Ger van Elk in conversation with Charles Esche and Steven ten Thije, 5 April 2009

Artists at Work / 20.08.2014
Print

Ger van Elk has died aged 73. His passing is a great loss to the Dutch and international art world and we are remembering him by making an interview from 2009 available here. It was conducted as part of the research for the first Exhibition Histories book Exhibiting the New Art: 'Op Losse Schroeven' and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969. In the interview, van Elk talks about the early steps in his career and the shared concerns of the three Dutch participants of these exhibitions: Marinus Boezem, Jan Dibbets and van Elk himself.

I last met Ger during the 2013 Venice Biennale. He always liked to speak English to me and sometimes it seemed as if he wanted to be more Californian than Dutch. Yet his presence in Amsterdam for many years helped make that city a European centre for experimental art in the 1960s to 80s. He was a friend and advisor to Rudi Fuchs and Wim Beeren, whose work at various Dutch museums was instrumental in shaping Dutch discourse in those years. Yet to some extent Ger would always place himself on the outside. He wanted to be a maverick and to follow his own path. This interview is limited to his early days, but it captures a part of his attitude and ambition. Together with Dibbets and Boezem, van Elk internationalised Dutch art in the early 1960s. Afterwards each artist followed different paths, but in those first years they showed how effectively a small group of serious, dedicated experimental artists could really shape the world around them. We will miss him.

– Charles Esche

***

Ger van Elk first exhibited his work when based in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. In 1968, with his fellow countrymen Marinus Boezem and Jan Dibbets, he took part in ‘Junge Kunst aus Holland’ (‘Recent Art from Holland’), curated by Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern prior to ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, and in the international festival ‘Arte Povera + Azioni Povere’ in Amalfi, Italy. For ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ van Elk replaced the brickwork of the pavement outside the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam with glazed tiles (Luxurious Streetcorner, 1969). Inside the museum he hung a canvas curtain up the middle of the main staircase (Apparatus Scalas Dividens, or Apparatus to Divide Stairs, 1968), and in the cafeteria he installed Hanging Wall (1968), which restricted eye contact between those seated at a table. For ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ he removed a square metre from the ground outside the kunsthalle, which he replaced with a photograph of the same square metre shot before it was removed.

Steven ten Thije: Could you tell us about the years preceding ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and the atmosphere in the Amsterdam art world at that time?

Ger van Elk: The leading person politically in the art world at that time was Edy de Wilde, Director of the Stedelijk Museum; he was at the top of the pyramid. Of course we artists were always resisting everything institutional all the time, so we were against the Stedelijk. Following the 1968 student revolt in Paris, the atmosphere in Amsterdam seemed very unsettled.

Charles Esche: How did you and Jan Dibbets and Marinus Boezem meet? And which other artists were you in contact with?

GE: I met Jan through a curator called Ad Petersen. Jan and I were more or less in the same position: fighting established art, as we found that approach to art-making boring. At the time I was going back and forth between Amsterdam and Los Angeles. I was a teenager when I first went to the US – I must have been around eighteen or nineteen. An immigrant with a Green Card, I was invited by my father, Peter van Elk, who was working for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio and who thought that the Netherlands was very provincial. His ambition for me was to go to Los Angeles to learn about film, as he thought I would make a good cameraman. Instead I flew to New York and became a doughnut baker in Connecticut. I did that for half a year, simultaneously making bits of art for myself. Then, around 1962, I took a train to Los Angeles. Within a year my good friend Bas Jan Ader, who I had met while we were both at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam,1 took a boat and sailed across the ocean from Europe to the US – first to Baltimore and later San Diego. I knew he was on his way, but I also knew that he didn’t have contact details for me. So I went to the Dutch consulate and said, ‘If my friend Bas Jan Ader ever comes to you, here is my phone number and address.’ A few months later he called me. He had been picked up by the US Marines on a little sailing boat that wasn’t going anywhere. We met up in Los Angeles, rented a house and lived together there for some time. I got him a teaching job at the Immaculate Heart College. I was also working there, trying to teach art – combined with a job as a pizza baker in the student café – but I don’t really remember how serious we were about it. Eventually, we met Alan Ruppersberg, and Bas Jan became friends with William Leavitt, Barry Le Va, Jack Goldstein and John Baldessari. John was teaching at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], he was more established and a little older than us, by ten or fifteen years, but we saw him all the time – and Ed Ruscha, who was also more established and already linked to Pop art.

ST: Piero Gilardi seems to have been instrumental in bringing artists together at this time. Where did you meet him?

GE: He visited me in Velp, near Arnhem in the Netherlands. He had seen pictures of my work and thought it was interesting, because he was looking for new artistic developments internationally. On the one hand he was an artist and on the other he was picking up on what everyone else was doing. I don’t really know what happened to Gilardi but for a time, in the mid 1960s, he was a popular artist, showing with Ileana Sonnabend in Paris. After a solo exhibition in 1967, Ileana made it clear that she no longer liked what Gilardi was making, because she felt the works weren’t identifiably his. At this point he was trying to break away from a conventional, object-based approach to art making, and becoming interested in Conceptual art. He then decided to travel and went through Europe and the US gathering information, including information on what the Californian artists were doing. So he was aware of a lot, and in his view I was an important artist.

CE: And how did you respond to his rejection of the art market at that time?

GE: I was very positive about it. This was 1968 and 1969, and we believed that we should be free to make the art that we wanted to make, away from the politics of the art world. I saw that making the kind of art we were making was a way of living without a commercial attitude – again, very much in line with the mentality of the 1968 student revolt in Paris. At the same time, there was a strong commercial side to the art world, with many people – such as Konrad Fischer, Germano Celant, Gian Enzo Sperone and Ileana Sonnabend – making their money out of artists. And some artists were more commercial than others, like Sol LeWitt with his drawings, for example.

CE: Did you see Harald Szeemann as being associated with this?

GE: Of course, Szeemann gave in to the commercial side.

CE: And what about Wim Beeren?

GE: No, he didn’t ever. He took a stand. He was really brave in a way.

CE: Your advice to Beeren and the leads that you gave him seem to have been crucial for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’.2 What was your relationship with him like?

GE: Wim was a good friend. I would even say that he was the only one who understood my work. I liked him a lot and he was so crazy. He blew the cigar smoke right into your face if he didn’t like you. He had fights over municipal money. He was quite smart and knew what to say to certain people, but he could also be terrible. He was the only person who – on account of art – tried to have a physical fight with me! Our arguments about art were always passionate. He was also good friends with Gilbert & George. He appreciated them immediately, at a time when other people thought that they were ridiculous. Wim was a fan and protector – with a lot of integrity. But he always had fights about the content of art.

CE: Do you think he fought with Szeemann over the ownership of the ideas around ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and ‘Op Losse Schroeven’?

GE: Oh, yes. They appreciated, respected and loved each other, but they were in the same small arena. They fought, but there was great respect from both sides. Both were equally well informed. Szeemann’s show had a bit more emphasis on the Californian side, with Allen Ruppersberg, Ed Kienholz and people like that. But Wim had a different approach, more European, including artists who Jan and I didn’t like so much, such as Olle Kåks.

CE: Could we talk about your contribution to ‘Op Losse Schroeven’? It seems that both Jan Dibbets’s work and yours could be seen as attacks on the Stedelijk as an institution: while Dibbets attempted to undermine the museum, expose its foundations or set it on a mock pedestal, your glazed tiles outside the building punctured staid pomposity, while your works inside the building subverted normal operation. Were you challenging the museum?

GE: Yes. But Beeren liked it; he thought it was wonderful, as he was also against the formal constraints of the institution.

CE: And Edy de Wilde?

GE: He was against the show, without any doubt, but at the same time, since it was happening anyway, it meant that he started to learn and I respect him for that. He had problems with Wim Beeren, and these continued even when Edy retired in 1985 and Wim became the director of the Stedelijk. He still received little notes and instructions from Edy. It is interesting when you know that Edy was not an art historian; he trained in law. He was the man from the government responsible for recovering pieces that were stolen during World War II. But Edy was very influenced by the École de Paris, so he loved painting. He acquired the Barnett Newman pieces for the collection, and was very much involved with classical painting, whereas Beeren did his doctoral studies in Paris on [Guillaume] Apollinaire. That contrast makes it clearer – Beeren was much more literary.

ST: When you were installing the show, what kind of discussions were there among the artists?

GE: They were very theoretical but it became unclear and a little bit muddy, owing to the political interests of the galleries, which were very difficult to handle. When you talk as artists about what you are doing, it is really different from an art historical discussion. As artists we had a lot of fun – a lot of wine and discussions after the opening.

CE: Did you see a difference in the approach taken by the North Americans and the Italians, given that you knew both?

GE: Yes, and in some senses I found the North Americans less tough. The Arte Povera artists were continually defending Italian Arte Povera. [Jannis] Kounellis wasn’t a big player in the beginning of Arte Povera, by the way. It was only after the piece he made in Rome with the horses [Untitled (12 horses), Galleria L’Attico, January 1969] that he became more involved. But basically it was [Michelangelo] Pistoletto and Mario Merz who were the key players at the time, and then [Gilberto] Zorio.

CE: You say that the Arte Povera artists were tougher – certainly Gilardi had a very different idea of politics.

GE: Well, nobody liked Gilardi, I think, because he was too wise. And he was right in many of his opinions.

CE: Was there a difference between the installation atmosphere in Bern during ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and in Amsterdam during ‘Op Losse Schroeven’?

GE: A lot of the same artists were there; it wasn’t that different. It was shocking for me, in Bern, that Lawrence Weiner was taking a square out of the plaster of the kunsthalle wall, whereas I was taking a square metre from the ground outside. I didn’t know Lawrence at the time and the two pieces, despite being aesthetically similar, are very different content-wise.

This interview was first printed in Exhibiting the New Art: 'Op Losse Schroeven' and 'When Attitudes Become Form' 1969 (2010). The first title in our Exhibition Histories series and published by Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2010. Distributed by Koenig Books, London. For more information visit here.

Footnotes
  1. The Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam was known as the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs at the time, and until 1968.

  2. In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, de Wilde describes van Elk as having ‘first brought our attention to the artists working in “this” direction’. See Op Losse Schroeven (exh. cat.), Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1969, n.p.