PRINT October 1971

Sonsbeek: Speculations, Impressions

THIS WAS A SHOW THAT became radical in spite of itself. Rumored to feel cramped by his curatorial situation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Wim Beeren left in 1970 to take over the organization of the Sonsbeek exhibition, a tri-annual show held in an 18th-century formal park in Arnhem. Like many Europeans, Beeren lacks taste in the sense of fully apprehending the art he is dealing with; but he does sense where the action is. His lack of discrimination, coupled with the desire to make this show an encyclopedia of the most recent art, turned the “Sonsbeek 71” exhibition into an incongruous hodgepodge of quality and schlock.

On arrival in Amsterdam, I expected to find an exhibition ready to open on June 19th. Instead, I found total confusion. The show had obviously gotten out of hand and had become an organizational monster that Beeren and his entire staff were frantically trying to bring under control. In the wet, green park in Arnhem, tents were still deflated; Ronald Bladen couldn’t paint his sculpture because of the constant down pours: Robert Grosvenor was in a huddle with worried helpers trying to figure out how to mount his sculpture for the process required a crane so heavy it would sink into the sodden soil if it were used in the park; in the movie tent where an ambitious film program was to be shown daily, a young kid was struggling to operate the single projector—few films were actually available as the majority had to go unexpectedly to The Hague to be sufficiently reinforced to withstand continuous showings. The exhibition gave an overwhelming impression of Beeren’s inability to handle anything he couldn’t foresee. The Sonsbeek catalog states his dream of a loosely structured show that would unfold during the summer like a piece of process art. But he lacked the necessary administrative flexibility to handle it. As a result, the exhibition in its initial stages began to feel like a Surrealist theater piece with Beeren and staff as the unwilling cast. (I can’t vouch for what happened after June 30th. Serra was to do a piece and a second section of the catalog was to be published by August 15th with photo-documentation of the whole summer’s activities.)

Obviously Beeren used the occasion and the park as a pretext to include avant-garde artists of every nationality and tendency that he thought important: film makers, sculptors, process artists, conceptual artists, earth artists, minimal artists, video experimentalists, etc. The exhibition became the victim of his ambition—bursting beyond the confines of the park like an overstuffed sausage spreading into towns all over Holland. . . .

The participants in Sonsbeek were as follows:

Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, Bruce Baillie, Ronald Bladen, Tony Conrad, Fluxus, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Dan Graham, Robert Grosvenor, Michael Heizer✶, Douglas Huebler, Ken Jacobs, Donald Judd, George Landow, Standish Dyer Lawder, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Robert Nelson, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Nam June Paik, Ed Ruscha, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, Paul Sharits, Eric Siegel, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, Kenneth Snelson, Michael Snow, Lawrence Seiner
✶although listed, Heizer withdrew from the exhibition

Bas Jan Ader, Ben d’Armagnac, Douwe Jan Bakker, Boezem, Stanley Brouwn, Ger Dekkers, Ad Dekkers, Jan Dibbets, Ger van Elk, Pieter Engels, Groep Enschede—(Nico van den Berg, Sake de Boer, Pier van Dijk, Wim van Stek, Dries Ringenier), E.R.G. (Eventstructure Research Group), (Theo Botschuijver, Jeffrey Shaw), Hans Eykelboom, I.C.W. (Institute for Creative Work, Joepat, Hans Koetsier, Axel van der Kraan, Mass Moving—(Raphaël Opstaël, Jef de Groote, Bernard Delville, Helen Pink, Elisabeth Magis, Vincent Loute, Fons van Assche), Groep Noord-Brabant—(Theo Besemer, Cees Gubbels, Hub Hendrickx Hub Leyendeckers, J.C.J. van der Heyden, Johan Lennarts, Pieter Laurens Mol, Rolf Weber), Panamarenko, E. Philips, Wim T. Schippers, Koert Stuyf, Shinkichi Tajiri, Carel Visser, André Volten, Hans de Vries, Lex Wechgelaar

Daniel Buren, Jean-Michel Sanejouand

On Kawara, Yutaka Matsuzawa

Barry Flanagan, Richard Long

Peter Kubelka

Mario Merz, Emilio Prini

Joseph Beuys, Hanne Darboven, W. Knoebel, Klaus Rinke, Peter Roehr, Ulrich Rückreim

Participants are listed by country of residence, by group affiliation, or by nationality.
This list is taken from the first section of the “Sonsbeek ’71” catalog and may be incomplete. A second catalog is in preparation.
(The only question about this list is how on earth Joseph Kosuth missed the ark.)

Since the show was so diffuse, so eclectic, as to preclude coherent linear discussion, the following notes are offered as an effort to evoke the scene in Holland and the peculiar revelations that occurred there.

Context: The Park

The park gave me a gentle shock of lunacy every time I entered it. It looked like a gargantuan child’s playroom filled with toys. Inside the gate were live deer in an enclosure (permanent park residents). Straight ahead, Ronald Bladen’s huge triangular work loomed—a black wall obscuring the park mansion behind it. From the side, the piece tapered gently down for 30 meters, ending short of the mansion’s entrance and completely filling the driveway up to the building. Several strange, bulbous shapes were scattered over the lawn, tents built by a Dutch group called E.R.G. (Eventstructure Research Group) to house communications equipment for the exhibition. Their gross inflated forms overwhelmed all the sculpture in the park. Behind the mansion, a 20 foot Oldenburg steel trowel stuck stiffly in the ground. A Dutch artist, André Volten, buried a hollow, open mouthed steel sphere in the ground a few feet in back of the mansion, as if the giant child played with George Kovacs light fixtures too. Another Dutchman, Wim T. Schippers, was responsible for a stuccoed model of a car, 26 feet long, that lurked mindlessly off to one side of the building.

Back on the front lawn, Sol LeWitt’s modular piece sat slightly askew on uneven soil, dwarfed by great trees. Made to relate to human scale, the interior scale of rooms and architecture, this strong, squat network of open cubes that had such chunky elegance in the “Guggenheim International,” seemed lost among immense tree trunks.

The Sonsbeek organizers speak at length in the catalog about this show’s focus on problems of space and scale. The only lesson I can derive from the appearance of the park is how limited the understanding of these concepts seems to be—especially in terms of outdoor space and the scale of sculpture in relationship to it.

The confusion is deeper than visual. The first piece Carl Andre made for the show was mistaken for debris by a park attendant and thrown away—covertly—in several installments. The man may have guessed the jumble of tubes and string he removed were related to the activities in his park, but he couldn’t accept their presence as meaningful.

Among the pieces that did work:

Donald Judd—at first sight depressingly clumsy. It functioned on the same principle as the “Guggenheim International” piece; an inner section with its upper edge parallel to the slope it rested on and an outer one, whose upper edge was level. A square shape, it came to eye level when I stood behind it. I had to peer over the outside wall to see the inner wall—cramped unexpectedly close to the outer one with only about ten inches of breathing space between the two—very little considering the massiveness of the piece. The work was steel with some surface embellishment, a few torch-burned squiggles. It seemed to lack any relationship to the green hill it stood on, except for the arbitrary one of slope. Then I realized its alienness wasn’t a product of insensitivity to site, but of something else, something intrinsic—a deliberate muteness and withdrawal. It related negatively, almost antidescriptively. Its strength seemed to lie in its ability to loom there autistically.

Kenneth Snelson—his piece had two different appearances: first from the road approaching the park where it crowned a slope marked by wire-and-post fences, its aluminum tubes a tangle of almost fence posts (landscape and object merged); then, inside the park it became a triangular extension cantilevered over a small pond that had been invisible from the road. Tubular curls of dry lily leaves clustered beneath it in the water. Snelson’s sculpture has never appealed to me, but this piece seemed to work. Its tidiness fit well with the scrupulousness of the park and the town visible beyond.

Carel Visser—Visser’s piece was hidden in the woods behind the mansion. It had two sections, a flat grid of iron strips laid on the ground and a raised, three-dimensional grid, suspended among the trees. The conjunction of suspended and flat felt arbitrary. The idea was too prominent, destroying some of the work’s subtlety. It was also derivative of LeWitt; but it made its own sense among the trees, blending with their slender brown and black trunks.

Tony Smith—Smith knows how to add punctuation to a natural space. His simple triangular frame accompanied a magnificent beech tree in the park. When I thought about the piece after seeing it, I forgot its basic formal weakness and remembered only the handsome mixture of black shape and deep maroon leaves.

After several trips to the park, the strong sense of American dominance, partially through the emphasis given them, but also through the strength of their images—in contrast to the studied timidity of most Dutch efforts: Ulrich Rückriem, whose split iron ring looked good in the catalog photographs but was barely visible in the park, or Ad Dekkers’ pretentious playground trifle.

CONTRAST THE IMMATURITY OF the efforts in the park with what happened outside: the flaccidness of the performances, the look of what the park contained, the amateurishness of the film show (poor Jan Dibbets was met with total incomprehension when he requested the use of four projectors running simultaneously to do the film piece he was truly interested in presenting rather than the one he did subsequently).

Critical events occurred outside the park. If Holland’s boundaries are taken as this show’s boundaries with site events occurring throughout the country, the exhibition acquires new and fascinating significance—something its planners sensed but did not comprehend fully. In fact, “Sonsbeek 71” moved beyond the park by default rather than intent. Two things forced Beeren’s hand 1) an exhausted budget 2) the obvious unsuitability of the park site for the work of artists such as Morris and Smithson. (Smithson found his own site.) To Beeren’s great credit, he elicited funds and cooperation from town and museum officials all over Holland to support the activities outside the park.

Smithson’s piece: a long, wearisome train ride to the northeast; Emmen, a planned, post-W. W. II town; cold, misty rain. Met the Smithsons in their hotel. We rode bicycles, first to see a pre-Christian burial site of the Hun, a mysterious oval of glacial rocks set upright like teeth; the grave set in a symmetrical grove of trees. Then on to Smithson’s piece in a quarry outside the town, a geologically freakish area where half a dozen different soils and sands were striated together by the push of the glacier’s edge. The site was strange to Dutch eyes even before Smithson began work. It had a wild look in this physically domesticated country. With bulldozers, Smithson built a large conical hill on the edge of the quarry lake and grooved a spiral path to its top. Below, a circular island of white and ochre sand with a curved canal along one half, extended into the lake. I sensed that the diameter of the hill and the island were similar but somehow the site defied accurate perception of its size (in memory, the hill could have been 30 feet high or 50 feet high). By chance, a huge glacial rock was already on the site in the very center of Smithson’s man-made island. Across the lake, iron oxide cliffs reflected their orange color into the still, green water. As we watched, townspeople, taking advantage of a break in the rain, trailed out to the site in red and yellow raincoats. Smithson’s exuberance for the site, for the unique diking shovel the Dutch workmen used, for the manner in which his island was created—by digging it up from the bottom the way dikes are built, rather than pouring in fill the way he made his Spiral Jetty in Utah. A strong sense of reflections, the lake a huge mirror, the island itself a play of positive sand cutout, negative canals of green water; the regular rounded contours of the hill and island in play against the rough red cliffs. Two young brothers who owned the quarry built Smithson’s piece with incredible enthusiasm. Another man, a geologist and civic activist, served as a skillful intermediary for Smithson between workers and city officials. Delighted by his role in bringing the piece into being, by his opportunity to talk to the Smithsons and stretch his own perceptions, he had a professional interest in preserving the quarry site for its geological uniqueness—a task made easy by Smithson’s involvement there.

One way of looking at Smithson’s piece is to consider it an earth garden on a grand scale, to compare it to the Sonsbeek Park itself—in the sense that both are works of man designed to enhance or augment their surroundings for human delectation. One begins to long for some unplanned wilderness in Holland. Everything has been touched by man’s hand—probably the reason why Smithson’s and Morris’ pieces merge so easily, in so relaxed a way, into their surroundings.

They were moving towards artistic control over the artificially irregular, very attractive to men who were becoming confident of this power to change the natural scene at will, and therefore were at last free to indulge their lust for its beauties and then to set about improving on the arrangement of natural elements, keeping only a simulacrum, an artifice of natures sweet disorder, in the pictorial, in the original sense of the word, picturesque order they imposed.

In Leyden, Morris’ piece took shape slowly on a large plain surrounded by trees and close to a sandy, dune-filled region that was already public park land. Since the piece was on municipal land, Morris hoped it would become part of the neighborhood recreation area and not be destroyed.

The project was one of several Morris never had the opportunity to realize. He calls it an observatory: it is built on axes that allow it to mark four sun positions: two solstices and two equinoxes. Morris is very happy about the way it functions as a solar calendar. In his words “it sort of embeds it in time,” giving it a relationship to something beyond the earth, a distinct temporal aspect as well as a physical one.

When I saw the piece, it had barely progressed. Only the beginning of several enclosures were visible: an inner one—a circle of stripped poles set against each other like a fence, and two outer circles marked by stakes. Morris kept encountering middle level construction problems; he had the diggers but not the engineers. Later, the situation improved and the work was finished by the end of the third week in July. Morris had to raise money himself to finish the project by selling two of his works to the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller.

The work is approximately 100 feet across. It appears in photographs of its final form like a man-made crater. The inner circle has been built up with soil and sod into a wall higher than a man. It has four openings, a main entrance and three breaks opposite the entrance that mark solstice and equinox sight lines. Ribs of earth extend from the inner wall along the equinox sight line to two huge, rectangular steel plates set at an angle to each other, creating a triangular gap through which the rising sun is visible at the equinox. The plates are part of the outermost rim of the piece, a complexly contoured ridge with smooth and raised areas. Two other humps in this rim, to the right and left of the steel planes, are crowned by rocks also angled to create viewing grooves in line with the solstice breaks in the inner ring.

(Interesting to see Morris picking up on an idea he elaborated in a fictional description of three artists he wrote for Artforum last spring.) Artschwager’s tidy blips looked well in Utrecht, a small town already filled with lozenge-shaped signs. Here again, the artist’s presence delighted a young museum director, responsible for building a collection of modern art in that ancient town. This man did all the administrative spadework for Artschwager, arranging with municipal authorities and private individuals for placing the blips. Again, a sense that the artist provided an opportunity for the lively few in town interested in contemporary art (or simply interested) to talk and argue and get excited by first-hand contact with an American artist. Memories from Utrecht include the sight of a vertical, white blip on the door of a windmill, a goat in a vest pocket zoo nibbling on a blip in his corral, and a large white blip set against green grass near a man-made lake in the zoo park.

A curious law concerning the flow of information about unfamiliar phenomena seems to have been revealed by this show. If there is an initial level of involvement, some way in which an unfamiliar art activity, in this case site pieces by American artists, can be located physically in a familiar frame of reference—then there is real communication of the meaning of the activity. It is nonverbal (the language barrier in Holland helped clarify this because no real spoken explanation could be made, even though most Dutchmen speak some English). When one considers how little information was conveyed by the Museum of Modern Art “Information” show in 1970, where printed words were relied on so heavily, one begins to realize how many other modes of imparting information exist—physical, body-involving ones that can bridge the gap of comprehension when there is no familiar verbal context to use as a basis for understanding.

The major error with site works has been to confuse them with other conceptual forms that do rely on a linguistic basis for their meaning—instead of accepting the fact they are large-scale physical experiences that must be apprehended accordingly. It’s amazing to see how the most advanced sort of art activity was grasped so intuitively by Dutchmen when it took place in their own landscape and surroundings. No questions about higher meaning, just acceptance of the activity.

Back to the Sonsbeek Park:

Much talk there about how the show was being brought to the public. Considerable funds invested in elaborate video tents, which (while I was there) were real turn-offs to participation. Although advertised as open for individual use and experimentation, one Dutch artist (Jan Dibbets) wanting to play around with the consoles was chased away by a security guard who thought the word was “protection” not “participation.”

The effort to emphasize the information aspect of the show seems to be based on an almost primitive belief that if you have a machine, you also have control of the spirits inside it.

A Speculation:

There appears to have been a more vital interaction between those Dutchmen who got involved in the projects outside Sonsbeek Park than in the artificially induced interaction of artists and technologists in the West Coast “A & T” exhibition. What might have been the difference?

Whether they understood that what they were dealing with was art or not, the Dutch at every level opened themselves up; they sensed something strange and exciting taking place in their cities and jumped in spontaneously to help.

✶Edward Hyams, The English Garden (London, 1966), p. 22.

Kasha Linville