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JAN DIBBETS

J AN D IBBETS Land Sea Colour

Land Sea Colour

Alan Cristea Gallery


J AN D IBBETS Land Sea Colour


The Alan Cristea Gallery at 31&34 Cork St. London W1S 3NU Telephone +44(0)20 7439 1866 Facsimile +44(0)20 7439 1874 Email: info@alancristea.com Website: www.alancristea.com


J AN D IBBETS Land Sea Colour

21 March – 20 April 2013

Alan Cristea Gallery


Jan Dibbets A Third Way for Photography

Photography is in crisis today. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, many of the medium’s traditional film-based tools have been terminated or reconfigured, and its conventional hard-copy production and printmedia distribution points have been displaced. Radical transformations in the making and interpretation and circulation of photographic images, driven forward in large part by new digital technologies, now open onto quite different networks of reception and pulsing flows of information. Morphing into a wide range of electronic technologies and platforms, from iPhones to eBooks, from Flickr to Facebook, photography is ubiquitous and rapidly changing, faster and easier, more vast and more accessible, reaching global users instantly and simultaneously. These technological changes in photography itself have challenged the once-certain veracity of the photographic image and, at the same time, created vast changes in the behaviors and expectations of makers and audiences. The new, shapeshifting forms that photography has adopted as the lingua franca of the digital age have produced widespread anxiety. But while these recent changes in the nature and social uses of photography seem sudden and technologically determined, their intellectual and artistic roots lie in an earlier rupture in visual culture that resonated throughout the international art world in the mid-1960s. As a series of recent exhibitions have shown, around 1965, artists from a disparate variety of disciplines, nationalities, and points of view

simultaneously began to challenge the conventional ideas and tools and sites of contemporary art-making, particularly as expressed in painting and sculpture.1 That broadly manifested rent in art making and art criticism substantially redirected the perception of photographic presumptions, among other things. This challenge to the fundamental nature of photography came not from fine-art photographers but from a quite different strain of artists using photography. This new approach was especially evident in conceptual art, which employed photography in a variety of innovative ways unrelated to the aesthetics of the medium and designed primarily to de-emphasize the material status of the traditional art object and to concentrate attention on ideas and processes. For most conceptual artists, photography itself, as a subject or medium, was largely beside the point. They were only interested in the “informational possibilities of black and white photography.”2 At the same time, as information, photography was central to conceptual art and its critical investigations. The social status of the photograph as fact or evidence allowed conceptual artists to interrogate the status and role of the artist, to challenge the means of art’s distribution, to overturn the commodity character of the art object, to expose the political function of art institutions, and to highlight the crucial participation of the viewer in the reception and completion of a work of art. At best, the banal photographs conceptual artists made or conscripted to illustrate their conceptual ideas were


regarded as undifferentiated or low-energy images, akin to monochromatic canvases or the blank prose of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s fiction. Nevertheless, conceptual artists engaged photography in their works in a surprisingly protean range of operations: as a record of performances or actions; as a documentation of a physical artwork not present; as a communication between artist and viewer; as an analogue or stand-in for a word or idea; as a typological catalogue of like forms; as the basis for a visual pun or parody; and occasionally as a work of art in itself. These novel uses of photography were largely unrelated to the medium’s aesthetic value, but had profound and far-reaching effects in shaping visual culture, ones with deep ramifications even today. As art historian Matthew Witkovsky has recently claimed, “In the Conceptual era of the 1960s and 1970s, photography definitively became the paradigmatic form of contemporary art.”3 It is crucial, then, to look again at the work of the artists responsible for these newly relevant shifts and to understand how their views redirected photography and shaped how it appears to us today. Curiously, the only artist among the conceptualists who committed totally to photography and to investigating the unique visual properties and paradoxes of the medium was the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets (born 1941). Though he began as a painter, and later played a crucial role in the conceptual art movement, Dibbets has always considered himself first and foremost a photographer. Uniquely among conceptual artists, Dibbets examined the photograph itself, plumbing the depths of the medium and insisting that, for him, the photograph was the work.4 In fact, his allegiance to this medium over forty years is impressive; the types of photographs that Dibbets takes are utterly unique and entirely consistent. His photographs are straightforward and unmanipulated, the type of photographs anyone could make. One could say that the simplicity or dumbness of the photographs provides their

generative power since, for Dibbets, the fundamental goal is to unmask the seemingly self-evident role of photography as a legitimate depiction of the world, and to show how even simple operations can expose photography’s illusion. For an audience in thrall to the photographic image, thoroughly accepting of its conventions, it is often hard to make this point. That is why Dibbets often resorts to eccentric forms and combinations of photographs, twisting and turning the images, making mountains and comets out of horizon lines (cat. 1), using words and drawings to peel back the seeming inevitability of photography’s representation of reality. Dibbets takes the notion that cameras do lie and pushes it further, claiming boldly that reality itself is an abstraction.5 In other words, our perception of material reality is mediated not only by physiological impediments, such as the viewer’s monocular vision and psychophysical processes, but also by cultural constructions, including all manner of representations. Of these cultural constructions, photography is probably the most compelling. The distorted analogue to the real world that photographs provide has become so convincing and persuasive, that today photographs are generally accepted as literal transcriptions of reality. In the past several decades – that is, since Dibbets made his first photographs – this view of photographic representation as original or authentic has been roundly challenged by postmodern theory. While most artists and photographers have been concerned with representation (what and how a photograph depicts) or abstraction (the formal qualities of the photographic image), Dibbets has been concerned to look at photography in a third way. His motive has been to demonstrate in a variety of aesthetically engaging ways the fundamental fictions of the photograph. Dibbets has been immersed in an intense and ongoing examination of what Marcel Duchamp would call “precision optics”, that is, the foundational components and examples of


photographic vision: perspective, motion, light, color, and time. For Dibbets, these are not formal or theoretical concerns but rather phenomenological or perceptual issues, pertaining to how a viewer encounters the world through photography. Dibbets’s ultimate goal seems to be to trouble or decenter our confident acceptance of photography’s stable organization of experience. “A consistent theme in Dibbets’s work is the paradoxical nature of illusion and reality immediately and directly perceived,” critic Barbara Reise noted. “Thus, the reality of a seemingly ‘natural’ visual observation is counter-posed by a physical or conceptual reality.”6 His approach in this regard has been methodical and systematic, engaging one idea with great intensity for a period of years, moving on to the next series, and then finally circling back years later to reexamine earlier explorations with new tools and points of view. Among the most sophisticated early demonstrations of Dibbets’s explorations of photography’s potential for misrepresentation are his works in the series titled Perspective Corrections (1967-69). Over an intense two-year period, Dibbets made approximately forty large black-and-white photographs using slight variations of the same basic exercise. A trapezoid was laid out with rope on the ground or in his studio such that when photographed from the proper angle the trapezoid would appear to be a two-dimensional square. This reverses the normal function of perspective: instead of making the square appear trapezoidal when projected in depth, Dibbets makes the trapezoid appear square. This inversion of the textbook illustration of Renaissance perspective has a powerful and uncanny effect: not only is the three-dimensional rope form translated into a two-dimensional representation but also the resulting square, an illusion, seems to float parallel to the picture plane. And, even more, the square oscillates between fixed reality and optical illusion. Central to the concept of Dibbets’s Perspective Corrections is

the fact that they appear only in the photograph, or really only in the negative. These are not documentations of some absent artwork; you could not reach out and touch the square; the photograph is the work. As critic Bruce Boice noted, “Without the mediation of the camera, one cannot, in the physical situation, see a Perspective Correction or a trapezoid of rope magically pop up to form a vertical square regardless of where one stands in relation to the rope configuration.”7 Like many of Dibbets’s early experiments, the Perspective Corrections sought to reveal generally accepted optical effects that are unique to photography. In these subtle demonstrations of how photography relies on the model linear perspective to organize its simulation of human vision, Dibbets destabilizes a model that deliberately suggests that our environment is organized, stable, and coherent. A second major series by Dibbets, begun around 1970 and continuing to the present, has focused on what has become the most consistent and confounding theme in his work: the horizon. Of all the ways that humans rationalize sight, the most compelling – yet least conscious – is our conception of the horizon. Strictly speaking, the horizon is an illusion, a manmade fiction; it is the point at which the sky appears to meet the earth. But this is a mirage created by the curvature of the earth. This is especially dramatic at the seashore, where the blank blue sky meets the expanse of ocean. It may be true that in Dibbets’s native Holland, a particularly flat country, the horizon is more prominent than elsewhere. Whatever the case, the horizon defines the level or lateral view, balanced by gravity against the vertical human experience. Dibbets summarized these subconscious cultural connotations when he said, “In the whole world what is more beautiful than a straight line? And the horizon is a straight line in three dimensions: it’s an almost incredible phenomenon.”8 Dibbets’s fascination with the horizon has instigated a surprising range of conceptual and artistic inventiveness.


Exploiting the sequential and temporal aspects of the panorama, Dibbets has made linear and curved horizons compiled of dozens of slices of images elegantly montaged together, in color and in black and white. He has tilted and bent the horizon to unsettle, in whatever ways possible, the impossibility of the horizon as a concept. Many of these works are the culmination of logical but elaborate processes, such as a composite of photographs taken by rotating the camera on a tripod and taking a photograph every 30 degrees or swinging the camera around in various arcs. Yet, in some ways, the most effective of these horizon works are the simplest, the two recent series New Horizons (2007) (cat. 2) and Land-Sea Horizon (2011) (cats 6 – 12). These works stem from the seminal Sectio Aurea of 1972, which was the first to juxtapose, side by side, a single color photograph of a land-based horizon with a single color photograph of a sea horizon. The effective union of the single horizon line, though thoroughly artificial, creates a harmony reflected in the golden rectangle of the title. This device also opened the way to slanted and asymmetrical horizons and diamond-shaped composites in the recent series. Though decidedly pictorial, these horizon works use photomontage and the abrupt reconciliation of land and sea horizons to trouble their easy reception and to continue Dibbets’s insistent protest against the conventions of human perception. Perhaps Dibbets’s most challenging photographs are the Color Studies (cats 13 – 18), begun in late 1975, and now reconceived digitally at a larger scale. These works consist of enlarged details of automobile hoods and fenders made in such extreme close-ups that almost all evidence of their source is omitted. The shallow focal length of the pictures means that the frame is virtually filled with the extravagant automotive paint colors, though close examinations will show slight details that break the monochromatic illusion. These details are not enough, though, to evoke any anecdotal or

cultural associations with cars or car culture; the make or model of the individual automobiles is impossible to discern and, in any event, irrelevant. In Dibbets’s hands, the photographs of car parts have become, in effect, large and luscious color swatches. What seems to be a formalistic reduction of these representations is emphasized by the presentation of the Color Studies in groups, so that one must always encounter not only the individual colors but also the relations between colors, and by the scale, which in the recent versions is extended to the maximum size possible within the largest paper made. When first exhibited in 1976, the Color Studies were dismissed by critics who considered them too painterly or too much of a departure from Dibbets’s previous work. But decades later the works seem refreshingly whimsical and aesthetically audacious, immersing the viewer in almost pure color, like photographic Barnett Newmans. Yet, as with all of Dibbets photographs, they are taken from real objects and situations in the world, but made to appear abstract or ambiguous. They demonstrate the subtle and fluctuating balance that Dibbets has always sought between photography’s representational and abstract properties. Speaking of the Color Studies, Dibbets has said, “[They are] the consequence of speculation about the structure of the photographic image….That set me to thinking: what would happen if I stripped the image of its structure? Then I had the idea of photographing something as flat and shiny as photographic paper. That’s where the photographs of car hoods came from. They’re as real and concrete as the other studies; they’re representations of reality.”9 Though conceived almost forty years ago, Dibbets’s Color Studies have direct relevance to fundamental photographic issues that younger artists are grappling with today. Photography survives today but in profoundly revised forms, making ever more urgent our understanding of how


meanings are invented through photographic practices of communication. This is a key moment, then, to ask critical questions not only about aesthetics of the medium but also about the constructions of history and memory, the politics of image capture and ownership, the uses of pictures to define social identity, the shifting belief in photographic truth, and the transformations in human perception. As the photographic work of Jan Dibbets demonstrates, these are no longer just abstract theoretical ideas but practical problems directly relevant to everyday life. Brian Wallis Chief Curator, International Center of Photography, New York

Notes 1. Among the recent examinations of the transformative art of the 1960s, see Matthew S. Witkovsky, ed. Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Philip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 (New York: Prestel, 2012); and Christophe Cherix, In and Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960-1976 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009). For earlier key texts on conceptual art and photography, see especially Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October, no. 55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105-43; and Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Photography In, or As, Conceptual Art,” in Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), pp. 247-67. 2. Lucy R. Lippard, “Groups,” Studio International 179, no. 920 (March 1970), p. 93. 3. Matthew S. Witkovsky, “The Unfixed Photograph,” in Witkovsky, Light Years, p. 16. 4. In 1970, Dibbets stated to critic Lucy Lippard that it was the photograph, or more particularly the negative, that constituted his work. (“LL: Did the works themselves have any importance to you or just the photographs? JD: Only the photographs. In fact, only the negatives.”) At one point, Dibbets even experimented with selling his negatives. See Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 159. For more on Dibbets and photography, see the monograph Erik Verhagen, Jan Dibbets: The Photographic Work, 1967-2007 (Paris: Editions du Panama, 2007); and Bruce Boice, “Jan Dibbets: Photograph and the Photographed,” Artforum 11, no. 8 (April 1973), pp. 45-49. 5. Dibbets has stated, “There’s a higher solution than those of Cezanne and Mondrian: to demonstrate that reality is an abstraction.” Jan Dibbets, interview with Georg Jappe, quoted in Verhagen, Jan Dibbets: The Photographic Work, p. 9. 6. Barbara Reise, “Notes on Jan Dibbets Contemporary Nature of Realistic Classicism in the Dutch Tradition,” Studio International 183, no. 945 (June 1972), p. 253. 7. Bruce Boice, “Jan Dibbets: Photograph and the Photographed,” Artforum, April 1973, p. 45. 8. Jan Dibbets, unpublished interview with Irmeline Lebeer; quoted in Verhagen, Jan Dibbets: The Photographic Work, p. 81. 9. Jan Dibbets, unpublished interview with Dominic van den Boogerd, Mar. 20, 1997; quoted in Verhagen, Jan Dibbets: The Photographic Work, p. 113.


Little Comet – Sea 9˚ - 81˚ and Big Comet 3˚ - 60˚, 1973 Photograph of installation at MoMA, New York in 1973


Land-Sea Horizons


1 Little Comet 9° - 81°, Sky•Sea•Sky 1973


2 Land-Sea KB3 2007


3 Sectio Aurea AA3 2007


4 Sea 0째 - 135째 2009


5 Land 0째 - 135째 2009


6 Land-Sea Horizon 1 2011


7 Land-Sea Horizon 2 2011


8 Land-Sea Horizon 3 2011


9 Land-Sea Horizon 4 2011


10 Land-Sea Horizon (a) 2011


11 Land-Sea Horizon (b) 2011


12 Land-Sea Horizon (c) 2011


Colour Studies


13 Color Study B 1, 2 1976


14 Colour Studies 2007


15 S-Color A5 1976/2010


16 S-Color A9 1976/2010


17 Dark Blue 1976/2012


18 Red 1976/2012


Documentation


Cover: Red, 1976/2012 Introduction © Brian Wallis, 2013 Catalogue and images © Alan Cristea Gallery, London and Jan Dibbets, Amsterdam 2013 Published by Alan Cristea Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition JAN DIBBETS : Land Sea Colour 21 March – 20 April 2013 at 31 & 34 Cork Street, London W1S 3NU Produced by fandg.co.uk All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. ISBN 978-0-9569203-9-3


Alan Cristea Gallery

Jan Dibbets: Land Sea Colour  

Exhibition catalogue March / April 2013

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