An amazing new presentation of art in Amsterdam

It’s before I actually see any art that STEDELIJK BASE amazes me. Entering this first major presentation of art and design in the museum’s history, I’m directed along a timeline tracing the Stedelijk’s ground-breaking journey. Van Gogh, Mondrian, COBRA, Malevich – the museum’s list of past exhibitions reads like a who’s who of contemporary art from the late 19th century onwards. And with STEDELIJK BASE it now has a permanent installation of iconic works which perfectly represents its commitment to experimentation, and shows how its ethos has challenged art and exhibition practices for decades.

A lesson in art history at STEDELIJK BASE / Part 1 (1880 – 1980)

After my history lesson I enter STEDELIJK BASE / Part 1, which traces developments in art and design from the late 19th century up to the 1980s, and has been developed by AMO/Rem Koolhaas with Federico Martelli. Koolhaas says that the museum was his ‘university’. A bold architectural scheme sees the exhibition’s labyrinthine but ordered structure divided by ultra-thin walls – made using 180 tons of steel – presenting surprises and opportunities at every turn. I find myself wandering past works inspired by the horrors of World War 1 and 2 into Claes Oldenburg’s playful pop-art Saw (Hard Version II), or skipping from Andy Warhol’s pop-up books to Francis Bacon’s The Human Figure in Motion. It’s this organic dialogue between works, forms, movements and themes that help make STEDELIJK BASE so successful.


From modernism to Mondrian and beyond

While the freestanding walls in the middle of the space highlight themes, the collection’s perimeter walls run chronologically, meaning you never lose your way in time when circling the room. Beginning with modernists playing with colours and form in France – Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Anna Boch – I am quickly working through Mondrian’s early work, Cubism, the De Stijl movement, Bauhaus’ tubular steel chairs and COBRA’s provocative paintings. Here lesser-known but influential works, including many by women, are celebrated, and just a few short steps can take you whirling through decades of incredible art. From one moment to the next I am engrossed in the overwhelming and expansive American expressionist paintings of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, marvel at the ‘kinetic art’ featured in the legendary Stedelijk exhibition Bewogen Beweging (Moved Movement), then study the objects glued to a table in Daniel Spoerri’s Table from the City Galerie Restaurant. It’s a rush of fine art, sculpture, product design, graphics, photography, textiles and jewellery. A headlong tour of Kazimir Malevich, Pablo Picasso, Yves Klein, Roy Lichtenstein and Sheila Hicks. And after I finish Part 1 with a visit to Edward Kienholz’s spectacular The Beanery, a walk-in installation/recreation of Barney’s Bar in West Hollywood using authentic objects from 1965, I feel an immediate urge to go around all over again.


STEDELIJK BASE / Part 2 – (1980 – now)

As it is there’s more to come, as I take the escalator to the upper floor and into an immersive installation by Barbara Kruger. I won’t say too much about this, as it deserves to be seen first-hand and fresh, but it leads into STEDELIJK BASE / Part 2, a tour of contemporary art from the 1980s to the present day. Featuring work by Jeff Koons, Anselm Kiefer, Maarten Baas, Nan Goldin, and Marlene Dumas, Part 2 explores contemporary themes including postmodernism, globalisation, violence and the AIDS epidemic. More concise than Part 1 (but no less successful) standouts include Nan Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio – which documents the tragic death of her friend Cookie Muller from AIDS - and Gert Jan Kocken’s extraordinary New York Times, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a photo of the newspaper’s front page printed on the day the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Nan Goldin's Cookie and Sharon Dancing in The Back Room

An overview of modern and contemporaryart and design in Amsterdam

With almost 700 pieces occupying an entire new wing of the museum, a clearer layout, and a changing programme of collection displays and temporary exhibitions, the Stedelijk Museum is now the perfect place in Amsterdam to experience the transformation of art in the last century, to bear witness to a spectacular history which has challenged how art is presented, and become part of a new direction in which Dutch artists and designers help lead the way.