Dissing the Stedelijk Museum’s new Mels Crouwel–designed wing, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman off-handedly compared the building to a “ridiculous” bathroom tub that suggested to him the sensation of “hearing Bach played by a man wearing a clown suit.” On the speed-rail ride back to Paris from a visit to the Amsterdam institution, it occurred to me that he completely got it wrong. Mels Crouwel did not give the museum a tub; he gave it a captivating sarcophagus, an often tub-shaped funeral receptacle designed to hold a corpse. And that is as it should be. After all, modernism is long dead. The Stedelijk Museum first opened its doors back in 1895 and is widely acknowledged to be among the world’s most important collections of modern art and design.
Of course art does not really die, it just becomes funny — as Kimmelman’s Bach-playing clown might suggest. Mels Crouwel and the Stedelijk seem to have felt this, too, as they have discretely and intelligently installed an audio system in the slick long escalator that, when I visited, was delivering my favorite funny Dada work of all time. In the air were the intriguing and amusing sounds of the German painter Kurt Schwitters: his entertaining audio work “Ursonate” (1922–32) as performed by Arnulf Appel and Eric Erfurth (recorded in 1993).
As I glided up and/or down the escalator (which I did six times, just for the pleasure of it), the 53 minutes of “Ursonate” hovered in the air, while I beheld an optical shimmer produced by the merging line patterns in motion that make up the silver escalator. I know that it isn’t, but it had the feeling of permanent perfection, in that the glimmering tubular space matched the whimsical patterning of the Northern European utterances — sounds that float on your mind.
Gliding up and down that metallic tube, listening to the eccentric guttural rollings of “Ursonate,” I noted how that experience parallels arriving and departing Amsterdam itself by bullet train: the smooth, slightly elevated glide that one experiences while looking out the window. Actually, that sideways glide does have a bit of the feeling of sliding into and out of a tub (and one might suppose a sarcophagus). And perhaps, even, the swooshing glide of a bicycle rider taking leave from an Amsterdam coffee shop.
This rising-falling silver ride was echoed in one of my favorite visual art installations at the Stedelijk, Cady Noland’s silvery sculpture “Strapped to a Narrative” (1988), as placed just next to the fabulous Andy Warhol disaster painting “Bellevue II” (1963).
Other Stedelijk highlights for me were, of course, the collection of Kazimir Malevich’s mystic Suprematist paintings (1917–19), which float and dance up and down, left and right, on two adjacent walls; the Hanne Darbove room; and Barnett Newman’s deep blue “Cathedra” (1951).
I also enjoyed Frank Stella’s silver painting “Newstead Abbey” (1960), Philip Guston’s “Painting, Smoking, Eating” (1973), and the painting “Composition with Lilac Squares” (1964) by Daan van Golden. Like the escalator, Daan van Golden’s beautifully noisy work — something between Op art and deadpan Jasper Johns–like Pop art — also radiated a forceful optical gleam. It achieved this by being nothing more than a painting of a beautiful lilac-colored, checkered handkerchief.
True to form, other Stedelijk masterworks that I greatly appreciated were Willem de Kooning’s “Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louise Point” (1963), “TV-Buddha” (1974) by Nam June Paik, and the less-known Simone Forti’s holographic print “Angel” (1975–77). In general, I treasured the fact that at the Stedelijk labels that identify the art are placed as far away as possible from the art — in the corners of the room — thereby not interrupting the contemplation of the work itself.
Bypassing the two-hour-long lines to see the Rembrandts at the newly renovated Rijksmuseum, I instead made my way to the Allard Pierson, the archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam, where I passed a productive two hours. There I discovered two brilliant works, the first being the modest (in size, at least) “Hermaphroditos Statuette” (100–50 BCE).
The second (and greater) encounter was with the Roman marble “Dionysus Sarcophagus” (2 CE), also known as the Bacchus Sarcophagus, the Dionysos Sarcophagus, and the Bacchic Thiasos. It was purchased 30 years ago this year by the Rembrandt Society from an English lord and donated to the collection. Unlike my beloved, well-preserved, and highly polished sarcophagus “Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Dionysus Sarcophagus” has degraded radically and its surface is extremely grainy and gritty. This makes a great deal of difference in terms of the art of noise masterpiece that I think it is. To somewhat clearly make out the complex floating image dance of the drunken Bacchus among a bevy of satyrs and maenads performing a goat sacrifice, I had to back up and away from it. The ideal clear viewing distance was at about 40 feet. This was not possible from all four sides, however.
As I approached the “Dionysus Sarcophagus” the woozy images tended to melt into a highly textural noise field, as grainy and gritty as it can get. This play of image-merged-into-noise-field, for me, suggested perfectly the drunken ecstatic Dionysian state of resurrection that the narrative suggests: that the stamping of grapes into wine signifies death transformed into new life.
The Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10, Amsterdam, the Netherlands) is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
The Allard Pierson Museum (Oude Turfmarkt 127, Amsterdam, the Netherlands) is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and 1 pm to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday.