As an American living in Europe, I've always been impressed by the importance the Dutch place on their museum directors, elevating them to near-Hollywood status. In the U.S., it's the rare citizen who can name the heads of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Met. In Holland, almost everyone is familiar with the people who run the major museums.
And so when Rudi Fuchs, director since 1993 of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art -- the Dutch MoMA, if you will -- announced that he was stepping down from his position, it was front page, full-color, prime-time-TV news.
So, too, has been his farewell exhibition, "Tot Zo Ver" (officially translated as "Up to Now," though a truer -- and more fitting -- translation would be "To This Far"), which opened at the Stedelijk on Apr. 18, 2003. The exhibition runs through the end of the year.
Few museum directors anywhere have engendered as much controversy over the courses of their careers as Fuchs, who is second perhaps only to Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens in this regard. From the day he arrived in the international spotlight as organizer of Documenta 7 in 1982, Fuchs has been lauded and condemned for his unorthodox approach to art, an approach heavily influenced by the late critic Clement Greenberg and formalist criticism.
Fuchs' exhibitions consist largely of juxtapositions (the word has become practically a hallmark of his career) of art works, pieces he places beside or against each other not on the basis of chronology or style or any similar quality external to the works, but for the connections he discerns within the works themselves. If art is about looking, if looking at art is about seeing, Rudi Fuchs has spent his formidable career teaching us to see.
This he achieves no less with "Tot Zo Ver" than with any of countless similar exhibitions he's organized over the years, exhibitions that have graced the walls not only of the Stedelijk, or of the Haagse Gemeentemuseum and Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, where he was previously director, but also at the Castelo de Rivoli, the Whitney, and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
What shines here is Fuchs' deep love for painting -- over sculpture, over photography, over video -- felt not only in the sheer quantity of paintings selected for the exhibition but for the tenderness and innovative hand with which they are installed (more on this later).
To Fuchs' detractors, and there are many, this exhibition comes off as just another typical Fuchs show, filled with the artists he has always championed, loudly devoid of the (mostly younger) voices he has no feeling for and at last, has no longer to act as if he did -- the Graffiti group, the Jeff Koonses, the Dutch artists the government has often required him to show against his will.
(It is a stance that has often cost him dearly, especially throughout his beleaguered stewardship of the Stedelijk Amsterdam, where his beliefs about art and the role of the museum clashed frequently with those of the government and much of the museum-going public. The compromises that resulted, not surprisingly, have pleased no one.)
But to his supporters -- and there are many of these, as well -- "Tot Zo Ver" marks the end of an era, a triumphant if melancholy reminder of so much that could have been.
Because the selection of works is largely based on their individual physicality and intrinsic relationships to one another, a simple summary of the show is impossible: one can't just say "there's a great Ryman, a great Matisse, a mediocre something else." While there is indeed a room for Young British Artists, for instance, and another for de Stijl and its antecedents, and while the general emphasis lies on museum acquisitions of the Fuchs decade, "Tot Zo Ver" is really about specific works, and about specific works in the context of one another. It is about looking, about seeing. "You can't explain art," Fuchs was overheard to say before the exhibition opening. "A museum is about comparison." That is what this, his final exhibition here, conveys.
Crowning the exhibition is the Stedelijk's latest acquisition, a colossal, classic, full-color Sol LeWitt wall drawing (Wall Drawing #1084, Bands in Four Directions), given by Carl Andre and the artist and installed specifically for the event. It is the first time the piece, selected by Fuchs himself from the artist's repertoire, has ever been shown. At 4 x 16 meters, the drawing opens out to two recent gouaches and a stunning black cube sculpture, all also by LeWitt. The result is a literally minimalist review of the Minimalist artist's work that simultaneously anchors much of the rest of the show: a series of groupings created on the basis of color and form and line, those elements which form the heart of LeWitt's own work.
Other halls reveal more surprising combinations. Sharing a room with a 1986 untitled piece by Kounellis, for instance, in which chrysanthemums of rust-painted iron spit fire from a background of Munch-like faces, stands Kiefer's Frauen der Revolutions (1986), a vast lead surface on which are hung, like the botanical still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age, dried leaves and wildflowers pressed under glass, framed, and labeled with the names of women: Marie Antoinette, Rose La Combe, Mme de Stael, Charlotte Corday, and Cornelia.
An adjoining room offers several canvases by Robert Ryman, including the heavily-painted Monitor (1978); Ulrich Ruckreim's serene 1976 dolomite pillar; Brice Marden's Vertical/Horizontal (1973); and Baselitz's Frau am Strand (1980), a gray and white composition that, for all its expressionism, for all the looseness of its brushstrokes, for all the bravura of its gesture, nearly draws the other paintings up and into itself. What is this if not a study of artists passionate about paint, about surface and texture, countered by the gentleness of grays and whites, of form?
In other galleries, Fuchs has assembled paintings with the hand of a collector hanging pictures in his home. While one reviewer described these groupings as attempts to replicate museum depots, I disagree. With paintings hung one above the other at odd heights and intervals, these rooms bring together, in one instance, the bright figures of Chagall with the colorful geometries of Goncharova, Malevich, Vasarely, and an assortment of furnishings by Breuer (Design? Art? Prop? And if prop, are the paintings there to accentuate the furniture, or vice versa? Is design so very different, in the end, from sculpture in a space?)
More briccolage: Paolini's L'Opera Authentica (2002), a geometrical study in purity composed of a penciled square on white paper, before which a Plexiglas square of equal size hangs by a silk thread, transparent, offsets Judd's 1984 Plywood Piece, eight plywood boxes hung in two rows of four; Robert Mangold's unusually colorful X Within X (1981), and Flavin's Untitled: To Barnett Newman (1970) in red, yellow and blue; or the meeting of Arnulf Rainer with Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, L. Fabro, Georg Baselitz, and a 1954 landmark Rauschenberg entitled Charlene.
Other rooms maintain more conventional perspectives: a gallery of YBAs in which Tracey Emin's neon heart inscribed "You forgot to kiss my soul" takes center stage against an accumulation of medical refuse by Damien Hirst; a room hung full with German Expressionists works by Macke, Kirchner, Marc (a Marc Blau Fohlen from 1912 on raw wood is a personal favorite, a lapis gem within the jewel box of the collection).
"Tot Zo Ver" is Fuchs' final exhibition -- thus far and no further. After 30 years, he has reached a point where the younger artists no longer resonate with him; more, he has tired of the frustrations, the limitations, of wrangling for loans he cannot get (he cites a Monet he had hoped to place against a Ryman, a Rembrandt that James Lee Byars had asked be included in his Stedelijk show just before he died), of giving space to artists who take art to places that he doesn't think that art should go.
Fuchs has writing to do, years of notes on Rembrandt to build on, grandchildren to indulge. I can imagine seeing the civilian Fuchs sometime in the future, walking the cool white halls of a museum. What would he be thinking, then?
Guiding journalists through the museum halls for one last time, Fuchs points to the thick, fat strokes that compose the white surface of the Ryman Monitor, and to the black translucent underpaint beneath. Now look at the Baselitz: black, white on black, and a gash of yellow across the bottom; and the Marden Vertical/Horizontal -- blue and yellow and green on a blue-black wash, the undercoat seeping out along the edge, and look: a shot of yellow in the lower corner.
To view a Fuchs show right is to take a leap of faith, to trust that what appears to have no sense is rich with reason. It is, in fact, to look. And isn't that what we do (or ought to do) in the face of every new artwork that we see? "Why burlap bags," I remember telling Fuchs some years ago. "People always ask of me, about Kounellis, 'why the burlap bags?'" he said, with the look of a man fast losing patience with the world, "I don't know." And then: "Why oil paint?"
ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is an art journalist and critic based in New York and Amsterdam.