Longread — 7 Feb 2019
Margriet: While preparing this exhibition we often talked about being a woman in the art world. As a feminist mediator in that field, I get annoyed by the increasing dominance of the male perspective. For example, just four percent of the over 90,000 objects in the Stedelijk Museum collection were made by women. And less than one percent by “non-Western” artists. Our collaboration is very important to me because we’re actively rewriting institutional history, even though you often say: “I’m a professional artist and I’ve been able to earn a living from my work. I haven’t been sidelined at all.”
Jacqueline: Things did indeed go well for me very quickly. I started exhibiting in galleries at a young age, and I was always so thrilled to see so few works, or none at all, left at the end, because they sold well. That’s now become a problem, because I’ve no idea where many of my works from that period have ended up. I never kept track of them. But the great thing is that I’ve been able to make a living from my art right from the start, although there were a few tough periods.
I have to say, however, that some of my male colleagues did squeeze me out. The lack of female art critics didn’t help either. The men mostly looked at art by men. Fortunately, one Paris critic did pay attention to my work, Pierre Gaudibert, as did the women responsible for the Salon de Mai, such as Jacqueline Selz and Yvon Taillandier, where I exhibited in 1963 and 1965.
M: In recent years, ever since Yale University acquired your archive, there’s been renewed interest in your work and in The Situationist Times (1962–1967). Of course this obviously owes something to the increasing number of feminist voices that are calling for women in art to be given the attention they merit.
J: Feminism is inherent in me as an individual, but I’ve never felt obliged to fight for recognition among male artists. Today I have admirers who recognize my work, so I’m not a misunderstood artist. That said, there has never been much recognition for my work from the institutes, certainly not the Dutch ones. We both concluded that I wasn’t the only one treated like this, and that it certainly had to do with being a woman. I chose to pursue a career as an artist and, moreover, for a life without a family.
M: The first time we met was at the symposium Lose Yourself! at the Stedelijk in 2017, which focused on the labyrinth. It’s a theme I’ve contemplated for some time. In 2011, for example, I made an exhibition about two labyrinthine exhibitions at the Stedelijk that involved Jean Tinguely [Bewogen Beweging (1961) and Dylaby (1962)]. The subject was also at the heart of the exhibition Jean Tinguely: Machine Spectacle (2016). I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know about your magazine The Situationist Times, or the incredible fourth special issue from 1963 that you devoted to the labyrinth. No doubt that’s my own fault, but it’s also because you had not become part of the canon of art history.
J: It was rather strange to see images of The Situationist Times being screened during the symposium because I hadn’t been invited to tell my story. Fortunately there were speakers like Paula Burleigh and Janna Schoenberger who did that for me. They also spoke about the cancelled Situationist exhibition that was to have taken place at the Stedelijk in 1960. It took the form of a labyrinth. Willem Sandberg, the then director of the Stedelijk, eventually decided to pull the show, but the following year he teamed up with Pontus Hultén, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, for his labyrinthine exhibitions, which you have been looking at, featuring such figures as Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle.
Incidentally, there’s always been plenty of discussion about the Situationist exhibition that never took place. I was working at the Stedelijk at the time and never really had a chance to tell my side of the story. It’s great that I finally got the opportunity to do that in our exhibition Pinball Wizard. The story went that the Situationists didn’t want to apply to the Prins Bernhardfonds [now called the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds] for a financial contribution towards the cost of the exhibition. That’s totally understandable for a counterculture group. And Sandberg new that too. In my opinion, he played his cards very cleverly, for it gave him a reason to get rid of the Situationists and, instead, to work with Pontus Hultén, Fluxus and people like Tinguely, whom he found much more interesting.
M: Besides devoting more attention to your involvement with the Situationists, which has been underexposed right up to the present day, we started in the exhibition Pinball Wizard with the idea of writing your entire body of work back into art history. We show your work and development as an artist alongside items from the Stedelijk collection. This allows the public to see which movements and contexts you were active in. We discovered wonderful combinations of works by artists that you associated with or admired back then, and artists from the collection whose work we think bears similarities to yours. What was it like for you to make these combinations?
J: It was very special to be able to select from the vast collection of the Stedelijk. That’s made it a highly associative exhibition.
M: It was also fantastic for me, because it offers visitors a whole new perspective on the collection, from very famous works to many lesser-known works and artists. As a curator I might not have managed to find these works without your specific understanding. A case in point is the work by E.R. Nele, on display in one of the two galleries where you return to your time working at the Stedelijk Museum, 1958–1960.
J: Yes, that’s a very personal story. Nele is a sculptor and had an exhibition of etchings in the print gallery at the Stedelijk Museum in 1959. At that time I was working as an assistant in the department of applied art at the museum. My conversations with her encouraged me in some way to make etchings myself, which we can see further on in the exhibition. Of particular significance was that she told me about the Gruppe SPUR, who were part of the Situationist International, and put me in contact with them.
M: What I like about the selection of works we came up with is that they allow us to trace your development. Visitors can see and feel your training: what you saw, whom you were in touch with, what you heard and read. And how, midway through your career, that mixture led to an explosion, as it were, and a visual language that was all your own.
J: The Stedelijk played a crucial role in this regard. However, honesty requires me to admit that my post at the Stedelijk was largely down to nepotism on the part of Sandberg. The fact that he and my father, the collector Hans de Jong, came into contact with each other made it much easier for me to get in here. The same was true for Nele (née Bode), by the way. She was the daughter of Arnold Bode, who had set up the documenta in Kassel in 1955. At my job interview I admitted that I knew almost nothing about art or design, apart from a little knowledge of contemporary art, but I spoke a number of languages and was eager to learn a lot. And I was hired on that basis.
Over the years I was able to absorb everything. I studied art history under, among others, Hans Jaffé, deputy director of the museum, who also taught at the University of Amsterdam. When I’d seen enough, I found the freedom to try things for myself and develop a visual language of my own.
M: In various interviews I’ve heard you claim your work isn’t autobiographical. Could you say something about how that surfaces in this exhibition and what, in your view, is the role of life in relation to work?
J: Well, my work is not autobiographical, but it is biographical. The difference is that it’s not totally self-centered. Even so, I’d like to think it’s universal enough for people to recognize more in it than just me as an individual. And naturally, it’s about life.
M: In the exhibition we can follow your whole development chronologically. What strikes me is that you work in series. Sometimes they can be quite different in terms of visual language. However, the themes reveal certain recurring elements such as aggression, death, sex, sports, games and humor. Could you explain how you arrive at such a series?
J: They usually start from a simple fact or detail that I come across through what I read or hear or see. The trigger for the Accidental Paintings (1964–1965) was a dog that I had seen being run over on my street, the rue de Charonne in Paris. I started the Série noire (1981), a well-known series of detective novels in France, by letting my fantasy run riot on the titles of those books, as a sort of illustration. More recently, my WAR series (2013–2014) was provoked by the poisonous gas attacks in Syria, carried out using the same gas that was invented during World War I by the Jewish chemist Fritz Haber (ed. the Haber-Bosch process). This led to further research for a number of pastel paintings and works about World War I, inspired in part by some colored photographs of the war I came across in books and on the internet.
Despite what people sometimes say about my work, I don’t use various “styles.” What matters to me are various forms and materials. My early work was fairly non-figurative and abstract, with eyes and birds as recurring elements. I think I was still very preoccupied by the search for my own visual language in the years from 1960 to 1962. The first painting in which I manage to express what I mean is Mr Homme attaque Mr Mutant (1962).
M: This piece is important not only because you employ more specific forms but also because it illustrates your relationship with the Situationists. In the end you were thrown out of the movement, along with all the other artists, because the Situationist leaders Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi thought the artists were no longer acceptable, since their work was too commercial in focus. In the painting we see two figures competing with each other, just as painting and activism were at the time?
J: That’s an interesting interpretation, though I didn’t consciously paint it that way. Of course I don’t really remember exactly what went through my mind when I made it. Activism and painting can go very well together, but according to Debord and company, the precedence of “theory” meant no distraction at all. So we, especially the members of Gruppe SPUR who were rebelling against this, were viewed as “spoilers.” Though the Situationists included painters, there’s no such thing as situationist art.
M: Although you’ve always continued to paint, you also staged performances. We show archival material of them at various points in the exhibition. What did such activities mean for you as an artist?
J: I’ve always engaged in activities alongside or intertwined with one another, just as many artists deploy performance, video and other forms of expression alongside or in combination with one another. You could also consider my work on The Situationist Times as a parallel activity alongside painting. In the 1960s and 1970s of course, performances and other events were part of the game. For example, in 1966 I made public paintings on the Piazza in Ascona, Switzerland, and in 1984 during a fashion show in Amsterdam. In addition, I frequently worked with other artists like Ben, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Christian Boltanski and Christo at the American Center in Paris, and with Toer van Schayk and others in a small theatre in Paris. These activities and performances, as well as the making of artist books, stem from an urge for expression that isn’t possible in the usual painterly way. By which I abandon the narcissistic isolation of the artist’s studio and actively collaborate with other people and other disciplines.
M: You’re still very active as an artist, and we end the exhibition with two threads in your current work: your fascination for the potato and the theme of war. Two very different themes. I’m curious about how they relate to each other.
J: Thematically of course, these two series have nothing in common, but they do relate to each other a little in terms of material. I use the same material for the Potato Blues (2017–) as for the WAR series: pumice in gel form. In the WAR paintings I applied it in thick layers to create mud, and in the Potato Blues to provide contrast and create a structure for the material. Then there’s the Potato Blues and my jewelry, the Pommes de Jong, which are also something of a series.
M: What do you hope a future generation will take from a visit to this exhibition at the Stedelijk?
J: A sense of freedom and curiosity. I think it’s very important that everybody, not just the artist, enjoys complete freedom to do exactly what they want and to share it. And this freedom needs to be nourished by an insatiable curiosity, both at the level of materials and intellectually. I hope that visitors understand the exhibition in this