Last December, I went to Düsseldorf for my annual visit to the artist I wrote my thesis about more than 20 years ago.
In the early nineties I discovered, through an article in the art magazine Metropolis M and an internship at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the work of a relatively unknown German artist. He made small, grey, paper books with series of fuzzy black-and-white photos of small airplanes in the sky, women’s knees and swimmers doing their laps in a pool.
At the Boijmans I was stimulated to further study this –in my eyes- somewhat obscure artist. As I grew increasingly enthusiastic and found out that very little had been written about the man, I went to my thesis tutor, feeling both excited and reluctant, in order to inform him of my choice of subject. He suggested that I should meet the German artist in the flesh for an in-depth conversation about his work. Oops! It was not that common for an art history student to have a real rendezvous with an artist. But it was the only possibility to gather lots of information and I felt like adventure. After some dawdling, I took up the phone and called the artist for an appointment. As I was not impervious to some romantic notions surrounding ‘the essence of the artist’, I was surprised how quickly he agreed to a visit with a completely unknown student from Groningen (if only it had been Amsterdam). I took to Düsseldorf, tape recorder in my bag, and, timidly, rang the bell at a nice-looking apartment building from the early 20th
century. Astonishment yet again! The man stood before me as awkwardly as I to him. He was around 50 years old and I was somewhere in my twenties. He wondered what on earth could be my business here with him, as an art history student from Die Niederlände. He also told me that he in fact had a dislike for words and that he had nothing to say about his, indeed, decisively visual work. Well, imagine: there we were then, the two of us, sitting in his study at a large desk on which there were many folders full of images! Out of shyness I took out my home-prepared sandwiches and began to nibble at them. In hindsight, this proved to be the magical moment in which the artist started to believe that this student could actually write an excellent story on him. In a later letter, he let me know that my taking my own sandwiches had brought us to the same wavelength.
The thesis was written and approved by both university and artist. And indeed, last December I paid him a visit for the umpteenth time. He as a much more famous man than back then, and I, after roaming about in the art world somewhat, as a teacher at the Art Academy in Groningen. This artist (now in his early 70s) has also come to win a prestigious prize for, note, young artists (the jury praised the work for its freshness). Not to mention a large retrospective in Hamburg.
And, surprisingly: the last time I visited him I felt again this tension of twenty years ago, when we met. An appointment between a now-famous artist and someone who wrote a thesis on him in his early stages: does that have validity? It is confronting how as an adult, you still relapse into old thought patterns. Immediately after my arrival in his town he takes me to a cafeteria in a shopping street in Düsseldorf and tells me how the regularity of our meetings is dear to him. I have been in this coffeehouse with him before and he is a daily customer who likes to sit here reading and, especially, watching life on the street. There is little noteworthy or sophisticated stuff that is said during our meetings and yet every time I see him, he manages to provide me with a few new perspectives on the world around us. However small they might be, I leave these meetings every time with extra air in my lungs. The late Dutch curator Gosse Oosterhof has once called him a “professional voyeur”. And indeed, this man accomplishes the feat of rendering the everyday world special for a while with his visual and, despite himself, verbal frameworks. A great gift, I find, and I am glad that I had prepared those sandwiches back then. The name of the artist, by the way, is Hans Peter Feldmann.