New York

Bas Jan Ader

Nicole Klagsbrun

In a comic send-up of the difficulty of pinning down the ever-elusive artist, Bas Jan Ader’s 1972 series of untitled photographs depicts a simple method for capturing a plein air painter. A large crate propped open by a stick is set in an appropriately idyllic woodland grove. Baited by an attractive tea service, the painter (played by Ader) abandons his easel and creeps under the open box to take some refreshment. At this point, the hunter pulls away the stick, trapping the artist. Thus the tea party, which begins with a man and ends with a Minimalist cube is also a postcard passage from Romanticism to Conceptualism—the well-traveled routes of Ader’s own project.

Though Ader’s works might read as documents of performances, the Dutch artist was adamant that these incidents were real rather than staged events. Like Robert Cumming and William Wegman, Ader uses captioned snapshots to record—diary fashion—the passage of days spent in Walter Mitty-ish flights of fancy. This fine survey of photographs and film from the ’70s was evidence of the seamless join between the artist’s northern European heritage and the realities of his California experience.

In Farewell to Faraway Friends, 1971, in which Ader is silhouetted against a fiery ocean sunset, Caspar David Friedrich meets “Play Misty for Me” in a poster-perfect moment. With equally contemporary candor, he takes on the looming legacy of Piet Mondrian in On the Road to a New Plasticism/Westkepelle Holland, 1971, which finds him dressed in black, lying face-down on a blue blanket with a yellow jug and red box, making semaphorelike Constructivist compositions. The Westkepelle lighthouse that led Mondrian to his own breakthroughs in abstraction looms in the distance. But Ader’s weird genuflections become the stuff of slapstick when, in another frame, he encounters some pitfall and stumbles before his goal.

For Ader, falling was tantamount with failing and his work is filled with images of his own pratfalls. The gallery’s film roster showed two “broken falls” as well as I’m too sad to tell you (all 1971), a picture of disappointment no less moving because the cause of the artist’s abject emotional state remains a mystery. Attuned as he was to the poetic possibilities of failure, Ader’s last work, In Search of the Miraculous, 1973, might be considered a tragic success. In 1975, having set sail in a small boat from Cape Cod to cross the Atlantic, Ader disappeared off the coast of Ireland. Eerily foreshadowing this event, a related series of inscribed photographs, “In Search of the Miracles (One Night in Los Angeles),” 1973, shows the artist—spurred on by the lyrics to the Coasters hit, “Searchin’,”1957—combing the city, flashlight in hand, eventually reaching his goal, the sea.

Ingrid Schaffner