The Stedelijk Museum, which houses Amsterdam’s collection of modern art from the early twentieth century to the present, ranks only fourth among the city’s museum attractions following the Rijkmuseum, the Van Gogh, and the Anne Frank House. But for me, it was the most eagerly anticipated visit of our trip, and by far the most satisfying. (We’d seen the Anne Frank House on a visit thirty years ago and found it extraordinary, especially the room where Anne’s yellowed newspaper clippings of the movie star idols of her day remain anchored to the walls, revealing her utter ordinariness in the midst of the unimaginable in a way that even the diary never brought home to me. I’ve already covered our return visit to the Rijkmuseum and our inaugural investigation of the Van Gogh.)
The first thing that was new this time around was, of course, “The Bathtub,” the new wing that opened to a good deal of architectural derision in 2012. I’ll admit it looked slightly out of place on the Museumplein in between the Rijkmuseum and the Concertgebouw, but not so much given its proximity to the Kurokawa wing of the Van Gogh. But the style of the addition, coupled with the immense Richard Serra (above) that stands outside the entrance, offer an enticement to what lies within.
The collection is vast and varied, full of old friends and surprises. The assembly of American art from the middle of the twentieth century is an utter delight to me. Roy Lichtenstein’s As I Opened Fire has never looked better, and looks more like one of his finest works now that it did thirty years ago when I last saw it. We’d never seen Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #1084, and sat before it for a long time: it’s beautifully executed and installed. Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III and Cathedra were almost too much to take in. Both paintings were vandalized, on separate occasions, by the same man: contemplating the curators’ responses and the incredible job of restoration that was done to them make the experience even stranger. Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Robert Mangold: frankly, it’s all something of a blur now. Luckily, I did capture a portion of the enormous installation by Dan Flavin that dominates the central gallery on the upper floor.
And then there’s the European art, from Picasso to Mondrian to Kiefer. And video, too. One piece that particularly fascinated me was Voetball (Football), by Marijke van Warmerdam. A young boy in a schoolyard bounces a soccer ball upwards, headbutts it, and then balances it atop his forehead for almost ten minutes. The camera moves around him, providing a sort of narrative to his almost (almost) static feat. My natural curiosity (how long will he manage to keep it up there? is this a loop that never ends?) kept me riveted to the small gallery in which it was shown. My experience of the art work became a reflection of the boy’s experience, one that lasted exactly the same length of time, foregrounding the concept of “time-based media” as curators refer to video art and its cousins.
Much later in the day we encountered another video, not part of the Museum’s permanent collection, that was strange and riveting in an entirely different way. Yael Bartana’s Inferno (2013) is shot in richly orchestrated digital, and looks at first like a “major motion picture” of an apocalyptic strain, with all the trappings of an international political thriller. Helicopters fly over Sao Paolo, Brazil, while crowds of white-clothed and garlanded people of all races wave from rooftops and start moving into what becomes a procession, complete with gilded-horned bulls. As the helicopters hover into view, we see that massive golden objects that evoke the Ark of the Covenant are slung beneath them. Evnetually, all streams converge on a replica of the Temple of Solomon that, according to the Stedelijk’s description of the film, is currently being built in Brazil by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. When the Temple is filled, things start to get truly weird: a holocaust ensues, the Temple burns, the ground opens up and swallows many of the celebrants, and eventually, noting is left on the sacred ground except a Wailing Wall.
The dislocations in space and time are truly disorienting, perhaps almost as disorienting as the notion of a Pentecostal Christian sect rebuilding the Temple in Latin America. Bartana has described the film as a “pre-enactment” and that in itself is strange and disturbing. A very short clip from the film, shot at the Sydney Biennale, can be seen on YouTube.
The major exhibition that was on at the moment, and the major delight of our visit, was an extensive survey of the work of the photographer Jeff Wall entitled “Tableaux, Pictures, Photographs, 1996–2013.” I didn’t immediately recognize the artist’s name, but upon entering the first hall recognition began to dawn. I’d seen Wall’s striking composition Milk in a group show a few years ago, and remembered the photographer who made these large-scale compositions (Milk‘s dimensions are roughly six by seven-and-a-half feet), presented in the kind of lightboxes that are often used for commercial advertising.
At first it was hard to get a handle on the show, or the artist. There didn’t seem to be many common threads to bring the works in the exhibition together, apart from the use of the lightboxes. Except, of course, that there were silver gelatin prints that looked like conventional photographic prints—only they were also super-sized. Except for the smaller works, conventionally sized at, say, eight by ten. The large color lightbox works were the most intriguing, and where we spent most of our time. We wondered about many things: were these photographs candid? Or staged? Even if they were staged, who were these people? Were they really poultry processors, or were they just actors playing the part? Either explanation seemed somehow both implausible and inevitable. Wall clearly pays close attention to structure and detail, and we often got lost in the labyrinthine mix of both in a single picture.
Milk wasn’t among the pictures included in the Amsterdam exhibition, but it’s such a classic compendium of Wall’s conundrums, that I couldn’t resist including it here. Look at the way the horizontal in the bricks play against the strong verticals that compose most of the left-hand side of the photograph. The man in the foreground looks like a poster for the homeless, crouched on an urban street, isolated, holding a drink in a brown paper bag. But the guy’s shoes are shined, if scuffed, and his clothes might or might not fit him; they’re certainly not ragged. And the drink—well, it’s milk, not whiskey or beer. But why is it flying into the air with such violence when the guy seems so still, and why is he looking away? Imagine six or eight rooms of this and you have some idea of the way that the exhibition played with our heads for the better part of an afternoon.
We were exhausted before we got through two-thirds of the show, and we wound up sitting down for a long time in front of this photograph.
It’s titled Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, and dates from 1999. I can’t imagine what meaning might inhere in this composition, but the formal qualities, the details, the resonances are astounding. There are symmetries that run throughout the whole of the work: the echoes, for example of the arms of the statue in the background with the patterns in the marble. The pool in which the statue stands is doubled by the black void of the carpet. The reflected symmetries of the marble find an off-kilter correspondence in the reflection of the drapery and the chairs at the right edge. On the other hand, the formality of the room’s intended arrangement has been put in disarray: all the chairs are out of the alignment you’d expect. And the gleaning support beam is off-center in the composition, skewing all the symmetry found elsewhere in the photograph. It’s a complete puzzle.
In the evening, after we’d stumbled back to our hotel, napped for half an hour, and fed ourselves up at the street at the Cafe de Dorffer, I got out my iPad, logged in to Amazon, and bought a large catalog of Wall’s work. I’m working my through its essays and interviews now, and I’ll say only that I haven’t been so intrigued and had my brain exercised so in a long time. I’ll undoubtedly want to write about the book and about Wall in the future, so for the moment, I’ll provide this teaser that I found on YouTube, which coincidentally documents the installation of the exhibition we saw at the Stedelijk. I hope you’ll be as intrigued and inspired as I’ve been.