On the last day of my two-month experiment in Dutch living, I squeezed in a visit to the vaunted Kröller-Müller Museum and Sculpture Garden near Otterlo, the Netherlands. It had always been on my to-see list because of Claes Oldenburg’s Trowel I (1971-76)—one of his earliest large-scale projects—but I was also curious to think about the sculpture garden in relation to our very own 100 Acres.
The Kröller-Müller is located on about 60 acres, set within De Hoge Veluwe National Park, and visitors can either park their cars nearby and take a brief walk to the museum, or leave their cars in several locations along the park border and pick up a free bike to cycle to the museum. Taking the latter option, I started to think about the art-viewing pilgrimage—whether it’s climbing the steps of a neoclassical art temple, riding in a van across the New Mexico countryside to reach The Lightning Field, or wending your way through the IMA’s formal gardens and crossing the canal into 100 Acres. Before the art viewing, there is the preparing for the art viewing. Not a walk for the sake of a walk, but a palate cleanser in anticipation of a specific, intentional sensory experience.
Along this same vein, I recently enjoyed encountering several empty galleries at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. As part of its temporary program during the construction of its new wing, the Stedelijk has reopened its renovated original building with a changing installation of works from their permanent collection. Interspersed between galleries that for the most part contain single artworks, are unlit vacant spaces that are at first curious, and, upon further consideration, revelatory. These spaces were designed in part as a creative solution to the fact that the museum is still under construction—insufficient climate control, the need for light blocks for new media works—but they also provide a fascinating pause between artworks: a breath in the often-overwhelming bam-bam-bam of artworks presented in quick succession. The rooms draw your attention to the building itself—its architecture, its history, its key role in the framing of each work on display.
Most important about the darkened rooms is that they do a fine job of affirming one’s place in the world/city/building/room, urging you to consider your presence as a body in space (phenomenology, if you will). Also very successful at accomplishing this is Dan Graham’s Two Adjacent Pavilions (first version 1978, second version 2001), which is sited near the entrance of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Made of glass and steel, Two Adjacent Pavilions is part architecture, part sculpture, and its reflective surfaces frame and mirror the lush grounds, the more traditional sculpture nearby (Mark Di Suvero’s K-piece, 1972), and also your own encounter with the structure. Entering the glass cubes (the doors were propped open), I was immediately hurtled into an unstable ground between experiencing the work and being the work. The subject/object relationship was upended marvelously, and I was made acutely aware of my own presence, the proximity of others, and Graham’s expert insistence upon his art’s integration with its context. His art is the context.
I’ll commit a crime here and skip over the contents of the actual museum (except to note that a gallery of early Piet Mondrians is one of the most impressive displays of Modern painting I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing, to say nothing of their collection of Van Goghs) and move directly to the sculpture garden. Opened in 1961, the sculpture garden was designed to capitalize on the museum’s stunning natural surroundings, originally housing sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in formally groomed outdoor galleries and an open-air pavilion by Gerrit Rietveld that was added in 1964. As years passed, the sculpture garden expanded beyond the bounds of the original plans and leaked into the wooded areas surrounding it.
In 1974, the Kröller-Müller added the striking and unmissable Jardin d’émail by Jean Dubuffet. (No, Dubuffet was not a savant who predicted the terminology of the coming technological revolution: émail means enamel in French.) Those who have seen the IMA’s Dubuffet painting from 1964, Courre Merlan, or his large-scale sculpture Monument with Standing Beast outside of the Thompson Center in Chicago, will recognize the black-and-white outlined forms of the artist’s signature art brut style. Quite the opposite of Dan Graham’s glass pavilions, Dubuffet’s bright-white landscape contrasts sharply with its environment. The “enamel garden,” made of concrete and polyurethane painted with epoxy, sprung from the artist’s imagination in the form of a model he created in his studio in 1968, before its final destination was known. This garden-within-a-garden struck me at first as a bizarro mash-up of Alfredo Jaar’s Park of the Laments (you enter from underneath and climb stairs into its center), and Atelier van Lieshout’s Funky Bones (the material, the color, the stylized forms). Traversing Dubuffet’s landscape, I felt as if my fellow garden-goers and I had swallowed an “eat me” pill and emerged on planet Dubuffet, free to cavort and recline within one of his famed Hourloupe paintings. The anti-nature of this garden, surrounded by a ring of trees, reminded me once more that successful outdoor art need not be made of rocks or blend subtly with its environment to engender a fruitful consideration of the relationship between the self and the natural world.