Bas Jan Ader @Metro Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 works—photographs, films, and installations—presented in two first-floor rooms of the gallery. The assortment is as follows:

  • 6 black-and-white 16 mm. films, transferred to video, 1970-1971
  • 1 color video, silent, 1974
  • 2 sets of ten black-and-white vintage gelatin silver prints, 1970
  • 1 sculptural installation (paint, light bulb, wire), unique, 1969
  • 2 sets of two vintage c-prints, 1971
  • 1 vintage c-print, 1971
  • 1 silver gelatin print, 1968, printed 2003
  • 6 c-prints, 1972
  • 1 triptych, silver gelatin prints, 1971, printed 2003
  • 1 set of eighteen silver gelatin prints, 1973
  • 1 sculptural installation (oil stick, tripod, clamp-on-lamp, flower, vase), unique, 1973
  • 1 c-print, 1971, printed 2003

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The career of the Conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975) is hard to separate from the mystery of his death. His ultimate piece, In Search of the Miraculous, involved his setting off from Chatham, MA in a 13 ft.-sailboat for Falmouth, England—an action the curator Andrea Grover has called “voyage as performance.” Before he left on what would have been the longest crossing in the smallest craft ever attempted, he had organized a ritualistic send-off: he recorded a nonet of his University of California, Irvine students singing sea shanties and took color photographs of their performance for a slide show. As a preamble to the work, he had already made a series of black-and-white photographs in 1973 around Los Angeles that expressed an aimless and unsatisfied longing. The plan called for him to cross the ocean to England and then proceed to his native Netherlands, at which point the singers were supposed to reassemble in the Groeningen Museum. All of these elements were designed to reinforce each other and add layers of spiritual dimension to the work.

That he disappeared while executing its next-to-last phase—his boat was found off the coast of Spain in 1975 but he was not—only enhanced his reputation among his small circle of admirers.

Like Francesca Woodman, he seemed to have led an intense existence consumed with the making of art and, like her, his life soon transfigured into myth. In Los Angeles, where he had moved in 1963 and based himself thereafter, he became a figure of cultish veneration—the artist so pure he would risk everything for his work.

His widow, Mary Sue Ader Anderson, and his brother, Erik Ader, have done their best to discourage the idea that In Search of the Miraculous was a suicide mission. Ader’s life has nonetheless already inspired the 2001 chamber opera, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, by librettist Danius Kesminus and composer Michael Stevenson, and the aura shows no sign of dimming. Alexander Dumbadze’s mono-graph, Bas Jan Ader: Death is Elsewhere (2013) provided mournful details of his early life. His father had been a Calvinist minister and member of the Dutch resistance. Arrested in 1944 by the Nazis for harboring Jews, he and six others were taken into the woods and executed. Bas Jan Ader was only two when this happened. He and his brother were raised by their single mother who never disclosed to them the circumstances of their father’s murder.

Metro presents Ader’s work without draping it overtly in this mythology. Dominating the front room is his illuminated wall text, Please Don’t Leave Me (1969). A video monitor plays a selection of 6 short filmed performances from 1970-71: Broken Fall (Organic), Amsterdamse Bos, Holland; Broken Fall (Geometric), Westkapelle, Holland; Fall I, Los Angeles; Fall 2, Amsterdam; I’m Too Sad to Tell You; and Nightfall. Of historic importance are unique sets of ten black-and-white prints, one for his book Fall 2, Amsterdam and another for Fall 1, Los Angeles.

The back room is dominated by another illuminated wall text of a sentimental phrase, Thoughts Unsaid, Then Forgotten (1973), complete with flowers and vase. There is also a set of 18 black-and-white photographs for his first installment of In Search of the Miraculous (1973.) All are taken in nondescript places, several at night with barely legible detail. One has a silhouetted figure (presumably him) walking along the margins of an L.A. freeway. Each print has a hand-written snippet (“Yes, I’ve been searchin’”) from the 1957 Coasters song “Searchin” (written by Lieber and Stoller.)

The appeal of Ader to many is its sweetness and his own personal vulnerability. The simple falling-down films have often been compared to Buster Keaton or Yves Klein stunts. (Another influence—never mentioned in the literature I’ve read—might be Monty Python. The series was popular at the same time that Ader was making these films, and the Python characters were prone to falling off tricycles or other self-inflicting shenanigans.)

California performance in the late ‘60s and ‘early ‘70s favored goofy satire. The sad-funny tone of Ader’s work has affinities with videos and photographs from that period by William Wegman, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Robert Cumming, Charles Ray, and Douglas Huebler. Closest in feeling to the autobiographical forlornness of In Search of the Miraculous may be his friend Jack Goldstein’s poignant film Jack (1973). Set in the vastness of the desert rather than the vastness of the ocean, it is similarly death-haunted and ends with the artist’s disappearance.

These minimalist-inspired exercises do not explain the apotheosis of Ader, however. It is his seeming confessional works, such as I’m Too Sad to Tell You, that continues to fascinate and divide critics. A 1971 self-portrait of the artist in an agitated state, fighting back tears and bobbing his head as he sobs, it was filmed in silent close-up for 3 min. 34 sec.

He is praised for the unfiltered rawness of the emotion he is willing to project—as though he were an emo singer on the verge of a breakdown, trying at all costs to break down the barrier between himself and his audience. Like pop songs, they are works about frustrated love and the inevitability of miscommunication.

But as various photographs of the piece exists, one with him short haired—whereas in this presumably earlier version, his locks are long and wavy—he seems to have practiced his grief. The piece included postcards he sent to friends with the title written on the back. His sad state is a performance–and a more studied and knowing one than his young fan base would like to admit.

When handling a camera, Ader showed a casual disregard for the usual photographic niceties, such as tonal definition and sharp focus, an attitude typical of ‘70s Conceptual artists—and further evidence to Ader’s admirers of his authenticity.

My favorite work of his is a black-and-white photograph of a bodiless performance in which he took everything from his closet and laid his socks, pants, and shirts on the roof of his small rented L.A. house. All My Clothes (1970) is a smart critique of documentary iconography—we could be observing the aftermath of a tornado, flood, hurricane, or some other weather-related disaster—and it is also a sincere and pathetic inventory of his possessions.

When artists and critics say that Bas Jan Ader’s modest body of work breaks their hearts, I look at this photograph and know exactly what they mean.

Collector’s POV: The prices for the works in this show range from $15000 for non-vintage single photographs to $450000 for the sets of unique photographs. Ader’s work has very little recent secondary market history, with only a few lots trading hands in the past decade. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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