1988-2003: Jan Debbaut

Exhibition- en acquisition policy

The Belgian Jan Debbaut (1949) was appointed to become Fuch’s successor as of January 1, 1988. Debbaut had been employed at the Van Abbemuseum in the period 1977-1986, first as a curator and later as deputy director. As far as artistic choices were concerned, Debbaut followed the method that had been well tested in Eindhoven: in 1988 he too broke with the policy of his predecessor. Debbaut opted – as Fuchs did – for artists of his own generation, but in his view the major artistic problems had shifted from painting to the ‘metamorphosis of the object’. This could be seen in a series of exhibitions and purchases of work by artists scarcely known in the Netherlands, such as Tony Cragg, Allan McCollum, Rodney Graham (1989), Harald Klingelhöller, Jan Vercruysse, Thomas Schütte (1990), Juan Muñoz (1991) and Jean-Marc Bustamante. Not forming a coherent group with a particular style, these choices can be regarded as sharing, at most, a common attitude.

Jan Debbaut. Photo: Peter CoxJan Debbaut. Photo: Peter Cox

Debbaut renewed also contacts by way of exhibitions and acquisitions with a younger generation of Dutch artists (i.c. René Daniëls, Marlene Dumas, Henk Visch, Pieter Laurens Mol). In connection with the previously mentioned international ‘group’, the work of Niek Kemps was acquired as well. Resumed consideration was also given to Conceptual Art, and this led to memorable exhibitions on Hanne Darboven, Marcel Broodthaers (1992) and Dan Graham (1993). To a greater extent than Fuchs, Debbaut aimed to fill the existing gaps in the collection. His first purchase was T-junction (1988) by Richard Serra. In 1993 this was followed by the Marcel Broodthaers’s Tapis de Sable (1974) and – later on – retrospective purchases of art by John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Ulay & Abramovic, Jan Dibbets, Stanley Brouwn and Ger van Elk.

Marcel Broodthaers, Tapis de Sable, 1974. Photo: Peter Cox.Marcel Broodthaers, Tapis de Sable, 1974. Photo: Peter Cox.

In 1990 was also held the first historical exhibition in more than ten years, dedicated to the work of El Lissitzky. With the purchase of a painting by El Lissitzky Proun P23 no. 6 (1919) in 1997, a long-cherished wish of Leering had been fulfilled.

New building and artistic policy

As evident from the explicit choices made by successive directors, the museum’s small size initially posed no major obstacles to a maintenance of its pioneering role. But as the collection had grown and as proportionally less and less of the collection could be shown, the direct relationship between the collection and the exhibition policies threatened to disintegrate. In 1990 the architect Abel Cahen received the assignment to draw up a rough plan for the new building, but the final building was only realized in 2003.

In anticipation of the new building, the museum moved in the period 1995-2002 to a temporary location, under the slogan Van AbbeMUSEUM entr’acte. Until the start of entr’acte in 1995, Debbaut’s policy was mainly associated with the polemics concerning the relevance of visual art on the interface of modernism and postmodernism. After the move and partly owing to the circumstances of this new location, the focus shifted to a somewhat younger generation, the emphasis being placed on audiovisual or somewhat more process-oriented work. Presentations and purchases of work by Tony Oursler, Douglas Gordon (1995), Ann Hamilton (1996) and Marijke van Warmerdam (1997), to name only a few, underscored this tendency. In addition, there came a shift if interest to the American West Coast, including artists such as Mike Kelley (1996) and Jason Rhoades (1998). A reintroduction of the theme exhibitions can also be discerned with expositions as ID (1996), Cinéma Cinéma (1999) and Twisted (2000). A flexible approach to the space provided by the temporary location proved to be of great importance. This made possible to adapt the layout of the rooms to the concept of each exhibition, the most memorable results of which were the presentations of Aernout Mik (2000) and Pierre Huyghe (2001).

Aernout Mik, Primal Gesture Minor Roles, 2000. Photo: Peter Cox.Aernout Mik, Primal Gesture Minor Roles, 2000. Photo: Peter Cox.

While the lengthy stay at the temporary building could have led to inertia, Debbaut managed to make use of the less-than-optimal circumstances. The large scale collection presentation ‘About We’ at the reopening of the new building in 2003, was the crowning glory of Debbauts work. In that year Debbaut also gave up his position at the Van Abbemuseum to become Head Collection of the famous British Tate museums.

Installation view Over Wij / About We, 2003. Photo: Peter Cox.Installation view Over Wij / About We, 2003. Photo: Peter Cox.

Notes (Dutch):

1. In een interview formuleerde Debbaut het aldus: ‘De uitputting van het modernisme was voelbaar en er trad halverwege de jaren tachtig een enorme verhitting van de kunstmarkt op. Dat leidde tot marketing en mediatisering van het postmodernisme, zeg maar kunst à la Jeff Koons. Dat was me te anekdotisch en te artificieel. De kunstenaars binnen mijn generatie waar ik affiniteit mee had, onttrokken zich juist aan die mediatisering. Zij probeerden in artistieke zin te formuleren welke plaats of positie het object in de kunst of in het algemeen nog kon innemen, elk op hun eigen manier en binnen die veranderende artistieke context’. In: J. Debbaut … [et al.], Een collectie is ook maar een mens (Eindhoven : Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1999), pp. 128-129.
2. De in 1999 door Debbaut zelf samengestelde collectiepresentatie ‘De Verzameling deel I. Aanwinsten uit de beleidsperiode Jan Debbaut (1988-heden)’ geeft een goed beeld van het aankoopbeleid. Overzicht van de tentoonstellingen Jan Debbaut Van Abbemuseum 1988-2003.
3. Meer informatie over de achtergronden van de nieuwbouw is te vinden op de bibliotheekblog.

Suggestions for further reading

- R. Pingen, Dat Museum is een Mijnheer (Amsterdam : Artimo, 2005), pp. 458-528
- J. Debbaut … [et al.], Een collectie is ook maar een mens (Eindhoven : Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1999), pp. 121-158
- J. Debbaut … [et al.], Aanwinsten 1989-1993 : Een selectie (Eindhoven : Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1993)