Stedelijk Amsterdam Restored & Extended

13 Jan

The Museumplein in Amsterdam used to be a scruffy out-of-the-way grassed space, traditionally the site of demonstrations. These days it’s the setting of a feast for the cultured classes of Amsterdam Centrum, with three internationally recognised museums and a world-class concert venue, the Concertgebouw, to its name. The 1885 Rijksmuseum was restored between 2003 and 2012. A national museum, it covers the years 1200 to 2000.

Museum Square - L to R Stedelijk, van Gogh and Rijksmusea

Museumplein Amsterdam – left to right, Stedelijk, van Gogh and Rijksmusea

In 2004 the renovation and extension of the neighbouring 1895 Stedelijk Museum began, running into 2012. At the same time, the Stedelijk changed its organisational style, moving from municipal status to independence in 2006.

The Stedelijk doubled its gallery space with the new building, but as usual, the architecture was controversial. Just like the National Gallery’s extension in London (“a monstrous carbuncle”, said Prince Charles), the design was roundly criticised – a “ridiculous … bathtub” according to Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times. But then, the Eiffel Tower was fiercely criticised at inception too …

Commonly known as "the Bathtub"

Commonly known as “the Bathtub”

The new building has the effect of turning the Stedeljik around, its entrance now in the common cultural space of the Museumplein rather than on the busy Paulus Potterstraat. Home to an extensive collection of twentieth-century and contemporary art, it does indeed resemble a bathtub when viewed from the lofty heights of the critic’s view

but from the user’s perspective, it’s more like the hull of a ship.

Entrance hall

Entrance hall

The ‘legs’ of the bathtub enable a long perspective and natural light as the initial effects. Informative screens, orderly queues, and helpful multi-lingual staff add to a pleasant welcome. The restaurant seems well-used.

Posters of exhibitions at Stedelijk and other museums

Posters of exhibitions at Stedelijk and other museums

The Stedelijk is aware of its contribution to cultural life; its exhibition posters are markers in Dutch typography and design as well as in art.

Dan Flavin neon illuminates the older entrance

Dan Flavin neon illuminates the older entrance

It refers to other aspects of its history too. The white exterior of the new building alludes to the Stedelijk’s early use of the ‘white cube’ convention as exhibition space; a playful approach to the same concept is the candy-pink and mint ice-green neon of Dan Flavin’s work hung on the white entrance staircase.

Five Fives (to Donald Judd), 1965, by Joseph Kosuth underscrutiny

Five Fives (to Donald Judd), 1965, by Joseph Kosuth, under scrutiny

It’s a good contrast with Kosuth’s piece in neon. Kosuth, a minimalist heavyweight, is nevertheless sprinkled with the same fairy-dust by association.

In The Beanery by Edward Kienholz, 1965

In The Beanery by Edward Kienholz, 1965

Art history of a different sort is on show inside Kienholz’s reconstructed early Sixties bar; out in the town, neon and the demise of homophobia can be found colliding, to delicious effect. The original Beanery and the governing charity for Out of the Closet both hail from Los Angeles. Perhaps you need the distance of Amsterdam to gain perspective.

No ordinary charity store on the Jodenbreestraat

On the Jodenbreestraat, not an ordinary charity store

Another piece which uses light is LUST’s projections of news text onto the walls of the gallery, again to playful effect. As you move closer to a specific text box, it increases in size. A neat metaphor for the subjectivity of news media.

Type/Dynamics by design studio LUST inspired by Jurriaan Schrofer

2013 Type/Dynamics by design studio LUST, inspired by Jurriaan Schrofer

The perennial questions about ‘modern art’ – is it art? Emperor’s new clothes? could a five-year old do it? – make their appearance too. Is Jeff Koons’ work anything more than a sneer at popular taste? Is it original? Does it have to be? Given the title, he must be joking when he says his intent is not ironic. Multiple ironies, which sell rather well.

Jeff Koons, Ushering in Banality, inspired by  Hummel figurine ... or ...

Jeff Koons, Ushering in Banality, inspired by Hummel figurine … or …

Though Barbara Campbell who took the photograph from which Koons’ studio worked, didn’t enjoy the joke. See Comment 3 on

The Stedelijk carefully informed us that in this 1980s piece the wood carver from his Italian studio was still permitted to add his signature, a feature absent from Koons’ more recent work.

Police post alongside US Consulate, Museumplein

Police post alongside US Consulate, Museumplein

As you exit from the Stedelijk, across the open space of the Museumplein there’s a clear reminder of the social context for the new building. A police post sits up on sturdy, well-defended legs. Not a deliberate echo of the new building, it keeps watch over the space in front of the US Consulate opposite the Museum. It puts the repurposing of the Museumplein in a different light.

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