Barbara Bloom: the girl who outsmarted Baldessari

Poster screening The Big Sleep 2, 1977, Collection RKD
Catalog Lost and found, Gemeentemuseum Arnhem, 1987, collection RKD
Installation The Gaze in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1985
Poster Installation, Groninger Museum, 1980, Collection RKD

The second episode in the RKD series on colourful people from contemporary artistic and cultural life, written by curator Lynne van Rhijn, is about Barbara Bloom (1951). At 21, she moved from California via London to Amsterdam. During her ten-year stay in our country she was to play a role in the development of performance art, but she also explored what her own work was essentially about. The collection of the RKD contains, among other items, a viewing copy of her film The Diamond Lane, also posters and a note received from an extra in this film.

Joke quota
At the California Institute of the Arts, Bloom took classes with John Baldessari, who passed away last year. Baldessari, who was one of the key figures of conceptual art, liked to bring in humour as a creative tool. His characteristically informal classes too were packed with jokes. Bloom, who at home had had more than her fair share of fun from her parents’ comedian friends, gave Baldessari a quota: no more than three jokes per conversation, ‘and they better be good ones’. A classmate once talked about a prank Bloom pulled on Baldessari. After a screening by Baldessari of one of his own productions, she hid the reel and watched him struggling to find it. When she handed it back to him, she said triumphantly: ‘I thought you didn’t create objects?’ It was on his instigation that she wrote to Doug wheeler (1939), an artist from Los Angeles who had been living as a squatter in a building opposite the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for years.

Dutch art climate
Doug Wheeler was just about to leave and offered Bloom his apartment, which she lived in rent-free for a lengthy period. ‘To say that it was a different time is sort of a radical understatement’, she reminisced during an interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Money did not yet play an all-decisive role, especially not in the art world. She got by on a variety of small jobs; at a printing office, for instance, and at Galerie Seriaal. The leftist city council created an inviting climate for artists. ‘It seemed to be a very sane and civilized place to be. So I ended up staying.’ She even learnt Dutch, and after about four years, she took herself to the police station and announced that she wanted to apply for a residence permit, only to be told rather casually that she should marry. ‘What is this? Are you proposing?’, Bloom reacted in surprise. But she took the advice and married a friend, whom she then calmly divorced six months later. She lived intermittently here and in New York. She calls the Netherlands a small bubble of privileges. ‘And I actually, in retrospect, kind of stayed too long, and also stayed a really perfect amount of time, because it afforded me, in some ways, a long time to figure out what I was doing.’

Apparently normal
The newer ephemeral art forms that were starting to develop during this period, such as performance art and video, were central to founding De Appel, a non-profit arts centre Bloom was involved in from the very beginning. She did one of the first performance pieces there, became artistic advisor, designer and editor. She might not have known exactly ‘what she was about’, the night she staged at De Appel in 1976 has become legendary. The audience came together in a room where a TV set was turned on and other than that nothing appeared to be happening. At the time, only two TV-channels existed, and Bloom had checked beforehand what would be broadcast that night, so she was able to involve the broadcast in an evening full of synchronous events. One of the actresses from a film which was shown rang the doorbell and uttered a sentence which shortly afterwards could be heard on television. Every time objects in the room fell, the same would happen in the film. And even magazines and posters in the room turned out to be not quite as random as they had at first appeared. Film images and concrete tangibility became intertwined – but only to the observant onlooker. Artists James Lee Byars and Marina Abramović, for example, had widely differing experiences that night. The former was immediately aware that something unusual was going on, whereas the latter never noticed anything out of the ordinary.
One summer night, during a festival in 1976 that was an initiative of the Corps de Garde venue in Groningen, she had visitors strolling the gravel paths of a small park. Again, initially nothing remarkable seemed to be happening, until it appeared that figures were standing in scattered locations uttering sentences; bits and pieces of regular dialogues whose lack of sense, amplified by darkness, evoked an atmosphere of suspense. ‘The fact that there is something going on in these situations, and that each person coming goes about finding his way through the façade of “nothing happening” to see for himself what is taking place, this is what I work with’, she wrote in 1977. The Diamond Lane, a short film she worked on in the years that followed, also relies on suggestion. It takes the form of a trailer and was shown in several cinemas, but the movie it is supposed to promote is non-existent. The RKD received a note with the text to be spoken from an extra, a single line. Bloom shows how little it takes, just a mere few fragments, to evoke an entire movie in the minds of the viewers. That on the surface her work hardly deviates from the expected, serves to make the audience regard the expected with a renewed awareness of it, of which the visual form of ‘the trailer’ is a case in point.

The psychology of watching
Bloom had her first solo exhibitions in the Netherlands, including in the Stedelijk Museum where she filled a room with stills and photographs, voyeuristic images of people looking at art or each other (The Gaze, 1985). These images were hidden behind net curtain, that has to keep aside to see them properly. Bloom had just gained the meaningful insight of how the ultimate pursuit would be to create art that would, as it were, blush when looked at, art that would kindle the awareness that the gaze can affect the art object as well.
With her exploration of the psychology of looking, she fits into the ‘Pictures Generation’, a group of artists who embraced the figurative and explored the workings of images. In 2009, their work was highlighted in an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Pictures Generation 1974-1984. Since leaving Berlin, halfway through the eighties, Bloom more or less dropped off the radar in the Netherlands. Her fame gradually rose in the US, where she still creates works that vary from installations to carpets with texts in braille. She identifies the books she creates, of which the RKD owns ten at present, as a factor that connects her multifarious works. Also special in the RKD collection is a poster from 1977 that announces the cinematic intervention The Big Sleep 2 and may be seen as part of the work.