Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

This is no a tub - Joseph Nechvatal's observation about the new wing of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (with new wing)


Dissing Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum’s new wing by Mels Crouwel of Benthem Crouwel Architects, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman off-handedly compared the building to a “ridiculous” bathroom tub that suggested to him the sensation of “hearing Bach played by a man wearing a clown suit” in his essay “Why Is This Museum Shaped Like a Tub?” (1)

On the speed-rail ride back to Paris, it occurred to me that he completely got it wrong. Mels Crouwel did not give the Stedelijk (a museum known for its collection of classic modern art) a tub. He gave it a captivating sarcophagus, an often tub-shaped funeral receptacle designed to hold a corpse. (2) And that is as it should be. After all, modernism is long dead. The Stedelijk Museum opened its doors first back in 1953 (3) and is widely acknowledged to be among the world’s most important collections of modern art and design.

Of course art does not really die, it just becomes funnier (as Kimmelman’s classical playing clown might suggest). Mels Crouwel and the Stedelijk seem to have felt this too, as they
have discretely and intelligently installed an audio system in the slickly clean long escalator that was delivering my favorite funny dada work of all time. In the air was the noisy funny sounds of the German painter Kurt Schwitters, his amusing audio work Ursonate (1922-32)4 as performed
by Arnulf Appel and Eric Erfurth (recorded in 1993).

As I glided up and/or down the escalator (which I did 6 times, just for the pleasure of it) the 53 minute Ursonate sounds hovered in the air while I beheld an optical shimmer produced by the merging line-patterns in motion that make up the silver escalator. I know that it isn’t, but it had the feeling of permanent perfection, in that the glimmering tubular space matched the funny patterning of the Northern European sounding utterances that then float in your mind. (4) I hope it becomes, at least, the default audio accompaniment to that witty hovering space.



Stedelijk Museum escalator

Gliding up and down that silver space, while listening to the eccentric guttural rollings of Ursonate, I made a mental note on how perfect that experience feels as a metaphor of
arriving and departing Amsterdam itself by bullet train: the smooth, slightly elevated, glide that one experiences while looking out the window.

Actually that sideways glide does have a bit of the feeling of sliding into and out of a tub (and one might suppose a sarcophagus). And perhaps, even, the swooshing glide of a
bicycle rider taking leave from an Amsterdam coffee shop.

This rising-falling silver ride was a bit echoed in one of my favorite visual art installations at the Stedelijk, Cady Noland’s silvery sculpture Strapped to a Narrative (1988) as placed just next to the fabulous Andy Warhol noisy disaster painting Bellevue II (1963).

Other Stedelijk highlights for me were, of course, the collection of Kazimir Malevich mystic suprematism paintings (1917-1919) (that float and dance up and down, left and right, on two adjacent walls)5, the Hanne Darbove room, Barnett Newman’s deep blue Cathedra (1951) (5)

In 1958 the Stedelijk acquired a unique collection of works by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, including 29 paintings. Together with the paintings of Dutch De Stijl artists Van Doesburg, Van der Leck, Mondrian and Rietveld, they provide the visitor an outstanding picture of the genesis of abstract art.

Frank Stella’s silver painting Newstead Abbey (1960), Philip Guston’s Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973) and the painting Composition with Lilac Squares (1964) by Daan van Golden. Like the escalator, Daan van Golden’s beautifully noisy painting - something between op art and
dead-pan Jasper Johns like pop art - also radiated a forceful optical gleam. It achieved this by being nothing more than a painting of a beautiful lilac colored checkered handkerchief.

True to form, other Stedelijk masterworks that I greatly appreciated were Willem de Kooning’s Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louise Point (1963), TV-Buddha (1974) by Nam June Paik and the less-known Simone Forti’s holographic print Angel (1975-1977).

In general, I treasured the fact that at the Stedelijk labels that identify the art are placed as far away as possible from the art - in the corners of the room - thereby not interrupting the contemplation of the work itself.

Bypassing the 2-hour long huge lines waiting to see the Rembrandts at the newly renovated Rijksmuseum, I made my way to the Allard Pierson, the archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam where I passed a productive 2 hours. There I discovered two brilliant works. The first being the modest (in size, at least) Hermaphroditos Statuette (100-50 B.C.).



The second (and greater) encounter was with the Roman marble Dionysus Sarcophagus (2 A.D.) - also known as the Bacchus Sarcophagus, the Dionysos Sarcophagus, and the Bacchic Thiasos. It was purchased 30 years ago this year by the Rembrandt Society from an English lord and
donated to the Museum collection.


Dionysus Sarcophagus

Unlike my beloved, well-preserved and highly polished, sarcophagus Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Dionysus Sarcophagus has degraded radically and its surface is extremely grainy and gritty. This makes a great deal of
difference in terms of the art of noise masterpiece that I think it is. To somewhat clearly make out the complex floating image dance of the drunken Bacchus among a bevy of satyrs and maenads performing a goat sacrifice, I had to back up and away from it. The ideal clear viewing distance was at about 40 feet. This was not possible from all four sides, however.

As I approached the Dionysus Sarcophagus the woozy images tended to melt and merge into a highly textural noise field, as grainy and gritty as it can get. This play of image-merged-into-noise-field, for me, suggested perfectly the drunken ecstatic Dionysian state of
resurrection that the narrative suggests: that the drunken stamping of grapes into wine signifies death as transformed into new life.

Joseph Nechvatal


1 Published: December 23, 2012. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/arts/design/amsterdams-newstedelijk-museum.html
2 You will see why this is a compliment and not a swipe below with my rapturous experience of the Dionysus sarcophagus that I relished at the Allard Pierson Museum – a short walk away.
3 the same year as the first Venice Biennale

4 Ursonate is an early example of sound poetry. The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters' heard recited by Hausmann in Prague, 1921. Schwitters first performed Ursonate on 14 February 1925 at the home of Irmgard Kiepenheuer in Postdam. He subsequently performed it regularly, both developing and extending it. See/hear at:

5 In 1958 the Stedelijk acquired a unique collection of works by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, including 29 paintings. Together with the paintings of Dutch De Stijl artists Van Doesburg, Van der Leck, Mondrian and Rietveld, they provide the visitor an outstanding picture of the genesis of abstract art.


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