Stanley Brouwn

Of nine works in this exhibition, two came from Stanley Brouwn’s “This Way Brouwn” series from the early 1960s. In these legendary pieces, he asked passersby to give directions to specific locations and encouraged them to draw him maps. The results on sheets of paper were small street plans, city blocks hastily sketched to accompany verbal directions. (It should be noted that Brouwn refused to allow his work to be reproduced in print.) The artist then stamped the phrase THIS WAY BROUWN on the documents to authenticate them as artworks.

Brouwn, who died in May, devoted his artistic life to an unconventional form of abstraction. In a way, his work feels like a postwar elaboration of Dutch modernism, particularly De Stijl: Brouwn reduces the rational lines of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg to traces and measurements of a body. Associated first with Fluxus and later with Conceptual art, Brouwn used systems to create works from his own body or, in a sense, others’ bodies. At Jan Mot, three works from the 1970s showed measurements marked on paper in a vertical line representing a meter, with titles such as 1 mm 1:1/379, 1976, while another two from the 1980s list numbers from one to one thousand (for a meter). In these, Brouwn underlined the number that corresponded to a particular unit based on the body (an ell, a foot). Titles were simple descriptions of measurement, such as 1 foot 260 mm 1 ell 470 mm 1 step 750 mm 1 m 1000 mm, 1989. The most recent of the pieces here, 1 x 1 ell divided in 8 triangles, 2003, transformed the lines of the measurement of an elbow into a geometrical composition.

The seeming ease of Brouwn’s gestures has provided surprisingly rich material for other artists to build on. Especially since the 1990s, his work has had a significant influence on a number of artists, from Tino Sehgal to Studio for Propositional Cinema. What keeps Brouwn’s practice so engaging after more than fifty years is the way it addresses a variety of salient contemporary subjects with an elegant, almost baffling, simplicity. His works are strikingly complex in their minimalism. “This Way Brouwn,” for example, questions the role of authorship with drawings attributed to the artist, yet not made by his hand. One could also say they are about how we perceive space and cities, a kind of psychogeography. Brouwn explored alternative ways to represent the body, and his use of measurements and systems, as others have noted, recalls avant-garde writing strategies, such as those of the Oulipo. Yet to say that Brouwn’s work is about only this or that limits its scope: All are essential elements in his unexpected abstractions.

Of the two previously cited examples from “This Way Brouwn,” one, dated 1962, is just a blank piece of paper. The only mark on it is the stamp that the artist added, along with his signature and the date. The directions were apparently given verbally. The Mallarmé-esque blankness of the page was particularly striking when encountered among the other works. The columns of figures and the lines of an abstracted body were in stark contrast to an empty paper that, in the face of Brouwn’s recent passing, possessed the quality of a memorial.

Aaron Peck