Bas Jan Ader at Villa delle Rose, Bologna

By Emmy Lee | Posted on February 4th, 2013

Bas Jan Ader, "All my clothes", 1970. Gelatin silver print, 28 x 35.5 cm. Edition of 3. Collections Mary Sue Ader-Andersen - Bas Jan Ader Estate. Courtesy of Patrick Painter Editions / Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Bas Jan Ader, All my clothes, 1970. Gelatin silver print, 28 x 35.5 cm. Edition of 3. Collections Mary Sue Ader-Andersen – Bas Jan Ader Estate. Courtesy of Patrick Painter Editions / Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

I am a huge fan of Bas Jan Ader’s work so I wish I were headed to Bologna to see his retrospective which just opened at the Villa delle Rose and is on view until March 17, 2013. Probably his most famous work is called I’m too sad to tell you and is a simple but incredibly moving black and white film of the artist crying uncontrollably. Ader is something of a cult art figure because he literally died for his work – he is presumed to have been lost at sea while attempting a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic ocean in a in 13-ft pocket cruiser as part of his performance for a work titled In Search of the Miraculous. Radio contact broke off three weeks into the crossing and while Ader’s body was never found, the boat was recovered 10 months later. The title of the exhibition, Bas Jan Ader: Tra due mondi refers to the condition of being between two worlds – his work strikes me as an earnest, personal and romantic take on Conceptualism which shrugs off the movements sterility while also embracing elements of slapstick comedy.

The curator, Javier Hontoria, has organized the show into the following 6 thematic sections:

Melancholy and Romanticism
Bas Jan Ader’s affinity to some of the postulates of the Romantic tradition is a recurring theme in his career. For example, the sense of solitary subjectiveness of the individual within the immeasurable and incomprehensible context of nature is clearly expressed in Farewell to faraway friends, a work that evokes Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the sea. Ader was also interested in melancholia, a mental state that was deeply examined by the Neoplatonic scholars of 15th-century Florence and which clearly emerges in The artist as consumer of extreme comfort, a photograph that echoes Dürer’s famous print,Melancholia I.

How to disappear completely
Bas Jan Ader always worked in solitude. However, despite being a reserved and elusive character, he always stood at the very centre of every work. This section presents some works in which the artist explored the duality of presence/absence, a recurring motif throughout his oeuvre. The film Nightfall and the photographs of (Untitled) Tea Partyare good examples of this interest.

Mondrian’s legacy
As a young artist, Bas Jan Ader studied Mondrian in depth. Mondrian completely rejected diagonal lines in a radical attempt to rationalise ideas and reality. This theme was picked up by Ader in some of his most famous “falls”: Broken fall (geometric),Westkapelle, Holland shows the artist falling flat on the ground after a diagonal trajectory, with the Westkapelle lighthouse in the background. Through the falls related to Mondrian, Ader addresses the failure of the modernist project of which the Dutch master was a leading figure.

Language and theatre
Language was one of the most important and most widely used strategies in the 1960s in both Europe and the United States. Many artists interpreted it from a tautological and self-referential point of view, making the word the subject/object of their works. Bas Jan Ader took the opposite point of view, using language subjectively to convey his personal anxieties. A good example is his widely-acclaimed Please don’t leave me, a phrase which was written on a wall, then photographed and finally erased.

I’m too sad to tell you
Considered by many to be one of Bas Jan Ader’s most emblematic work, I’m too sad to tell you is as magnetic as it is enigmatic. The film shows the artist in the foreground, crying in front of the camera. We do not know why he is crying, and the title of the work itself clearly expresses his intention to hide his reasons. It is one of the works that best represents Ader’s personal and poetic contribution to Conceptual Art.


The existentialist and simultaneously comic mood typifying Bas Jan Ader’s spirit finds its clearest expression in his falls. The three films screened here—Broken fall (organic), Amsterdamse Bos, Holland; Fall I, Los Angeles; Fall II Amsterdam—only depict Bas Jan Ader falling, becoming the visual depictions of the very concept of falling, without any reference to causes and consequences. As has been often described, these films evoke the fall of the hero in Greek tragedy and, at the same time, recall the slapstick of Keaton and Chaplin.


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