Collage and Casting
Karen Wilkin - Sculpture Magazine - December 2015
At first sight, the Waterworks, Ruud Kuijer’s seven monumental constructions in concrete, installed along the Amsterdam-Rhine canal, are a surprise. The enormous, pale “towers” seem unlikely in a non-descript, industrial area near the entrance to Utrecht harbor. The structures measure out the space between an arched railroad bridge and a cluster of utilitarian buildings near the multicolored stacks of a container port. A row of trees, on the opposite side of the canal, restates the sculptures’ tall, linear presence in the language of a 17th century Dutch landscape. Barges loaded with freight and containers pass regularly, along with sleek luxury cruise barges, in a constantly changing panorama. The light-responsive, refined cast concrete surfaces of the Waterworks change according the angle from which we look. Sunshine reveals nuances of texture and “drawing,” enhancing our sense of the complexity and contradictory delicacy of the sculptures. Contre-jour, they become bold silhouettes, dramatic against their workaday background. 

Yet for all the unexpectedness of the Waterworks, what is most striking is the seamless relationship of the ensemble to the open, harsh setting. Kuijer speaks the language of the structures already present in the zone that his sculptures were designed to inhabit. Waterworks’ dominant verticality echoes the upward thrust of the factory chimneys along the canal, while the casual poise of the individual elements of the sculptures seems a response to the loose-jointed gantries of the container port. Yet there is nothing obvious about these connections. From a distance, we are most aware of the unifying rhythms and the powerful logic that governs the sequence of sculptures and their relationships to each other. The undulating profile of the series as a whole builds slowly in irregular peaks and valleys, as the sculptures approach the railway bridge, with the tallest placed closest to the great arch, like an emphatic punctuation mark, challenging the long steel span with its different shape, material, and degree of visual aggression. From a closer view, it is evident that the Waterworks make clear allusions to the functional elements of the context. Kuijer has adopted the formal vocabulary of the area’s multiple bridges and smokestacks, the accoutrements of the port, and even the sense of movement created by the passing barges on the canal, abstracting and deconstructing these sources. But his sculptures also announce their difference from their setting. They remain independent, obeying purely visual, expressive imperatives. The most conspicuous element of the site – after the geometric, reflective plane of the busy canal itself– is the immense steel railroad bridge, a famously long span, placed at an angle to the canal, unignorable, with its immense semi-circle and slender diagonal struts clustered into triangles; below, massive concrete supports thrust up fragile metal “finials.” Such elements, we suppose, would appeal to a sculptor. Yet Kuijer has resisted directly quoting any of them. Similarly, while he has employed a material whose industrial associations are perfectly congruent with the activities of the area – cast concrete – he has used it in a way that defies those associations. Out of this combination of affinities and oppositions, Kuijer has created forms that resonate with the givens of the location without replicating them and, at the same time, propose an alternative narrative to the reality of the environment.

Over time, we discover the self-sufficiency of each of the Waterworks. We realize that, despite their family resemblances, the sense of linkage among the entire sequence, and the sympathy between the series and the site, each structure has its own distinctive character. The tallest sculpture is pared down to slender, linear essentials; another develops horizontally, in a seemingly casual gesture across space, while still another is a boxy enclosure, pierced by generous openings, more place than object. The result is a lively, polyphnic conversation among sculptures and place that makes Kuijer’s additions to the equivocal “leftover” site seem inevitable and enlivens the entire zone.

Kuijer knows intimately both sides of the canal where the Waterworks are installed. He has watched the neighborhood change from a no-man’s land of questionable factory buildings and disreputable temporary constructions into today’s thriving industrial zone, a transformation largely generated by the modernization of the container port and enhanced by his sculptures and their subtle landscaping. Since 2004, Kuijer has had his studio in a purpose-built shed at the entrance to the container port of Utrecht – a short walk from the site of the southernmost sculpture. As well, for the Waterworks  and other large outdoor sculptures, too big even for his ample studio, he has colonized a disused factory space and part of a former power plant, both nearby, collaborating with assistants drawn largely from the local factories. “The canal is older, but the harbor was made in the 1950s,” Kuijer explains. “Before that it was farmland. That original context has been ignored. It’s now industrial, all functional, for a purpose. I thought it would be interesting to humanize this area again.”

By the time he conceived the Waterworks, Kuijer had developed a personal three-dimensional language based on the so-called “new tradition” of sculpture – the reinvention of the discipline that began in the late 1920s, when Pablo Picasso and Julí González collaborated on making open, linear constructions out of iron and steel, and was expanded upon by such innovators as David Smith and Anthony Caro. Kuijer connects directly with this lineage, having participated in several workshops with Caro, when he was a young sculptor. Kuijer’s Waterworks are at once part of this continuum and defy it.

“Caro asked me to come work for him,” Kuijer recalls. (Caro usually had several hand-picked, recent graduates as assistants, just as he himself worked for Henry Moore.) “But I didn’t want to become absorbed into that steel language and I declined.” At the time, Kuijer was constructing his sculptures out of independent parts, including found objects, which placed him squarely in Caro’s and Smith’s territory, but he was combining elements made of different materials – steel, chunks of concrete, wood, wire baskets, grilles, and more – and assembling them not by welding but by accepting gravity as a construction device. He stacked things, leaned them against each other, cantilevered and interlocked them, forcing a multivalent set of unrelated objects to assume an engaging, apparently stable new configuration and making these seemingly random components take on new meanings because of their new context and placement. Immediately before beginning the Waterworks, he often cast many of his sculptures’ components from a wide range of “containers,” from domestic kitchen items to things discovered by chance.

The Waterworks literally expand ideas about contrast and connections that have long preoccupied Kuijer into the scale and economy of public sculpture, adopting new construction techniques and a new material palette. Even though the Waterworks are cast as single structures – or in a minimum number of parts, later joined invisibly – they, in fact, have been assembled as freely from disparate, often found elements as his first mature works, and with the same sense of spontaneity and openness. Kuijer shaped some of the components of the Waterworks and based others on an improbable variety of found (or even scavenged) objects, used as molds for the unnamable forms cast in concrete. “I’m really recycling,” Kuijer quips. It’s usually impossible to identify the origins of the component forms, in part because their recognizable shapes are often altered past recognition, inverted and reversed by the casting process, which turns negative space into positive volume. And since Kuijer often alters the objects he uses as molds by slicing and otherwise manipulating them, the identity of the generating forms is further obscured. Because the found objects are all things made for human use, a memory of human proportions or of the familiar structures of our daily experience, survives, perhaps subliminally subverting the industrial character of the site. In the same way, a subliminal memory of the relationship of the sculpture’s material and the process of its making may survive, as well, since, as Kuijer has noted, all the materials from which the sculptures are constructed, from concrete to wood, are present in the environment and come from nearby factories. Additional clues are left in the form of textures, seams, and ribs of the original elements, reproduced in the responsive, fine-grained concrete as lines, striations, patterns, and surface variations. “The material of the forms gives the original objects different skins,” Kuijer says. “The concrete is very fine, so it takes on every trace.” Yet rather than helping us to identify the previous identities of the forms from which they were cast, such traces simply function as “drawing,” revealing themselves only from a close view, shifting the scale of the monumental sculptures from the public to the private realm and adding a degree of intimacy. (In one sculpture, the emblems of the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Basel have been made part of the surface, in terrazzo, a subtle allusion to the canal route, translated into a kind of “wallpaper.”) Many of Kuijer’s “found molds” were selected, for this project because of their connection to water – everything from a child’s plastic wading pool to industrial tanks, a surfboard, a domestic bucket, and more; he has repurposed, as well, discarded formwork once used into heavy construction. Kuijer has often used such referential objects as starting points in his work, especially in his public projects, providing a kind of subtext for careful observers. “It gives some kind of anchor for abstraction,” he says. “I like the connection. I can still tell my own story and give viewers who don’t understand abstraction a sense of connectedness without being too literary.”

Yet whatever the origin of an element, its placement of the component in the new, larger context of the sculpture determines its significance, not its history. The incremental, assembled, collaged aspect of the Waterworks, their unified construction in cast concrete notwithstanding, makes them seem open and improvisatory. The freedom with which Kuijer disposes his varied elements suggests a sense of lightness (reinforced by the pale color of the concrete), that we accept without question, at the same time that we acknowledge the great weight and mass of these upward thrusting constructions.

Verticality, Kuijer felt, was demanded by the first of the series, Waterwork I, made in 2002, so he stacked and piled his cast components, rationalizing the height of the piece by suggesting how every part responded to gravity. Once the sculpture, which seemed enormous to Kuijer during its construction, was installed on the canal bank and real relationships declared themselves with the landmarks of the neighborhood, he felt strongly that the additional works needed to be larger or, at least, have more presence. (Waterwork I has since been adjusted and a cylindrical bottom section expanded, then installed on a rise along the canal.) “After Waterwork I was installed, I started to respond to the whole, as well as to the setting – even more as the other Waterworks were added. It’s like making a sculpture:  additive, relational. One thing calls up another. When you have one sculpture, you think about how to make it fit into this situation. Variation becomes the subject when you have more than one.”

The seven Waterworks bear witness to Kuijer’s continuing inventiveness, over the decade the project demanded, testimony to his ability to discover new relationships among the existing works and their setting, and to incorporate those discoveries in each additional work. Kuijer’s component elements became more generous as the series progressed, making each sculpture more succinct and forthright. Each sculpture grew, as well, in formal ambition. “I began by stacking and piling,” Kuijer says. “That was part of my language already, even in art school. Then I discovered that I could be freer but still have a substantial connection between the parts for pouring the concrete. That allowed me to satisfy my wish to have more differences between the works.” Waterwork V is like an unfolded enclosure, a metaphorical room, tenuously assembled, with large openings that create a dialogue between interior and exterior. “The first two Waterworks were vertical,” Kuijer explains, “but the experience of making each one informed the other. The emphasis on inner space in Waterwork V was the result of finding the scale of the earlier works.” Waterwork IV, unlike any of its predecessors (or successors) unfolds horizontally, stretching like a huge animal, reaching athletically across space, in contrast to the apparently logical stacking, piling, and leaning of its fellows.

Kuijer cites seeing Bernini’s sculptures in Rome as an important influence, as the series developed. “I became more and more interested in offering many different points of view.” The open, spiraling composition of Waterwork VI may owe something to that aspiration. As we move around Waterwork VI, we become aware of cognates with the steel bracing of the bridge and the generous curve of the arch, but they are translated into a language of concrete forms projected into space, so the resemblance becomes something unexpected to be discovered over time. Waterwork VII, completed in 2012, by contrast, is most notable for its height and austerity; the tallest and slimmest of the series, conspicuously severe, simple, and attenuated. “I couldn’t compete with the bridge anyway,” Kuijer says, “so I needed to be more silent in my vocabulary.”

Kuijer’s seven Waterworks sculptures fascinate us with their own compelling qualities and make us look at the particulars of their setting with fresh eyes. We discover new details of place and then return our attention to the Waterworks, engaged by their unpredictable properties, the characteristics that at once define their individuality, reveal the presence of their author, and make them powerful complements to a special part of the present-day industrial, waterside landscape. That’s a great deal.

Karen Wilkin

Utrecht and New York