Jan Dibbets

Jan Dibbets’ work is Dutch as Dutch can be. Last February the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven held an exhibition of his work from 1972–80.

Born in 1941, Dibbets was originally a painter. He went to the Academy in Tilburg and studied for some time at London’s St. Martin ’s School of Art. Around 1967, he decided that painting had led him to a dead end, and that the next logical step was total three-dimensionality.

After this sidestep into sculpture Dibbets found his way: he made a number of projects about light like “The Shadows In My Studio”, 1969, a sequence of photographs taken every ten minutes between 8:40 A.M. and 2:10 P.M. He composed his famous “Perspective Corrections,” photographs in which he plays with perspective in many different ways, using small sticks, ropes, or dugout holes in the shape of trapezoids that look like squares when seen from a certain distance. He shot films and videotapes which deal mostly with perspective, sometimes combined with time-space questions, sometimes about the conflict between reality and illusion. An example of the latter was a piece he did in ’69 for the opening of an exhibition in Krefeld, West Germany, where the screen on which a film of fire was shown was itself set on fire as the film ended. Dibbets also made photographic collages, like the well-known “Dutch-Mountain” series in which the flattest part of what is probably the flattest country in the world, suddenly starts to rise.

Dibbets makes known facts controversial—a landscape is manipulated and reconstructed through collage. He confronts truth (“the camera cannot lie”) with imagination (a sea in the shape of a comet). He concentrates on four areas: 1) Form—clear, geometrical compositions put neatly and carefully together, 2) Perspective—not to unify disparate parts but as something to be manipulated, to be played with, 3) Contrast between shadow and light—a traditional Dutch artistic concern, and 4) Nature—as a source of inspiration. These four elements are very typical in the Dutch history of art, and they coincided in the ’60s with similar concerns in the contemporary art world. But Dibbet’s background is the culture of Holland, not a tangent of any international movement or group. He draws a clear line from the work of Saenredam, the 17th-century Dutch painter of church interiors, to whom he dedicated some of his latest works, via Mondrian’s work to his own work. Dibbets’ camera replaces brush and paint, yet it is not the approach of a photographer, but of a painter. He uses his knowledge of art history to augment his own expression.

Dibbets’ interest in basic, surveyable compositions inspired by reality—also a major characteristic in the work of Saenredam and Mondrian—is even more apparent in the three groups of work: the “Structure Pieces,” the “Colour Studies” and the “Structure Panoramas.” Their visual content is minimal. There are virtually no games anymore. If the subject is a bannister, a row of houses, or a line of tiles, Dibbets models them into a purely abstract shape.

Writing this last sentence, I am reminded of Mondrian’s essay of 1919, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality” that stated: “As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself esthetically purified, that is to say, with abstract form.” In the last few years, the work of his countryman, Jan Dibbets, has reached this level. His interest in the past and his ability to tackle classical problems make the work outstanding. If art had religions, Dibbets’ work would be Dutch Calvinist.

Micky Piller