New York, Paris, Amsterdam… Rens Lipsius laid down the foundations of his Ideal Artist Houses concept by meeting up with artists like John Coplans and Dennis Oppenheim, collectors, or else simple art lovers. Lipsius, or the art of seeing art differently.
Since the 1980s, he’s come up with his Ideal Artist Houses, spread out over the United States, the Netherlands and France, each conceived as a “complete work” in itself. A one-time artistic director of the Fondation Icar in Paris, Rens Lipsius has a global vision of the art world, the market, and his influences. We retrace the story of this globetrotting painter who has followed an original itinerary.
How was your Ideal Artist Houses concept born?
Rembrandt once said about the act of painting: “All it takes is to pick up a brush and to paint.” I partly agree with this idea, but there’s nothing straightforward about starting a painting! You have to get hold of the tools to stimulate yourself. And for me, this is about creating an environment, a context that promotes the creative act. Setting up a space that is physiologically adapted to one’s needs acts as encouragement to the eyes. And of course, the Ideal Artist Houses didn’t suddenly pop up.
Before devoting yourself to painting, you started out as a photographer. How did you make the transition from one form to the other?
I embarked on a photography career at the age of 20, but painting was always present. Very early on, I felt that the subject that interested me most of all was light. Because both in photography and in painting, everything is about light. In photography, this is translated fairly directly by chemical sensitivity, whereas in painting, it’s a matter of interpreting this light. As a teenager, I already rented a studio in which I wanted to translate this idea of light into painting, from my photographic notes on rays of light in the forest. At that time, I didn’t manage to grasp this abstraction of light and I found the practice of painting difficult.
You came to work in Paris at the start of the 1980s…
I saw Paris as a stop before New York, but when I set up my photo studio, the life that I imagined took a different turn. In the Netherlands, I went to the School of Fine Art in Breda, which is fairly important for painting, and during that year when I got intellectual training, I understood quickly that teaching created “moulds”, which didn’t suit me at all. So photography allowed me to keep my freedom in relation to painting, and above all, once again, to set up an environment and a studio conducive to my creation. The first Ideal Artist House was born under these circumstances, at the Villa Riberolle, where I made over the 500 m2 entrusted to me. I worked in complete freedom, cut off from the art market.
When did you stop commercial photography?
I felt the need to gear myself towards a more solitary working context. I bought a big farm in Friesland, in the northern Netherlands, where I came up with my first big paintings.
You didn’t try to present or sell these paintings?
I presented my paintings at an art fair at the Grand Palais, where I was approached by gallerists, but without really being able to explain it, I felt apprehensive about showing my work via dealers. I remember sending an assistant to inspect a gallery in my place. I then set about working out whether I’d paint to sell, but at that time, I gave up on the idea because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the quality of my work. It took me time and freedom to finally arrive at my objective of a “complete work”. Today, in hindsight, I take stock more clearly of the necessity for me to make my own way.
Was the Ideal Artist Houses concept formalised at Villa Riberolle?
That came later! At Villa Riberolle, the name I used was Ideal Artist Studio. Then, in New York, a businessman asked me to install works that he’d purchased in his penthouse on Park Avenue. I didn’t do building works at the time, but I oversaw the installation. For me, this was a revelation in terms of certain questions about my practice, namely about the transformation of a studio into a habitat.
So you finally developed your concept in New York?
This businessman told me that paintings stimulated him in his daily life, sometimes gave him ideas. This experience helped me to understand that art could play an active role in our professional and working lives, that it wasn’t merely decorative.
A source of stimulation…
Something that imparts energy! From that point, I brought a verbal and intellectual form to my concept in order to offer it elsewhere, namely in Paris, at Quai de Valmy.
Going back to New York where you settled, you met some important figures including John Coplans, who influenced your work and the way you navigate this milieu…
John Coplans was an important figure in the United States, as cofounder of the journal Artforum and director of Pasadena Museum. At first, he told me: “Don’t take on a gallery, you’ll have a bigger one later. In the meantime, I’m going to get you a studio and bring people to you.” And that’s what he did! John Coplans put things into words very well, he was always critical of my work. He’d come to my studio every month and sometimes I’d go to his place on Sundays when he had an open house, the way that Louise Bourgeois would at the same period. I remember sometimes explosive discussions with his guests, but I liked the way he thought, the way he’d continually question things.
Did he encourage you to develop your painting?
To reflect on it! I remember one comment he made that really touched me. One day, he said to me: “You know how to do everything in terms of painting. Why don’t you stop to work on other materials, Plexiglas, videos…?” I stopped painting to think about this, but after a while I said to myself that not everything had been done in painting – and I wasn’t just meaning myself. And so I continued. A few years later, in the studio, he reminded me of this discussion and added: “It’s good that you continued.” In the end, he raised questions relating to an era, a period in life. I found out later that he himself had started out as a painter. Recognised as a critic and photographer, he, on the other hand, had totally eliminated painting.
Another artist who was important for you was Dennis Oppenheim…
I visited a farmer in Friesland who’d invited important artists like Dennis Oppenheim to his property; this was where Oppenheim produced his Land Art work, Cancelled Crop, commissioned by Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The same farmer told me that Dennis was holding an exhibition in New York, where I was scheduled to go some time later. When I said hello to the artist on this farmer’s behalf, he was very touched, and I was happy to think that a conceptual artist like Oppenheim could be friends with a man so far from the art milieu.
You were artistic director, from 2000 to 2012, of the Fondation Icar, for which you organised exhibitions at Quai de Valmy in Paris. What were the objectives of your programming?
This helped me to finance part of my works in this Ideal Artist House n°2, which is not just a dwelling, and above all, to develop another way to occupy a space, with new ideas on how to present works. I observed that the public could grasp the work more easily than in a museum, an institute or a gallery. Already, the idea was close to that of a studio. I chose artists like Denis Oppenheim and John Coplans, but also Vito Acconci, who’s just passed away. At that time, he wasn’t seen around any more. We showed 120 projects aimed at public spaces. I was naturally interested in his approach of taking art elsewhere than a habitual context. Incidentally, I added the word “unbuildable’ to the exhibition title, “Built, unbuilt and unbuildable”, because he proposed things that were impossible to build…
The idea is for the public not to find themselves in a museum or gallery…
It’s about creating an intimate relationship with a work! This means not having a formatted intellectual context, but on the contrary, being open in order to have the means to literally familiarise oneself with a work. The public’s feedback was encouraging. Even if they didn’t like the works, they made an effort to understand them. I also initiated an experimental form, like the last project with the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where Marc Pataut, Patrick Faigenbaum and Jean-François Chevrier were teaching, with the option of having the public participate. In parallel, students would work and show their works every day. For three months, Ideal Artist House became an extraordinary space for encounters and creativity.
Are there other Ideal Artist Houses to come? And can you tell us more about this idea of a “complete work”?
I liken myself to Francesco Borromini. I go into a space with my craftworkers who work according to my plans, everything, up to the slightest detail. I’m on their backs about it. I try to create spaces that don’t disturb the eyes, where decorative aspects are eliminated, where the walls are smooth, the corners very neat, where windows can be the same size as a painting… In painting, you make the work yourself, contrary to this idea of a “complete work” where collaboration with the craftworkers is essential. The latter bring along their ideas, their knowhow. Today, we forget that we can order things from craftworkers…
Your seven Ideal Artist Houses are all different. There are places that have existed for hundreds of years, and then there are custom-designed houses…
I adapt myself to the space or situation at hand. I don’t apply an architectural concept or a style like architects might. I seek to be as discreet as possible in the space, but I tend to improve the lighting, whether natural or artificial, which is so important for seeing works.
How long can it take to produce an Ideal Artist House?
At least two years. For the one in Amsterdam, where family life unfolds in the kitchen and where the other spaces are intended for presenting works, I realised that ultimately I was rediscovering the way that Dutch dealers lived in the 17th century.
There are also what you call “derivative objects”…
At the Villa Riberolle, I designed furniture out of a lack of space and means. So designing furniture became natural, part of the process. For Ideal Artist House n°7, in Amsterdam, I designed the handrails for the central staircase. This private space would be used to receive the public occasionally, so I considered handrails that would meet security requirements, but also work as “sculptures” in a private context. I call them “derivative objects” because they are literally objects that have been hijacked from their original context, thus taking on an alternative function.
What’s your relationship to the art market?
Marginal! I think that the art market and contemporary art are often too elitist. I refer back to Denis Oppenheim’s relationship with the farmer, which fascinated me and bolstered me in the idea that we can present so-called elitist works in a simpler context, outside the artistic circuit… In the context of my programming, my biggest surprise has been to sell works at every exhibition even though there was no objective to sell.
Then how do you sell your own works?
I have two studios: one where I work, another where I receive visitors and show my works, where I sell. At the risk of sounding proud or pompous, this is how I keep my freedom. I’ve met many gallerists who have come to see my work but I don’t feel the need to belong to a gallery.
In the last year, you’ve been focusing on a particular programme at Quai de Valmy…
I wanted to go further in my relationship with the business world. I invited some companies to come and take part in seminars around my works, with this idea in mind: “How can art stimulate or open the doors to other ways of thinking?” The project has been successful, and I envisage opening it up to other artists even if gallerists remain wary about my propositions!
Didier Tallagrand is among those you’ve collaborated with…
He says that he’s a creator of images, so he uses his own images as well as those that he finds elsewhere. He preserves a certain freedom and openness in relation to photography, which necessarily appealed to me.
Would you like to add anything else?
Space concepts are on my mind, but painting is just as important: they’re linked to one another. And I’m fond of the idea of my paintings growing up in these spaces.