Amsterdam Diaries: Encounters with Modern Art

zAs you might have surmised from my Amsterdam blogs so far, we really spent our time there immersing ourselves in Dutch culture and history.  I’ve always thought one of the best ways to experience a different country is to get involved in as many local activities as possible – whether that’s cultural events or museums.  As you know, we spent a lot of time exploring the remnants of the Dutch Golden Age, from the artists to the pioneers of industry.  Today, I wanted to talk about how we also got a taste of the more modern side of Dutch culture – specifically through modern art.

We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with ‘modern’ art.  I think the issue really boils down to the fact that we often just don’t “get it.” Despite this, we’re always eager to explore modern art and the various mediums through which it’s presented.

The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is an international museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design so naturally, it was one of our pit-stops whilst we explored the city.

The building itself is so futuristic looking with it’s straight lines and right angles that it would be hard to arrive here and still be confused as to where the modern art museum was!

The outside of the Stedelijk Museum [Pic Credit]
Inside the lobby of Stedelijk.
Inside the lobby of Stedelijk.
Inside Stedelihk museum.

Stedelijk is one of those places where everything you come across seems like it could be art.  For example, in one section, there are what were bare, white walls which are now covered with doodlings from the museum’s visitors.  My partner and I never miss an opportunity to leave a mark wherever we visit – whether it’s a comment in a guestbook or a scribble on the wall.  It was a lot of fun to also look at other people’s comments and sketches, expressed in different languages and with varying levels of artistic skill (no judgement, I myself have yet to graduate from the School of Stick-Figuremen!)


Inkings from visitors lining the walls of the museum lobby.

So, before I go any further with detailing our visit, I want to emphasise that we saw a lot of art.  In all shapes, sizes and expressed in various mediums.  Some of it was incredible. Some of it was thought-provoking.  Some of it was down-right confusing.  All in all, it was a fascinating experience.  I’ve decided that for this post, I’m going to select some of the pieces that really stood out to us – for reasons both good and bad.  Also, I made my partner pose with most of the art we saw for a series I call “Encounters with Modern Art” and he did his very best to adopt a pensive stance each time. Round of applause for my model, please!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and interpretations on these pieces too so please, do leave me a comment.  One of the best things about any art piece is the way it can draw out so many different perspectives from so many different people. I think there’s a beauty to that.

Untitled (1961) by Lee Bontecuo.

Bontecuo was intrigued by the marriage between manufactured objects and nature and this piece represents that interest.  Despite being crafted from man-made materials like steel, leather and copper as well as paint and soot, this sculpture has an organic and earthy look; perfectly illustrating her interest in the relationship between manufacturing and the natural world.  Bontecou also produced a lot of feminist art in the Seventies which I personally would have been really interested to see but sadly wasn’t featured. She was also particularly known to combine painting and sculpture – something that can be seen in this piece. Nearly in her nineties now, she lives in Pennsylvia but still exhibits work – the last time was only last year!

R 58-2 Timor (1958) by Jan Schoonhoven.

A relief sculpture made of wood, cardboard, paper and paint.  Schoonhoven was apparently one of the most famous Dutch artists to be part of the ‘Zero’ art movement. This was a group of artists whose works heavily emphasised the use of light and motion.  Apparently, this piece breaks with Schoovenhoven’s usual tradition of very white and minimalists reliefs as seen here.  To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this but I did hear someone describe the reddish-brown grooves of this piece as being akin to the craters on Mars…

Korean Painting (1963) by Jo Baer, featuring a bemused member of the public, not part of the installation.

If it’s not obvious already, Baer is a Minimalist.  Apparently this painting is one of sixteen canvases in her Korean series.  Baer focused on simplified geometric shapes with mainly white canvases that were enclosed by bands of black or blue lines.  She tried to make most of this series blend in with the environment, treating the canvas as almost a sculpture.  Baer currently lives in Amsterdam and continues to produce work.


Spatial Concept, Expectation (1966) by Lucio Fontana

Another minimalist, Fontana is best-known for canvases that featured dramatic cuts like this.  In describing his work, Fontana stated it represented violence and creation in that through violent slashing, he had created. Specifically, by creating these cuts (or tagli), he was bringing the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional.

Tir (Shooting Altar), (1970) by Niki de Saint Phalle.

Obviously eye-catching, this piece drew us in.  This piece is covered with white plaster with bags of paint attached.  Saint Phalle shot at the bags to puncture them, releasing splashes of red, purple, yellow, blue and black paint.  Saint Phalle grew up in Paris during a time when the wars in Algeria and the Congo were rife alongside religious dogma so the religious and political imagery in this piece tells her story, I feel.  I think we can also agree that with the prevalence of gun violence today, this piece remains as relevant as ever.

Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963) by Yayoi Kusama.



For obvious reasons, this was a popular installation.  If you’re not quite sure about what you’re looking at: it’s a boat load of penises.  Specifically, it’s a rowboat covered in phallic shapes made out of fabric.  Understandably, Kusama labelled this piece as being part of her Sex Obsession series. One interesting interpretation I’ve read of this is that the boat is a metaphor for conscious mind, floating above unconscious depths but the mind has been overrun by erotic symbolism. Puberty in a nutshell, am I right?

Waste (1994) by Damien Hirst.

For this sculpture, Hirst collected medical waste from a hospital in London. I’ve tried to find out how long it took him to fill this container up but to no avail.  It would have been useful to know as his comment here is on the rate at which we reduce things to worthless waste.

Unknown by Unknown.

So, I don’t know who is exhibiting this piece but these two black pedal pins are part of the exhibit.  However, I had to include this because most of the negative reviews on TripAdvisor about the museum were about these bins.  The look on my partner’s face says it all.

Cookie Portfolio (1991) by Nan Goldin.
Cookie Portfolio (1991) by Nan Goldin.

Nan Goldin created a portfolio of images in 1990 to commemorate her friend Cookie Muller, who died of AIDS.  In giving a human face to a disease that was deeply stigmatised at the time, she not only kept the memory of her friend alive but also helped to shed light on the AIDS crisis from a different perspective.

If It Moves, Kiss It (2002) by Lucy Mckenzie.

This incredibly absurd mural comes from the brilliant imagination of a Scottish artist.  As someone who studied Classics at school but also has a deep love of pop-art, I highly appreciate the image of a graffiti-fied frieze.  For Clockwork Orange fans, you’ll recognise that this painting is a homage.

As I Opened Fire (1964) by Roy Lichtenstein.

I saved the best as one of the last. I love Roy Lichtenstein’s work and this triptych is no exception. I grew up reading a variety of comic books and loving pop art before I even knew what pop art was so when I first came across Lichtenstein’s work, I immediately identified with it – mainly because I could identify it.  Maybe that is the reason we get drawn to certain works of art – because we can identify some semblance of self within them.  Regardless, this is one of his most famous oil works and is based off panels from a DC comic book.  He talked about wanting to put military brutality into an absurd light and I guess he certainly achieves that here by reimagining an aggressive military action in such a kitschy way.

Other anti-war (Vietnam war) artwork from this period was also really interesting.

Anti-War posters from 1970 by unknown artists.


Overall, we saw everything from the minimalist, to the obscure, to the outrageous and provocative represented in all forms and mediums.  Some of what we saw, we absolutely hated and some of what we saw, we absolutely loved.  A fair chunk of what we came across, we had no idea what to think or feel.  I guess the overall purpose of art is to make you think and to start a conversation.  So on that note… thoughts? Comments?



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