1964-1973: Jean Leering

Exhibition and purchasing policy

Jean Leering (1934-2005) started work as the new director of the Van Abbemuseum in April 1964. It soon became clear that Leering had completely different ideas about museum policy than De Wilde. Leering’s directorate was characterized above all by an innovative and experimental exhibition policy and his ideas about an expanded function for the museum were clearly expressed in this. As a structural engineer, he was particularly interested in the fields where the boundaries between the disciplines become blurred: architecture, urban planning and design.

Jean LeeringJean Leering

Even at the beginning of the period during which Leering was responsible for policy, it was clear that New York had become the new centre of the arts. His exhibition programme reflected this with solo exhibitions by Robert Indiana, Christo (1966), Donald Judd, Andy Warhol (1970) and Bruce Nauman (1973), amongst others. The Kompas series revealed a similar picture: Kompas III (1967) was devoted to New York and the last Kompas IV (1969) focused on art from the American West Coast. However, he was also interested in contemporary German art. For example, Leering organized exhibitions by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joseph Beuys (1968) and Franz Erhard Walther (1972), amongst others.

Installation View Kompas III with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, 1967Installation View Kompas III with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, 1967

In addition to exhibitions by contemporary artists, Leering also organized important historical retrospective exhibitions. He opted for those artists who he believed had become relevant once again, such as Marcel Duchamp, El Lissitzky  (1965), Làszló Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg (1968) and Vladimir Tatlin (1969).

Installation view solo exhibition Tatlin with reconstruction ‘Monument for thr 3rd Internationale’, 1969Installation view solo exhibition Tatlin with reconstruction ‘Monument for thr 3rd Internationale’, 1969

Leering’s purchasing policy also expressed the way in which history had come full circle. According to Leering, the backgrounds for the latest trends and art movements were to be found above all in De Stijl, constructivism and Dada. By concentrating on contemporary art now, the collection was “kept open for the future” while a purchasing policy focusing on the 1920s and 1930s (particularly on constructivism) provided a strong anchor for modern movements. Furthermore, the transitional group of Leering’s predecessor De Wilde became broader in this way.

The first purchases included amongst other things, work by Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana. Like his predecessor, Leering had problems with some awkward members of the commission. In 1965, the first painting was bought by Morris Louis, following by work from Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Larry Poons. Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme were represented by purchases of works by Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Arman, Martial Raysse, Christo and Jean Tinguely, amongst others.

In connection with the exhibition policy a basis was formed for a collection of minimal art from 1968, with purchases of works by Robert Morris, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Following agreements made during his solo exhibition in 1971, the work Voglie vedere i miei montagne by Joseph Beuys was acquired in 1972: this was the first large installation by Beuys in a Dutch museum.

Installation initiation by Beuys, 1971. Photo: Ute Klophaus.Installation initiation by Beuys, 1971. Photo: Ute Klophaus.

With the purchase of 86 works by El Lissitzky from the Vordemberge-Lede collection, Leering’s purchasing policy achieved a high point in 1968. This meant that the Van Abbemuseum had the largest collection of Lissitzky’s work outside Russia. The heritage of constructivism and De Stijl was continued with purchases by Richard Paul Lohse, François Morellet, Peter Struycken and Ad Dekkers, amongst others. However, Leering did not forget about Dutch art, and in addition to the last two artists the collection also featured works by Jan Schoonhoven, JCJ Vanderheyden, Ger van Elk and Jan Dibbets. Although Leering had problems with the supervisory commission, following the solo exhibition by Christo in 1966 he owed his invitation to become a member of the organizational committee of documenta 4 to the exhibition (Kassel, 1968). His prominent membership confirmed his reputation as a leading museum director with a very clear insight into contemporary art. At the same time, the documenta proved to be a turning point for Leering. After the documenta, the function of the museum in society was emphasized by him in Eindhoven to an increasing extent: “it is no longer sufficient for the museum to be a forum for contemporary art, because it should give the visitor the opportunity to become aware of his cultural position in a dynamic society. Therefore this also means: to make the social relevance of art clear”. Leering gave the “socialized” museum a new task in this way: it was to stimulate the public to become aware of and participate in processes of social change. As the museum revealed the parallels between social life and art, it not only acted as an instrument for the development of critical views, but also focused on another function of the arts in society. Leering aimed to start a coherent program of museum activities in which the individual creativity in the arts was related to its counterpart in the form of the so-called collective creativity.


One of the ways to achieve this new task was the parallel exhibition. This involved enabling the visitor to see the relationships with artistic issues on the basis of similarities in everyday life. For example, in the Warhol exhibition (1970) Warhol’s way of working was clarified with the use of newsprint and images from the Eindhovens Dagblad. In architectural presentations the attention also moved from the individual design to collective use. For example, the fact that there was a social creative function in architecture and urban planning was shown in the exhibition “Bouwen ’20-’40. De Nederlandse bijdrage aan het Nieuwe Bouwen” (Building ’20-’40. The Dutch contribution to new building) (1971).

Exhibition poster Bouwen ’20-’40 (Building '20 - '40), 1971Exhibition poster Bouwen ’20-’40 (Building '20 - '40), 1971

According to Leering, the exhibition which was most appropriate for the new function of the museum was “De Straat. Vorm van samenleven” (The Street. Ways of living) (1972). The task of the museum was no longer primarily concerned with aesthetic development but with stimulating public awareness and participation in cultural and social processes. The policy had also become democratized to a certain extent, as witnessed by the fact that the composition of the exhibition was in the hands of an interdisciplinary group. In this spirit, guest curators also organized five presentations of the collection.

Installation view De Straat. Vorm van samenleven (The Street, form of coexistence) , 1972Installation view De Straat. Vorm van samenleven (The Street, form of coexistence) , 1972

Although it was certainly not the intention to banish the expressions of individual art from the museum, it was not quite clear how the relationship between collective and individual creativity could be expressed in the museum’s policy. At the same time, Leering’s policy entered a vacuum in 1973 because it no longer corresponded to the views of the board of B and W. Leering resigned and then tried to realize his ideas about individual and collective creativity as the director of the Tropenmuseum.