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Issue 161

In Search of Stanley Brouwn

With the sad news of Stanley Brouwn's passing, aged 81, we revisit our feature on the elusive artist

BY Oscar van den Boogaard in Features | 12 MAR 14

He never shows up at openings; there are very few catalogues that include images of his work, let alone his portrait. True to the spirit of 1960s conceptualism, his work is about dematerialization, the impersonal as part of the creative process and the disappearance of the author. Where is Stanley Brouwn?

During the writing of this essay, everyone I ask to put me in touch with him – gallerists, collectors, artist friends – also suddenly seems to vanish into thin air, as though they too are accomplices in the great disappearing act that ensures the artist stays invisible, so that the work can remain abstract and unburdened with what is irrelevant: its mortal maker.

The extraordinary thing is that, as I look for Brouwn, I catch myself out: I discover I don’t really want to find out who he is. This realization comes from a deep respect for his artistic choice to remain invisible and from a reverence for the concept of privacy in general that, nowadays, is being so forcefully eroded. Privacy is disappearing from our world not only because governments, corporations and citizens are so unabashedly nosy, but because individuals – in the age of Facebook, Instagram and soul-bearing television talk shows – no longer seem to feel the need for privacy. For many in the 21st century, privacy is regarded as a terrifying prison in which you are forced to wallow in your own solitude. Privacy is seen as a form of non-existence. We display ourselves to others and do not wish for one moment to be lost from view, to be alone for an instant.

Not so Stanley Brouwn: he is the man who wishes to remain invisible. And yet, thanks to the few details that are known about him, he has attained an almost mythical status. He was born in 1935 in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. The smallest country in South America, Suriname lies on the continent’s north-eastern Atlantic coast, between Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil.

BROUWNTOYS 4000 AD, c. 1964, artist book, 11 × 11 cm. Courtesy: Archiv Marzona, Berlin; photograph: Nadja Vogel

Coincidentally, I grew up in Suriname during the second half of the 1960s. To me, in retrospect, it is a paradise. Four times larger than the Netherlands, of which it is a former colony, it consists mainly of Amazon rainforest and has barely half a million inhabitants. Until its inde­pend­ence in 1975, the country’s flag displayed five stars connected by an ellipse. The stars represented the various ethnic groups that were supposedly peacefully coexisting there. As I recall it, the yellow star symbolized the Chinese, the brown star the Hindus, the red star the indigenous population and the black one the Creole people. ‘Oscar,’ my black nanny would ask me, ‘what is the white star for?’ And my answer would be forthright: ‘White is for the people.’ Like all other colonies, of course, Suriname was governed by white oppressors.

Candide, the central character in Voltaire’s eponymous novella, visits Suriname during the enlightenment. ‘We have arrived at the end of our difficulties and the beginning of our happiness!’ Candide’s valet, Cacambo, cries out when he catches his first glimpse of Suriname. Close to Paramaribo, Candide sees a black man lying on the ground; the poor man is missing a left leg and a right hand. ‘Oh God!’ Candide says to him in Dutch. ‘What are you doing there, little friend, in that terrible state?’ ‘I am waiting here for my master,’ the man answers. ‘Is he the one who has done this to you?’ Candide asks. ‘Yes, sir,’ says the man, ‘It is the custom ...’ Candide breaks down as he contemplates his pitiful state. He relinquishes his optimism and enters Suriname in tears.

According to his scant biography, Brouwn came to Amsterdam from Suriname in 1957. His fellow artist friend Armando introduced him to the Zero movement, a group of artists who rejected the evident authorial signature. Brouwn’s first works, dating from that time, which he later destroyed, were transparent polythene bags filled with all sorts of rubbish and hung from the ceiling. The work consisted of the visible content of the bag and nothing else. The pieces he actually considers to be his first works were ones he didn’t make himself: instead, he laid paper sheets on the street and an unsuspecting cyclist or pedestrian created the art work as they cycled or walked over them. Without realizing it, the passers-by became anonymous partners in these works capturing movement and time. Through participation, Brouwn placed the act of creation into the hands of others and subsequently erased, in a certain sense, his own artisthood.

Later, in the early 1960s, Brouwn would approach random pedestrians and ask them to draw directions to a particular place on a piece of paper. Using a stamp that said ‘This way Brouwn’ he would then imprint each drawing with its hallmark, like an eager neurotic bureaucrat, creating works that were simultaneously personal and abstract. Blank pages on which passers-by hadn’t drawn anything because they didn’t know the way were also considered art works, since Brouwn felt the whiteness precisely captured the participants’ abstract thought processes. The traces of footsteps and the directions on the ‘This way Brouwn’ works may well have been the starting point for the artist’s fascination with walking.

an imaginary column of 30 feet on place guillaume in luxembourg, 2001, artist book, Casino Luxembourg, 16 × 16 cm. Courtesy: Archiv Marzona, Berlin; photograph: Nadja Vogel

Walking is a way of becoming unstuck from yourself, of merging with your environment: the boundary between yourself and the environ­ment is relinquished. A cosmic unity is restored. It is about a dematerialization of the self, disso­lu­tion into space, becoming part of the geography. In the meantime, you shape something new; you become movement, measure, scale, direction, dimension and space. The obsession with precision leads further away from the self. From the 1970s onwards, like a nerdy rambler gone adrift, Brouwn recorded his own footsteps in various cities on index cards that he then stored in grey metal filing cabinets. In these works, personal experience becomes objectified and the subject dissolves. Autobiography is measured, quantified and made impersonal. You could call it a form of subli­mation. From the moment he first made those pieces, the artist’s own absence has been a distinguishing element in his work.

‘To dazzle by absence’ is a Dutch expression. It means that by being absent, you are all the more present. Does this apply to Brouwn? Or to his contemporary On Kawara, perhaps, who never makes public appearances and who communicates with the world via telegrams and postcards? However, whereas Kawara uses his own life as subject matter in his messages, such as ‘I am still alive’, Brouwn never adopts the first person in his work.

I am doing something that I really shouldn’t. On the-artists.org, a website dedicated to artists working since 1900, we can find a simple black and white passport-sized photograph of Brouwn. It is 444 × 595 pixels. For an artist who does not want photographs of himself or his works to be published, this is at the very least a provocation. We do not see much of him: the overexposed face of a balding man. From his features you can deduce that he is a Surinamer, probably belonging to the brown or black star of the flag. On the photograph, he is not so much pale as blank. He is wearing glasses and sports a thick, black moustache. He appears to be looking up, his gaze focused on infinite space beyond the camera. The pixels part and emptiness sets in.

In Wim Beeren’s book Action, Reality and Fiction in the Art of the 1960s in The Netherlands (1979), despite my best intentions, I discover a couple more photographs of the artist. We can see Brouwn during the enactment of a work from the ‘This way Brouwn’ series in Amsterdam in 1961. The slim artist looks on, with his hands in the pockets of his long, light raincoat, as a man in a suit scribbles on a piece of paper. In another photograph, we see Brouwn standing in front of a shoe shop window. A few women’s shoes can be made out in the shop window behind his right shoulder. It becomes clear that the first portrait was a crop of this image.

In catalogues for group exhibitions in which the artist participates, he is also consistently absent and his contribution is only ever a blank page. What could that blankness mean? A blank is something that is empty, something not filled in. Blank can mean everything and it can mean nothing at the same time. Blankness can stand for infinity, for every possibility. Blankness leaves everything open and admits everything. Blankness also stands for a refusal to speak. That which could be detrimental to meaning is left unsaid. It is the choice of not choosing: a precise way of saying that which is inexplicable and transcends language.

afghanistan – zambia, 1971, artist book, Gegenverkehr e.V. Zentrum für aktuelle Kunst, Aachen, 14 × 21 cm. Courtesy: Archiv Marzona, Berlin; photograph: Nadja Vogel

In the same book, I find another photograph of Brouwn, dated August 1964. The artist is standing in the window of an antiques shop, where Gallery Amstel was located. An anonymous per­for­mance by Brouwn is taking place there, on a Saturday. He uses objects that are to hand. Wearing a raincoat and a bag over his head, Brouwn steps onto the table. As he covers his head and chest with newspapers, he holds up wads of paper against the shop window. He takes off his shoes and lays them on the table. He picks up an axe and uses it to make chopping movements in the direction of one of the shoes. Clutching newspapers under his arms, he presses the shoe up to his left ear.

Here is another photograph with rounded edges. It has the shape of an old television screen. It’s taken from the Dutch art television programme Signalement from 29 December 1963. We see Brouwn during View of a City in 24 Hours (1963). The accompanying description says he laid sheets of paper on the street before returning later to collect the ‘trodden on’ pages.

In addition to these photographs we have an account. In 1964, at the Patio Gallery in Neu-Isenburg, an art happening took place in which Brouwn wore a bag over his head and sat still on a chair that he had put on a pedestal in the corner of the gallery. Is a man with a bag on his head a man without a face? He is, in any case, an artist on a pedestal. He is presently absent.

I am reminded of the Chinese parable that the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski describes in Wieviel Wahrheit braucht der Mensch? (How Much Truth Do We Need?, 1990). It is about an artist who disappears into his own painting. Devoting himself for years to a single work, the painter has grown old and lonely. When the work is finally finished, he invites the few friends he still has to see it. They gather around the painting, which depicts a park and a narrow road leading to a house on a hill. Just as the guests have formed their opinions about the work and turn to share them with the painter, they realize he is no longer there. They look at the painting and see him walking up the road towards the house and opening the door; he turns around one more time, takes leave of his friends and goes inside, closing the door behind him. Such an act of introversion signifies separating yourself from the others. For those who stay behind, that disappearance is a kind of death. Yet, as conveyed by Safranski, this story says something about a homecoming of sorts, an arrival. Because the tale is told from the perspective of those who are left behind, there is no language for the joy of homecoming. At most you can say: look, in this painting you can find the language of happiness. It is, of course, a very romantic image. I don’t know if Brouwn is preoccupied with happiness. His work is still about being and not being. He disappears into his work. He disappears into space. But he doesn’t want to dissolve alone. He wants the whole of humanity to dissolve with him.

Brouwn is a space traveller and wants the viewers to become space travellers too. In a rare interview from 1967, the artist said of the ‘This way Brouwn’ series: ‘Brouwn makes people discover the streets they use every day. A farewell from the city, the earth, before we make the great leap into space, before we discover outer space.'

In 1964, he wrote a short manifesto for the Institute of Contemporary Arts Bulletin, in which it transpires that he believes in a future so abstract that people dissolve into time and space and colour. It is a kind of world in which there is no memory, a world in which art would also dissolve. Brouwn wishes to contribute to that dissolution through his work. He wants to make the world abstract. It is as if he wants to make him­self disappear, to conjure himself away through thought – which is a tremendous paradox, of course, because in order to conjure yourself away through thought you need to be present.

‘4000 A.D.
When science and art are entirely
melted together to something new
When the people will have lost their
remembrance and thus will have
no past, only future.
When they will have to discover everything
every moment again and again
When they will have lost their need for contact with others …
Then they will live in a world of only colour, light, space, time, sounds and movement
Then colour light space time
sounds and movement will be free
No music
No theatre
No art
There will be sound

What kind of world is being evoked here? The year 4000 ad is a time that can hardly be envisaged. Picturing it means imagining you are dead and that, from death, you return to the world of the living. In that time people will no longer have a sense of memory, past or future. In other words, they will be living in a kind of eternal present. That must be something like eternity itself. This is what spirituality strives for, a world outside of time. Because everything is constantly being forgotten, everything has to be continually rediscovered. This is why it is a form of intensified being, of complete receptivity. Every time you look in the mirror you will see yourself for the first time. It is a world in which there is no need to connect with others, a world without the possibility even to do so: how can you make a connection with someone if you forget them the next instant? Man is what he sees and he has ceased to cast judgement. He has become blank on the inside, which means he can become what he sees. Four thousand years after Christ, the dream of the artist is realized and man has finally become abstract. Man is colour, light, space, time and movement.

Brouwn wishes to be a man who walks the earth, a human being like any other. The work concerns ‘a’ human being – with an indefinite article – a human being who moves through life. He wishes to preoccupy himself with space and distance and direction. He wants the viewer to become his work. That is only possible by letting the viewers complete his work in their imagination, over and over again. They are forced to be­come space and distance, forced to experience space as if it were 4000 ad. They will forget them­selves and no longer have need for the notions of art and the artist. Brouwn will no longer be relevant.

If we did know what Brouwn looked like today – whether he was married and to whom, how many children he had, what the interior of his house looked like and where his personal problems lay – would that diminish the impact of his work? Would that mean we, the viewers, were less capable of dissolving into his work? And doesn’t an artist of whom we know everything turn, slowly, into a blank personality? We know everything about Tracey Emin: we know how she is feeling, what’s happening in her her love life, where she grew up. We know her naked and from fashion shoots. We have seen her unmade bed in the gallery; we have seen the inside of her home in interior design magazines. And yet she too remains an abstraction, a great void that wishes to fill itself up with meaning and images – and she needs the viewer for that.

The idea of conceptual art was that the person of the artist was no longer relevant. Yet Brouwn still claims his artisthood. His name is the final thread that connects him as a person to his work. The ultimate step would be to cut that thread. Become anonymous. Disappear. Dissolve. To let time be time and space be space and colours be colours. And to not only dream of forgetting but to forget and to be forgotten.

Translated by Kate Christina Mayne

Oscar van den Boogaard is a Dutch novelist and playwright who lives in Ghent and Brussels, Belgium and Berlin, Germany. His work has been widely translated. His novel Love’s Death (2001) was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the artistic director of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium.