Amsterdam, the Magic Center
Art and Counterculture 1967–1970
Longread — 3 Jul 2018 — Leontine Coelewij
The exhibition Amsterdam, the Magic Center shows how Amsterdam evolves into a progressive and artistic haven in the late 1960s, a laboratory for innovations in art and (counter-) culture. The city becomes a stage for playful happenings, for demonstrations of the left-wing feminist movement Dolle Mina (“Crazy Mina”), students, and anti-Vietnam War protestors, and also serves as a platform for artworks, events, and situations. Many young artists reject museums and galleries as incompatible with the needs of the new art. Traditional relationships in society, in politics, and within the family are descried.
Activism begins at the grassroots level, shaped by a vigorous do-it-yourself mentality fused with the utopian desire for a new world and a rebellious need for boundless freedom. In this city and in this transformation, the Stedelijk Museum played a fascinating, if dualistic role. On the one hand, the Stedelijk advocated and presented the latest art; for example, exhibitions such as Op losse schroeven, held in the spring of 1969, in which Stedelijk curator Wim Beeren brought together the most radical artists of the day, inviting them to present their work within, or beyond, the boundaries of the museum. And yet, with Edy de Wilde at the helm, the museum epitomized the cultural establishment and, particularly in the eyes of the critical members of artists’ associations, ignored the cries for democratization.
Amsterdam, the Magic Center looks back at a series of historic events, happenings, environments, performances, and conceptual artworks that took place or were presented in Amsterdam. The show takes as its starting point the collection of the Stedelijk Museum and that of the Rijksmuseum, with whom we worked intensively on this project. The title derives from the astonishing prophecy by “anti-smoking magician” Robert Jasper Grootveld, who foretold in 1962 that Amsterdam would become a magical center, “a wild city where anything is possible.”
It is a revelation that apparently came true; Amsterdam flourished as a magical center from 1967 to 1970. The exhibition focuses on one particular period, beginning with the disbanding of the activist Provo movement in the spring of 1967 and the Summer of Love in the months that followed. The 1960s ended in 1970, both literally and figuratively. Illustrative of the decade’s demise was the Sikkens Prize, awarded that year to “the hippies” for introducing color to the streets, and thereby hailing counterculture’s appropriation by the establishment.
Yet, before that happened, artists and activists had already set in motion a chain of events that forever changed social and political life. They achieved this in very different ways. Some by developing alternatives: new forms of living, such as communes, new ways of spending leisure time, expanding awareness, democratization. Others by deploying serious, sometimes playful, means to denounce traditional institutions, such as government, museums, and, not least, the traditional family.
In the autumn of 1968, as part of the exhibition Op losse schroeven, the artist Immo Jalass proposed a project to the Stedelijk Museum in which the Van Dijk family from Amsterdam-Geuzenveld would occupy the top floor of the museum. The family—father (aged 38), mother (aged 36), and two children (aged 9 and 11)—was to live at the top of the monumental staircase, in the honorary hall, for the duration of the exhibition. The place would be decorated as an exact copy of their newly built home in the Amsterdam suburb, complete with washing machine, refrigerator, and toilet.
For Stedelijk curator Rini Dippel the project articulated the blurring boundaries between art and life: everyday life would be exhibited as an objet trouvé in the museum gallery, and she predicted that the new situation would be the cause of “innumerable confusions, blown fuses, and problems.”1 The artist himself saw the project as a direct attack on conventional society; a way of permanently laying to rest the notion of the family as the cornerstone of society. Yet at the same time the project unintentionally reveals the contempt of those in progressive circles for “the little people.”
Bourgeois life, with its two-point-three children, was assailed from all sides. Some artists delivered a satirical or ironic critique of ordinary, everyday life. Artists such as Jeroen Henneman, Ger van Elk, and Pieter Engels integrated elements of the Dutch interior (the baseboard, the washing machine, and the toilet cistern) into their work. The average Dutch home, with its odor of Brussels sprouts, was an endless source of inspiration. Lampooning the family unit had the additional advantage of offering artists a chance to lash out at art with a capital “A,” including the institute that symbolized this sacred cow: the museum.
Other artists, such as Ben d'Armagnac and Ger Dekker, went in search of alternative lifestyles; they left Amsterdam in 1967 to work together in the Zeeland countryside, where they founded a commune. D'Armagnac, who adopted the idea of the commune from his mentor, Anton Heyboer, lived there with his wife and with his girlfriend, artist and critic Louwrien Wijers. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, they sought contemplation and austerity, far from the frantic pace of modern life in the capital. Dekker and D'Armagnac built “meditation houses” from reclaimed wood and later, at Galerie Mickery in Loenersloot, a “living labyrinth.” These were not art objects, but structures to demonstrate their ascetic lifestyle. Wijers, with her short haircut and wearing a traditional nineteenth-century Zeeland blouse and skirt, also embraced the ascetic way of life there. She focused on her inner self and concentrated on a single word for a specific length of time, in an attempt to make it her own. A meditative fusion of art and life.
While artists like Jalass, D'Armagnac, Dekker, and Wijers engaged in alternative ways of living rooted in an artistic perspective, these years also bore witness to changes that dramatically impacted society. In typical sixties style, some of the offerings bordered on the absurd, with magazines like Hitweek (later Aloha) and Gandalf packed with nude pictures and cheeky articles, or the Levende Opjekten Sjoo, which featured fifty naked girls, breasts painted red, white, and blue, balanced in a living pyramid. By and large, however, the generic term “sexual liberation” embodied the hedonistic impulses of a predominantly male audience.2 “Love-Beatsters-Pop-Art-Hippies,” as they called themselves, organized “love-ins” at the Vondelpark throughout the entire summer and autumn of 1967.
They proclaimed the “love revolution,” which kicked off on October 1st with a love-in, and continued on October 7th with a “sex-in,” complete with campfire and light show. From ten o’clock in the evening until late at night, the park was dominated by “free sex, free marriage, and free love.”
Also playful, yet with a highly serious message, were the happenings and events of Dolle Mina, the feminist group that campaigned to free women from their subservient social status, starting in December 1969. Their demonstrations were a skillful blend of humor and politics. Members of Dolle Mina handed out condoms to girls attending the domestic science school on the Weteringschans, and to others at the Schoevers secretarial college. This was followed by occupying the editorial offices of Margriet, the weekly women’s magazine. Members of Dolle Mina distributed pamphlets saying: “You with your sugary sweet (old) whore-nalism stupefy the Dutch housewife proletariat.” The movement also campaigned for more day care centers, legalized abortion, and widespread use of the pill. Furthermore, in response to the lack of public toilets for women, the members of the Double Sexual Morals work group unveiled a gigantic papier-mâché phallus on Rembrandtplein for use as a public toilet. As a riposte to the square’s girlie bars and nightclubs, the women’s toilet was officially opened by a male stripper.
A similar feminine self-awareness is evident in the work and statements of Ferdi, whose vividly colored fake fur sculptures gave her a unique position in the art world of the sixties. Her sculptures, flowers, and biomorphic shapes—which she presented under the title of Hortisculptures—had unmistakably erotic overtones, for which Ferdi was unapologetic. “Some people say it’s indecent for a woman to exhibit objects of an openly sexual nature in an art museum. Why not? Sex isn’t a private male domain. It’s something you can know inside out, distance yourself from, and make fun of….”3 Rather than create individual objects, Ferdi created environments, a “soft world in which you can walk, stand, lie, fall, a room full of color and warmth that you can dive into.”
Maria van Elk achieved a similar experience with her Soft Living Room, a soft interior with undulating black and white shapes. With this installation she captured the spirit of the new era and the desire to withdraw from the harsh, turbulent outside world. At the invitation of Willem de Ridder, an earlier version of Soft Living Room had been installed in the Fantasio youth center in Amsterdam. There, it functioned as a leisurely environment where people could meditate, listen to music, and drink herbal tea.
Another female artist whose work can be regarded as social sculpture is Iris de Leeuw. Her orange, blue, purple, and silver speespakken, or “space suits,” can be seen as prototypes for the future. The garments were meant to add a splash of color to city streets, and the names of the suits elicited associations with space travel. They were mainly intended to serve as a social instrument: if you chanced to meet a like-minded person wearing the same garment, you could easily zip off and exchange a trouser leg. In this sense, the main purpose of the space suits was as a means of “communication,” enabling people to surmount social barriers and taboos. The suits were designs for a new world in which everyone could communicate with everyone else.
Like the avant-garde of the early twentieth century, the avant-garde of the late 1960s was also typified by a skepticism towards the existing social order, coupled with the desire to eradicate the distinction between art and life. This enterprise, also referred to as “hippie modernism,”4 is an astonishing fusion of elements that echo a visual language that forgoes modernism’s straight lines (i.e., references to art nouveau’s exuberance in posters, or in the colorfully patterned romantic fashions) and displays a fascination for new media and technology, like television and satellite. A mix of extreme individualism and introspection, as well as social activism, is also evident (ill Jan Timmer Dolle Mina via Atria). The sixties combine modernism’s rational belief in progress with the irrationality and escapism of a hedonistic counterculture.
Sunny Implo, the installation by Louis van Gasteren and Fred Wessels, can also be seen as a form of hippie modernism—an expression of democratic design that, at the same time, had a social, psychedelic, and technological twist. Van Gasteren and Wessels announced in a press release that the project would be installed in the hall of the Stedelijk Museum on 15 September 1969, for “non-astronaut planet-dwellers.” Visitors could insert their heads into a polyester sphere measuring 240 cm in diameter. The interior was lined with silver paper and fitted with 125 lights; a sound collage with music fragments, electronic sounds, and fragments of spoken word issued from a built-in speaker. The entire thing was controlled by an “electronic brain.” Van Gasteren and Wessels described Sunny Implo as a “non-chemically induced trip” and insisted the sphere should be installed on street corners and in psychiatric clinics. Like so many of the initiatives from this period, Sunny Implo also got stuck at the prototype phase and this “self-therapy tool,” along with plans to install the device throughout Amsterdam, failed to materialize.
Nevertheless, the streets of 1960s Amsterdam provided a rewarding platform for many other works of art. In the summer of 1969 Wim T. Schippers placed a huge Christmas tree, complete with tinsel and ornaments, in front of the American Hotel on Leidseplein.
Tjebbe van Tijen, together with five students from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, transformed the street into a vast work of art with the Continuous Drawing project, which started at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London and eventually made its way, via the Stedelijk Museum, to Rotterdam.
As part of the exhibition, Lawrence Weiner lit a flare at the city limits of Amsterdam and stanley brouwn submitted a proposal to the Amsterdam Department of Public Works to build a “this way brouwn” path in a park near the Admiraal de Ruijterweg, Willem de Zwijgerlaan, and Geuzenstraat. The artist described his “this way brouwns” as “the search for the awareness of the large space and the discovery of the city before we discover the space… infiltrating reality with an act….”5 He also envisaged all sorts of new possibilities for interactivity in the future. “There will be a newspaper in which the last section of the articles is left blank, so that everyone can fill it in as they please, or a newspaper that can be printed from a selection of television messages. You see something nice on television, press a button, and have your own article.” Expressed in the late 1960s, brouwn’s comment seems to anticipate the emergence of the video recorder, the computer, and social media.
One of the very real problems confronting Amsterdam during this time was inner-city decay and the poor condition of several nineteenth-century neighborhoods, which were slated for demolition. Many of the dilapidated buildings lay empty, and there was a desperate housing shortage throughout the city. Angered by plans to tear down the Nieuwmarkt- and Bethaniënbuurt, former Provo Rob Stolk and others founded a squatters’ housing association, Woningburo de Kraker, in 1968. Woningburo de Kraker focused on the plight of people in need of housing (Woningbeleid = Klassestrijd, or “Housing Policy = Class Warfare”), but also preached direct action and developed practical tools, such as the “Squatters’ Handbook.” Under the motto “Save a building, occupy a building,” the manual offered tips on finding a place to live and how to get in (“break the door open quickly and with as little noise as possible”), and getting to know the neighbors (“invite your neighbors over for coffee and demystify your presence in the neighborhood”).
Stolk printed posters, flyers, and brochures. He sold the Provo archive to the library of the University of Amsterdam and used the proceeds to buy a printing press.
Another former Provo, Roel van Duijn, also campaigned to improve the quality of life in the city: more green space, more affordable housing, and fewer cars. He launched the Kabouter Partij (“Gnome Party”), a political group inspired by his utopian and absurdist (Provo) worldview, and committed himself to a new way of life—a society living in harmony with nature that would no longer be driven by modern consumerism (which he termed the “fetish need”). Van Duijn’s political endeavors were successful and, in 1970, his party won five seats on the Amsterdam city council, making the Kabouters the fourth-largest party. In a film aired by television broadcaster VPRO about Van Duijn and the Orange Free State proclaimed by the Kabouters, he argues for “non-military resistance to authoritarian power.”
Thanks in part to its liberal drug policy, Amsterdam was a magnet, drawing hippies from all over the world; they called the city “wild, weird, and way out.”6 In Amsterdam the spirit of revolution found its voice in subversive, whimsical, and anarchic art and happenings that battled deep-seated traditions to make room for alternative lifestyles.
As sociologist Stuart Hall noted in 1968,7 hippies identified with marginal and exotic communities—think of the mystique, clothing, and rituals of the Native Americans in the United States, or the Dutch hippies’ love of Eastern wisdom and music. And yet, despite declarations of change, openness and freedom, there is little that points to an awareness of the role of the Netherlands as colonizer of Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles. As Hall concluded at the time, identification seemed limited to cultural appropriation by a dominant, white culture. That said, in Amsterdam and the Netherlands as a whole, there were groups such as the Surinamese and Antillean students, for whom colonialism and racism were, indeed, important issues. Both the exhibition and essays on the website examine these developments in greater detail, in an attempt to paint a broader picture of the Netherlands in the 1960s.
By 1970 the hippies had become so popular that Sikkens (a major paint manufacturer) conferred them a prize. The Sikkens Prize was awarded to the hippies for their bold use of color in brightening up life and society, and for their integration of color and space.
You could say that this tribute—this acknowledgement of hippies by a jury of “upstanding gentlemen” who represented not only the established art world but also the worlds of industry and capital—was the death knell of 1960s counterculture.8 Subsequent decades saw the mainstreaming or reversal of many sixties ideals. The documents of that era—photographs, films, sculptures, and installations—are now part of our museum collections, to be examined and interpreted anew.
Leontine Coelewij is curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam