In Stars and Stripes Forever, the Living Archive portrays the role of American art at the Van Abbemuseum through archival items and information on past exhibitions and acquisitions.
Some important artists were at work in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, but their renown was confined mainly to their homeland. It was not until after 1945 that American artists began asserting themselves in the international art world. New York succeeded Paris as the new cultural metropolis.
Edy de Wilde (Van Abbemuseum Director, 1946-1963) started taking an interest in American art during the latter years of his tenure, but it was not until 1962 that he travelled to New York to investigate the scene. American art had first been shown in the Van Abbemuseum two years earlier, in a 1960 exhibition of the private collection of the Brussels connoisseur Philippe Dotremont.
De Wilde’s successor Jean Leering (1964-1973) concentrated on American art in his exhibition and acquisition strategy. He put on shows of Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Ad Reinhardt, Bruce Nauman and others, and laid a basis for the collection of Minimalist art in the Netherlands. His influence as a member of the organizing committee for documenta 4 (1968) helped make it into the most American in its history.
Rudi Fuchs (1975-1987) shared Leering’s passion for Minimalism and held a succession of exhibitions with American Conceptual artists. He took it upon himself to look beyond the dominant ‘international style’ and to devote some attention to the less familiar sources he encountered in Central and Southern Europe. The Van Abbemuseum became an arena where contradictory artistic movements clashed.
Following Fuchs, Jan Debbaut (1988-2003) also turned initially to European art, partly because of the declining quality of the available American work. By the 1990s, interest had moved on to artists who were making predominantly process-oriented and audiovisual work, resulting in exhibitions and acquisitions of West Coast artists such as Ann Hamilton, Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy. Debbaut was less reluctant than Fuchs to make retrospective acquisitions and purchased work by among others Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari.
The Directorship of Charles Esche (2004–) has brought a change of focus towards the museum as a platform for a wide spectrum of artistic activities, from all quarters of the world, with political, economic and social connotations. This has made it possible to reassess similar traits in the older American art. The former hierarchic division between global and local developments has, in his outlook, lost its validity; in the Heartland project, art from the United States has once more become one of the museum’s areas of research.