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Back to Reviews 97

Jan Dibbets, photos
at the Stedelijk

All images scanned
from the Stedelijk
Museum bulletin

Kazimir Malevich,
Suprematism 1921-27

Kurt Schwitters,
Ved Videsoeter,

Marlene Dumas,
The Next Generation,

Marien Schouten,
on the Stedelijk
Bulletin cover

Marien Schouten,
Schilderij met messing
kruis en plank,

Marien Schouten,
Installation in the
Konrad Fischer Gallery,
Düsselforf 1991

Marc Mulders,
Everzwijn I,

Wim Schippers

Marc Mulders,
Witte lelies, 1994

Rob Birza,
Zonder titel, 1994/95

Rob Birza,
Zonder titel, 1994/95

letter from
the lowlands

by Abigail Esman

Few countries take to art-world controversy like the Netherlands. In America, such matters tend to stay within limited art circles, but here in Holland virtually everyone knows about the scandal surrounding Daniel Goldreyer's disastrous restoration of Barnett Newman's 1967 Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, belonging to Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. Granted, the fact that Goldreyer demanded some $500,000 in fees -- to be paid with taxpayer money -- might have something to do with the interest in the story. But still, in the Netherlands, art speak is something of a national pastime, second perhaps only to soccer.

And so Goldreyer is in the news again, this time for accepting a $100,000 settlement from the Dutch government in place of the $125 million he was demanding in lawsuits against the Stedelijk itself (a government institution) and various members of its staff. To backtrack: In 1993, then Stedelijk director Wim Beeren commissioned the Brooklyn-based Goldreyer to repair the Newman, which had been slashed by a vandal in 1986. Goldreyer indeed repaired the slash. He also, however, took it upon himself to retouch the 8 x 18 ft. canvas, a red monochrome field bracketed by a blue "zip" on one end and a yellow "zip" on the other. He was accused of repainting the red section using house paint and a roller.

At first, Stedelijk officials accepted Goldreyer's change, but on further inspection they noticed the extent of the restoration and began voicing their outrage. Beeren refused to pay Goldreyer the outstanding balance of his fee, calling his work "a botched job." Goldreyer responded with the lawsuit. And so it has continued until now.

Mirjam Otten, a spokesperson for the Amsterdam mayor's office, expressed pleasure with the settlement. While Goldreyer's press agent sent out releases announcing a "victory" for the restorer, Otten countered, "So far the city has spent one and a half million guilders (c. $1 million) on this case.... We are just happy that an end has finally come to all the litigation." Meantime, the Stedelijk's current director, Rudi Fuchs, has organized a symposium to take place in April on "the problem of the 20th-century monochrome surface." The painting itself remains on view at the museum, where it is, sadly enough, viewed more as an historic object these days than as the sublime modernist masterpiece it once was.

With the Goldreyer case settled, the Dutch have had to find new scandals to discuss. Not to worry. Within weeks of the settlement, Alexander Brener, a Russian artist living in Amsterdam, attacked another Stedelijk treasure, spray-painting a huge green dollar sign over Kasimir Malevich's white-on-white Suprematism 1921- 27. Although the actual damage to the painting was quickly wiped away, the act itself has been less easily forgotten. "I AM AN ARTIST" proclaimed Brener in one newspaper article, which was quickly followed by the headline: TERRORISM IN MODERN ART. The matter was further debated among readers of the Amsterdam daily,Het Parool; one letter spoke angrily of the damage, calling it the equivalent of theft, while another, by contrast, praised Brener's "performance," claiming that he had created "a new, spacious concept " for the work, made it conceptual, developed a dialogue by superimposing over the universal symbol of the cross the more contemporary universal symbol of the dollar sign. (Perhaps this was what Gombrich had in mind when he said that art is in the eye of the beholder.)

More recently, a third scandal has emerged, this time surrounding the exhibition at the Stadsgalerij Heerlen of Kurt Schwitters' work from the years he spent in Holland during the 1920s (including the renowned poster Schwitters made with Van Doesburg for the Dada exhibition of 1922). In recent months, Schwitters' grandson, Bengt Schwitters, has besieged the museum with letters threatening to disallow the exhibition if some 20 of the pieces are not returned to him after the exhibition's close, instead of to their owner, Marlborough Fine Art (which oversees the Schwitters estate). The museum finally capitulated to his demands.

The younger Schwitters is in the process of suing Marlborough for the 700 Schwitters works in its possession, following the termination, in 1986, of the family's 1963 contract with the international art concern. Schwitters claims that Marlborough has essentially "kidnapped" his grandfather's art work, whose total value is estimated at some $50 million. In terms reminiscent of Marlborough's infamous 1970s skirmish with the Rothko estate, Bengt Schwitters has declared his hope to "lift the smokescreen" between his family, the Marlborough conglomerate and "the facts."

In the contemporary arena, things are especially hot. While the artist Servaas garners press attention for his work selling pieces of the sea (legally recognized certificates of ownership of the sea are available for 50 guilders [approximately $30] per hectoliter) as part of a project titled The Sea Cries, national symposia, newspaper editorials and meetings of the ministries debate "the crisis" in Dutch contemporary art. Boldly stated, that crisis is simply this: Dutch art is lousy stuff. And even the Dutch know it. The only Dutch artists who become known internationally, and whose work rises to international standards, are those who leave the Lowlands: Mondrian, Van Gogh, Appel, Van Elk, and more recently, Marlene Dumas (who is really South African anyway), Inez van Lamsweerde, Eliza May Post and Pieter Laurens Mol. And these latter two are hardly known in their homelands.

How to explain it? There are those who say simply that there's just not a big enough market in the Netherlands, but many consider that naive. Actually, the Dutch art world has two tremendous flaws, neither of which have much to do with the collectors: one is the subsidy system, which is so solid as to eliminate the necessity for artists to actually make good art, or rather,art that is competitive internationally. Two is the nature of the Dutch art establishment, an inner circle of artists, professors and museum directors who all teach, have taught, or are friends with those who teach or have taught at the Ateliers 7 academy, formerly located in Haarlem and now conveniently resettled in Amsterdam. Professors there include Jan Dibbets, best friend of Stedelijk director Rudi Fuchs, and Dibbets' protege, Marien Schouten, who had a one-man show at the Stedelijk last fall. Schouten and his friends are also bound together by the shared experience nearly 20 years ago of assisting in the installation of the Sol LeWitt's Stedelijk wall-drawing exhibition. Of course they hope this type of international connection will land them important exhibitions outside the Netherlands. So far, it hasn't.

Indeed, of Schouten's show at the Stedelijk, one critic was noted to quip, "Schouten is world famous on the Paulus Potterstraat" (the street where the museum is located). For an artist who has no gallery representation, Schouten's popularity in the Dutch museum world is difficult to comprehend. This is not to say that Schouten's work, which is based heavily on Mondrian's legacy towards the spiritual in art, is bad. It's not. Rough-surfaced, bulky, abstract plaster forms, propped like eggs atop plaster or bronze surfaces like table-tops and braced to the wall, are the latest projects in his ongoing attempt to explore ambiguity in art. They're kind of like paintings because they're against the wall, and they're kind of like sculptures because they sort of sit atop a table. Get it?

Actually, Schouten's talent is evident in the gates he designed for the Stedelijk museum galleries, that successfully articulated the spaces as well as the relationships between the viewers and those spaces and between the viewers and the works (who was looking at whom?), while echoing images of the cross that appear in Schoutens early, abstract paintings. Simultaneously, the gates refer to the choir partitions of churches of the Netherlands (are they politically suggestive, as well?) and to the purist, Constructivist esthetic that has remained prominent in Dutch art, architecture and design. But for all of this, it still appears that his choice to remain in the Netherlands, rather than to travel, to live in a less secure society, to feel the influences of other artists, to involve himself in an international art dialogue, to compete as an artist, has placed shackles on his art. And that's a shame. Because Schouten is one of the best that Holland's got right now.

Not that there aren't others. Marc Mulders, a painter from the south of Holland, was featured a few years ago at the de Pont Foundation, a new museum in Tilburg whose other exhibitions have included one-person shows by Wolfgang Laib and Anish Kapoor. Mulders' lush, painterly surfaces, richer with paint than van Gogh's ever were and shining with wetness and light, tantalize the senses. Recent works have focused on flower images, which makes them sound trite, but they are not. Sunflowers spread thickly, heavily, lazily, hotly, in oil slicks over the canvas. Heavily-impastoed daisies crowd together in a tar-like sea of black, and the black and the white, and the fore- and the back-grounds, and the thick paint and the flat canvas all struggle against the stasis of the wall. These are good, classic, solid paintings. You don't see much of that anymore, not here, not, in fact, anywhere.

Also not to be found anywhere else, though, are works like the 16-square-meter peanut-butter carpet by Wim Schippers, currently on view at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. Esthetics aside, the work is apparently causing more than enough mayhem for the museum; not only do viewers take nibbles here and there, but some, apparently presuming that a carpet is a carpet is a carpet, walk right across it. You can follow their peanut-butter footprints through the halls of the museum.

Indeed, perhaps the best indication of how bad Dutch art is right now lies in the fact that the new, presumably avant-garde Rotterdam Kunsthal is doing exhibitions of Leonardo da Vinci and of early figurative works by Mondrian.

But some artists are making it into exhibitions abroad, notably one organized jointly by Fuchs and his Belgian counterpart, Jan Hoet, director of the Museum for Contemporary Art in Gent. Titled "Art of the 20th-century: Flemish and Dutch Painting from Van Gogh, Ensor, Magritte and Mondrian to the Contemporaries," the exhibition runs Mar. 16-July 13, 1997, at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice. (Schouten and Dibbets, for the record, are included in the exhibition. Mulders is not.) The show, designed to define ties between Dutch and Belgian art based on a common art historical background, offers no surprises and little challenge with works by the likes of Karel Appel, van Gogh, Delvaux, Van Doesberg, Van der Leck, Reitveld, Khnopff, Ad Dekkers, Ensor, Panamarenko, Marlene Dumas, Rene Daniels and so on. Only two artists represent the under-40 crowd: Jan Fabre, at 39, perhaps the Lowlands' best known and best-loved "younger" artist; and Holland curators' darling, the 34-year-old Rob Birza.

Not surprisingly, this exhibition by the Lowlands' two most controversial curators has generated no small uproar Belgium. The emphasis on "Flemish" painting, as opposed to "Belgian," inflames the Walloon (French-speaking) community, particularly in light of Hoet's inclusion of artists like Magritte, who the Walloons, in the continuing political feud between the two factions of the Belgian community, claim cannot be called "Flemish." In conversations with the two curators, Fuchs countered that during Magritte's life, the Flemish state didn't exist, and that makes Magritte Belgian -- Flemish. A more furious Hoet argued further, "Flemish art is part of the artistic development of the low countries. Who's ever heard of Walloon art?"

Maybe we've been missing something.

One final note, in Komar and Melamid's ongoing investigation of "The Most Wanted Paintings," in which the artists determine the motifs and composition of a painting by polling people to discover their preferences (see the Dia Center for the Arts website for an example), the artists have discovered that Holland differs from the rest of the world in its taste. Whereas people from other countries have shown preference for realist work (such as a couple in a landscape with animals and blue sky), the Most Wanted Painting for the Dutch is abstract and blue. Go figure (no pun intended). The least desired painting in Holland is an interior, like someone's living room, with a portrait of Bill Clinton hanging on the wall.

ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is author, with Rudy Fuchs, of a book of dialogues (in Dutch) on contemporary art and culture and is currently at work on a book about Christo and Jeanne-Claude