PRINT Summer 2009


Coosje van Bruggen

“PREPARE YOURSELF TO SPEAK with Coosje van Bruggen,” the assistant on the other end of the line said. Little did I know what I was preparing myself for. The call came after I had first met Coosje at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles in 1981. I had just finished my MFA at CalArts, where I studied with Michael Asher (who introduced us), John Baldessari, and Douglas Huebler, among others. I showed Coosje my work and she asked her husband, Claes Oldenburg, to join us; two days later, the phone rang. She informed me that they wanted to acquire the piece we had talked about. They were the first people to buy my work. It always meant so much to me that SOURCE, The Photographic Archive, John F. Kennedy Library . . . , 1981, was installed in their home for many years, together with works by Donald Judd, Louise Lawler, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, and, of course, Claes and Coosje.

Coosje emerged in the milieu of Conceptual art in the late 1960s and became one of its earliest historians, working as a member of the curatorial staff at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. She began collaborating with Claes in 1976 (they married in 1977) as both an artist and the primary scholar of his work. Coosje also served as a member of the selection committee for Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982 and as a regular contributor to Artforum from 1983 to 1988. Her scholarly work culminated in definitive monographs on Baldessari, Hanne Darboven, Frank Gehry, and Bruce Nauman.

Coosje’s chosen medium was writing, but verbal discussion was most natural to her. She would say, “Do you have a couple of minutes? We have to be quick, I’m really busy.” Then she would launch into a discussion that could last several hours. Initially our conversations focused on my work, but they soon broadened. Where others saw difference between the work of the first generation of Conceptual artists and that of my generation, Coosje perceived continuity, citing a sense of overlap and interaction. In the catalogue accompanying two concurrent exhibitions she guest-curated in 1984 for De Appel in Amsterdam and the Gewad in Ghent, she discussed my work and that of Jenny Holzer, Stephen Prina, and Mark Stahl within the context of Dara Birnbaum, Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger, Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, Richard Prince, Jeff Wall, and Group Material, thus working against the marginalization of Los Angeles artists by positioning them in a larger perspective. Her interest in the work of Asher, Baldessari, Sam Francis, Gehry, John Knight, Nauman, and Prina was representative of her long-standing investment in West Coast art.

As time went on, our conversations turned to Coosje’s practice: her curatorial work, her work as an art historian, and her work with Claes. The stakes were always high for Coosje. Her starting place was always the work of art and discussions with the artist. She believed that writing should not come out of a preexisting methodology or ideological position. While she felt that a psychoanalytic approach seemed appropriate for thinking about Baldessari, it wouldn’t work for Judd. When she was working on her Nauman book, I asked her about his photographic piece Flour Arrangements, 1967. She asked if I knew that Nauman had made it in relation to Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, 1920, a photograph he and Marcel Duchamp made of the latter’s “Large Glass,” 1915–23. Did I know that it took three months for the dust to accumulate on Duchamp’s work, and that the long exposure was made while the two artists left the studio to eat at a café? On the other hand, Coosje recounted that Nauman worked on Flour Arrangements in his studio for about a month, doing nothing but pushing mounds of flour around in different compositions on the floor and photographing them. She asked me whether I thought this reinvestment in physical labor was a critical response to the cooler, indifferent approach of Man Ray/Duchamp. Finally, did I know Baldessari’s video Folding Hat: Version 1, 1970? Did I think it was a response to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements and Man Ray’s photographs of hats? And why did all the LA artists talk about Man Ray when nobody else did?

These discussions were part interrogation, part psychoanalysis, part anthropological fieldwork—and if you weren’t sure that what you were telling Coosje was correct, you had better let her know, as she would always find out. Her defiantly thorough research yielded hundreds of blue file folders, filling a remarkable four-sided cabinet Judd had designed for her. Each book was mapped out on a room-length bulletin board like a storyboard. I was recently reminded that when she had completed a book, she would destroy her notes and research material.

Like many others, I was a frequent houseguest at Coosje and Claes’s home in New York in the ’80s and ’90s. To me, one of the defining characteristics of that house was a long table adjacent to the kitchen. You never knew who you would bump into there: Baldessari, Germano Celant, Mark Francis, Gehry, Pontus Hultén, and Wall, to name a few. Coosje always seemed to have some issue she wanted to put on that table. Everything was constantly being reassessed; every conversation was intense and filled with a sense of urgency. At the same time, Coosje was also capable of goofing around. In the early days, she gave me lessons in Dutch slang, my favorite phrase translating as “What’s that hanging on my bicycle?”—meaning, “What have I picked up along the way?” I am not sure, but she may have been referring to me.

Christopher Williams is an artist based in Los Angeles.