In 1969, Suriname-born, Amsterdam-based conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn wrote a letter to curator Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern containing proposals for four rather impossible projects. The first was to drill a hole in the center of the earth, from the center of a town where Brouwn would stand, point A, to the other side, point B. Plates of glass would be fitted over the two holes. A “strong telescope” would be placed at point B, so that people could look there “and see the bottom of Brouwn’s shoes”. Then, as soon as he was approached by a passerby, the artist asked the way to another place in the city and walked away.
Accompanied by a sketch, the concept of the telescope reminded me of some Chris Burden’s Unrealized Projects, but with less attention to the heavy machinery needed to move the earth and more to the obvious connections between artist and passerby, and our instinctive urge to map our place in the world – Brouwn’s two abiding interests. I found this project in the Szeeman Archives at the Getty Research Institute, which I visited in March with the aim of learning more about this important but unrecognized artist, who was the subject of two exhibitions that opened in April: his first American survey, at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), curated by Ann Goldstein and Jordan Carter, and a more focused exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York, curated by Carter.
Brouwn is little known for a reason: he made it clear to the gallery owners and curators he worked with for decades that he did not want his works reproduced, discussed or interpreted. In the catalogs of collective exhibitions, his page was often left blank. And upcoming exhibitions are taking place not only in the absence of the artist, who died in 2017 at the age of 81, but also without any of the curatorial, educational or promotional tools that usually accompany museum exhibitions. There will be no exhibition catalog, no interpretive wall labels, no public programs and no press releases.
When asked what she could share about the AIC exhibition, Goldstein replied via email: “As we respect the wishes of the artist regarding the representation of the work, we are quite limited in this that we can share. In accordance with the wishes of the artist, everything we have shared is reflected on the exhibition page of our website.”
This site confirms the existence of the exhibition (called stanley brown, rendered unassumingly in tiny Helvetica), from April 8 to July 21, with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam as future venues and the existence of a companion exhibition to Dia, which opens April 15. (At press time, an AIC publicist sent me a short “fact sheet” adding that the exhibition “features more than 50 works from 1960 to 2006, representing the range of artistic practice brown”.)
Goldstein and Carter later declined to speak for this article, which may be the first time in 25 years as a journalist that conservatives have not relished the chance to promote their exhibits.
Of course, other artists have imposed conditions on the exhibition of their work, from early Bob Irwin banning photography of his installations to Tino Seghal imposing restrictions on the documentation and sale of his performances. The ever-elusive David Hammons, said to be an admirer of Brownn, regularly avoids interviews and effectively exposes the framing devices that give value to art. But short of retiring from artistic creation in a Rimbaudian or Duchampian checkmate, Brouwn’s position seems a more extreme form of denial, rendering curators – who so often serve to amplify the voice of the artist – somewhat nearly speechless.
His desire to protect his works from interpretation – or, perhaps, to preserve them for chance or immediate encounters – also reflects the limitations of my work as an arts journalist. When I first heard about Brouwn’s show in casual conversation, it frankly seemed like a challenge. What is this show no one is supposed to talk about and who is this artist who doesn’t want me to write about him? I have a history of investigative reporting, and I could surely find out, though the most significant question – the one that still seems unresolved to me – is whether I should.
I started out shy, just asking a few friends if they knew of his work. The only one who has is artist Kim Schoenstadt, who said she heard about John Baldessari’s work when she was his studio manager. She texted me a photo of a photocopy of a 1969 Brouwn pamphlet, part of the influential art project series of artist “bulletins” – a reminder of a time when photocopying was a popular form of artistic transmission and where Baldessari would bring a black suitcase full of European art catalogs in class as part of his teaching.
In those days, before the internet made everyone a publisher, it was of course easier to keep things that were in public view out of public discourse. But these days it’s strange to find this kind of information asymmetry: for an artist with such a long exhibition history, including at least four editions of Documenta, Brouwn has a relatively short bibliography. Online, I found only a dozen substantial reviews and essays, most of them project-oriented. this way brown. The project featured a series of actions on the streets of Amsterdam, where he asked a passer-by to draw directions to another point in the city and stamped his sketches with the words “that way brown”.
The more I learned about the work, the more questions I asked myself. My next stop was the Getty Research Institute, where I found 13 books by Brouwn as well as material from large archives like Szeemann’s, who included his impossible telescope project in the 1969 show. Plans and projects as art. Much of the material seemed both revealing and concealing, provocations worthy of an artist who once claimed every shoe shop in Amsterdam as his exhibit.
The Szeeman Archive contained a stack of postcards advertising Brouwn’s exhibitions at galleries like René Block in Berlin and Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf as well as the Stedelijk Museum, and very little about the exhibitions themselves. An artist CV in the mix had only a few lines of biography, identifying him as a member of Fluxus and mentioning “self-taught” instead of schools.
Fluxus collector Jean Brown’s shirts contained a small flat crystal bag stamped “use this brunn”. It was empty and showed no signs of ever being used.
The archives of the collector Giuseppe Panza had Brouwn’s art project numbers and small photographs of what I presume to be his work: three metal filing cabinets filled with index cards, possibly the maps Brouwn used to record the distances of his walks through towns, sometimes using the length of his own foot (the “sb- foot”) or other parts of the body as units of measurement. There was also a 1972 receipt for 960,000 lire from the Françoise Lambert gallery for My steps in Milanmaybe the name of this workbook work.
As for Brouwn’s books, most consist of typed numbers or measurements, whether arranged one per page or in dense columns and rows. They are clearly artists’ books, even when published to accompany exhibitions, and defy easy interpretation. A 1981 book titled a distance consists of vertical lines, 10 per page, which measure 10 cm each. A 1971 book titled 1 step-100000 steps consists of rows of numbers from 1 to 100,000, filling over 100 pages. My favorite book, 100 This-Way-Brown Problems for IBM 360 Model 95 Computerhas on each page a computer command typed in to “show Brouwn the path from each point on a circle” to all other points with a given radius expressed in angstroms (one hundred millionth of a centimeter).
Knowing that Brouwn was raised in Suriname while it was still controlled by the Dutch, it could be that his insistence on being both measurer and base of measure represents an attempt to reverse the colonialist scenario that other people – white, European men – are calculating your value. It is also possible to see his compulsion to count as a psychological tic or a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But IBM’s book points to another possibility. Perhaps one of the reasons he relied so heavily on numbers is that he viewed art a bit like coding, as a series of operations, not something to be contemplated, and c This is why trying to extract meaning from his books is like trying to make a literary analysis of a multiplication. painting.
In an all-everywhere-all-at-once universe, I can imagine a different version of this article, completely disregarding the artist’s position against interpretation, which would offer a complete review of all his books of artists. Yet another version of this article, strictly following its restrictions, is one that I write and then delete, word by word or with a single command, and never publish.
I happen to land somewhere in the middle, trying both to write about Brouwn’s art and his refusal to cooperate with the cultural knowledge production industry that ambushes them, which well includes course my own profession as a journalist.
In this way, I feel like pointing my telescope at Brouwn. All I can see is the bottom of his shoes, before he disappears.