Kees Visser

Kees Visser talks about his retrospective in Reykjavik

Left and right: Kees Visser, MondLicht (detail), 2013, paper, 9 x 7”.

Kees Visser is a self-taught Dutch artist based in Reykjavik who is known for his abstract and minimal works from the past four decades. In 1978, he cofounded the Living Art Museum in Reykjavik. His current exhibition, “Ups and Downs,” is on view at the National Gallery of Iceland until October 27, 2013. Here he discusses his fascination with the Icelandic landscape as well as two of his new series that debut in the show.

I FIRST CAME TO ICELAND IN 1976. Back then it felt like an international place, and because the art world was so small here, it was very accessible. For example, I never met Donald Judd in Amsterdam, but I met him in Reykjavik. Iceland derived its visual art from its narrative and literary traditions, which I found very charming because I’ve always had a more formal attitude. I lived here during three different periods until 1993; all together it’s been twelve years. So I’ve been in Iceland more than in Holland, where I was born, or in France, where I lived for five years. I worked in the Icelandic countryside, which was where I lived during the first two periods; later I worked in Reykjavik where I lived with my family for almost eight years. My new retrospective covers the work that I made here during those periods, and it is updated by two other pieces that are more recent. It’s an emotional moment to have such a big exhibition here.

My series “Ups and Downs” consists of individual photographs of cloud formations paired with detailed images of Iceland’s various terrains. I did a lot of walking in the countryside as a mountain guide. In the beginning, I started to make landscape photographs, but the closer I looked the more fascinated I became with details and the enormous variety of images that the ground is composed of—whether vegetal or lithic, glacial or magmatic. The difference in acidity in the volcanic eruptions yields a wide array of hues due to the different dominant minerals. On a generally gray surface, one may find a red stone that has completely crumbled to pieces and resembles a naturally produced Anish Kapoor. The pigments can be orange, yellow, ocher, green, and so on. There’s no limit.

Another new work, MondLicht, is a page-by-page weaving of two books. When you weave paper together, you essentially end up with little squares and also, if it’s printed with imagery, pure elements with plastic qualities: lines, colors, and shapes, which are building materials for artworks. I chose to weave together two art books published by Taschen: One is about Mondrian and the other is about Lichtenstein, and the combination of the artists’ names provides the title of the project, which translates to “moonshine.” I’ve always thought that Lichtenstein was a pupil of Mondrian. One can see the choice of Lichtenstein’s palette deriving from Dutch Constructivism, while the black lining of every color shape in Lichtenstein corresponds to the black lines in paintings of Mondrian. You see in the piece that Lichtenstein dominates in the beginning and you can hardly see the Mondrians. It’s only later, when the lines and color fields in Mondrian begin to emerge from the images of Lichtenstein, that one can see parallels in the formal aspects of their plastic language.

The content of the two books becomes relevant by weaving them together. It happens in time. One variant process is stopped and you start again with the next weaving. At some point in the ’80s, I came up with the slogan “repetition is change.” This, for me, is an inescapable theme. I always come back to it without looking for it consciously. Compare it to a game of chess: a limited number of moves that lead each time again to an ever-changing game each time you play it. You can start all over again but you can never end up at the same place. Simply.