New York

Jan Dibbets

Overheard at the opening for Jan Dibbets’s recent exhibition of late-’60s and ’70s work: “Old? Yes, they’re old. Maybe old enough for people to actually see them.” That the speaker was Dibbets himself doesn’t make the remark any less perceptive. This museum-quality miniretrospective succeeded not just in resituating Dibbets’s photography within so-called Dutch Conceptualism but also in helping us reconsider the broader Conceptualist break from art’s reliance on the object. What the exhibition demonstrated is that Dibbets’s compositions, for all their austerity and almost exaggerated rigor, are much closer to painting—and much more aesthetically pleasing—than they may once have seemed.

Among the thirteen works on view was Shortest Day at My House in Amsterdam, 1970, a gridded series of eighty photographs taken by a stationary camera: one shot every eight minutes on December 21, 1970, starting just before dawn and ending just after sunset. It is the perfect marriage of a formal study of rectangles and light (and darkness) and a conceptual investigation of temporality. Stem, precise, and deadpan, the work manages to convey a profound melancholy—the kind one feels while gazing out a window on a dreary winter day, watching time pass. It is the solstice: it is Amsterdam. Like Wallace Stevens’s poetry, the work invites us to consider “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

In Land 0°–135°, 1972, Dibbets presents the flat Dutch landscape in a sequence of ten large color photographs that look as if they were shot from a careening airplane. His method is actually much more prosaic: He turned the camera fifteen degrees with each shot, so that, “reading” the piece sequentially, we begin with sky over earth, proceed through a set of counterclockwise distortions of the horizon, and end with earth over sky. Again, a geometric formalism and perspectival inquiry poignantly merge into a meditation on the facticity of time, place, and repetition.

Three sets of monochromatic “Color-study” pieces from 1976 focus on car hoods. They are what they are, but, looking closely, you think you can see a world reflected in their alternately sleek and duty surfaces. Elsewhere, Leaves Structure, 1974, arranges close-ups of fallen foliage in a composite pattern so that the figure/ground relation is obscured and no seams between the shots are visible. It would be incorrect to say that Dibbets denaturalizes the natural with these images; instead, he actually reanimates an otherwise evacuated topos.

While Dibbets’s debt to Mondrian is made clear in this show, even more noticeable is what other artists owe Dibbets. Hockney’s photographic compositions, which come later, seem much less effective in light of this work On the other hand, Gursky’s mid-’90s photographs of a Times Square hotel atrium become even more interesting when considered in dialogue with their precursors. Gursky’s presentation of the simultaneity of busyness and business globalizes Dibbets’s sequential (more existential, more lyrical) localism—an effect we can see only now, just as the very idea of the “local” approaches obsolescence.

Nico Israel