by Jody Zellen
(UC Riverside, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside) Bas Jan Ader is both well known and little known as an artist. He died, or disappeared in 1975 at the age of 33, in a boat somewhere off the coast of Cape Cod. He was attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a 13 foot sailboat. Why? For Art; as a performance that would challenge the boundaries between art and life. Ader's work pushed the (then) limits. He experimented with film, photography, installation, and performance.
Ader was born in Holland in 1942. He settled in Los Angeles in 1963 after sailing across the ocean from Morocco. This journey took eleven months. Once in Los Angeles Ader studied art and philosophy and became an active member of the Los Angeles art scene, exhibiting his works in numerous exhibitions and teaching at UC Irvine among other places.
Many artists working in Los Angeles during the 1970s were interested in the relationship between art and life; between performance and photography; and the difference between the art object and documentation of an action. Ader's work fit within this conceptual framework. His performances and actions were well documented and presented as finished films or photographic works. Although conceptual in practice they were also visually sophisticated. He was aware of and interested in the work being made by contemporaneous artists such as Ed Ruscha, Gordon Matta Clark, Robert Smithson, and Chris Burden. Like many of these artists, Ader was interested in his presence and alterations to his surroundings. His body, face or shadow figured prominently in his works as subject and the object.
Amongst Ader's best known works is Untitled (Flower Work) . This piece, created as a film as well as a series of photographs, presents the artist arranging a vase of flowers. We see the artists body, dressed in black, from the hips to the neck. No face is necessary, for we are interested in his actions not his expression. As he arranges the flowers he carefully segregates them into the three primary colors: red, blue and yellow. Through the process of arranging and rearranging, the vase moves from being multicolored to being monochromatic and then back again to an arrangement that contains all three colors. As Thomas Crow writes in the exhibition catalogue, "The performance was his wry homage to and mockery of Mondrian, Rietveld, and the floral clichés of his native country."
Aders art continually made reference to his Dutch upbringing, and he often created pieces that suggested he was about to return there. Although he became firmly rooted in Los Angeles, he was always searching, and this search in mind and body became the subject of his art. In All My Clothes  he photographed his clothes laid out on the roof of his house. This was reminiscent of packing a suitcase, a gesture indicating departure. Farewell to Faraway Friends  is a color photograph that presents his silhouetted figure standing where the water meets the earth. Alone this image may be insignificant, but within the context of Ader's work it is both nostalgic and romantic. It evokes the aura of Dutch landscape paintings.
Farewell to Faraway Friends,
color photograph, 1971.
|In many works Ader jumps or falls. He rolls off a roof in Fall I, Los Angeles . He jumps out of a tree in Broken Fall (organic) , and rides a bicycle off a bridge into the water in Fall II, Amsterdam . He films or photographs these planned mishaps and presents the sequence of the adventure as his art. There is no denying that there is a certain sadness or sense of loss in all of Ader's works. Indeed, he created a film entitled I'm too sad to tell you  in which he simply cries for the camera. The words "I'm too sad to tell you" address the extent of his despair.
For Ader art was a literal as well as a metaphorical journey. He was always searching. This search informed his photographs and films, but also led him to stage happenings, installations and performances. He was in the process of creating The Search for the Miraculous, a multi-part work, when he disappeared, lost at sea. Although his boat was found off the coast of Ireland a few weeks after he lost radio contact, the body was never recovered. What remains of Ader's short career are his photographs, films, and writing. Yet his works continue to influence and inspire successive generations of artists who see art not only as a journey, but as a process of discovery. As Ader once wrote, "The sea, the land, the artist has with great sadness known they too will be no more."