Bas Jan Ader - famous at last

How do you become a famous artist? It’s not just about being talented, good contacts will definitely help and don’t forget the publicity. This is the case with Bas Jan Ader, whose film rights were recently lost to the Museum Boymans in favour of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. 

Bas Jan Ader performance: 'I'm too sad to tell you', 1971 (copyright Mary Sue Ader-Andersen)

As an artist Bas Jan Ader has nothing going for him in order to become this famous. His oeuvre is small, he was only active for merely six years, he travelled a lot, he rarely exhibited and whilst in Los Angeles he belonged to the margins of the art scene. His oeuvre consists out of a few (very) short 16mm clips and about 10 series of pictures showing him as a performance artist. They are funny videos of him falling of a roof, bicycling into a canal, falling in the dunes of West-Kapelle or embracing a bouquet of flowers. The photos are not polished, they even hardly surpass the level of an amateur snapshot.

Who was Bas Jan Ader, undergoing a revival forty years after his death and suddenly becoming a very important performance artist. BJA was born in Winschoten (1942) as a pastors’ son and without finishing any education he moved to the States during the sixties. There he immersed himself in the conceptual art scene of the east coast. While executing his final performance piece ‘In search of the Miraculous’, a solo cruise across the Atlantic, he perished. His boot was found on an Irish shore, but no trace of the artist.

'In search of the Miraculous' (copyright Mary Sue Ader-Andersen)

'One Night in Los Angeles', 1973 (copyright Mary Sue Ader-Andersen)

‘In search of the Miraculous’ was intended as a triptych, shown above is the documented first part of this performance: a series of 18 pictures of BJA walking through the outskirts of Los Angeles in the direction of the ocean, his wife Mary Sue photographed him from behind.

Bas Jan Ader worked with a few themes. ‘Falling’, illustrated below in two stills of him bicycling into to a canal and ‘Weeping’, shown above in the stills of his performance ‘I’m too sad to tell you’.


Bas Jan Ader rides into the canal, stills. (copyright Mary Sue Ader-Andersen)

After his death in 1975 Bas Jan Ader seems to disappear into oblivion, his revival 40 years later is at least remarkable. Is it the story of his mysterious death that captures the imagination? The romantic story of an artist dying for his art, a modern martyr, has been told several times, but in Aders case the interference of his biographer Paul Andriesse en widow Mary Sue also seems to play a big role. When it comes to the framing of Bas Jan Ader, linking his work to noteworthy artist such as Bruce Nauman, Soll Lewitt and photographers like Dan Graham and Edward Ruscha helped define and surely upscale his oeuvre. The 1988 retrospective in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam boosted Aders body of work, afterwards publicity became more regular and positive. Since 1990 pretty much every exhibit catalogue gives Bas Jan Ader a more raving review then the previous.


Stills from Aders performance in West-Kapelle (Zeeland) (copyright Mary Sue Ader-Andersen)

Bas Jan Ader was one of many performance artists from the ’60’s and ‘70’s, his clips show he was funny and sometimes sentimental but his work is not exceptional. He shows potential and like his friend Ger van Elk he might have grown more as an artist, but he died to soon.

Bas Jan Ader is a perfect example of so-called framing. How against all odds you can be included in the art canon. In a German catalogue published in 2000 BJA is connected to everything and everyone important in the contemporary avant-garde, now it’s just a matter of time. Museums profit from upholding the myth, after all the work of a celebrated artist is worth more. This was precisely the argument of the Museum Boymans during the trial over the artists’ film rights: his widow would now benefit the increase of value created by the museum.

Wish to learn more?

In 2006 René Daalder (VPRO) made a very interesting documentary about Bas Jan Ader, it was released on DVD but can also be found on Youtube. If you would prefer to read more on the artist, the most recent biography dates from 2015, ‘The last biography’ by Maria van Wijk. An earlier biography is ‘Death is elsewhere’ (2013) by Alexander Dumbradze. Catalogues are always a great source for information, such as the one on the exhibit in the SMA in 1988, ‘Please don’t leave me’ at the Boymans in 2006 and a German catalogue put together by C. Muller in 2000 and named ‘Bas Jan Ader, Filme, Projectionen, Videos und Zeichnungen 1967 – 1975.


The copyrights of all images used in this blog belongs to Mary Sue Ader-Andersen.


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