Patrick Steffen: When did you start working with Bas Jan Ader?
Patrick Painter: When I first picked up Bas Jan Ader, twenty years ago, people were calling him “Bas Ban Booter”… It was great when he first got the cover of Artforum. I felt like we were finally making an impact. But it took a good ten years for people to say his name right. Now we receive museum requests every week. And that’s no exaggeration — every single week. He is in MoMA, and Tate has an online exhibition right now too. I could mention ten different exhibitions he is currently in.
PS: How many Bas Jan Ader exhibitions have you had here at the gallery?
PP: Five or six.
PS: Are you planning something new soon?
PP: I’m planning something next year but I haven’t decided yet. I’m talking to his widow Mary Sue Anderson about it, and we are trying to see what we can do to reveal something else. Which will be hard to do, but maybe, with a fresh approach, it will be possible. I have collaborated with Mary Sue Anderson for twenty years now. She is so correct about everything — absolute honesty. It is just an honor to work with the Estate.
PS: Are there pieces that have never or rarely been shown?
PP: There are some photos that people have not seen. And these were all photos that he shot and meant to print, but obviously his life was cut short, so he couldn’t do it. So we printed some of those… and there’s a film about different tanks of water dealing with Mondrian’s colors: glass beakers about 16 inches in circumference, one filled with yellow, one red, and so on.
PS: How many pieces are you currently managing for the estate?
PP: I haven’t counted, but I would say less than 100 including those owned by collectors and so on. There’s a little-known fact: Jackie Onassis bought one of his first drawings.
PS: Can we say that his oeuvre is limited to 100 pieces?
PP: No, you can’t say that because that’s not an exact number. And I’m only guessing, but I would say it’s somewhat less than that. So it is very limited.
PS: Who was Bas Jan for you?
PP: He was an artist I first saw over twenty years ago. His film I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1970) was the first thing that I saw, and it really moved me. I never thought of Bas Jan Ader as a conceptual artist; I thought of him more as a romantic artist in the same way as Joseph Cornell. I don’t think it’s really accurate to call Cornell a surrealist, for example. He was in essence a romantic artist, and I think much the same was true with Bas. Seeing his first work was an honest moment from an artist; pure honesty is a very hard thing to find in this world. And he doesn’t tell why he’s sad. I thought it was perfect because it’s really no one’s business. He could’ve been crying about his father who has been killed by the Nazis for hiding Jews or whatever. And you know, he did die at the same age as his father, and both were doing heroic things.
PS: I agree. Each time I see his work, it’s as though it’s the first time. Each time I’m moved.
PP: It touches you. It’s not something you observe, but it really hits you inside — it goes into your inner-space.
PS: And this is a characteristic that you don’t find very often.
PP: Yes, only occasionally. For instance, with Bruce Nauman I’ve found this same quality, or Gorky, Cornell sometimes. And there are a number of artists I’m sure I could mention, like Mike Kelley… But as you say, very few.
PS: Today many artists feel Bas Jan Ader’s influence…
PP: What’s funny is that about 18 years ago, a British artist who was very famous at the time did a film where she was crying, and she didn’t say why she was crying. I was at this big dinner in London, and I said: “Oh, I think it was really great that you did this thing after Bas Jan Ader,” and she said, “I don’t know who that is.” He influenced a lot of people. Representing him is a little bit like representing Elvis; there are still people who seem to think he’s going to walk out of the ocean and show up and… In reality, this guy dealt commodities, he had a Mercedes, he was a real playboy, and he wanted to love life. You know, he was a very brave man.
PS: What does his final work, In Search of the Miraculous (1975), mean to you?
PP: I’m a Los Angeles boy, so just crossing the 405 at night is kind of a dangerous situation, and then walking into the ocean. I don’t think he was doing it in a sarcastic way. I think he was like, “Let’s see if it’s there. Let’s go look.” And out of that, of course, came Farewell to Faraway Friends (1971), that photo where the sun’s coming up at the beach. I think that In Search of the Miraculous challenges you to say: “Have you even tried?” Take a walk one night and just try. I think the act of trying to search for the miraculous is somehow very inspiring to me.
PS: An artist has to risk his or her life to pursue his or her vocation?
PP: Oh no! I mean his bravery level was higher than most. And at the same time he was trying to break the world record for crossing the ocean in the smallest sailboat. This is not a guy that’s scared of much. And that’s why it’s so interesting, why it took such a brave person to do something like “I’m too sad to tell you why I’m crying,” or fall off the roof of a house, and all of this…
PS: Is there one work that would define his legacy? Could you pick one work or image or sequence? I like to think about him when he’s falling in the river with his bike…
PS: I like the one where he’s falling off the roof — the one with all of his clothes on the roof. You know, that’s all his possessions right there. I thought that was a brilliant piece, and then of course Charles Ray did his great photographic series “All My Clothes” (1973) after that. People are generally kind of shy; they don’t bare all their clothes, and they don’t sit and cry in front of a camera and not tell you why. These are normally embarrassing things… to reveal yourself in such a manner.
PS: He was also influenced by Mondrian.
PP: His fascination with Piet Mondrian was very interesting, since Mondrian has probably been the most important artist to come out of The Netherlands. And Bas Jan had this interesting thing with him, and he was trying to take down the father in a respectful way. And you don’t see many younger artists trying to do that too much today.
PS: Why do you think he was so fascinated by Mondrian? Was he kind of forced to deal with his artistic legacy because they came from the same country?
PP: I think Mondrian was the Picasso of the country. But Bas Jan took his oeuvre and dealt with it in this readymade kind of way, like laying a blanket on the ground in front of the watchtower that Mondrian was so famous for painting, and putting a gas can and a yellow towel and these crazy things. He really did it from a low angle. Do you know what I mean?
PS: Yes, from a very pragmatic point of view, yet very poetic. Which is probably the essence of his process. From an anti-intellectual level—
PP: —from the anti-intellectual, from the readymade, and even from this perspective I still think he was being romantic. There was no disrespect there. He thought Mondrian was a brilliant guy, or he wouldn’t have spent his time on it. He only did one painting: Piet Niet (1974). They look like flags, like ship flags, nautical flags. This makes a lot of sense if you think about his end…
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When making the project Guppy 13 vs Ocean Wave (2010) as homage to Bas Jan Ader, I first asked this question: What kind of relationship can we establish between the past and the present? Bas Jan Ader’s last project, In Search of the Miraculous, ended tragically when he disappeared while trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny sailboat. My goal was not to reproduce his unfinished journey; I have merely tried to recreate the conditions of that experience for the audience. I was lucky enough to find the same type of sailboat that Ader used, a Guppy 13, of which only 300 were produced in the USA in 1974. I bought it in Sullivan, Illinois, and had it shipped to Amsterdam, where Ader used to study. I invited visitors to live through Bas Jan Ader’s experience, albeit only for a few minutes, in this sailboat on Amsterdam’s waters. The only rule was that everybody had to get onboard the sailboat and commandeer it by themselves. I myself got on the sailboat alone for the fist time.
During a three-day period many passersby got on the sailboat. For most, it was their first time on a boat alone. So I recreated the same physical conditions of Bas Jan Ader’s experience. There was even a copy of The Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel on board, the same book Bas Jan Ader took with him on that final journey. From this I made video documentation of the event, in which Guppy 13 sails backwards to start from the end of its uncompleted journey.
In the video work, a single passenger on Guppy 13 changes constantly. The music heard during the video is a Henry Russell composition played backwards — a piece of music that was part of Bas Jan Ader’s last project. In a way, Guppy 13 documents a journey backwards in time. Bas Jan Ader’s Guppy 13 was found off the coast of Ireland by a Spanish crew and taken to Spain. The boat was stolen a few weeks after it was found. My Guppy 13 also was stolen while moored in a canal in Amsterdam after I completed the project. This seemingly cosmic coincidence cemented the project’s relationship to the present and future, at which point it traveled from art back to life. It was restored as a part of nature and life, completely out of my control. Finding the boat missing, I was sad, nervous but curious, filled with all the feelings that you can have when things get out of your control.
Bas Jan Ader had a plan, too, before nature took control. Strangely enough, after four months, on October 16, 2010, my Guppy 13 was found (not by a Spanish crew). I went to pick it up where it was found and the police escorted me to the place. The boat was nearly sunk. After sitting idly one winter in the canals of Amsterdam, Guppy 13 was finally exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam: the vessel, the police report, the fictional documentary and the photo of the moment when I arrived on the scene with the Amsterdam police. After that show, I decided to donate this installation to the Van Abbemuseum. Soon it will be anchored in a pond in front of the museum. Now Guppy 13 is again returned from life to art (unless it will disappear again). As with the story of Bas Jan Ader, there is one last question to ask: Has the story ended?
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Bas Jan Ader is the quintessential artist’s artist. His artworks and practice have been the subject of numerous artworks conceived by other artists, from the reminiscence of Christopher Williams in his Bouquet for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo (1991) to Claire Fontaine’s Please Come Back (2011), a neon sign that manifests the impossibility of accepting the artist’s disappearance; from the aforementioned project by Ahmet Öğüt to Jen DeNike’s Fell (2006), an homage to Bas Jan Ader’s Broken Fall (Organic) (1971) in which, instead of water, the protagonist swings her arms and legs in the snow. Confirming how big Bas Jan Ader’s influence remains today, the Tel Aviv gallery Dvir organized a show called “Homage to Bas Jan Ader” that featured works by Adel Abdessemed, Nelly Agassi, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Claire Fontaine, Douglas Gordon, Shilpa Gupta, Jonathan Monk, Barak Ravitz, Miri Segal, Ariel Schlesinger and Lawrence Weiner. All works in the show directly refer to the artist. Jonathan Monk even wrote about the artist for the exhibition “All is Falling” at the Camden Arts Centre in 2006, and Tacita Dean wrote about him for the catalogue of the exhibition “Please Don’t Leave Me” at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen that same year. This feature simply continues a trajectory that will surely continue.