Stanley Brouwn’s art is an art of traces and of rumors. He is always on the move, always slipping away. We arrive only to learn we have just missed him.
Beginning in 1960, Brouwn asked strangers on the street to draw directions to various locations on papers that he stamped with the words “THIS WAY BROUWN.” That same year he declared all of the shoe shops in Amsterdam as one of his exhibitions. In 1964 he published just three copies of a book, Brouwnhairs, that features one of his hairs on each page. For most of his career, he declined to give interviews, be photographed, or allow his work to be reproduced. Most catalogues for shows that include his art include statements like, “At the request of the artist, no bibliographical information is provided here.”
Because of his silence—which I take as an extreme form of restraint and generosity, letting his work speak for itself and letting viewers read it as they please—I have sometimes wondered if we would even find out that he passed away. But this weekend, Konrad Fischer Galerie, which represented him in Germany, and the Dutch paper de Volkstrant reported his death, on Thursday, May 18, at his home in Amsterdam. He was 81.
Some facts about Brouwn’s life have been established. He was born in 1935 in Paramaribo, Suriname, and moved to Amsterdam in 1957. He destroyed much of his early work, which included wood and iron sculptures and polytene bags filled with refuse. He taught at the Kunstakademie Hamburg for many years and had major museum shows, including a 2005 retrospective that later traveled from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. He was included in numerous prestigious exhibitions, including the 1982 Venice Biennale and Documentas 5, 6, 7, and 11. In one of his few public statements, he said, “Every day, Brouwn makes people discover the streets they use.”
Even among the free-thinking first generation of conceptual artists who came of age in the 1960s, Brouwn was one of the most radical and most ascetic, though he favored an asceticism punctuated by sly humor. He made art through the relentless repetition of modest actions. Adopting a straightforward idea and getting to work, he embodied a statement that Sol LeWitt would make in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in 1969: “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.” He walked cities and counted his steps. When he approached passersby who did not draw directions for him, he displayed blank sheets of paper.
Measurement in Brouwn’s work is always a slippery subject. Are people telling him the correct distances to walk? Is he counting his steps correctly? In editions and books, which he regarded as exhibitions in themselves, he explored different methods of noting distance. One consisted of a sheet of paper the size of an Egyptian royal cubit folded into a cardboard folder. Another delineated the length of his foot, half his foot, a quarter of his foot, and so forth. His deadpan presentations question how we relate to the world, how we navigate it, and how we ever truly think we know it. He takes the most familiar, quotidian experiences—walks, most notably—and renders them uncannily strange and new.
Brouwn’s zest for informal participation pointed the way toward the relational aesthetics of the 1990s; the control he exercised over his biography and work has provided a prescient model for artists like David Hammons, Cady Noland, and Aaron Flint Jamison; and his spare wit prefigures the work of Martin Creed and other trickster types. Which is to say, his legacy is deep and secure. But there also lingers in Brouwn’s art a rare sense of spirituality, a way of being in the world that asks its viewers to be attuned to place and time and intent. (Three separate pieces from 1962 come to mind, reading simply, “a walk through a grass field,” “a walk during one week,” and “a walk from a to b.”)
In issue 11 of the Bulletin put out by the Amsterdam gallery Art & Project, in 1969, Brouwn wrote: “Walk during a few moments very consciously in a certain direction; simultaneously an infinite number of living creatures in the universe are moving in an infinite number of directions.”