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Jan Dibbets in conversation with Lucy Steeds

Jan Dibbets dug trenches about a metre deep at each corner of the building, exposing its foundations for his work Museumsokkel met 4 hoeken van 90 o (Museum Pedestal with Four Angles of 90 o , 1969), ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, 1969

Jan Dibbets is a Dutch artist who studied painting before turning to photography in the late 1960s. He attended St Martin’s School of Art in London in 1967 and there met fellow art students including Richard Long and Barry Flanagan. Prior to taking part in ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, he had solo exhibitions at Galerie Swart in Amsterdam and Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf. He likewise participated in international exhibitions, including the ‘Arte Povera + Azioni Povere’ festival in Amalfi in 1968 and ‘Earth Art’ at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1969. Dibbets’s contribution to both ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ was Museumsokkel met 4 hoeken van 90 (Museum Pedestal with 4 Angles of 90 o, 1969). This involved digging away at the four corners outside each building in order to expose the foundations.

Lucy Steeds: Tell me how you first came across Wim Beeren and became involved in ‘Op Losse Schroeven’.

Jan Dibbets: I knew Wim Beeren because he was the chief curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I didn’t have a good relationship with him and there was a specific reason for that. He happened to see my work at the end of 1967 when I was just back from London and living in the town of Enschede. I showed him my first Perspective Correction [1967], 01 along with other new work and he started laughing, saying, ‘Well, if you call this art… then you are lost.’ Later, Harald Szeemann discovered my work and became interested in it. Beeren still tried to keep me out of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, but Ger van Elk and Marinus Boezem told him that if I was out, then they were out too.

LS: Tell me how Szeemann came to know your work.

JD: The two curators were friends and had worked together – in fact, they even looked like each other! Anyway, Beeren drew up a list of Dutch artists for Szeemann, for an exhibition titled ‘Junge Kunst aus Holland’ [‘Recent Art from Holland’, 2 November–1 December 1968], which he was planning for his own institution, the Kunsthalle Bern. Szeemann came to Amsterdam in July 1968 to see all these Dutch artists and I believe it was at this point that the notion of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ started. I was not actually on Beeren’s list of artists to be visited but I was there when Szeemann came to the studio of Reinier Lucassen, who was on the list. Lucassen didn’t speak any foreign languages and so he asked me to translate. Out of sheer politeness Szeemann asked whether I was also an artist and when I said yes, he asked if he could see my studio, which was next door. There he saw the first Perspective Correction, also Neon-table [1968], Grass-table [1968] and a numberof other works.

LS: Szeemann’s diary from the time – and subsequent interviews with him – suggest that a crucial moment in his encounter with you was your action of watering that grass. 02

JD: He just sat there and didn’t say anything for twenty minutes. I got nervous, so I watered my sculpture, the grass table. Then he asked, ‘Do you know other people who do something similar?’ When I told him to go and see van Elk and Boezem, he announced, ‘OK, I will include you in the exhibition, where you’ll get the best space, and I am going to see those other people.’ He dropped a number of people from Beeren’s original list and he added the three of us: van Elk, Boezem and myself. And with that the whole exhibition ‘Recent Art from Holland’ started to change. By the time we were in Bern for the exhibition opening, Szeemann had realised that the work we were making was totally different from other work at the time, and that he’d never seen anything like it before. Beeren was there for that opening too, so he understood from Szeemann that there was something new going on and that there might be more in it. I spoke to Szeemann at the opening, which I remember very well. He asked me if I thought that there were artists like us internationally and I said that I knew of Gilbert & George, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, among others.

LS: Szeemann’s diary also says that you told him about Piero Gilardi.

JD: I don’t remember speaking to him about Gilardi; I believe that was Ger van Elk. I can’t remember exactly, but Gilardi had spoken to all of us early on and was interested in uniting a group of artists. He played a key role, saying that we should all join together, unite in a different approach towards art – changing how art was sold, challenging the gallery and museum system. Gilardi had a lot of information about young North American and European art.

LS: So that moved things forward?

JD: Szeemann returned to the Netherlands late in 1968 to discuss his ideas with us. The exhibition had been in his head for some time, but he couldn’t get a grip on it; he wanted to know more and to think more about it. Effectively, I talked Szeemann into organising the exhibition, and van Elk, who had a very good relationship with Beeren, did something similar with him. Since we weren’t sure that Szeemann was going to go through with his exhibition, van Elk shared the idea with Beeren. But Szeemann then decided to do the exhibition and suddenly Beeren did the same – with neither party knowing anything about the other. So they worked on the same idea, running after each other without knowing it. They went to many studios in North America and Europe, visiting the same people, and none of the artists ever told them that just before they had met with another person who had asked the same questions and presented the same idea for an exhibition.

LS: When did they discover that they were both working on similar shows? Do you know?

JD: Yes, I know exactly. They discovered it when they decided to open them on the same day! Then, from being good friends, they became terrible enemies and there was an enormous fight about who discovered what. Ultimately, they couldn’t do anything else other than work together. It was decided that ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ would open just over a week before ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. We were all in Amsterdam to install the one show and then went right away to Bern to do the other there.

LS: How would you compare the two exhibitions?

JD: I think Szeemann made a better choice of art and artists. He decided to let us all in, while Beeren was more selective. He had a more specific and precise idea about how the show should be. I think Szeemann made a much better exhibition by saying, ‘OK, I will take them all – I will take everything that I can find and then we can see what we have.’ Beeren had a more old- fashioned and museological attitude, a more scientific approach, and as a result he produced a more constricted exhibition.

LS: Can you tell me how you decided what you wanted to contribute to the two exhibitions? I understand you made the same work for both, which was nonetheless site-specific in each location, Museum Pedestal with 4 Angles of 90 o.

JD: Lots of us were making work that did not allow the museum or gallery to function conventionally. I wanted to put each show in question from the beginning, by setting the museum and the kunsthalle on mock pedestals, turning them into a classic work of art in themselves. In order to make a pedestal underneath a building, you have to dig out the corners. In fact, the whole building should have been dug out, but I had to do it all by myself and by hand, so I thought, ‘I’ll do four corners and that’s it!’ In Bern it was particularly complicated, because there were plants all the way around the kunsthalle. There were no assistants. Michael Heizer was much better equipped: he organised a huge machine to make his negative sculpture outside the kunsthalle in Bern and this attracted a lot of newspaper attention. 03 My work was meant to be far more anonymous. I did the same thing when the exhibitions toured, so also at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] in London later that year, for example. After digging the corners of the buildings, in the galleries I presented architectural floor plans, with four photographs of the dug corners mounted on each plan. All these works were bought by Gian Enzo Sperone in 1972.

LS: The catalogue essay that Gilardi wrote for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ draws parallels between art practice and political activism. Did you conceive of your work with a political dimension?

JD: No, absolutely not, I always disliked that: art and politics. This fashionable search for politics and then including it in your art – I never saw anything in it.

LS: How do you remember the installation periods for the exhibitions?

JD: Everybody was very sociable. For example the Italians, all the Arte Povera artists, would hang out in the museum every day – they had their own table, [Mario] Merz, [Pier Paolo] Calzolari, [Giovanni] Anselmo and the others.

LS: Which of the artists were familiar to you already and whom did you meet for the first time?

JD: Well, I already knew quite a few people, because we had a sort of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ or ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ before that time. I’m talking about the show organised by Paul Maenz in Frankfurt in 1967, ‘19:45–21:55, Dies alles Herzchen wird einmal dir gehören’. 04 I had lived in London, attending St Martin’s School of Art, and I told Paul Maenz about the work that was being made then. He didn’t have a gallery at the time and he asked me to give him some names, to which he would add some German artists and organise an exhibition. He held it in a private gallery on a farm outside Frankfurt and, although it was for one evening only, it was a real success. There were works by Richard Long and Barry Flanagan. I invited George [Passmore] (who didn’t know Gilbert [Proesch] at this time), but he had no idea what to do. Gerry Schum was filming and Konrad Fischer was there (he was still using his mother’s name, Lueg, at that time). So there was already a lot going on that those in museums had no idea about.

LS: What do you remember of the North American artists?

JD: I learned something very important from them. They all came to Amsterdam quite some time ahead of the show opening, made their pieces in the best rooms (as the positioning of works was not decided in advance) and went immediately to Bern to claim the best spaces there too – very professional and effective, all to their advantage.

LS: So the layout of both exhibitions emerged in the installation periods. How would you characterise the difference between Beeren and Szeemann as curators?

JD: The two men were very similar – almost twins, in fact. But Szeemann was the more adventurous one and Beeren was more accurate and more scientific. You see, Beeren worked at a museum, which is very different from a kunsthalle. He wanted to make something that was valued forever – a very old-fashioned attitude, although of course he didn’t acknowledge this. Szeemann gathered a huge list of people. Even if you took fifty per cent of the list you would still have an enormous list of great people, almost all showing for the first time in a serious context.

LS: So do you think that is why ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ is better known?

JD: Yes, look at the catalogues. You can already see the difference. Look at the stupid title, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’. What can you do with that?


  • In Dibbets’s Perspective Correction series, trapezoids become square through the camera’s transformation of three-dimensional space into two-dimensional images.
  • Harald Szeemann, ‘How Does an Exhibition Come into Being?’, first published as ‘Reisebericht von den Vorbereitungen und nur von diesen für die Ausstellung “When Attitudes Become Form”’ in Op Losse Schroeven (exh. cat.), Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1969, n.p. See this volume, p.173. See also ‘Mind Over Matter: Hans Ulrich Obrist talks with Harald Szeemann’, Artforum, vol.35, no.3, November 1996, p.111.
  • For the media coverage see Steven ten Thije, ‘“Op Losse Schroeven” and “When Attitudes Become Form”: Public Reception in the Netherlands and Switzerland’, in this volume, pp.212 and 216.
  • ‘Dies alles Herzchen wird einmal dir gehören’ (‘All This Will One Day Be Yours, Sweetheart’) took place at Galerie Dorothea Loehr, Frankfurt, 9 September 1967. Organised by Paul Maenz it involved artists Jan Dibbets, Barry Flanagan, Bernhard Höke, John Johnson, Konrad (Fischer) Lueg, Charlotte Posenenske and Peter Roehr.