This ‘intermezzo’ has to go into a little more detail, for here we fetch up at a central problem of the art-historical approach to 20th-century art. The implications of the ‘reification’ of the artistic means introduced by early abstract painters have never been fully understood in large areas of the profession. A self-referential work of art in terms of l’art pour l’art, i.e. a work whose artistic means (line, form, colour etc.) are regarded as ‘things’, touches on issues of a philosophical and cognitive-theoretical tradition which were heralded by Kant’s ‘thing in itself’. Here Kant was taking into account the scientific knowledge that our perception of things does not tally with the things in themselves, and that what is perceived thus remains essentially enigmatic. All perception is interpretation. A question like ‘what did the artist want to express with that line?’ imposes upon the line its time-hallowed referential character and ignores the fulfilment of its function as a thing in the total picture – as a structure (Mondrian), as a dynamic element (Kandinsky), or as the trace of physical movement (Art Informel).
Of course it takes a strong dose of abstractive capacity to see a line drawn on a surface as a thing. To us, things are three-dimensional, and ever since the cave-paintings the line has had a representational function. This probably accounts for the difficulties we still have in following Kandinsky through to the final consequence.
Sculpture is a different matter, for here we really do have three-dimensional objects which we can see in reference to other objects. By placing things in reference to one another and to our knowledge of them, by ordering all this and deriving a structure from it, we can grasp reality without really understanding it. That is perhaps the most general description of our most common method of appropriating reality. It is also the most suitable method for dealing with a sculpture in a public space. it sounds almost too banal to be credible: efforts to persuade the public to accept a sculpture in a public area must first and foremost be directed towards reminding the public of its own ability, put daily into practice, to deal with situations which raise questions. It is necessary to remind people of familiar behaviour patterns, because their view of these banalities is distorted by clichés and prejudice, and also because television and advertising have trained us not to ask questions.
BACK TO THE NAi SCULPTURE
Eliminating prejudices might give the public its first chance of getting to grips with the sculpture, because the sculpture refers to the location, and the public is familiar with that location or can experience it – or had they perhaps never perceived it properly? De Vries offers the following explanation for his ‘solution’: ‘The NAi building is not closed off at the top. On the opposite side of the pond is the archive building. Its height and curve conform with the surrounding structures. In the hole between the two buildings, for that is how I see the pond, I wanted to have an active line. An image for the entire surrounding part of town and at the same time confirmation of the pond. That is why the form and colour are expressive. There are three exact points, but yellow is the spokesman, so to speak.’
The more structural description of the spatial situation in the first part of the quotation might have come from Richard Serra. In addition, and this is hinted at in the second part, there is something about Auke de Vries’ public commissions that makes them attractive as objects in themselves. This is all the more surprising because they are generally abstract. Cor Blok was on the track of that ‘something’ when he compared Auke de Vries with Claes Oldenburg. He justified this ostensibly strange comparison by saying that both formal idioms originate in everyday reality. Oldenburg spectacularly enlarges commonplace objects; one of the reasons for their success could be the ‘aha’ of recognition they induce in the beholder. Auke de Vries is also inspired by his visible surroundings but the sources of that inspiration cannot usually be recognized in the sculptures. Even so, there is something ‘blown-up’ about them: even the 16 x 32 metre NAi sculpture clearly shows that it is a true-scale enlargement of a 75 centimetre model he put together with his own hands in the studio. What is enlarged is less an object than the act of its making, and the big sculpture seems to retain the fragility of the design – although structural engineering makes this impossible of course.