Krijn Giezen - Lost and Found
MacGuffin Magazine #9
long read about life and work of artist Krijn Giezen (1938-2011)
26 pages, december 2020
text: 10 pages. (Full text below images)
photoseries: 16 pages (i.c.w. Mathijs Labadie, Ernst van der Hoeven and Sandra Kassenaar)
Lost and Found
(Translation Liz Waters)
From time to time I get a Krijn Giezen alert, from Marktplaats, Antiqbook or eBay. It will usually concern a magazine or a catalogue from a group exhibition, but with a bit of luck it might be a publication by Krijn himself, simple and direct in design, pre-computer, the photocopier as a basis, his elegant handwriting right across the page. If I don’t already have it, I buy it, for less than its value. Sellers don’t know what they’re dealing with.
This is how my Krijn Pile grows. He died in 2011, but every time I open the parcel or envelope, it’s as if I’m getting a message directly from him.
In his publications Krijn often shows how others improvise. Today we’d call them ‘life hacks’. He collected them for decades. A butcher puts a heavy fridge on a piece of pork rind to drag it along. A roadmender makes a T shape out of two bricks and sits down. At the doctor’s the banisters are held together with sticking plaster. Anglers drag their boat onto the riverbank and use it on its side as protection against wind and rain.
Artworks are rarely put up for sale. Krijn didn’t work for the market. I have a silk-screen print from 1977, on cheap paper with careless fold marks, which the seller was offering as a poster. It’s signed art, but also a tutorial on the cleaning of salted herring. You see a herring, drawn in a series of paper cut-outs in different stages of cleaning and then photographed in Krijn’s hands as he shows how it’s done. In separate artworks he cleans sprat and bloater as well, using slightly different steps.
The tutorials were a preparation for the Venice Biennale in 1978. The catalogue is in my Krijn Pile. He writes, succinctly and to the point; ‘This spring I went to sea several times with Venetian fishermen – and I looked for building materials in the Po delta: reed and osier.’ The title of the work is no less pragmatic. ‘The Catching of Fish, the Building of a Hut. The Preparation of Fish in that Hut with the Necessary Tools.’ In the garden of the Dutch pavilion he built a smokehouse and stretched cut-open fish on sticks. After they’d been smoked, visitors could taste them, or he put them indoors, so that the fish smell filled the Rietveld building and the still dripping fat soaked into the walls.
About a year ago I received a special Krijn Giezen alert. It concerned early work: a tapestry from 1967. You rarely see those. Museums bought them, but rarely exhibit them.
I made an appointment. It was on display in a small upstairs apartment in Rotterdam, too big for the room, provisionally fixed between the sliding doors. Two metres by one and a half, a composition of roughly assembled rope, canvas, leather, jute, tweed and coarse strokes of black paint. Unmistakably Krijn, the price was doable, but I hesitated. Marcel Duchamp once said that every masterpiece we admire in a museum, even the Mona Lisa, is the weak afterglow of the sublime brilliance of the moment of completion. That was certainly true of this tapestry. The materials Krijn used were already faded, but time had made everything even more drab. Furthermore, the seller was not very forthcoming. He had bought the work some eight or nine years ago in a gallery whose name he would have to look up. As for its provenance, he believed it was from a museum in Katwijk or Noordwijk, Giezen’s native region. Now he wanted rid of it; he was getting on in years ‘and my children will put it out with the trash’.
On the motorway driving home I wondered why I hadn’t bought the tapestry. I fantasized about a future in which astronomical sums were paid for work by Giezen. In his later years Duchamp would take a Brancusi to the auction from time to time, so he could carry on playing chess. If Krijn is destined to join such company, then I’d just missed my chance of becoming rich.
The fantasy meandered onwards and a little later Krijn was sitting next to me in the car. He sized me up, his eyes twinkling behind thick lenses, chuckling at the dilemma. The situation surrounding his tapestry had certainly interested him. Our conversations always touched upon the delicate fabric of behaviour and usage that weaves human and thing together, and how unstable that relationship can often be – good intentions that get derailed and end up as the opposite, but with a bit of luck lead to new meanings. The meeting in the upstairs apartment was a potentially decisive moment in the tapestry’s biography: more than fifty years old, removed from a museum’s collection shortly after the artist’s death and now in the possession of someone whose children were making threats about trash. As its new owner I could have reversed that downward spiral. Yet I hadn’t bid and I had another argument for that besides personal considerations: perhaps Krijn would have agreed with the children. Decay was his great theme, the tapestry itself consisted of discarded remnants, so in the grand scheme of things, how terrible would the loss of it be?
I’d have liked to discuss that with Krijn, but he was no longer in the car.
When an artist dies, the partner mourns their individual loss, but they’re also part of what Pierre Bourdieu calls the circle of belief: the entire group of people who, in one way or another, have invested and believe in the work and the artist’s ideas. It’s a group effort, aimed at setting in motion what can eventually become eternal remembrance, preserving the cultural capital. Initially this is done mainly by those who knew the artist personally, but eventually others take over, with the freedom to discover the artist afresh. It’s possible because the dead artist has become a story, which can be told and retold – with smaller or larger variations.
In this dynamic, personal matters take on a whole different weight than they had when the artist was alive, because now each work harbours the commemoration of its creator. Sometimes artists anticipate this during their life, by mythologizing themselves. Donald Judd, the epitome of the anti-biographical artist, left his house and workplaces in Marfa in such a way that along with the art, his artistic practice is central. The memory is strictly controlled by the Judd Foundation: guided tours only.
Such centralized control does not (yet) exist in Krijn’s case, but ten years after his death he is myth material, as you can tell from the recurring anecdotes doing the rounds about him. Many accounts concern his capacity to live outside the established order, outside the order of daily life, but also that of art. The periphery was his base. He shared that spartan talent with his wife Martina. Like Donald Judd, Krijn and Martina Giezen had created astonishing places to live and work, in the Netherlands and in France, but to the degree that those places are still extant, they have not been turned into museums. In France Martina still lives a spartan existence at Chateau de Magny, the mansion the couple bought in the late eighties as a ruin. Its state of disrepair was a great source of inspiration to both of them. The floor, which had collapsed under leaking rainwater, was welcomed and preserved as a natural artwork. Krijn and Martina invited artists and architects to think up temporary solutions.
In the 1980s and ’90s that kitchen-table curatorship of reacting on the spot was their practice in the Netherlands too, in a characteristic flower-bulb shed in Noordwijkerhout, surrounded by bulb fields. From the eighties onwards Martina also published a highly irregular periodical called MV Press, which offered artists a free space on paper. They entered into conversation with Martina, or made their own contributions, sometimes covering a page, sometimes an entire issue. The spartan attitude was expressed in strict precision. Publication, bulb shed and chateau were filled with contributions from artists including Richard Long, Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Körmeling, Luc Deleu, Jan Dibbets, Dieter Roth, Wolfgang Laib, Per Kirkeby, Panamarenko, Peter Struycken, Sjoerd Buisman – and Krijn himself. When gatherings took place, Krijn ‘cooked’. Anyone who ever experienced such an event is still happy to talk, because it too fell outside the established order. Every roadkill rabbit has a bit of edible meat on it. In my pile I keep a rare interview with Martina, in which she recalls an event in the bulb shed, ‘Krijn prepared a whole pig in clay, which was dug up during the gathering, a fairly charged event. Afterwards it was eaten in silence during a meal in the shed.’
In the Netherlands the circle of belief around Krijn has fragmented but not disappeared. He had a large network, which he maintained carefully from a distance, but which has little cohesion without him. People in art, who know each other but not that both were friends of his. People outside art, with a craft or specific kind of knowledge. Family. Other people in Noordwijk and Katwijk who knew him all their lives.
As for me, I’m a former student. He taught me in the 1980s and from then on we kept in touch. When we saw each other, often after long intervals, the exchange was always generous. Thinking was always translated into doing. He would bring fish, straight from the harbour, which we prepared on the single burner in my studio. He looked in my bin uninvited, because the creator is also revealed by what is thrown away. Once I gave him a drawing and received in the post a stapled photo collage in return – somewhere between a letter and an artwork – telling me how he’d hung it in his studio, stuck on a nail, between animal skins and a dried stingray. Out of another envelope came an organically eroded piece of styrofoam, beachcombed in Normandy (Krijn had another workplace there, directly behind the dunes). It was an art stone, he wrote. ‘This week I discovered a beautiful white, soft pebble beach. I’d never noticed it before. The reason is that water and wind keep moving this beach. Art – fake – imitation. You find it everywhere.’
Dead for a decade is different from dead for a century or just passed away. Ever since he hitchhiked in my car, I’ve been wondering where Krijn is. Right now he is all over the place, and therefore nowhere.
Going through my Krijn Pile, I imagine there must be more of them, owned by people who may activate their pile, or may not. Martina lives in France with a huge pile, the museums that have bought his work often keep their piles in a depot, occasionally in their exhibition rooms. Family members cherish piles of their own. The rest of the piles, short or tall, are with individuals like me, who lack any overview of who has what. Krijn is hidden in the stories that can unfold from those piles.
A snapshot print of the tapestry is the latest addition to my pile. Somewhere at the bottom is a catalogue from 1969, with a yellowed news-cutting in the front. The interview is headed ‘Krijn Giezen Lives Well From His Tapestries’. Krijn was thirty at the time and he talks about how he works on several tapestries at once. ‘That combination of working on something for weeks and then suddenly giving it its definitive form, plus the combination of artistry, or laying it down, and the craft of constructing it, needs to be what typifies the work, what it must express.’
The catalogue has pictures of twenty-two tapestries, one of which looks very much like the one I saw, with the same dimensions, the same stock of old rags and the same signature, K.G. 8-’67, embroidered in rough stitching. It has just won Krijn the critics’ prize and in the introduction Hans Jaffé, chair of the jury, praises the work as a ‘break with tradition’. Those are words that now sound hackneyed to me, since ‘break’ is the predominant narrative of the sixties. Krijn’s case is different. Yes, the tapestries represent the transition from the traditional school of painting to a freer way of working, but no, all the same they show a longing for more tradition, not less. Not the tradition of art but of workmanship. Creation as subject, the mix of skill and improvisation that is necessary to life, to survival. The kind of life that emerges when you remove a few layers of civilization.
An element of that craving for tradition is the fact that Krijn remained an artist ‘from Noordwijk’. There are countless examples of artists who move to the big city in order to rise above their own milieu, but Krijn remained tied to the community from which he came. Born and raised on his own terms; blood and soil without pathos. In Noordwijk he lived with Martina – a girl from the village – in the old police station. A goat walked through the house, ivy grew in through a broken window and their horse stood in the front garden. The old police cells remained intact and Krijn made a terrific marble bathroom out of old washstands. The fact the couple later moved to France does not contradict this localism. The empty beaches of Normandy reminded him how the beach at Noordwijk used to be.
To this day it remains tempting to write and think about art in terms of a break. We are constantly bombarded with paradigm shifts, with few real consequences. A break provides drama, but what the tapestries in the catalogue show me above all is an artist who has not yet broken. The experience of craftsmanship, which Krijn had in the act of creation, is not passed on. The viewer, as the word indicates, is allowed only to look. The tapestry suffers from the monosensory nature of art.
The opposite of ‘break’ is ‘repair’. You see it happening in a tapestry that, ironically, is not shown in the catalogue. In Indian Cress, from 1966, an old horse cover remains recognizably itself. Moreover, the work is a cutting pattern for a new cover. Function has become subject. Later Krijn had a flyer printed on which the horse cover is offered as a product: ‘Fly sheet made by Krijn Giezen deliverable in large – medium – small – with the name of your horse. Price 450,-. Tel. 01719-2351.’ On the A4 card are several photos of the tapestry, but also of their horse, with Krijn holding the reins. On the horse cover is the animal’s name, in Krijn’s elegant handwriting: ‘Fly Away’.
Indian Cress is the blueprint for the later work: functionality, reuse, craftsmanship, level-headedness, handwriting and humour. The repair is hands-on; something that is old becomes new, but it also happens somewhere else, in the hybrid between art and life. For Krijn art had to be more than art. ‘It is so... so... art,’ he might sigh as a teacher on seeing what you had done. As a student you knew then that you’d got it wrong. In the discomfort of the artist who does not feel at home in his profession I took my example from him.
The contained energy of the tapestries was ultimately released in countless tools and invitations to use them. In the 1970s and ’80s Krijn created smokers, pans, cutlery for the eating of crab and lobster, and tools for opening oysters. Strong conceptual prototypes, intended to be used with several of the five senses.
Landscape became material too. In an aerial photograph from 1991, shortly after it was completed, the noise barrier looks like an elegant pencilled curve, 300 metres long in an otherwise empty landscape. Who would be troubled by what noise, you wonder. It’s land art.
Almost thirty years later the surroundings have changed radically. On one side of the barrier lie kilometres of asphalt and industrial terrain. On the scale of the port of Rotterdam – the largest in Europe – its monumental size is not immediately obvious. In fact it rather suggests the human scale. Close to it a warehouse has been built with a windowless wall that is longer and higher. Above the barrier grow white poplars, so that you notice how high the barrier is only if you go and stand near it. A cage structure of concrete reinforcing steel, around five metres tall, is full of rubble from demolished buildings nearby. In the middle is a passageway through which you can reach the other side, an agrarian landscape and not far off an exclusive residential neighbourhood. Here, on the south side, hundreds of poplar saplings partially obscure the barrier from view.
I recall Krijn telling me he was working on it, but I didn’t realize then what a big project it was. He described it as if he was making cutlery or a smoker, and said it was hard to find. Now I’ve driven there – Google Maps points the way – to see how the heap of old rags from the sixties developed into Krijn’s credo: Waste = Material. With the upscaling of tapestry to landscape it becomes clear what a visionary attitude Krijn had to the idea of recycling. The best reuse is at the location itself. Krijn paid attention to the carbon footprint before the concept existed. For him it arose out of cyclical thinking, which he implemented more and more consistently and radically. In Denmark he had bunkers of the Atlantic Wall along the coast sawn into four-ton pieces to make sea defences. The poetic force of reuse is obvious – at last the bunkers provide real protection – but Krijn thought further, deeper along the chain. The shortcut that reuses your trash on the spot as material renders up considerable savings in the logistics of the building process. And resistance. For several clients trash remained simply trash, which must be got rid of. Krijn liked this sort of friction. His work had to chafe, making it quite distinct from today’s customer-oriented cradle-to-cradle movement.
In my academy years I visited the bulb shed just once. Krijn had invited my class – to do what I no longer remember. I do remember the place, which was everything the academy wasn’t. This is how an artist lives and works, in a precisely defined reality of his own.
On the internet I find a news item from 2016 which mentions the ‘controlled demolition’ of a huge bulb shed by the Noordwijkerhout local council. The chimney and the roof had already collapsed, and the back wall had fallen onto the neighbour’s land. Despite various efforts, it had proven impossible to contact the owner. At which point the decision was made to give decay a helping hand.
The heap of rubble is overgrown with brambles, but with a bit of cautious climbing I make it to the top of what was once the shed. Chunks of yellow and red brick, a section of window frame, an assortment of rooftiles, a piece of lead flashing, a moss-covered chair, a dented aluminium pan – what a loss.
Invisible from the footpath, a marijuana plant grows in a bucket. So someone is still making use of the place.
At the same time, the pain that I feel here is precisely what Krijn was trying to deal with in his work. It’s an oddly energetic experience to find one of Krijn’s workplaces in such a condition. Bizarrely, he pointed to the existence of heaps of rubble like this when carrying out an analysis of the bulb-growing area of Holland. In Hopen en Gaten (Heaps and gaps), from 2003, they lie as blind spots in the landscape, unexplored archaeological sites of our recent past. Now he is one himself.
I pluck a bucket of blackberries to make jam.
The advertisement for the tapestry is no longer on the internet, but I still have the owner’s phone number. I app him to ask if it’s been sold. He immediately answers that it hasn’t. I offer a quarter less than the asking price. Without delay he replies: YES! I treat myself to the work, even though I don’t have anywhere to put it, as the starting point for my quest. The seller is happy too and even sends me two beautiful publications as a bonus. What comes down, must go up: my Krijn Pile keeps growing. In a newspaper article shortly after his death the paradox is succinctly summarized: ‘For Krijn Giezen everything can decay, but nothing must be lost.’