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‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’: Public Reception in the Netherlands and Switzerland

Installation view, When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969

The media coverage of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ started on an almost playful note on 14 March 1969, the day before the exhibition opened to the public, with a small news item broadcast on Dutch television. 01 This shows footage of the construction of Michael Heizer’s off-site work Wedge-shaped Excavation in the Pavement in Front of the Stedelijk Museum, Covered by a Metal Grate (1969), for which he made a large hole in the pavement resembling an air vent, and Ger van Elk’s Luxurious Streetcorner (1969), an installation of glazed tiles that replaced the regular stone paving. The footage is accompanied by an interview between Paolo Icaro, another artist included in the exhibition, and Coosje van Bruggen, who was then a curator at the museum. The news story is light-hearted, offering a narrative of simple opposition between the ‘man in the street’ – the workers making the hole and laying the tiles – and the art institution. One of the workers proclaims that he cannot really see why what he is involved in is art, while van Bruggen and Icaro explain the works in terms of their experimental and process-based nature.

Such ironic playfulness, perhaps inspired by slight suspicion, did not set the tone for the press coverage to come. ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ was discussed in the pages of most, if not all, major newspapers in the Netherlands and in some local newspapers, with reporters largely unfazed by any apparent difficulty in identifying the new art as art. The majority of the published articles are not dismissive of the exhibition or the work; rather, the discussion of the show in newspapers and other periodicals is mostly thoughtful and analytical, and sometimes even maintains that the museum did not go far enough in its attempt to do justice to the work featured. For instance, Lambert Tegenbosch’s lyrical response in the daily newspaper Volkskrant states:

Thirteen rooms in the Stedelijk, a staircase, a restaurant, the outside – everything is ‘up in the air’, but it is exhibited so seriously, in an art historical manner, that the art’s questioning qualities are bound to fail. This makes the whole event, as has happened so often before, a paradoxical presentation of a form of anti-art that wants to appear light, but is instead brought down in a single blow by the museum’s gravity. 02

A perception of the contradictions between a certain type of art and the museum context is echoed by De Telegraaf, a more populist, conservative newspaper, which criticises the show for being too earnest and leaving little space for developing the playfulness that was characteristic of the art included. As the review notes, ‘the screws were tightened rather than loosened’. 03 Along similar lines, Ruth Kweksilber, in a letter to the Algemeen Handelsblad’s editor, refers to a fight that occurred during the opening between Philip Glass and an audience member who interfered with his music performance: she suggests that there is an inconsistency in making and promoting an art that claims to be based on freedom while simultaneously maintaining an idea of the artist as an independent genius who determines how his or her work should be experienced. ‘To me,’ Kweksilber writes, ‘it is incomprehensible how this intolerance [towards the audience member’s interruption] can be matched with the idea cherished by these people of artistic experiment and Homo ludens.’ 04

Overall, the press coverage in the Dutch press was appreciative and balanced, and included interviews with participating artists and other art professionals – making the protagonists’ voices heard. Among these, Jan Dibbets was interviewed in Het Parool, and Ger van Elk in Het Vrije Volk. 05 Both exhibiting artists explain their vision that art is immaterial, dynamic and conceptual, indicating towards the transient nature of the works and their diversity. As Dibbets points out, ‘we could have made fifteen completely different exhibitions’. Van Elk adds a critical note regarding the influence of American galleries, which he sees as ‘overshadowing’ the European artists. These artists’ voices were joined later by others when Dick Dooyes, Karel Willink and Jan Wolkers, artists not involved in the exhibition, spoke to Het Parool. 06 Gallerist and curator Seth Siegelaub, who discussed the exhibition for Haagse Post, comments on the conceptual and ephemeral form of the new art, and notes in passing that ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ is too ‘object-based’, and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ too commercial, the latter being an effect of the sponsorship of Philip Morris.07 While several of the articles make reference to ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, only Ton Frenken for the Eindhovens Dagblad discusses it in detail, noting, in disagreement with Siegelaub, that it was the Bern show that was ‘too object-based’, whereas the one in Amsterdam was more ‘open’. According to Frenken, the titles should have been exchanged to do more justice to both shows. 08

If the Dutch press reception to ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ was characterised by a focus on the exhibition itself and an approach that was generally appreciative, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ inspired several waves of articles with multiple news stories and diverse points of focus. The press coverage started with a bang, reporting on two events that took place around the time of the opening: Peter Saam and Hans-Peter Jost, a Swiss writer and a Swiss painter respectively, burning their military uniforms in public to protest against compulsory military service in Switzerland, and Michael Heizer destroying a stretch of asphalt outside the kunsthalle with a wrecking ball.09 The fact that the first incident was not even part of the exhibition did not matter: both events were written about together in most articles and they set the tone for the overall reception, which viewed the show with distrust and criticism, seeing it as promoting art understood as vandalism.  A few days later a further incident occurred, when the satirical group Gag AG (Joke Inc.) dumped a heap of manure in front of the Kunsthalle Bern at night, with a sign on it saying ‘mistification’ (the German word ‘Mist’ meaning ‘manure’), and discussing it, in a press release, as a ‘mistmal’ (a word play on the German ‘Denkmal’, or ‘monument’). 10  Gag AG also demanded an invitation to take part in the exhibition. Reviews were then published celebrating the courage of the group and condemning the kunsthalle’s exhibition in strong terms, asking why public funding was being spent on such ‘rubbish’. 11 These reviews also included reference to a statement written by Gag AG apologising to the women working in the kunsthalle’s ticket office for exposing them to the stench, whilst complaining about the removal of the manure heap and promising to send the institution a kilogram of ‘art manure’. The group’s statement was published in a number of newspapers, including Emmenthaler Blatt, Der Untertoggenburger and Der Fürstenländer.12 In the midst of this coverage, Harald Szeemann spoke to the press, describing the ‘artists’ as mere protesters and saying he would consider their exhibition request when they started to make coherent work that wasn’t just destructive. 13

On 2 April, a week and a half after the exhibition had opened, several publications reported on a statement issued by Bern City Council (Bern Grosse Stadtrates), in which the members declared their intention not to interfere with the kunsthalle’s programme, but still confessing their inability to find any artistic quality in the exhibition. 14 These articles were followed towards the end of the month by reports about the local artists’ union (the Bern Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Architects) distancing itself from the exhibition through another unappreciative public statement. 15 By this time the exhibition was almost over and, amid new press coverage assessing it mostly in negative terms, Szeemann resigned. In the Berner Tagblatt his resignation was given three articles occupying a whole page, one of them by Szeemann himself. 16 In his text, Szeemann assumes the satirical position of a future museum director looking back at the events in March 1969. Using this ruse he describes the works in the exhibition, which had been criticised as too expensive, as having since increased in value. When the exhibition then closed a few days earlier than scheduled (on 23 instead of 27 April), a series of small articles resulted, stating that the kunsthalle had given in to public disapproval.17 Two months later press attention returned to the exhibition and its use of public funding, reporting on a discussion taking place at Bern City Council in which the kunsthalle was both criticised and defended (by the council’s financial director Dr Gerhart Schürch) on the basis of a principle of artistic freedom. 18 Overall, almost no positive responses to ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ were published in Swiss newspapers, either local or national. 19

The remarkable differences in the press receptions of the two exhibitions are probably the result of a combination of factors. In the first instance, the anti-military protest staged outside the kunsthalle, although independent from it, gave an almost activist appearance to ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, and this became the lens through which the whole project was analysed by the non-specialised media. As a consequence, Heizer’s work was perceived as an act of vandalism, while his related but more delicate project in Amsterdam (that is, digging the hole without wrecking ball), scarcely raised eyebrows.20 The balanced approach taken by the Dutch press is absent in Switzerland, as no participating artists or art professionals sympathetic to the exhibition were interviewed or quoted. The differences in this respect between the Dutch and Swiss press are perhaps best reflected in a review written by René Neuenschwander for Der Landbote on 27 March. The writer was not dismissive of Szeemann’s project, but admitted he did not understand the work included in the show. And, in his attempts to understand it, unlike the Dutch reporters, he did not appeal to those involved, but instead quoted the Austrian art historian Hans Seldmayr, known for his conservative views on both art and politics. 21 In this context, Szeemann’s statements in the press seem to have fuelled controversy rather than placating it. In fact, his entry into public debate via the press is conspicuous: his response to Gag AG’s pile of manure stands in specific contrast to the silence of staff at the Stedelijk Museum regarding the public disruption of the Philip Glass performance.

At the same time, Philip Morris’s support of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, which was made clear in the catalogue and marketing material accompanying the exhibition, may have led to a reluctance from those on the left to come out in support of the exhibition. Apparently the presence of the sponsor resulted in a heightened awareness in the Swiss press that money was involved in the organisation and production of the exhibition, and that the works were bought and traded for hard cash. 22 But also, and perhaps more importantly, this support seems to have caused a general suspicion, even rejection of the show. Margit Staber, writing in the Züricher Woche on 5 April, referred to the publicity given by the exhibition to ‘a large cigarette manufacturer’ – omitting the name in an attempt to avoid contributing to the marketing campaign. She goes so far as to question the high visibility of what she describes as Philip Morris’s ‘free publicity’, demonstrating hostility and even an incomprehension of the concept of sponsorship. 23 Maria Netter, in the Sweizerishce finanzzeitung on 27 March, wrote about how this corporate involvement reflected on the artists’ work: ‘The counterculture artist operates, by definition, using civilised-capitalistic means in order to get publicity, recognition and fame; he hopes to get reviews, even negative ones – for even those function as justification of the work – and to sell [his work].’ 24 But perhaps the most sombre account of the show published in the Swiss press was by Fritz Billeter: ‘The catalogue… touches upon isolation, commerce, alienation, manipulation, the selling out of values. All these things the new artists touch upon; they profit from them, suffer from them, and change – nothing.’ 25

The bitter tone of the Swiss local and national press is thrown into relief by the positive reputation of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ today. Szeemann seems to have been aware that the exhibition would not be an average show. At some point in the run-up to its opening he approached Marlène Bélilos, a documentary maker, about coverage for Swiss television. Years later she recalled: ‘Szeemann knew he was making an event; he called me and said “come, I have an exhibition for you to film.”’26 In the half-hour film that resulted, 27 Szeemann describes in a casual but precise manner the nature of the exhibition. Several artists are shown installing their work and amongst these Richard Artschwager, Alain Jacquet, Michael Heizer, Keith Sonnier and Lawrence Weiner are interviewed. Weiner remarks on his art, stating ‘if you need it, you need it, if you don’t, you don’t’, which probably sounded poetic to the ears of those who needed it, but may have had quite a different impact on those who felt that removing a square of plaster from the kunsthalle wall was more of a bad joke than an artistic gesture. The willingness of Bélilos to understand the work in the exhibition and the willingness of her interviewees to explain it are antithetical to the harsh response the show subsequently suffered in the press. Today it seems that the tone of the documentary resounds over the angry voices in the local and national press. So perhaps, in the end, the fictive future that Szeemann jumped to – in order to look back and see the historical importance of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ – has turned out to be not so fictive after all.28 If ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ has, until now, been less widely celebrated by comparison, it is not for want of thoughtful media attention at the time.


  • News broadcast, NOS Journaal television programme, 14 March 1969.
  • Lambert Tegenbosch, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, Volkskrant, 20 March 1969. Translation for this quote and all the others, unless otherwise noted, the author’s. Similar sentiments are expressed by Louwrien Wijers in ‘Modebeeld van de kunst’, Algemeen Handelsblad, 15 March 1969, p.19. Other longer reviews include: B. van Garrel, ‘de afwezigheid van de nieuwe avant-garde’, Haagse Post, 22 March 1969, p.25.
  • Ed Wingen, ‘Het is met de kunst maar pover gesteld’, De Telegraaf, 12 April 1969. Wingen is making a pun on the title of the show, which translates literally as ‘on loose screws’.
  • Ruth Kweksilber in a letter to the editor published in Algemeneen Handelsblad, on 22 March 1969.
  • Jan Dibbets in Het Parool, 14 March 1969; Ger van Elk in Rorbert Hartzema, ‘Museum op losse schroeven’, Het Vrije Volk, 15 March 1969.
  • Dooyes, Willink and Wolkers are quoted by J. Bolten, ‘Onnozelheid en klungeligheid met een doel’, Het Parool, 21 March 1969.
  • Siegelaub was interviewed by Lieneke van Schaardenburg in ‘Kunstpromotor Seth Siegelaub: iedereen kan nu kunst maken’, Haagse Post, 14 April 1969, pp.31–32.
  • Ton Frenken, ‘Als houdingen vorm worden’, Eindhovens Dagblad, 19 April 1969. For a mere mention of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, see, for example, L. Tegenbosch, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, op. cit.
  • A small selection of brief, factual articles can be found in Die Tat (24 March 1969), Tages-Anzeiger (24 March 1969), Neue Bündener Zeitung (24 March 1969) and Ostschweizerisches Tagblatt (24 March 1969).
  • A good example is a review published in the local newspaper Der Bund, titled ‘Attitudes – Platitudes’, where the reviewer (only the initals A.Sch. are noted) asks why ‘rubbish’ should be ‘recycled as art’ in a public institution. See A. Sch. ‘Attitüden – Plattitüden’, Der Bund, 26 March 1969.
  • See, among many others, Mibhandelte Kunst, ‘Randlossen zum Tage’, Berner Oberländer, 25 March 1969.
  • See, among many others, Mibhandelte Kunst, ‘Randlossen zum Tage’, Berner Oberländer, 25 March 1969.
  • Der Untertoggenburger, 27 March 1969; Der Fürstenländer, 27 March 1969; and Emmenthaler Blatt, 2 April 1969.
  • As reported, for example, by United Press International in ‘“Riechkunst” war der Kusnthalle-Kassiern nicht genehm’, Emmenthaler Blatt, 29 March 1969.
  • See, for example, ‘Kern- und berngesunder Volksempfinden?’, Badener Tagblatt, 2 April 1969.
  • See ‘Ablehnung jeder Verantwortung’, Berner Tagblatt, 24 April 1969; and ‘“Echtes Stück” für die Kunsthalle: Mist’, Süd-West Presse, 27 April 1969.
  • See Harald Szeemann, ‘Abschied von Form gewordenen Attitüden in der Kunsthalle Bern’, Berner Tagblatt, 20 April 1969.
  • As reported, for example, by Deutsche Presse-Agentur in ‘Meinung: Mist, Berner Ausstellung blockiert…’, Saarbrücker Zeitung, 21 April 1969.
  • See ‘Doppelsitzung des Berner Stadtrates’, Berner Oberländer, 27 June 1969.
  • One of the few positive responses was an article by Walter Vogt, ‘Fahren Sie nach Bern’, National-Zeitung, 9 April 1969. See also Sergius Golowin, ‘Flammendes Happening und seine Folgen’, National-Zeitung, 27 March 1969.
  • In the Dutch press only one article directly and in an ironic fashion dealt with the ‘hole’. See Berger, ‘Gat’, Het Vaderland, 9 March 1969.
  • René Neuenschwander, ‘Wo Antikunst Kunst sein soll’, Der Landbote, 27 March 1969.
  • See for instance a short remark in Der Bund, where in a one-paragraph announcement of the exhibition, Robert Morris and Germano Celant are said to be giving opening statements together with representatives of Philip Morris (Der Bund, 17 March 1969). John A. Murphy, at the time President of Philip Morris Europe, is also quoted in several articles, including Berner Tagblad, 22 March 1969; or ‘Modernes Mäzenentum nach amerikanischem Vorbild’, Oberländisches Volksblatt, 24 March 1969. A longer review by Maria Netter titled ‘Kunst und blauer Dunst: Zigarettenfabrik Philip Morris Finanziert Ausstellung allerneuester Kunst’ explicitly discusses the price of several of the works included. Maria Netter, ‘Kunst und blauer Dunst’, Sweizerische finanzzeitung, 27 March 1969.
  • See Margit Staber, ‘Kunst-Stoff ’, Züricher Woche, 5 April 1969.
  • M. Netter, ‘Kunst und blauer Dunst’, op. cit.
  • Fritz Billeter, ‘Sabotage im Kunsttempel’, Tages Anzeiger, 15 April 1969.
  • Marlène Bélilos speaking at the Royal College of Art, London, 25 March 2009.
  • Marlène Bélilos (journalist and producer) and André Gazut (director), ‘Quand les attitudes deviennent formes’, Geneva: Télévision Suisse Romande, broadcast 6 April 1969.
  • See the article by Szeemann that was published on the annoucement of his resignation from the Kunsthalle Bern, cited in footnote 17.