and his followers, you were talking about ten people. There was simply nothing else. So that was actually very easy.’

Van Elk also explains that he too was not consciously involved with setting up a network. ‘You just knew everybody.… The exhibitions we took part in back then seemed nowhere near as important as they proved to be in retrospect. For every emergence or development of a movement or new ideas, the outside world would declare that you were a part of it. That generated a certain pattern of expectation, but I just wanted to develop my own poetry, investigate how I could keep surprising people, or in the first place, keep surprising myself.’

In 1967, Dibbets and Van Elk, together with Reinier Lucassen, established the International Institute for the Re-Education of Artists. ‘That was naturally a sneer at the Dutch art of the day,’ explains Van Elk. According to Dibbets, reacting against the ‘intensely bourgeois idea of what art was in the Netherlands’ was an important driving force motivating the artists of his generation. ‘That well-heeled belle peinture – everything was bogged down in that. The core lay in the search for the minimal: actually everything was possible [in the technical sense – ed.], but you ended up painting a big blue square.’

Following his meeting with Paul Maenz and Peter Roehr, Dibbets was invited to take part in the one-day exhibition 19:45-21:55, which Maenz organized in Frankfurt in 1967 at the Galerie Dorethea Loehr, located on the premises of a former stable.3 Many contacts were made and names exchanged that evening, which would later become important in conceptual art circles. Dibbets: ‘At that exhibition by Paul Maenz, someone said that Konrad Fischer [showing his work under his mother’s name, Lueg – ed.] wanted to open up a gallery. I called his attention to a couple of artists, including George Pasmore (later Gilbert & George) and Richard Long, whom I knew from school at St. Martin’s Academy in London, and whom I thought were very good. When I spoke to him, Konrad’s network comprised three people: Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Hanne Darboven.’

Dibbets was subsequently one of the first artists to exhibit at the Konrad Fischer gallery in Düsseldorf. He had his first one-man show there in 1968. Through Fisher, Dibbets met the American conceptual artists Andre, LeWitt, Huebler, Barry and Baldessari as well as curator Seth Siegelaub. ‘You could say that that was the network, but it was just a group of friends.… A network like that does not actually exist: it is about people. Konrad shared the travel expenses of the artists from the United States with other galleries. Given that they had seen it all after two or three days in Düsseldorf, they came to Amsterdam and stayed at my place in the Hasebroekstraat. I have remained good friends with all of them.’

Van Elk had connections with the Arte Povera artists. ‘That began with the Italian artist, Piero Gilardi. Gilardi kept a close watch on all the latest developments in art. His work evolved from Arte Povera when it was just beginning to develop. He came from Turin and was good friends with artists like Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini and Gilberto Zorio. Gilardi sought analogous developments in other parts of Europe: he called it ‘micro-emotive’. I do not exactly know how to describe it, but he found it a shared characteristic of that art, and he sought comparable elements in the work of other artists. He found it, for example, in the work of Richard Long, Gilbert & George and myself. Gilardi connected all that altogether. He connected people. So that became a kind of club that I was part of.… I also knew Bas Jan Ader well. We were at school together, the arts and crafts school in Amsterdam. Later, we were also in touch with Alan Ruppersberg. That was in the time that I was in Los Angeles, but I was homesick, so I travelled back and forth.’

In the evolution of two of the most famous exhibitions of the 1960s, Op losse schroeven at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and When Attitudes Become Form at the Bern Kunsthalle, both held in 1969, Dibbets and Van Elk were important ‘points of contact’. The similarities and links between the two exhibitions have long since been described, but not the fact that they were primarily thanks to the efforts of the two Dutch artists.4 Wim Beeren referred to his conversations with Van Elk and Dibbets, as well as those with Gilardi, as determining factors in the ultimate concept and form of his exhibition Op losse schroeven.5 In communications concerning the second exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form, Harald Szeemann was less explicit in identifying his sources of inspiration, but in a travelogue during the preparations for his exhibition – ironically enough published in the exhibition catalogue of his colleague and rival, Wim Beeren – Szeemann suggested that a visit he had made to Dibbets’ studio in July of 1968 was very influential for his exhibition.6

Dibbets: ‘I met Szeemann in 1968 and took part in his exhibition Junge Kunst aus Holland. Because my contact with him was good, I encouraged the idea that he become more involved in so-called conceptual art. I actually had no contact at all with Wim Beeren, so I asked Ger (van Elk) to do his best with Beeren. My thought was that one of the two had to mount that exhibition. It turned out that they both followed through on the idea and went to visit the same artists. None of the artists ever told either of them that the other had also just made a studio visit, but they ended up putting together exactly the same exhibition. After that, they more or less bashed each other’s brains in.’

The two artists’ contacts with various international conceptual artists also proved advantageous when the Art & Project gallery was set up in late 1968, by the Stedelijk Museum librarian Geert van Beijeren and the architecture student dropout Adriaan van Ravesteijn. In and from the Van Ravesteijn family home in Amsterdam South, in the spirit of the times, they organized various ‘projects’, including their well-known Bulletin. Dibbets: ‘Geert and Adriaan were actually two customers of Riekje Swart’s gallery, where Ger and I were. When they started a gallery of their own, they of course had to show something besides the Riekje Swart artists. We were in any case the odd ducks. We were the ones who were actually trying to break through the art that Riekje Swart was showing (Struycken, Dekkers), even though we ourselves had obviously evolved out of that art – all art evolves out of other art. So it was the ideal moment for Art & Project to step in, but if you look at the first exhibitions they held, you can see that at that point, they had not broken out at all. It floated along for at least a year and a half, before they got a grip on it. That actually only happened when Ger and I moved over to Art & Project. Almost all of the artists they focused on after that came through Ger and myself.’

Many of these names are found in the Art & Project collection that now belongs to the MoMA. There are poems by Carl Andre, several drawings by Robert Barry, a short Super-8 film by David Askevold, a collection of works on paper by Stanley Brouwn, a substantial number of multiples by Gilbert & George, a Duration Piece by Douglas Huebler, various works on paper by Sol LeWitt, Richard Long and Allen Ruppersberg, many works on paper by Lawrence Weiner, as well as several edition works by Dibbets and Van Elk. In Dibbets’ view, too many things are missing for the collection to be a representative collection for conceptual art. The Art & Project collection (recorded in its entirety in the exhibition catalogue) is primarily made up of small, very personal, selected works, which are intimate enough to function in someone’s living room, but they generally do less well in a museum exhibition space. The works making the greatest impression at the In & Out of Amsterdam show came primarily from other collections.

Dibbets’ Project for Art & Project (1969), from the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, was the pivotal work in the exhibition. It comprises four maps, of Amsterdam, the Benelux, Europe and the world, on which the relationships between the gallery and their international contacts are indicated with lines. These were developed on the basis of Art & Project Bulletins that were returned at the request of the artist. A stack of bulletins represents a network of all the important figures who were involved with conceptual art at the time. Dibbets was well aware that his project would expose this network. ‘That was of course the intention. For me it served as a kind of frame of reference, to see whether what I thought was actually true. That was in fact the same as buying a work by other artists, work that I admired. I have always done that, from the time I earned anything at all. I put aside ten percent of my income for purchases. I did it in order to understand what I was doing myself, if I had my eye on the right people. Then, after the fact, you can say whether you had seen it right, or that you had maybe made a gigantic mistake.’ Looking back, the work has proven to be a canon of the history of Dutch conceptual art.

Ger van Elk’s La Pièce (1971), also included in the exhibition, shares that status. This conceptual masterpiece was made as a part of Sonsbeek buiten de perken (variously translated in English as Sonsbeek Beyond the Lawn and Order and Sonsbeek Beyond the Pale), and was also exhibited at the Tropenmuseum (Royal Tropical Institute) in Amsterdam. It is not so much the ultimate exhibited object that is interesting – a white painted block, 10 x 2 x 7 cm, on a velvet cushion in a showcase – but the project as a whole. Van Elk: ‘It was a statement that I wanted to make about Sonsbeek buiten de perken. I was angry with Wim [Beeren] because everything there was about scale, and that really was beyond the limits – buiten de perken. American artists, such as Ronald Bladen and Richard Serra, who were also invited, made such megalomaniacal constructions that I asked myself what European answer you could possibly give to that. My thought of making an even bigger construction than theirs actually became an anti-construction: a tiny piece of wood that I would simply stick in my inside pocket, after having gone out to sea in order to paint it perfectly smooth, dust free, in the tradition of Chinese imperial lacquer work.’

This work is currently also in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, but that was not the case when the exhibition at the MoMA was being prepared. Van Elk: ‘Two years ago, Christophe Cherix [curator of the MoMA – ed.] visited my studio to prepare for the exhibition, and he saw that little block lying there. He could not believe that the work was still in my own hands and had not been purchased by an important museum, such as the Stedelijk. He then began lobbying to purchase it for the MoMA, but I thought that would be a shame. It is of course a great honour when the MoMA wants to buy a work, but I wanted it to preserve its connection with Sonsbeek. A few weeks later, Evert van Straaten of the Kröller-Müller came to see me and without asking any questions, immediately purchased the work.’

The purchase of La Pièce demonstrates that there is a growing awareness on the part of Dutch museums that the heritage of conceptual art in the Netherlands is an important one, and this purchase does not stand alone. An historic conceptual work by Dibbets has since also been purchased by the Kröller-Müller Museum: Alle schaduwen die mij zijn opgevallen in het Kröller-Müller Museum op Goede Vrijdag 2009 (all the shadows that caught my attention in the Kröller-Müller Museum on Good Friday, 2009). This work, made of the sequential taping-off of sunlight striking the wall, was originally created for a presentation at Haus Lange in Krefeld, in 1969. The ‘concept’ has now been purchased, and can be remade at different locations. Dibbets: ‘That work had never been sold, because apparently no one had ever thought you could buy it. But in principle, it is no different than a statement by Lawrence Weiner: an object tossed from one wall to another. The work can be re-created anywhere. You tape off the light in three minutes. Then you wait 15 minutes and do the same thing again. It is completely arbitrary.’

That arbitrary character of many conceptual works of art is indeed the reason why they have never been purchased by museums in significant quantity. According to Van Elk, there are still many misconceptions about conceptual art, for example about ‘originality’. ‘The Stedelijk has since purchased my work, Trapverdeler (stair divider, 1969) for their collection. It was originally a work that I had made for Op losse schroeven, but it no longer existed in physical form. I did still have another version of the work that I made for an exhibition at the Riekje Swart gallery, but it was smaller, because the stairs there were not so large. So I proposed using a larger version for the staircase at the Stedelijk, so that it could be shown there again. And that is what happened. But at the time of the purchase, there was an enormous discussion about the fact that the original length of cloth was not included, and because of that, Christie’s had valued it at too high a price. But the original cloth is still there.’

Although In & Out of Amsterdam has perhaps not directly generated renewed attention in the Netherlands for conceptual art, these examples indicate that the Dutch museums are considering its heritage. This is also the case at the Van Abbemuseum, with the Free Sol Lewitt project, initiated by Superflex, in which the question of reinstalling conceptual artworks has been approached in controversial fashion. Based on LeWitt’s own principles, a number of copies have been made of a serial wall sculpture. The problem is whether that should actually happen. According to Dibbets, that can only be determined by the artist himself. ‘My standpoint has always been that the artist must be responsible for the visual aspect. My taping off shadows was a statement, and that can always be repeated. But in the case of other works of mine, which have also been re-shown, such as 12 Hours Tide Object with Correction of Perspective (1969) last year at the mouth of the Maas River, that is not the case. It was all right for that work to be reproduced because I happen to still be around. They asked me and I said it was no problem. It had been made for a single showing at Gerry Schum’s Video Gallery, and we did it over again. The film is a registration of something that I know how it should be done, but it is not written down as a statement. There is no one who owns that work. You could perhaps do it again for a third time, but all that ends with me.’

Nathalie Zonnenberg is curator and art historian, senior editor of Manifesta Journal, working at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, currently doing an PhD research.

Jan Dibbets is exhibiting recent work at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, 22 May-12 September, 2010.
A major retrospective book on the work of Ger Van Elk was published in 2009: Marente Bloemheuvel, Zsa-Zsa Eyck, eds., Ger van Elk (Deventer, NL: Thieme Art, 2009), ISBN 978 90 78964 28 5, € 49.95

1. Lucette ter Borg in NRC Handelsblad, 20 August, 2008. The indignant tone continued in an interview with Stedelijk Museum director Gijs van Tuyl, in which he attempted to defend the museum’s collection policy as regards this private donation. Ter Borg, NRC Handelsblad, 3 September 2008. 2. See also Sophie Richard, Unconcealed: The International Network of Conceptual Artists 1967-77: Dealers, Exhibitions and Public Collections (London: Ridinghouse, 2009). 3. The title refers to the duration of the exhibition, which is better known by its subtitle, Dies alles Herzchen wird einmal Dir gehören. 4. See Carel Blotkamp, ‘1969’, in Conceptual Art in the Netherlands and Belgium 1965-1975: Artists, Collectors, Galleries, Documents, Exhibitions, Events, S. Héman, ed., (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum catalogue, 2002) 16-27, and Christian Rattemeyer, ‘Op losse schroeven’, in In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art 1960-1976, Christophe Cherix, ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 37-44. 5. See the introduction by Wim Beerens, Op losse schroeven: situaties en cryptostructuren, A. Marcar, ed. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum catalogue, 1969). 6. Harald Szeemann, ‘Reisverslag van de voorbereidingen, en alleen daarvan, voor de tentoonstelling When Attitudes Become Form (werken, concepten, processen, situaties, informatie)’ in, Op losse schroeven: situaties en cryptostructuren, A. Marcar, ed. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum catalogue, 1969).

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019