Bas Jan Ader

By: Franklin Bruno
April 19, 2014


Silent, black-and-white films, a few seconds to a few minutes long, showing a man (the artist) falling off a roof, out of a tree, or into a lake, or, in I’m Too Sad To Tell You, weeping inconsolably without discernable cause or explanation: these, along with some still photographs and other fugitive documents, make up the slim, reticent oeuvre of BAS JAN ADER (1942–75). Born and raised in Holland, Ader moved to Southern California in 1965, and operated for the next decade mainly on the fringes of Los Angeles’ conceptual-art scene, exhibiting and performing almost entirely in university and non-commercial galleries there and in Europe — if “performance” isn’t too grand a word for The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls (1972), in which Ader calmly read from a survivor’s account of a boating disaster while sipping, at points marked in the text, from a glass of water. Ader had been an experienced sailor since adolescence, and the centerpiece of his final work, In Search of the Miraculous, was to be his own solo ocean voyage from Massachusetts to England in a 13-foot sailboat. He set off on July 9, 1975 and was never seen again; his boat, though not his body, was found in Spanish waters ten months later. (Though the trip was risky, few believe its intent was suicidal.) Forgotten by the art world for decades, Ader has recently been rediscovered by critics, historians, and other artists — in part, perhaps, for his work’s melancholy counter-suggestion that the “ideas” on which his contemporaries’ conceptualist rigor was founded were not only immaterial and imperceptible, but incommunicable.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jayne Mansfield, Stanley Fish, Tim Curry.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).


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