Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coosje van Bruggen (June 6, 1942 - January 10, 2009)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my mentor and onetime employer Coosje van Bruggen. A tremendous artist, writer, curator and thinker, Coosje taught me valuable lessons about the realities of the art world. Her toughness and integrity were unmatched. She will be greatly missed.


Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times

Coosje was already a powerful force when she met Claes Oldenburg, her husband and collaborator for 31 years. She was an assistant curator at the Stedelijk Museum during a fascinating period when the boundaries between art and life were being shattered in every imaginable way. Her partnership with Claes changed the work from monument to something else - not anti-monumental, as she abhorred mediocrity and was always sure of her place in the pantheon of history - but a softer kind of monument, commemorating the wonders of reality in a living place.

Coosje taught me many lessons, some gentle and some painful. She helped me understand what it means to be a professional artist, and ultimately through her guidance I came to realize I would not be one. She showed me the way to my own creative voice, which I found to be a collaborative and scholarly one rather than that of an individual struggling to create in an oversaturated world. Sometimes her insights stung, as when she told me I would be a great teacher "but don't teach art." (I've since come to disagree with that assessment, but I understand why she said it when she did.)

Coosje also showed me what feminism was all about. She came from a generation that had been made to fight for everything they had, challenged in their professional and personal aspirations alike. As a mother and wife, she found her unmistakable intellect uncharitably dismissed by the chattering classes who surrounded well-known figures like her husband. She demanded respect on her own terms, writing monographs on Frank Gehry, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari and Hanne Darboven - an artist whose meticulous, logical practice always seemed to me a kind of visualization of Coosje's thought processes. Claes had his own such visualization:


Cross Section of a Toothbrush with Paste, in a Cup, on a Sink:
Portrait of Coosje's Thinking
, 1983
Haus Esters, Krefeld, Germany
Photo by Attilio Maranzano

"I am a lioness when it comes to my children," she once told me. Always impatient with the ignorant and small-minded, I only ever saw her rage when something was troubling one of her two kids. As I contemplate my own future as a curator and a mother, I always think back to Coosje and how she somehow navigated the work/life minefield, first as a divorced mother of two young children, and later as an equal partner in a work and family relationship that outsiders could simply not understand.

Coosje was always a little bit frail. She said it was because she'd been born during the war, and her physician father had inoculated her with makeshift vaccinations that left her immune system weakened. Perhaps that's a metaphor for how her physical delicacy complemented her mental toughness. I always pictured a tiny baby with eyes of cast iron, stoically bearing the bomb blasts and the needle alike.

Certainly she was a study in oppositions - tiny, with dark hair and intense eyes, but with an infectious laugh that Claes loved to provoke with incessant teasing. Another thing she taught me was what true love looks like (as did my parents) - two older people, together for many years, who find something extraordinary and compelling to talk about every day.

I only wish I could have seen her one more time before she left this world.

"Coosje van Bruggen, Sculptor, Dies at 66." New York Times, February 13, 2009.

1 comment:

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