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Waldo Bien


  Art in the future tense.   Interdisciplinary Research.   Social Sculpture.

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Chapter 8 (p. 121)

1989 - 013 groot

In looking at the work of the Dynamic Pedestal [_1989-013_] one has the impression of a reprise of much of the thinking of the previous 15 years. In this instance there is a direct effort to steer the dynamic element, to order it away from a splaying restlessness. It is consistent with the thematics of the observation view in the Feldpostbrief interdisciplinary activity. The harnessing of various kinds of spatial and physical properties into a sculpture, raised the problem of how various elements could be harmonised and how they would interact whilst still retaining the various tensions and stresses which their materiality suggest. The work effects an intricate homology of responsiveness from the materials, which, superficially could be taken as antagonistic. As with the work on the snake, there was a need to arrest the idea of movement in order to translate the dynamic into another field of force, of reference, and release from the network of obvious, and literal, interpretation unsuspected and often surprising consequences. The most striking example is that of the marrow bone and the basalt rock.

Bien insists that the context of the basalt is significant. The aim of the entire work was to keep ‘form on the move’, whilst holding it at a standstill, to permit a relation to being, of the possible endless multiple. The stone came from forbidden territory. It was collected at a small marine port in Tierra del Fuego, at Canal Beagle. There had been a military injunction against walking there and the stone was Bien’s transgressive gesture, where, as he describes it himself, he took the ground with him.

The basalt is then a memory of topography. It is also a forgetting, an elimination.. _Removed from its own static placement, it becomes, in its fragmentedness, more mobile. Then, as if in a metaphysical concetto, Bien places it squarely with the bone marrow, which he reads as a landscape. That way of reading had had its strongest expression in the drawings accompanying the Death Room Interior, there, the drawing, done with Siberian Chalk on old sheets of carbon paper, fuses material, method and subject. Here is a hermeneutic circle, on one hand the carbon was interpreted as bone, its development and the development of the skeleton taken, by analogy, to the metamorphosis of the light into the carbon, the mineralising process, and the mineralising process read as layers, layers of a landscape. The drawing Alte Landschaft [_1985-015_] expresses this comprehensively. The inner space of the bone is opened up also as sedimentation and landscape, much in the way Chinese scholars developed a complex reading of rocks as gardens.1

Not only was there a reading of the marrow as the space which could help determine mass, there was, from the basalt, a reading of the tectonic and eruptive in the geological. That is clear from the work Tectogenesis [_1988-010_] an oval column cut out from the limestone caves near Maastricht, where the geophysical is interpreted as erotic energy; the large stone on top, from Muraia (Maria Island) in Tasmania, with tin melted on it, poured over the rock, giving it the frothy, frivolous and witty character of orgasm.

In Dynamic Pedestal [_1985-013_], Bien had conducted a complex negotiation between the bone marrow and its ‘negative space’ and the basalt in its eruptive energy. “There was so much landscape in the bone marrow space that I made a plaster cast of it and placed it on the basalt pedestal. Now I realised that the basalt form, through its own dynamic, was taking off with my mountain. I had created a form that was going away with my mountain. I have to make this dynamical form steerable.”

His solution was to place a fuse in the work, to regulate it in the manner of an electrical circuit. Then he faced a problem of symmetry: “where to place a fuse?” He placed three fuses, to avoid symmetry, and to steer the work. In one sense if the work was truly autonomous it would steer itself, be a perpetuum mobile, within the very balance of forces. This paradoxical aim is central to the sculptural site created. The problem is not dissimilar to Freud’s ‘topical hypothesis’, the need to create a dynamic pedestal where there is always room for new things.

Bien suggests, “Good things are their own pilot. You have to create a dynamic pedestal, on which all the good, valuable ideas of mankind, cannot be victims of the practise of manipulation. There is only relativity because pedestals do not move fast enough.”

In requiring that the pedestal should be as dynamic as the original basalt, there was a problem of how not to damage the mobility. Brancusi had detected this problem in his consideration of the egg. It took some time to find a solution. The Olivetti office furniture with its presentation of minimal form and dynamics, and its non-obtrusive colors allow a parallel to the negative of the marrow bone; here one approached a non-color, a non-form, at least an edge of form being eliminated. Bien stabilised this and created a suitable traction for the whole ensemble of elements by applying a principle from the tectonic sockle work, which helped mediate the relation to the ground. By adding above framed sheets of glass, found on the street, with a cloudy weight light and green tint, Bien created an optical event, which relates to rising above the landscape of the basalt and bone, providing a form of lookout, a movement away from the self-enclosed hermeneutic. The optical element released the form into maximum mobility, the painted sheets of glass from a pigeon house, with the roughness and texture, returned all the various forces to the journey into light. Weight and abstraction, a placing of a necessary forgetting within the dense sometimes encumbered memory of the works’ own system of symbols and analogies, to mix a metaphor, it gives the work time to breathe.

Part of the interpretation is itself the constellation of forces and ‘interpretations’ activated in the making of the work, and it should be emphasised that this pluralism is true to the body of ‘forces’ and the force of the body, and is an emergence of chance and irresponsibility, away from a fixity of method which tries to dominate by stability.

What is sustained in the affirmation of the body is the dynamic affirmation of plastic force, especially in the adaptations. This affirmative transformation is itself a primary definition of activity. Further, the theory of forces depends on a typology of forces, the typology depends on a topology with which it begins. Element, place, time, truth has coordinates. In Nietzsche’s aphorism, the Minotaur does not leave the labyrinth:

“Empedocles and his volcano – this is an anecdote of a thinker. The height of summits and caves, the labyrinths; midday-midnight; the halcyon element and also the element of the subterranean. It is up to us to go to extreme places, to extreme times, where the highest and deepest truth live and rise up. The places of thought are the tropical zones frequented by the tropical man, not temperate zones of the moral, methodical or moderate man.”

Bien travelled to Africa2, with Jacobus Kloppenburg, and on his return began the series of paintings which are entitled Tableaux Africains or Muhavura [_1989-001_].3The sculpture Continental Divide_[_1989- 003 ], and Virunga [_1990-007_] are some of the most important works of this year, and they were all exhibited in the show Backseat Sights (9 – 25 February, 1990), with an accompanying text.

Eric Amouroux commented later on these works in another essay in Opus International referring to the sculpture Continental Divide, he remarks that, ‘doit se concevoir comme une allegorie des difference culturelles.’4

The Tableaux Africains were the product of two years work. Amouroux supplied a succinct notice of the series in a second essay which appeared in 1992, observing that each of Bien’s works can be seen as critically witnessing reality. Continental Divide sums up the cultural upheavals which travelling made possible. In Muhavura every picture represents a different shade of the soil of Rwanda, almost as a geological survey would.

During the same period there was the publication of the work To Our Investors _[ 1990-020_]. A distinct homage to his friendship with Kloppenburg, a direct intervention against the banality of market manipulation of artists’ lives. As before with his work Bien’s ‘pattern’ is established directly, when he finds satisfaction in his sculptural process, he again moves from the ‘private’ to the public sphere. Where the first resolution of the problem of the pedestal led to his own engagement as a public artist, after the work on the dynamic pedestal, he emerges towards the public sphere, in tandem with Kloppenburg, and begins a trenchant critique.

Socially Bien and Kloppenburg were creating a platform. The protest involved a real paradox, the old problem of existing within the process and appealing through the process, itself the subject of critique. It had become clear that the effort to use and harness art to serve the dominant rationalist myth of the market, was continuing apace. Bien and Kloppenburg wished to contest the idea that the market alone created value. In the hope of creating a global machine, the individual artist was simply a cipher, which obscured the real domination of economic control. In the new order, art was to be nothing more than a luxury item, consumer despotism neutralising any decisive impact it could claim for its actions.

Semiological idealism had proclaimed the end of labour and of history, and had argued, asserted, from the implosion of the distinction between representation and reality the triumph of artifice. There was a convenient abandoning of the political implications of creative human agency.




1988 - 010(F144)
Tectogenesis 30 x 40 x 210 (h) cm; Column: marl (Maastrichtien), rock (Tasmania), porcelain women’s legs, cast tin (Melaleuka, Tasmania) Waldo Bien Archive



Waldo Bien Website004






Continental Divide Size as visible; Tripods, plaster cast, iron and rocks (Zaire, Nyragongo and Burundi) Waldo Bien Archive



To Our Investors 180 x 180 cm; Photo in whale oil, metal frame (Rwanda) Waldo Bien Archive



Numeri 4 Waldo Bien 1991 170 cm x 195 cm



1991- 005



1991- 001
Koko (Tableaux Africains)  Double canvas 196 x 344 cm; Nile sediments on canvas, metal frame (Rwanda) Private collection






Kitchen Scene Rutovu Burundi



Numeri Front Waldo Bien 1991


Chapter 9


“I started looking and wanted to connect two times, two different understandings of time, and that within the color theory that I was developing. I had looked at the sediments of the sources of the river Nile _and tributaries of rivers. The most far-off sources were the things I was examining.

   In the river beds in the jungle there were small groups searching for gold. They were digging pits. Down in the pit there was often milky liquid, Kloppenburg and I were fascinated by the appearance of the blue, as they walked in the pits. Then we had seen the layers of sediment, completely monochrome colors lying one on top of the other. The chronology of the time was the other way round. The whole phenomenon was about color theory. It was a strong painterly feeling. To me it was impossible to think of mixing those colors. I wanted them as monochromes, applied within the tradition of painting, on the canvas.”

   Further Bien has remarked, he wanted to break with the tradition of framing, to create an open space, a kind of tabula rasa, and whilst dealing with painting to also bring in a sculptural element in which ‘the light would bounce around’.

In another characterisation of his aims he suggests that he wants the color to invite one to come to the color. “Painting solved a lot of problems I had encountered over the years. There was a lot of things going on in these canvasses.”

Both Bien and Kloppenburg had been exploring the Virunga volcanoes on the border of Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire. Bien recalled a video he had seen in 1972 of Jan Dibbets who worked on the landscape and horizon as something flat and like a painting “on which three-dimensional suggestions can only exist by the grace of conceptual restriction to the optical domain. The third dimension, two-dimensionally understood and expressed. It‘s the illusion of the eye and the camera, the dilemma of the painter who gives acces to his work only through the eye and whose hand is a tool instead of a sense, which enables us to experience real human and social interaction.

   I came from a landscape where people tried to go to the centre of the earth. I wrote about this in my Mondriaan essay. The concept of tightness in the darkness, a secret bonding of society, the reliability of the other in the unknown. I can think of Dibbets using the soil as a canvas. He was dealing with the surface in a Dutch way, the soil as surface, as Mondriaan does. I wanted things to come from the ground. This changes what I have to say about color and light. But I understand him quite well.”1

   This initial thinking can be set against Bien’s assessment of his encounter in Africa, where he experienced a ‘liberation’ with regard to the problem of color. “Painting looked like an adventure. I could hardly imagine that painting could be real, an adventure of color on the canvas. I was interested in painting the way people say to themselves they will go on a journey to Ayers Rock in Australia – and don’t. Once in a while there came some short sessions of painting on a small canvas. In Tableaux Africains I wanted to attach the color to the canvas in a non-painting way. I wanted a method of painting which was according to my understanding of the light, and then into a kind of crystal-mineral understanding, of fractured zones, and the anti-motoric, you can see how in a dynamic monochrome surface, with short straight brush strokes in a logical direction, that the dynamic is created by anti-dynamics, in the sense of form, the painting is created by anti-dynamics.”

   In conceptual and minimal painting the problem of the relationship between form and color, between representation and non-representation had occupied an enormous amount of debate in the 70’s and 80’s. The effort to think of color as independant, capable of individual apprehension, was sometimes favoured against a formal idea of ‘the painting’. Some artists insisted that the placement of colors created a kind of inner dynamic which also had ‘form’ properties, and for others the forming idea and organisation of the surface already delimited the activity of colors.
   Bien’s criticism of Mondriaan was mixed with a complex admiration. Mondriaan starts off with the motoric in nature, and ends up in decorative surface. “It was beautiful to see this monochrome (Bien is referring to the soil in Africa) which was not something painted out of the concept, or the idea of the short strokes.”

   Bien had come to the problem of the surface, which again he translated into a somatic metaphor, thinking of the body’s envelope of skin, and yet thinking of the inner organs, the knowledge of depth that goes with surface, he thought of an edge experience. He cites his interest in Rothko and in Rembrandt.

   With Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson Bien suggests that the real subject is one about the goal of painting itself, the need to go through the surface. What he identifies is the searching process, not the resting in the ‘irreality’ of the image. This makes of the painting a stark document of reflexivity, where the represented image is far less than the imputed and didactic interpretation being offered. The use of monochromes determines the painter’s interest in the movement between light and shade, and not in a wistful nostalgia for colored sensation, or a false asceticism which imposes a Franciscan brown as a type of renunciation.

Rothko’s treatment of the monochrome is of a different dimension, he calls attention to the interaction of the monochrome as it takes place on the canvas. In Mondriaan the search for ‘purity’ is through reference to different monochromes.
   Bien believes in the search of Mondriaan, but proposes a different goal and result, he wants to get away from painting. The most important element of the
Tableaux Africains is the determined movement away from the gestural, the elimination of the pulses and motoric movement of the brush and the hand.

   In the course of the trip to Africa, Bien recounts an experience of seeing which changed his way of thinking about color, and also the serendipity which led him to the framing of new ideals for his work.

   In the choice of the colors Bien had selected soil samples to act as pigments. What had provoked his interest was the sight of gold diggers in a quarry whose legs looked blue in the milky water in which they were standing, and the quarry like a monochrome wound in the earth. For Bien a kind of visual rapture, in which he sensed that the body itself had been opened up through the experience of color, that as in the thesis he proposed on Rembrandt, he had fallen, or gone through the surface.

   A small notebook survives of the alluvial deposits collected in Rwanda, by adding a little saliva to some of the soil placed on the page it was possible to keep a record of color samples.2 Also the frames for Tableaux Africains derive from the lengths of the colored chemical barrels which he had bought, the size of any frame determined by the circumference of the barrel, as they were cut into strips for transport. Bien wanted to engage the problem of boundary again through the work on the frame, as itself the edge, the edge of the Tafelbild giving way to a more sculptural conception, and a reference to a conception of territory which is not ‘bound’ in the traditional sense. The use of the alluvial deposits and the metal frames creates a time element. Bien had left an ‘open space’ running along the under edge of the top frame in the lower section, which is a positive emptiness for the time of the work, through its elimination of filled space as the painterly ideal.

   The elimination of the gestural and the liberation within the theory of color resulted in a move away from the marked traces of the painterly ductus. In the crystallisation of the monochrome and through the open space device Bien also eliminates the idea of the edge, the notion of the hard edge of the color on the surface, this was parallel to how he viewed Rothko’s achievement of creating an in between zone of activity, Bien’s strategy was to directly draw attention to the non-activity. The brush work was a series of eliminating movements, where each criss was crossed, not an effort to build color up layer upon layer, to modulate tone or warm and cold by usage of primary and complementarity, the inner movement in its elimination becomes the color field, which one might say is ‘self-generating’. For Bien this was rooted for him in a double belief, one that the earth colors had gone through a similar process in time, and that he wanted to escape the terrorism of color and of shape, “I didn’t want a square, I wanted a decision away from the non-decision.” The circle is the limit, as Rutkowsky used to say ‘man dreht sich im Kreise’. That was the Regal Star too, an extra day to get out of the circle.”
   “My own experience of painting was an edge experience. By giving the space a meaning, _a space that is behind every canvas on the wall. I had not shifted different colors, like Rothko, rather I was shifting territories. I was not just interested in the shifting and weaving of colors, creating a mesh. In that sense, I am not a painter, I am not interested in the problem of illusion on the canvas. What I had discovered was the boundary and border of space was steeped in time. With the discovery of color as a time reference I crossed the border. Previously I had painted figures, or in my early polder work where I cut the canvas pieces and with the palette of you say early Braque, tried to escape the surface by intensifying it as something tectonic, like a terra motta on the surface, here I had just the sensation I got from a man in Africa called Nzabandora, who on being asked about colors simply said “if I like it it is good”. I had found the courage again for my own subjectivity.”

   Bien had made 14 of the works in Berlin, and had shown them during his time there. _He reported much later that he was shocked that the work had been so aesthetic, as it had never been his goal to be aesthetic, he also said it was one of the series of works which he most enjoyed making, “I was busy with them for two years, and in my mind I still am.”

   Bien exhibited his Tableaux Africains at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and the exhibition was accompanied by a short text (500 words) called Cartografie van de Geest (Cartography of the Spirit)

   ‘Biens werk springt over de grens van de kunst heen – daarin is het trouw aan de intenties van de histoirische avantgardes. … Het werk van Bien is behalve as sociale plastiek ook te zien als een voortdurende omstulping van de eigen persoonlijkheid, als oefening en askeses.’3

   Boekraad reads Bien’s work as a kind of social sculpture, and the process one of an ars combinatoris, with borders between land and sea. Eric Amouroux read the works as a critical witnessing of reality. In Muhavura every picture represents a different shade of the soil of Rwanda, almost as a geological survey would. The frames counterbalance this arbitrary, conventional representation of soil by clearly stating their origins of color and their texture, the materials were used in steel barrels that once contained toxic chemicals.

   During the course of making Tableaux Africains there was an engagement with earlier work, photographs in whale oil were placed in frames from the chemical barrel remains. The series was published in Berlin in 1990 with an accompanying catalogue and illustrations, and entitled Numeri.

   If, as we have seen, Bien has moved the boundaries between sculpture and painting, he has also implied an architectural phenomenon, in that the hanging works are open-space creating, not simply involved in positioning volumes or shaping in three dimensions. The series of works are not auto-ritratto in any traditional sense. One example from the series will suffice to indicate the larger drama of re-presentation or better to say presenting with which Bien is engaged. The bust head and the hanging cod fish, with the orange warm color surround, including the night blue frame, is not so much a self-portrait as an act of continuing inner reference, so that elements of the earlier concerto work, and the hanging cod, are re-sited in another visual ensemble. The artist is in the act of disappearing from his own image, and transmuting the element of the material into the much more suggestive and spectral dimension of the ‘other’. The very viscosity of the oil is the existential reality of ‘the biographical’, the way Sartre understands the slow, sluggish viscosity of oil and its brute facticity as being-for-itself; for Bien this is as much a ‘portrait’ as the identification of resemblance and features. The head is turned as a sculpture bust, and indeed the image of the head returns in the work with Semah, and more especially in the paintings with Grotfeldt.

   The continuing strain of work and activity in Berlin took its toll. During the initial year of residence Bien had studiously avoided the politics of the wall. If he had been interested to go there it was as the place of boundary. During his stay he made only one work which could be directly related to the ‘historical’ change taking place, photographs on which he placed plants, the series entitled Hortus Germanicum [ 1992-034 ]. The plants had been found in ‘no-man’s land’ itself an analogue to the Trübe Mittel of the plant in relation to the photographic. He was to suffer from a serious illness, energy-sapping and dissipating: malaria.

   The illness became a near- death experience, and immediately after Bien started the work of making his own archive, literally placing all the work of the preceding 20 years on a line. This archive is itself a work, differing from the Archive for the Future in one crucial respect, it is solely documentary; of course it would be possible for the archiving, the taking of photographs, the meticulous annotation of works, running into thousands, the assimilation of response to the work, the work which responds itself to the activity of other artists, as an enormously complex conglomerate. The status of Bien’s archive, still in the making, is yet to be established. The near death experience also provoked another return, to the Death Room Interior.

   Indeed Bien has alluded in a graphic and highly poetic description to the process of making these paintings. Referring to an evening in Berlin, he speaks of how, “sometime in the early morning hours I was pulled into a vicious dream, one which felt like it lasted a very long time. I found myself in a savannah-like region lying on my back in sand, weighted down as if by invisible beings. A few meters away, beneath low-lying Eucalyptus bushes, sat the source of my shackle in the form of two aborigines who were playing the same two tones repeatedly on digeridoos like the primal breathing at the dawn of time”. Bien’s dream has artfully mixed Kafka, Beckett and Bruce Chatwin.

   “After being bound for a long time I felt the pressure on my body slowly decrease and, accompanied by deep tones, sluggishly ascended into the world of waking consciousness. Even as I woke and groped numbly for my watch, I could still detect the sounds, far off in the distance. I immediately tried to fall back to sleep, to slip back into captive impotence, but I awakened more instead. It was not at all clear to me whether what I was hearing was an element of this world or the other, indeed the question had such a hold on me that I got up, put on my clothes and went out into the street.” He relates that high on the roof, two magical eyes, one green and one red appeared. His imagination, dream, oneiric message, took him back to the Regal Star, and feeling, as he thought, the immeasurable space of a black swell around him, he dreamed that the ship “sank soundlessly beneath the waves of the approaching day.”

   Michael Haerdter and David Reason both provided essays in this publication, which constitutes the most sophisticated and developed estimation of which Bien is a subject to date. Haerdter sees in Bien an energetic Dutch artist whose material images and installations can be defined as a ‘Natural History of the Societal’. ‘By all the subtle methodology and formal mastership insight and intent of his work prevent it from being mere aesthetic endgames’.

   Reason provides another response to the work of Bien which in some ways relates it more to the Archive for the Future than to the work under consideration whereby he insists on the preparing for the future within Bien’s work, ‘Waldo Bien whose work has prompted this essay, is committed to a sculpture that will prepare us for the future.’ Reason also places Bien’s work in a strong pedagogic context.

   The question of the ‘future’ here is really the paradox of the will, brilliantly outlined by Nietzsche, where in discussing the problem of ressentiment. In Nietzsche revenge is the will’s ill disposition against time and the ‘it was’. Redemption is for him ‘to redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed’. That alone he calls redemption. For Nietzsche the deliverance of man from the spirit of revenge is the highest redemption, the bridge to the highest hope, ‘and a rainbow after a long storm’. The truly utopic impulse is in the ‘not yet’, that is what, pace Ernst Bloch in his Prinzip Hoffnung, makes the ‘to be’ possible.

   ‘Intricate lives, sediments, evolution, process; this is the stuff of Bien’s sculpture. He stages the evidence of process, of discontinuity, and interconnection, in the world that he inhabits and we with him. The materials of his art are corrosion, erosion, reaction and extinction, as much as they are wood and stone and oil, yet rarely has the sculptural banner of “truth to materials” more splendidly set the standard.’ (Reason)

   Reason concludes in seeing Bien’s art as critical and disconcerting. The essays are the first to try and see Bien in terms of an overall artistic arc, and not confine themselves to either the merely stylistic or reduce him to a mere representative of ‘trends’, fashions or influences.

   Bien’s period in Germany did at least result in an independent publication and a sustained effort to respond to his work.

   Not all of his time was spent in Berlin; a journey to Australia and New Guinea with the British artist Ian McKeever – one of the first of the many significant meetings of the 1990’s – coupled with his return to Berlin and the illness he suffered, led to the work referred to as the Malaria Block. The conjunction of making the small models of the Death Room Interior and the painting of the Malaria Block supports David Reason’s prescient comments in his essay, and points once again to the importance within the sculptural process of the ‘corpse’.4

   Reason, quoting Tim Robinson, the Cambridge mathematician turned writer and cartographer and living in Connemara, says that Waldo Bien makes of sculpture a deep art, working with materials that span ‘the gamut from saint to stone’. They, Reason says of the sculptures of Bien, have more than a history; they are possessed of an age, and are seemingly brought back from a chthonic sphere of subterranean intimations and premonitions … Without being pofaced or sentimental Bien adopts – and offers us – a perspective from which we can see ourselves and our concerns already as fossils and as earth stains.

   The idea of things brought from the chthonic sphere applies even more directly to the work of the Malaria Block. Once again as during the creation of the Death Room Interior, we see a penduling towards another pole of activity, and the intellectually conceived and exquisite placement of Tableaux Africains gives way to a loose, wild unconscious handling of water color; painting as a spreading urgent distress of expression on paper.

   During the course of the 90’s Bien’s production of drawings and watercolors increased enormously. It is possible to say that various groups of drawings can be specifically related to special experiences in places that he had visited. The Malaria Block summarises his trips to Australia and New Guinea with the artist McKeever.5 Later the trip to Yemen results in a much more architectural series, as the trip made there was in relation to discovering more about adobe building. A trip to South America, made with Jacobus Kloppenburg, involved a different set of responses (The ‘Adema Brown’ series) partly determined by their architectural commission at Oibibio, and the drawings done in relation to his American exhibitions, are often directly tied to his working relationship with Virgil Grotfeldt.6 Grotfeldt, Kloppenburg, Semah and Rutkowsky are the four living artists with whom Bien has co-operated, co-produced.

   Bien has remarked of McKeever, “he was always making notes with pencil lines, short light sketches, would close one book and continue all through the evening to color in what he had sketch earlier in the day.” Bien’s working method moved away from the sketch and instead into a response to the color. It was anathema to McKeever who thought of Bien as a bewildered surrealist.

   The Malaria Block is the most freely worked and unconscious sequence. With the concept of ‘Block’ Bien took up an old, or at least well established Beuys concept, and through the drawings one finds another reference to Beuys, an attempt in one sequence to ‘break his patent’ on the color brown.7 This was dictated by the contingency of the organ builders Adema below his studio in Amsterdam, who used the brown paint, and ‘it happened to be lying around’, and secondly the pragmatic side of interdisciplinary research. After the malaria block one can see this coming to the fore, and creating a double problem, on one side _the freedom of the use of material as notes, documentation, a kind of chronology, which had been inspired by the arranging of his archive. Another practical consideration was the method of working ‘on the line’, by which is meant that drawings were made one after another; Bien worked in sessions. He discovered that he could usually not make more than 54 sheets at one time, and indeed the compulsion within the activity, leads to the outcome that most of the blocks of drawings from the 90’s are between 50 and 54 sheets. Each block is a sustained performance.

   The word Block has enormous Beuysian overtones, for whom it is both chronology and a consciousness. Bien uses the term with respect to Beuys but also wishes to have another meaning, a returning of the idea to what he calls the ‘homographical’. The Placenta Block allows one study much of his procedures and the direction this area of his activity moves towards. When his son Mathijs Virgil Gomperts was born, he had soaked paper in the bucket containing the placenta which had been preserved. The idea of waterrunes, Walter Scott’s word for waves breaking on the rocks, came to mind, as a reading of the paper stained and marked by the placenta. In 1992 with the birth of Niels Gomperts another bucket with placenta, and a move by Bien from the studies of the original _30 sheets of paper from the earliest placenta, Bien read them as a script. It was the birth 3 years later which prompted the study of the ‘process of crystallisation’. It resulted in 54 sheets of brushed images, some remote and suggestive, others with graphic accuracy relating to the birth act; the entire block itself a paper response to the coal block of the Death Room Interior, and birth and death (roles) in the continuum of life. “There were two kinds of work thrown together, two different levels of drawing. I don’t think you could call them water-color drawing. I used the water-color instead of the pencil and was drawing with it, this means that you introduce a high risk of getting into the uncontrolled within a discipline of control.”

   These remarks about the technique in the Malaria Block apply equally to the monochrome ‘painting’ of the Placenta Block. The limits of material and the innerness of the somatic has appeared again in the work of Bien, who wants to create out of the extension of his own body a way to re-inscribe the method of work which overcomes alienation from the self and the world. The larger thematics that he has pursued throughout his artistic life are made dramatically clear when one sets the activity of the period from 1989 to 1994 over and against the preceding decade.

The interaction of the placenta with the paper has produced a warm purplish monochrome many of the figures sketched by Bien are in a standing pose, suggestive silhouettes, the accumulation of theme and variation within the block allow one to read it as a narrative _so that the unconscious concern and fears, the ambiguity and inchoateness of feeling associated with birth are suggested.

   It is a very intense psychological document, and its enormously personal nature, brings it further into the secrets which need affection, than any discourse on the problem of birth, or, paternity, or, maternity, a single bound volume, it is difficult to know how ideally the work can be seen, except consulted in a collection, or in a Cabinet des Dessins.

   The disbinding of the block and the reduction of the sheets to a numbered series, does not go against the unity of the work which has a very specific temporal and physical integrity. In Delft, for example, they were shown, along with sculpture on the ground which had been made in Tasmania [ 1988-027 ], which had the character of the volcanic islands, and “I felt you could relate that very well to the placenta.”

The view that the body is the spirit’s tragedy and even its farce is fully exploited by _Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. This is the satirist’s method. In Bien the sheer physicality is not intended in a transgressive way, and it is the avoidance of any grotesque element which makes the work free of gothic effect or an effort to shock. The frank and natural acceptance of the body in its real concrete dimensions, its sharing in the same atmosphere of light and air that a sculpture would, its invisibility and tangibility, its occupation of space, the growth and decay in time, clearly pre-occupy the artist throughout his oeuvre. With the Malaria Block and the Placenta Block of the 90’s, Bien’s own disintegration, as on two previous occasions, during Silencio and after the Death Room Interior, led to enormously life affirming actions and new directions in his work. The works of intimate aloneness and privacy prepared the ground for his overt co-operation with Joseph Semah and Virgil Grotfeldt in an open F.I.U. framework, over the next years. It is the work with Grotfeldt from 1991 to 2000 which is the subject of the next and final section. Consistent patterns emerge which as we shall see already throw the work of the artist forward into the next century. This section may also be read as a commentary on the exhibition of these co-operative works in Recklinghausen.






Virgil Grotfeldt–Waldo Bien Meeting 9 (Amsterdam): Donor Work 108,7 x 204,5 cm; Coal dust on river clay on canvas over skeleton; Frame: wood (Tasmanian beech) Collection Bien/Grotfeldt



Geomemory 2 Size not specified; Sediment samples from Nile sources and plastic Waldo Bien Archive






Tableaux Africains Double canvas 196 x 344 cm; Nile sediments on canvas, metal frame (Rwanda) Waldo Bien Archive



K on vulcano



Deutsches Herbarium 181,5 x 137 cm wall space; Book pages (offset DDR)     and collected plants (Death Zone) Waldo Bien Archive






Bien with Leave PNG



Bien with Welding Mask PNG



1991 - 003



1991 - 005



Source 800 x 1000 cm floor space; Bronze cast sculptures, sand stone and a tryptich Waldo Bien Archive















Pacific Ocean Floor 500 x 500 cm floor space; Cast iron, wood, cast tin;

(Source: Melaleuka, Tasmania) Waldo Bien Archive


Chapter 10

D.R.I. 1985-006 - 01602
Collabirative works Opening

Virgil Grotfeldt’s first connection with Amsterdam as a public artist came with the invitation from Catherine Hemmer to exhibit at the Theeboom Gallery.1 It was during that visit that the two artists became acquainted. The symbolic bonding between them can be traced to a specfic gesture during the visit of Grotfeldt to Berlin when Bien’s residence there was coming to an end. The gesture was the handing of a bag of coal dust from the residue of the Death Room Interior.

   During a walk in Berlin they found old account books and Grotfeldt made drawings on the text. For the most part Grotfeldt was busy with using black and bronze powders. This intimate and restricted use of color has been a central concern of both artists since 1991. As late as 1998, for example, Bien has used the first set of placenta sheets (from the natal of Mathijs) and placed them with black canvases. The range of black is also explored in his series Tableau Européen. The discussion within art historical writing of the color black is long and complex. For the modern period one may say that Manet and Matisse (under the influence of Delacroix) had freed black from use as a tonal value for shadow, and treated it as an independent color. Malevitch, Picabia, Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt continued with this modernist fascination, and Bernd Growe, a pupil of Max Imhdal, ranks the Maegt exhibition of 1945 and the 1981 Düsseldorf exhibition, Schwarz, (Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, catalogue edited by Hanna Weitemeir) as exemplification of a major modernist trend. Whilst any art historical attempt at a history of color (see the recent research of Gage) will inevitably face the problem of ‘real subjectivity’, the relationship between color, line and the picture can at least, in individually documented instances, be followed.2

   In the art historical discussion the range of questions had confined itself to the problem of whether black was a color and therefore understood in terms of color contrasts and secondly whether it was to be understood on the light-dark scale and be seen as a form of pictorial ‘auxiliary’ etc.

   In their discussions Bien reports that they thought of the problem of their initial work as a ‘liquidising’ activity. The slow observation of pigment sinking and sometimes drifting on the chosen material ground. The coal – flower – light triad is a way of trying to grasp the Goethean view of transformation, and not only by studying form, but from the concrete materiality.

   The question of collaboration did not arise in the immediate first meeting. Although one can point in the work of Bien to co-operative acts with artists, indeed starting with Beuys himself during the Regal Star-project, Grotfeldt must have found the idea initially strange. _If method had been developed by Bien as a form of overcoming of alienation and distance, nevertheless the possibility of creating a community of work, a mutuality of activity, in which individual characteristics remain, has always been very attractive. Sometimes, and quite deliberately, the issue of individual authorship becomes blurred, the aspect of bricolage and close personal involvement, makes it difficult at times, especially in the relations with Kloppenburg, to ascribe a definite ‘authorship’ to works, and at the same time, as with the Archive for the Future, the issue of authorship remains clear, even though there was years of mutual help and exchange. This goes some way towards explaining features of Bien’s which may at first seem puzzling, the incorporation of works of other artists in his own works – Schönenborn, Rutkowsky, etc. – and the re-deployment of a strategy of blurred boundaries to create the possibility of co-creation, by this I mean that one can sometimes chart from the works a personal stylistic assimilation, a kind of symbiosis between artists, which makes the question of authorship redundant. The elimination of possessive individualism in favour of co-operation, sharing and mutual exchange, represents through the 90’s a change away from the ‘heroic isolation’ of much of the previous years, and an avoidance of cannibalising the work of the ‘other’.

The complex work with Semah had initiated a thoughtful understanding of the problem of the ‘other’ and the issue of understanding led to, in some instances, a curious dilemma. Semah had made the notion of ‘otherness’ into an ontological property, which replicated the old dichotomy of subject-object, locking effectively into a static bifurcation, and indeed replicating the old duality in the form of dialogue chosen while at the same time circumscribing it in a conceptual overdetermination. A compatiblist account could on the terms chosen never be achieved. Otherness was reified into a category and even the exchange was increasingly bi-furcated. With Kloppenburg the relationship was mobile and often highly interlaced. With the earliest work of Virgil Grotfeldt [_1994-014 ] the small square which moves over the canvas is considered, indicating the acceptance by both artists of their respective needs for the exchange itself. For the American artist the problem of ‘frontier’ includes the possibility of a mythic method. The problem of territory and the frontier, _the exploration of space, remain powerful enduring myths where the idea of rugged individualism is construed as a process of re-territorialisation, even as a ‘negative way’, the reduction to emptiness, creating a trope of survival and renewal. This is not very distant from Bien’s mythos, the problem of rebirth, the incessant work of transformation which places in question the whole system of ‘grammar’ for the visual arts. Bien never proposes a concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, and indeed in some cases he has taken the Steinerian-Beuysian developments to their problematic opposite. The concrete and often chance-filled method of Bien with the readiness to co-operate with other artists has moved him away from esoteric and transcendentalist claims for art. The real logic of Bien’s development is himself – at no point does he propose a theory of art and society outside of his own personal experience. In the work with Grotfeldt we are as much concerned with the question of friendship as with painting. This is pictorial conversation. The mutuality of work itself creates a deepening of the friendship. Conversation with Grotfeldt and Bien can be seen to be much less agonistic than with Semah. On the one hand, there is in the earliest work with Grotfeldt a definite movement away from the iconographically dense and expressionistic visualising of Grotfeldt’s earliest painting, to a form of meditative exploration with much more subdued palette and exploration of intricate and delicate forms and, on the other hand, for Bien, we can trace a relaxing of the often sculpturally motivated shapes that recur – funnel, lying figures, stone, blocks etc. – to a mysterious graphism. Initially there is a nervous hesitation, a tentative and exploratory placing of marks, the placing of linguistic reference on drawings completely abandoned as in the Arabia Felix notebook, made during a trip to the Yemen, were the linguistic description of colors, intended to be filled in later, have remained as aide memoire for the artist.

   “Suddenly, after knowing him, and meeting him in Amsterdam, Houston, Philadelphia, New York and Berlin we came to a point where we both felt we should talk. It was difficult before this to meet. I was on a very abstract level, and he expressed ideas in a simple, grounded way. I thought, let’s not talk, let’s paint. I saw that the brush was his strongest expression. I had given him the carbon left over from the Death Room Interior, and he started painting with it. I had not looked at it as pigment, more as light. All the drawings and the paintings later with the carbon is something Grotfeldt brought into my life. I was amazed by the depth of his brushstrokes. Earlier dialogues with Joseph had ended up going around in circles. There was never any progress, and it was frustrating. Out of this frustration and a desire to create a pedestal for a dialogue I said to Virgil that we should do that on canvas. We bought twelve little canvases and we started working, we had no plan and we didn’t look at what the other was doing. The dialogue is afterwards. We discussed afterwards what should go together and where. With Virgil, I made a green square on the border of the first two canvases done together.“

   The green was chosen as accidentally as one can imagine, Bien had found an old tin of paint, a color of lint yellow green. The early series from Bien’s side is still busy with impressions from a trip to South America. The trip to Lima and Machu Pichu, Cusco, Bolivia and Easter Island with Kloppenburg in 1994 was very much in Bien’s mind, particularly the sacred stones, the form of which appears in the canvases of the first series. The small head which appears is traceable to the gift of a head made to Bien and which appears in Made in Belgium [_1995-025 ], and on which he has written describing it as the Urkopf in the Goethean sense of the Urpflanze.

   In his account of this early exchange Bien brings forward the idea of a ‘frontier’ life, the relationship between freedom and territory as an adventure or mutual recognition, “ when I picked up the canvas my hand went into the paint, and created a curious Dutch landscape, he did not allow me paint on his territory, but allowed me access physically. We were very close.“

   The issue of collaboration was confirmed in a communication from Grotfeldt when he was requested to supply a note in writing on the work with Bien over the previous 4 years. “Waldo originally introduced the concept of collaboration to me during a visit I made to Amsterdam in 1994. While I was intrigued by the idea, I must say it also made me a bit nervous since I was unfamiliar with this thinking. I was still mentally conditioned to thinking of final work in terms of aesthetics and a unified whole. For both of us it was a real journey into space -the unknown frontier. At this point we were neither sure of the direction we were going or its outcome. These first works were awkward, to say the least, on an aesthetic level maybe not the best. But time and others will decide that issue. When Waldo suggested the three-sided frame, it gave direction and helped solidify the concept of dialogue – an ongoing conversation.”

   In the first series, unlike in some of the later ones, the artists do not share material. Taking number 1 in the series as the square centre piece it can be observed that it is the ‘emptiest’ of the series, much of the canvas is left visible and the areas of paint are discrete if not evasive of each other. This agreed overlap in the territory is the most consistent communication, the broad polarities of working from darkness to light and light towards darkness with which both artists work is clearly indicated here only in respect of the choice of materials. The bright green with its high tonal key is starkly contrasting to the indigo of Grotfeldt. The shapes are rhizomatic with Bien’s conical forms appearing to float in the broad atmosphere of the bare canvas. Weight and abstraction below and above an aerial and frivolous quality. The division between the canvases is still clear and the small square functions like the inclusion made in the shaving table of the Regal Star-project, a balance, a kid of fulcrum for the exchange, the see-saw effect enhanced by the long spiralling projection to the left.

   On the other hand Bien’s notation is equally to be read as a landscape reference, lightly indicated mountain tops such as one finds in the drawing form Tierra del Fuego made on 24 January 1985 (No. 29 with title Sehr einsame Spitze, Monte Negro). The preponderance of that motif for Bien – one finds it from a surviving pyramidal sculpture of 1972, one of the earliest surviving works – suggests that one may read the canvas as a continuing engagement with the motif, much as Cezanne’s constant return to Monte Sainte Victoire. If anything it is emblematic of the loneliness of his search and journey as an artist.

   The square also returns to Bien’s coat with the embroidered square on the back _[ 1982-011 ], the site of vulnerability within the non-visible back. The notion of the square as canvas and pedestal is also of significance in his work. The interpretation allows one read the gesture of the square beyond territorial permission and exposes the gesture to the architectural framing which is the artist’s way of indicating open space, the search in the dialogue, the mutual exchange where in equality they seek for what is not known to either of them. The apparent antagonism of the blue and green, as color contrasts is a studious risk which the choice of monochromes entails, and which both artists minimise by the freeing of much of the canvas surface from any marks.


   The head from Africa [_1994-016 ] is a real referent in the work of Bien. From Zaire, the head was handed to Bien wrapped in an elephant ear, baked clay fired and removed from some ensemble, the head itself is still in the studio at Lauriergracht. We see the appearance of the head in two works, once form Virgil and once from Bien. He had the head cast in bronze when in Berlin, and indeed Grotfeldt’s direct response to seeing this head can be shown from sculptural works of his in 1995 during the Delphi Exhibition. The original sculpture showing developed adult features can be held easily in the hand of either artist and the issue of scale seems to have been fascinating to both of them. What is true in the color theory especially the in-between zone of the grey, and the apposition of light and dark is being explored throughout.
   The head [_1994-018 ] responds to the head already painted by Bien. The division in this case is more even, the canvases more fully occupied. Again a memory from South America, Bolivia. The motif is a kind of architectural treatment of his anvil theme, for him a reference to the merciless flatness of the polders. From a sculptural point of view the anvil had the significance of body but also as flat surface. For Bien the problem of painting and sculpture meet in the anvil.

   The treatment of Grotfeldt suggests a larger space than the size of the canvas. The head is neither shown frontally or in profile, and not completely. Unlike with Bien’s graphic outline treatment, Grotfeldt has placed the head mysteriously at the corner. There is a hesitation towards the non-western, the problem to be overcome was not to use a kind of ‘exotic’ resource and deal with it in a pictorial way. In some sense the head is hidden in the indigo which he uses to paint it. The clearer exposure of Bien is responded to by a resonant yet more secret suggestion; that the canvas itself is only a fragment from a greater indescribable whole.

   For Bien the works are stunningly autobiographical, for Grotfeldt the autobiographical is the process of encounter. Bien says he can read the biography of Grotfeldt there. Moving into darkness can provoke the simplest fears, like the fear some small children have of sleeping in an unlit room. The darkness which Grotfeldt is working from is clear in this canvas. The head is itself caught in a meshed darkness which is also a horror vacui.

   One can see the development of this in the series Thirteen Steps to Satan, where the intense struggle from the darkness is systematised in a counter-tropic way by systematising the elements of superstition and fear which are related to the theology of darkness and the issue of fortune and fate. In that sense Grotfeldt is concerned with a freedom which has to find its way in an apophatic fashion. The appearance of the seat from the Death Room Interior, (which also appeared in the Pay Dirt block) was also related to the more recently remembered sculptural situation of the ritual Inca stones and the memory of the midden in Tierra del Fuego. As much altar as sacrifice site, the seat on the top of the mountain – with space for only one person – produced an impression of a kind of isolated theatre for meditation on invisible events: a place of high tension and a sacred space.

   From earlier work by Grotfeldt there is a definite evidence of interest in the darker color ranges. Later he could write, “As to the issue of black, I am in agreement with Goethe who said all color exists also in darkness. As the transmitter, it is my role to release the spectrum, not in a literal sense but on the conceptual plane.“

   In number 5 [_1994-017 ] the curious Bien drawing is the preliminary idea for the development for the Geschiebe, the concept of the glacial ‘load’ being pushed. This is the process which Bien describes as being on the move, the pushing towards the future. This dynamic process circles again the pedestal problem back to another arrangement.
   The sledge going through a mountain, is wittily and brilliantly responded to by Grotfeldt, not in terms of an anecdote but that of the schlemiel figure, a kind of acrobat on the ground with indicated vertebrae, both balancing on a foot the upper canvas, and mirroring in the scissors shape of the legs parallel traces created by the outlined hills.

The role of the Geschiebe is the Zukunftsarbeit for Bien, it can be traced back to his time in Tasmania, where coming across a tin miner, a kind of traditional frontier settler, Mr King, who worked with his body, and an English engineer who used a chair and his invention to do the equivalent work of ten men, the tracks of the escalator may have been the prime source for the temporal organisation of the rolled out scroll-like pedestal which became the new dynamic of the folded scroll, or the sledge. This drawing is important for the 3 sculptural works Geschiebe I, II and III. Of course it is also possible to resituate the idea in the work on his ‘Egyptian’ furnitures of the early 1980´s [_1982-004, 1984-011 ].

   Number 6 with the funnel shape[_1994-019 ], moves away from the square and circle and introduces a pyramidal energy. The exchange on the canvas has become looser and, in the case of Grotfeldt, there is a greater movement towards the territory of Bien. Bien wishes to suggest the energy field that is directed by a mineral shape which ‘breathes’. As in Brancusi’s treatment of the cube there is much more activity and a higher level of dynamic than is imagined. A trip funnel motif under a sledge shape can be seen in the work with Semah [_1994-031 ], and in the Malaria Block the funnel is related to the mammary glands and the sucking figures. For Bien there is a movement away from the terse monochrome. Grotfeldt has occupied the position more frontally with a figure and a slight lightening of the palette. The most obvious source for the Bien painting is the block called Green Cards [_1992-046 ], painted shortly after the Malaria Block. They are busy with color and a have the funnel as the dominant shape, motif and symbol. For Grotfeldt, the figure is a kind of negative Narcissus that raises a question about isolation and rejection. While the green warms the series, the indigo is relatively cold.

   The work which was executed in Lauriergracht in Bien’s studio was seen by both artists as a start. There had been no expectation except the decision that both artists expressis verbis wanted to continue. This initial exchange was described by Bien as a sharing of common sense and an openness. The work had good will.

Session 2, 1995 Housten, TX, Overview02

   With the second series there is one dramatic shift. Both artists agree to a common medium; they choose carbon. Grotfeldt has written that in the choice of carbon “the resulting image is dictated by the geology of the particular carbon being used. Tasmanian coal produces completely different color than that from Appalachia. For me the carbon expresses all that is ‘universe’ as I understand it.“ The introduction of river clay was partly to eliminate the structure of the canvas. Both artists agreed that they didn’t want an ‘industrial’ underground, perhaps for the same reason that Mondriaan ended up with three primary colors: a theory of purity. They wanted to create an underground which would give the coal the greatest depth and color to allow it maximum expressivity. The essential essence was for the black to appear, not to be influenced, as in Soutine, by the image, or in Malevich, by the theosophical idea, rather, they wanted a pure speech for black and white.

   The artists believed that the preconditions were perfect. They had even extensively studied the Rothkos in Houston.

   The coal burger [_1995-089 ] by Bien was viewed as an exercise in how to determine an iconic element of American culture without specifically using a brand name, the socialising of food, and the chaining of it to industrial mass production, techniques Henry Ford had discovered from looking at abattoir production and transposing them to his car factory. _A process now familiar as the production line.

   Grotfeldt makes it clear that the issue of the coal is one of time. Bien has brought his understanding of the ‘sensible flow’, which is so clear in the funnel motif, so that in Bien’s understanding the dynamic creates the forms and vice versa. The point is didactic but takes one to a clear understanding of Bien’s thinking if the funnel is first understood within the social context like watching a bartender exchanging liquid from one receptacle to another. Studying the Brancusi column Bien is fascinated by he principal of change that he observes within the repetition. It is the search of the Regal Star, and again, in the second series with Grotfeldt both artists instinctively exchange their own sense of pictorial vocabulary. The first series may be seen as a limbering up, a kind of prolepsis for what follows. This is not to create a ‘narrative’ of exchange, simply to suggest that Bien moves from his motival registration and Grotfeldt away from the human figure and the inchoateness of the canvas, to another kind of relation between surface and depth, the idealised botanics which clear the embedded roots and places them in an atmosphere of light.

   Speaking of the choice of material Grotfeldt talks of coal as “the history of all living things which precede me, and ultimately my own final destination“. Bien too is fascinated by the hidden reversals in decay, such as one might find with a skeleton preserved in a bog, where the tanned envelope of skin functions in the way the mineralising of the skeleton did in life, as support for the body. It is this kind of time-space continuum that Bien explores in the architectural. For both artists their own dynamic dialogue literally leaps forward in the moment of exchanged common material.

   In order to use the coal as a medium it was necessary to grind it and add liquid to make it flow that often produced happy accidents. There are sometimes mottled effects, and the dark-light continuum also plays against the priming that was of river clay.

   In the bell-shaped motif that has the plan of a Byzantine church, derived from a drawing of Schönenborn, one can note Bien’s move to an architectural expression. The spatiality is also further intensified by the play of space and counter-space in the decision of the three-sided frame. The brushstroke with the carbon had the mysterious property of unfolding a compression, so that the deep spatial quality, unlike with pigment, oriented the artists to the problem of space. One can say that there is a triple reference, a move away from the image,_ a move to the inner process of the material, a response to the black and the white.

   There may be an old idea within art historical writing, the notion of the plant as the source for architecture, Gottfried Semper, or for example, the importance of the acanthus spinosus or the lotus as studied by Alois Riegl (Stilfragen).

   In a series of small drawings from Grotfeldt done on a paper with mathematical equations, in another, we see the drawing of a war-club shaped human figure in dark blue indigo. The drawing Balancing Act, or on the reverse of the sheet Bloated World from 1995, shows how close the artists were in their shared fascination with shapes.

In his early work one sees very little interest in ‘botanics’ per se. With the use of the coal Grotfeldt went into the botanical. It may be that working with the carbon also made it difficult to create hard linear forms, and that a soft emergence within gravitation, or the liberation of the plant, away from gravitation, where the plant was no longer directed, and allowed the plant move to the environment into light, and frees the imagination into the floating world, out of the darkness. If the journey of life in the formula of Plotinus is from the alone to the alone, Grotfeldt also insists that it is from the dark to the dark, from the womb to the grave. Before his work with Bien Grotfeldt’s use of black is more tightly woven, compact, a dense suggestion of materiality which creates its own gravitational field, with the working together, this changes slowly but surely, away from the self-enclosed and hermetic to a kind of transparency, relatively speaking, in which highly sensitive visual registration of form and tonality is directed to a non-specific and diffuse notion of pervading light, light within darkness, a pushing out of the warp of the black the tiny particles of light that are its most mysterious secret, and in the light the darkness which prevents its move to total transparency which would make it impossible and invisible.

   In the series after Houston, which took place in Amsterdam, the artists continued using the coal from Dorsten. In the interval between their second and third meeting, Grotfeldt used another coal from Illinois and one sees that the color is browner and warmer. Meanwhile Bien had been working with Semah, and the impact of this exchange can be also traced in the work with Grotfeldt. Grotfeldt worked at the time exclusively on paper, partly because of an energy sapping illness which had been recently diagnosed, and as work on the canvas was considered too tiring, Grotfeldt’s daily occupation as a housepainter was becoming increasingly oppressive. His decision, then, to exclusively concentrate on his work as an artist was also an important life decision with extraordinarily rich consequences.

  Meeting 3

The third series has more variation in the size of canvases and the formatting of the double work. In this series Bien is continually setting up ideas in a clear and rational way. The artists had discussed the use of the Dorsten coal and the relation of Virgil’s plant drawings as ‘footnotes’ to the Death Room Interior, it was the counterspace pictorially realised by Grotfeldt. However, the method of notation should not be considered in the old hierarchical organisation of the typography of the page, with the notion of major and minor textuality. Instead, the ‘footnote’ is a physical conception in which the discourse has a possibility of push and pull of balance and moment. This differs from the published ideas _of Semah on the concept, but seems closer to what both Bien and Grotfeldt, on their own account, had agreed.

   Grotfeldt had brought in the consideration of temperature in the series, human temperature, not just the abstract idea of temporality, but the warmth of living. Bien had primed the canvas with the river clay which can be taken as the foundation gesture. Mathijs Gomperts, Waldo Bien’s son, made a small painting in the studio at Lauriergracht 123 in _June 1996 which is also the date of the 3rd series. The two week session in early summer in Amsterdam also indicated that the fear of ‘production’ had left. They have doubled the ammount of work from the period of the first exchange. The time for painting on the basis _of diary notes etc. seems to have been 9 days.

   There is a ‘triple’ canvas and the appearance for the first time of a black canvas. Grotfeldt’s moves into a freer and wilder expression while Bien accumulates further references to the layer, strata, and double funnel, the cross-section of a flint stone and a double funnel laid over cross bones. But Bien has also included his own conception of the botanical, and indeed in a remarkable moment, one double canvas make it almost impossible to determine the hand, except that Bien moves against Grotfeldt’s opening of the flower and closes the artichoke.

   We can see the return of Grotfeldt to the series of indigo blue on the formula filled pages of 1992, like Marquesan war clubs the head or skull placed on a spiralled vertebrae, botanics and bone melded in the soft atmospheric of the warm ground [_1996-008 ] and the black modified, in the picture with the face as (mask-head) below from Bien with white outlines on the black below. Bien here uses the river clay to paint the outline. Under this there is lightly indicated counter-portrait. The almost perfect symbiosis between the artists is nowhere more evident than in this series. In one of the works Bien has intervened with a curious addition, a date projected for the future, 14 June 2084, indicating that there was not only open space, but also open chronology.

   Series 4 painted in Houston in 1996, has as its immediate background a trip to Mexico by the artists, and the dialogue changes in its intensity and introduces new elements through the introduction of a white and yellow river clay as priming agent. In the work with the light spiralling column on the right [_1996-022 ], the movement into space is counteracted by Bien with a succession of uneven horizontal strokes that act as a kind of defensive gesture, a graphic Jiu Jitsu. The energy of the early series has given way to more subtle and mysterious evanescence on the part of Grotfeldt, as if throwing a feint against the more dominant graphic action of Bien. The covering of the image by Grotfeldt is also a return to privacy. Grotfeldt has gone towards the danger of the light as transparency and disappearance, he has risked visiblity, matter and gravitation in the encounter, a giving up and emptying that has the atmospheric suggestion of Redon, pace an observation of Walter Hopps who had shown the artists works of Redon in the Menil Collection. The artists also saw a Mondriaan drawing in the collection with flowers in black and white pencil, and was a discovery of the first importance. Hopps remarked that the serendipity was less ‘accidental than it seemed’. Bien had also done an independent series of drawings that had responded to the Thirteen Steps to Satan, this too is part of the absence of speech that is dialogue, implicated in the standing reserve that makes equal speech possible.

   Grotfeldt had shown a kind of Manichaean dualism in some of earlier work, and paintings of a ‘religious’ intensity, in the sense of William Blake, an impression heightened by the presence of handwriting on many of the pages. The Thirteen Steps to Satan can be read as a further exploration of mysteries, but with the concrete materiality of medium employed changing the intellectual direction.

   The gauge for the colors explosion we see in Series 5 had already been prepared in 4, with the introduction of the warm tone and the bright yellow, Bien had, in Tableaux Africains also mastered the issue of working with the river clay. The movement away from the frame took them off size and boundary. The frame became moved also away from the architectural sense of gate, they were now more in line with the early signature pedestal [_1982-003 ], and more an analogy to the togetherness of the decision of the canvases than an imposition in the form of a strait-jacket, the series even moves away from its own accumulation of meanings, there is an another direction and jettisoning of the danger of the habitual. The introduction of color, the desire for color, was from the side of Grotfeldt. The coal is from Germay, America, Belgium and Tasmania.

   One remarkable development is clear from the anthropomorphising of the botanics, _and the appearance of a portrait away from the mask like head and faces. The latter is the appearance of a portrait of Joseph Beuys by Bien, in a frame of Nothofagus from Tasmania and in coaldust from America, on the other side Virgil Grotfeldt has used Tasmania coal on blue water color paint, both artists have returned to private concerns, content to be alongside each other, occupying their respective territory.

   Bien once commented on the absurdity of the post-modernist obsession with the end of history, of paintings etc., remembering his meetings with Virgil Grotfeldt in Berlin in 1990 and looking back on their remarkable adventure together, which has recently culminated in work around the architectural on large account books, the whole issue of the frames as gate-ways, and indeed in one final account book series of 1997 remembering the Brandenburg Gates, at which neither history or painting was concluded.





Grotfeldt Bronze Powder Jaguar



The Carbon Painter (Portrait of Virgil Grotfeldt)28 x 35,5 cm; Coal dust on canvas Private collection



Bien-Semah parallelle discussie 11



Sanaa, Jemen



Bien in  Jemen



Geschiebe II (Yemen); Ruhb al Chali (EmptyQuarter) Size not specified; Collected geological samples, carved rocks, gipsum, carbon H5 on parchment base (Bolivia) Waldo Bien Archive



Ismaïl (Islamic pedestal) 41,5 x 33,5 x 14,5 cm; Gipsum cast; Rock (Yemen, Hadramouth), 26,5 x 18,2 cm Waldo Bien Archive








K, Bien and Gavier Bonivaz, in Train, Chilli



Easter Island



13 Steps to Satan, Grotfeldt



Serie Nine Steps Back Into The Light



Sunlight Size not specified; Wooden furniture, partly coloured wood, gold leaf and silver Waldo Bien Archive






D.R.I. 1985-006 - 003 klein
Deathroom Interior



Grotfeldt, footnotes deathroom interrior



Green Card 1



Green Card 2



Session 2, 1995 Housten, TX, Coalburger









Walter Hopps and Virgil Grotfeldt kicking cans



Walter Hopps, From www cinelandia com



1982-003 Detail
Pedestal with Personal Footnote 61 x 35 x 55 (h) cm; Painted and gold on leaf wood  Waldo Bien Archive


Chapter 11

Bien Devil


At the beginning of 1999, Waldo Bien, in discussion, pointed out that he had moved once more to complete the research, for the present, on the issue of the frame, and the canvas. _The re-physicalising of the canvas again allows another approach. Bien has cut an oval in the center, and the frames are stacked one on the other to create a stratified, architectural layer.

   In 1991 Bien had made his first work using the carbon as a medium for painting _[ 1991-019 ], it was carbon H5, whilst it is literally generated from the Tableaux Africains series, it has the additional inclusion of a sculpture, which had been exhibited at Espace 251 Nord. That was an attempt to prevent the reading as only painting. The spatial, chronological reference implicated in the sculptural extension, was a means of avoiding such a reading. Even if there is a risk of precarious belonging, Bien insists that the shifting of boundaries, allows his conception of things hanging on a line to have both the possibility of interlace, and dependent succession, this also implies that works set up a complex interactive exchange with their own past, present and even future. The interdisciplinary insists on this mobility, and free flow.

   Once again the work on the Death Room Interior, in its physical existence, continued to act as a generator. There was the problem of the passivity of death, the slight conception of life in ‘the vapour of the bones’. It is also clear in retrospect that the problem of the balance and stasis within the pedestal has been moved along, along the line.

   The pedestal has become the earth itself and the level of the observer is lower. It is as if the pedestal is a kind of site, and there has been a reduction of the eye level of the imputed observer. The pedestal problem is dissolved in the 90’s [ 1999–016, Geopedestal ].

   Two metaphors can describe Bien’s latest approach to the canvas: that of mountain climbers with their joining ropes, and of the pathologist. The artist has literally taken to cutting up the canvas and the frame. In early surviving work on the Polders, the cutting of canvas had been one of Bien’s earliest gestures to the surface. Indeed a small note sent to the curator for the Almere exhibition of 1999, reverberates with a profound sense of his own formerly contested belonging. The artist returns home, through the cutting and destruction the artist has pledged a deeper ‘belonging’, his note insists not on a mechanical construction of tradition within Dutch art, as the dichotomy of Van Gogh_/_          Mondriaan, Vermeer_/_    Rembrandt, implies but a commitment to what he controversially terms ‘pure Dutch Art’.

   ”I will show an early work of mine about the Noord Oost Polder, from 1972. The reason I do this is because the source of my complete œuvre lies over there. I think the works will show a consistent legibility with regard to the Polders. It is not ‘Dutch’ Art, it is ‘pure’ Dutch Art. I have not, like the painters stood on the beach, sea, ships, sky, light, the surface. I have sailed on the sea surface and I understood. The sea bottom I have walked on and climbed it’s mountains. The light, I have not looked at and re-produced, but, instead, have let it go all the way through. I took the surface for what it is, the skin of the body, and like Dr. Tulp, I have put the knife in it, dissected through the middle of the earth and checked on content and truth. What appears here (in the exhibition in The Paviljons, Almere) as surface is solid depth. Somewhere on a point, within thirty years of interdisciplinary research, Mondriaan has been dis-interred and re-buried. The development has overtaken him, but he has an important part in the whole and from my encounters with him, it seems that he is a much better dancer than you would expect. The solitude of the studio works wonders. Away with the circus.”

It might be argued that for Bien the surface of the sea is what you see of the canvas. The surface seen is for him the skin of the sea. The old construction of painting as massing of layers one on the other, is for Bien sculptural and the stratification is the depth of surface, and surface as depth. In one way of thinking, what is human is essentially the image. By turning round the canvas, one is in architecture and space. Beuys had once forced Bien to examine the back of one of his earlier works (Bien’s), and this turning around, exposes the problematic of the surface and depth, without it becoming a pun on space or shape.

   In the Modules series, one can see the work on the frame, moving to the series of sculptural works that occupied Bien through the period 1994 [ 1994-011, Module I ] whilst from the technique, and dimension, one can talk of a sculpture, the work is also busy with a de-mythologising of the canvas, and it is as if in the vertical works there is a form of solidification of painterly gesture. Where these works are placed in the horizontal, there is a notion of being on the surface, of painting and surface.

   It also has, in the Dutch tradition, been translated into problems of antithesis, of control/chaos, or of what Marcel Vos has called Mondriaan’s ‘dirty little table’, the clutter in the corner where spontaneity and chaos and ‘dirt’ are necessary for the form of sentimental projection that results in a ‘work’.
   As with the project
To Our Investors Bien has remained steadfastly critical of museum culture and the de-regulation of the artist to the bottom of the bureaucratic pile. The most startling example of this engagement is his long and continuing public controversy with regard to the restoration of the Fat Corner work of Joseph Beuys, which resulted in the publication of the edition Sherlock Holmes and the Fatcorner Mystery, where Bien amusingly took on the persona of Conan Doyle’s detective to expose a conception of ‘restoration’ which he has demonstrated to be destruction, that is in his words, a work was restored out of existence.1 The issue of the Beuys work had personal implications for Bien, not only was he maintaining a loyalty to Beuys, but he was also engaging with powerful institutional figures, whose methodical manipulation of the art historical record served to keep the dichotomy active in Dutch art as an effective means of control, either through patronage, or even dynastic imposition, in the promotion of careers, creating a narrow consensus on what is representative ‘national’ culture.

   The protection of the Archive for the Future has equally engaged much of Bien’s energy at the end of the 1990’s. Kloppenburg’s distance from the cultural cartel has left a life-time’s work exposed to threat and destruction from the city of Amsterdam.

   In review, the cutting into the canvas, the skin, again links into the Regal Star_-_project _and into a series based on early photographs taken in a barber shop in Tierra del Fuego _[ 1997-100/109, Lodge ] and into a series based on sheep shearing also in Tierra del Fuego _[ 1997-078/97, El Dorado ]. The latter series contains twenty works, standing on a pedestal, whereas the barber shop sequence hangs from the wall. The sheep series is called El Dorado with an explicit reference to the panning for gold in which sheep skin was used, as well as to the Order of the Golden Fleece. In both series Bien used phographic materials from 1985.

   Unlike in the Tableaux Africains the attempt to avoid the script of the surface in the painterly brush stroke, is now a concerted activity of disorder at the surface, or spontaneity, which tries nevertheless to retain the sense of layered relation. By working with monochrome layers on layers, the colors mix, but retain separate domains.

   In the work On the Meaning of Light and Darkness in Christian culturkreis, [ 1997-003 ], from a series produced in the context of a Spinoza project, a movement of scopic penetration allows a complete apprehension, so that everything becomes available to the sight because of the X-Rays. The order of value in positive and negative, for Bien, there is there the same. Darkness light, within the Dutch tradition there is apart from Rembrandt’s portraits of night, an overwhelming fascination with light as an analogue of reason and clarity.

   Bien’s expressionist engagement is mediated in the particular understanding he has of Rembrandt. He epitomises this as dissent from the consensus surrounding Mondriaan in the official culture, and turns around again the sculptural and architectural to ‘vivisection’. There is the sublimated theology of deferred sacrifice, and the violence of rationality which does not acknowledge nature as a primary phenomenon even if it is indifferent. Bien increasingly has identified through his engagement with Hilarius Hofstede’s Paleo Psycho Pop the supremacist ambitions which motivated the sanitised reading of a country’s past and cultural heritage.2

   A very good example of Bien´s public work at the end of 1999, and currently continuing, is the creation, in co-operation with the Triodos Bank, of the Free International University World Art Collection, FIUWAC. Walter Hopps, the founding director and senior curator of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, sent a strong letter of endorsement which also set out his understanding of the aims of the extended activity of the Free International University, Amsterdam, in forming the collection, and remarked:_The fact that this collection will be the declared property of the world´s population as the only benefactor probably makes it the first real ‘modern’ art collection in the world.

   In advancing the thinking of Beuys of creating social sculpture Bien linked up with the Triodos bank, the bank is a social bank lending only to organisations and businesses with social and environmental objectives. Triodos was founded in the Netherlands in 1980, a fully licensed and independent bank, owned by public shareholders, it has sometimes been described as the ‘green’ bank because of its exclusive financing of renewable energy sources, solar and wind, organic agriculture, and projects for the protection of the environment and for the conservation of nature.

   In a publication to mark the opening of the Triodos headquarters in Zeist, where the first part of the FIUWAC was put on display, Bien spelt out simply the aims and ideas behind the collection and its presentation in Zeist under the auspices of the Triodos Bank:

   “The idea of a new and modern collection can be formulated in terms of what Joseph Beuys has called ‘social sculpture’. I believe in the need to take responsibility for the future and recognise that all our actions and activities have a direct influence on the way the world will be tomorrow. How things look, depends on form, and form is also a matter of shaping. _I would say it is a serious question of how things are sculptured.”

   The Free International University, FIU, was established in the early 1970´s in Germany to create a world-wide platform, like a permanent conference, for creative spirits and minds to unfold and be active without the restriction of a specialist conception of knowledge boundaries, or, of institutional stasis. It was to be a domain where people could meet and work together in freedom and creatively. Beuys had cogently observed: ‘Economics is not only a money making principle. It can be a way of production to fulfil the demands of people all over the world. Capital is humankind ability in work, not just money. True economics equals the creativity of people. Capital equals creativity.’

   As part of its involvement in helping to realise the aims set out in the document the Triodos Bank has supplied facilities and expertise to help house the collection, has assisted with framing costs, and is exploring the juridical structure with members of the board of the FIUWAC to enable it to act as a trust, also Triodos is helping with the designing of a web-site, and providing technical and other assistance. The collection aims to publish material on creativity and capital, to develop new relations between artists and the public, between collecting and the money economy.

   As has been indicated in previous sections there is a constant ebbing backwards and forwards by Bien, a shuttling across the many years of his work as an artist. One of the first priorities of his work as a director of the FIUWAC is to publish on the block of work acquired from Virgil Grotfdeldt and also to bring the scope and significance of the sculpture of Michael Rutkowsky to wider attention. Eventually with the activation of the FIUWAC web-site students can have unhindered access to the full range and activities of the collection.

   As part of the initial setting up of FIUWAC Bien had proposed to Triodos on behalf of FIU to build in tandem with FIUWAC, a collection to be called F.I.U.tures. These were to assist Triodos with the repayment of the initial loan after 25 years when the F.I.U.tures could be sold to cover the repayment of the sum of the original F.I.U. loan to Triodos Bank and any money outstanding to go back to the FIUWAC in order to facilitate it as an autonomous, self financing collection. The F.I.U.tures are now housed in the headquarters of the Triodos Bank, and within this collection one can see the original drawings, and notes, concepts for the FIUWAC and other FIU activities. Bien describes all of this work as a great adventure, and surely there is nothing immodest in such a claim.

An additional chapter by Patrick Healy, covering the period 2000-2005, is in production.

fiuwac schip stempel web02

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1996-014 Celtic Voice, portrait of Patrick Healy 170 by 118cm in perspex 1996-015 portrait of Patrick Healy 142 by 110 cm river clay


Waldläufer H5 302 x 610 x 85 cm; Double canvas with coal dust and sculpture in carbon H5, plastic and iron Waldo Bien Archive



1999 - 016(F 280)
Geopedestal and pedestal related space   (Soil related space) Size not specified; Wood, rubber and glass  Waldo Bien Archive



Module I, Metal 232,5 x 9 x 3,5 cm, board 48 x 69 cm, painted cold forged and welded metal



Crime Time



Sherlock Holmes and the Fatcorner Mystery



Lodge   41 x 39 cm; Photographic negative under glass, cherry wood, slate base Waldo Bien Archive





fiuwac_met_stempels beuys



Triodos Logo



FIUWAC Building



Peter Blom and Walter Hopps



Triodos news 7 Art futures