Living concrete
Frits Scholten - Ruud Kuijer Waterwerken/Waterworks - 2013

Sculpture began with an accidental discovery – at least according to Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), the great art theorist of the Renaissance, in his book De statua (On Sculpture):

I believe that the arts of those who attempt to create images and likenesses from bodies produced by Nature, originated in the following way. Probably, they occasionally observed in a tree-trunk or clod of earth or other similar inanimate objects certain outlines in which, with slight alterations, something very similar to the real faces of Nature was represented. They began, therefore, by diligently observing and studying such things, to try to see whether they could not add, take away, or otherwise supply whatever seemed lacking to effect and complete the true likeness. So by emending and refining the lines and surfaces as each object required, they achieved their intention and enjoyed doing so. Not surprisingly, men’s efforts at creating likenesses eventually reached a stage where, even when they found no help from half-finished images in the material to hand, they could still make the image they desired.1

Undoubtedly Alberti was right when he wrote this in about 1450. His observation, as simple as it is logical, is supported by modern paleo-anthropologists. They consider the hypothetical moment – about 3.5 million years ago – when an upright-walking ape in southern Africa picked up a rock that resembled a face and took it back to his cave to be the oldest known  example of symbolic behaviour.2 It could just as justifiably be considered the first objet trouvé and the origin of sculpture.

Building Sculptures

Ruud Kuijer is a direct heir to this long tradition. For him too, a sculpture starts with a found object with an intriguing shape and texture. Usually this object is not taken directly from nature – often it is a product of our industrial world: packaging material, a length of PVC pipe, a plastic sandbox, an old car tyre (fig. 1). Usually simple and efficiently shaped, but often soft and tactile as well, with curves, ridges and a smooth skin. Kuijer has a penchant for the residue of the packaging industry. His choice of the existing, found object is self-evident, as he sees no need to first come up with new forms himself: ‘today’s world is replete with forms’. The idea is to pick things out of this multitude and assemble them, and to transform the objects of today into new, greater forms in a different material, one that is equally contemporary: concrete. He calls this process of looking for the everyday, existing pieces of the puzzle for his sculptures ‘sketching with objects’. He owns several containers filled with such found objects (fig. 2). In addition, in the huge former Nuon coal-fired power station that currently serves as his temporary workshop, there are colossal moulds, discarded by road builders and contractors after pouring concrete segments for roads, parking garages and viaducts. They patiently await Kuijer’s transforming touch, which lends meaning to happenstance. The combinations and arrangements of all these found objects are always meticulously managed. The sculptor transforms the individual, disparate objects into sculptures without sacrificing their original form. An attentive viewer will uncover identifiable, ordinary forms and everyday objects, from a surfboard to a plastic paddling pool. In other instances the forms are sawn into fragments and reveal their original identity less easily. Quite often, these modern fossils, petrified in industrial concrete, generate comical side-effects, as in the case of a sieve that seems to be sailing through an open window (fig. 3).

Alberti divided sculptors into two categories: the modellers who work in clay, wax or some other malleable material and create their form by adding and subtracting material, and the carvers who, working in hard stone or wood, exclusively subtract material, extracting an identifiable and recognizable form out of the rough, meaningless mass. This Albertian division remained dominant throughout the centuries that followed, but the twentieth century put an end to it. Kuijer too defies such traditional categorization. He is neither a modeller nor a carver, but rather a sculpture builder: his sculptures may be formed by addition and subtraction, but the material with which he ‘sketches’ and composes is different each time – and not very malleable either. Plastic, wood and stainless steel appear side by side and intertwined. Paradoxically, the result is in fact a stone-like sculpture: a form set in pouring concrete that has a great deal in common with the solid, impenetrable marble or sandstone sculptures carved by sculptors for centuries.

Assemblage and Form

Whereas Michelangelo liberated the statue that was latent in the block by hacking it out of the marble, Kuijer constructs an imaginary block by stacking and linking his found objects. Driven by the same urge that leads a child to stack building blocks or mould shapes in the sandbox, he intuitively challenges the laws of gravity and equilibrium with absurd and seemingly unstable assemblages. His compositions are often simultaneously static and dynamic, or it seems they might start to move at any moment, should their fragile equilibrium be even slightly disturbed. This suggestion of an imminent turning point, of a peripateia, is one shared by many sculptures. Adriaen de Vries (1556–1626) masterfully rendered that moment in his bronze Wrestlers (fig. 4). Concrete enables Kuijer to give his ephemeral and unstable compositions a lasting form, because the material has hardly any spatial limitations.

Ruud Kuijer is an artist of form who has spent his entire artistic career exploring and formulating the relationship between form and (hollow) space by means of assemblage. In that sense his art touches on the work of the Constructivists and their kindred spirits of the post-war period, such as David Smith, Anthony Caro, or, closer to home, Carel Visser. The latter expressed it as follows in 1958:

You feel the ground giving way under your feet when you realize that the last artist to work with ‘form and space sculpture’ was . . . Phidias. I have been working on this for quite some time, and I observe that it means I have to make up for all this lost time myself. Everything remains to be explored.3

For Visser this exploration initially consisted of abstract, geometric forms in metal, welded together into clear and sturdy structures. In the 1970s he transposed his work to the domain of assemblages of existing, contemporary objects: cow horns, branches, car tyres, glass panels, hay bales, oil drums or ostrich eggs. This decision also introduced colour into his work. Kuijer shares with Visser, aside from the exploration of ‘form and space sculpture’, a predilection for the found object as the essential building block of the assemblage. In his case, however, this exploration unfolds in exactly the opposite direction: his starting point is the variegated, colourful objects that, when assembled, are absorbed into one grey concrete form. This blurs their hierarchy; vitality is achieved through the contrast among the forms and the differences in texture. An assemblage becomes a sculpture; the multicoloured makes way for the monochrome. Everything turns to stone.


Ruud Kuijer is assuredly not the first sculptor to work in concrete, but the motivations for his choice of material seem more original, more honest and more impassioned than those of other artists. In the beginning, during the first half of the twentieth century, ‘Messianic’ qualities were attributed to this new construction material, with its virtually limitless structural possibilities, and concrete had quintessentially positive connotations. Its use in bunkers, industry and the mass-scale construction of postwar social housing, however, contributed to a very negative image.4 Concrete had become cold, hard, functional and alien. In sculpture the material had never been warmly embraced at all. The rare artists who opted for concrete saw it as an inexpensive alternative to more noble materials, or used it because it enabled them to create sculptures of monumental dimensions. The concrete sculptures of Picasso or Chillida, for instance, are actually magnifications in a convenient and manageable medium (fig. 5);5 their concrete character is masked by carved images or by paint. For Kuijer, concrete is the quintessential representation of the present. It belongs to today, unlike marble and bronze, materials he considers old-fashioned and ‘from another age’.

Yet a comparison with the casting of ‘old-fashioned’ bronze immediately comes up. After all, it similarly involves the ultimate, lasting capture of a pliable form in a pourable, hardening material. Bronze and concrete both neutralize the original form: the homogenous and monochrome material takes the place of the model made of wax, clay or – as in Kuijer’s work – a motley mix of objects and geometric forms. In addition, both materials are capable of producing a perfect positive cast of the negative form outlined in the surface of the mould. Thanks to the fine structure of the concrete mix or of the liquefied bronze, the definition with which this takes place is inconceivable.6 The sculptor’s fingerprints on the original wax model, for instance, are flawlessly transferred to the bronze, just as the knots of the wooden formwork or a strip of tape in Kuijer’s ‘mould’ are precisely reproduced in the surface of the concrete (fig. 6). Often this results in interesting transformations. For instance, the functional ridges in a plastic meat tray from the supermarket – meant to make the thin plastic more rigid – are converted into regular wrinkles in a concrete skin. They have lost their old function in this transformation process, but it has given them a new aesthetic.

On the other hand, the concrete sculptures require a thought process that is the inverse of that of the maker of bronze casts. Whereas the latter starts with a positive model, which is imprinted in a mould and then cast – in other words a process from the inside out – Kuijer thinks from the outside in. In his work the negative of the mould is actually the starting point. The concrete form will ultimately take shape in the hollow spaces of the formwork he constructs out of wood and found objects, but these hollows and the ways they relate to one another are difficult to discern with any precision from the outside. Working from the outside in, therefore, requires great powers of spatial visualization on the part of the artist.

The strength of bronze and concrete allows for colossal three-dimensional compositions in which components are both form and connection: in Kuijer’s sculptures the liquid concrete fuses the stacked and linked objects into a tight chain that derives its strength from the toughness of the ‘stone’ and the invisible metal reinforcement inside the sculpture. The bronze caster similarly achieves this amazing transmutation from fragile to solid, from delicate to durable, from variegated to monochrome.

Living Concrete

In the sixteenth century, a magical power was ascribed to metal casting: the caster was like an alchemist, able to bring the ostensibly inert material to life by heating it, enabling it to exist in a new form, that of the sculpture. This animation of bronze is beautifully expressed in the sensational account of the making of Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze Perseus in 1554 (fig. 7).7 Bravura and hubris are its principal ingredients, for at that time the sculptor had only scant experience with bronze casting. At the critical point of the operation, exhausted from the effort and deathly ill with fever – he was certain his last hour had come – Cellini left the foundry and dragged himself off to bed. He delegated the risky final process to his assistants. But when the melting of the bronze seemed about to go wrong – the metal would not liquefy sufficiently – Cellini was forced to rise from his presumed deathbed and take charge once more:

When I had thus provided against these several disasters, I roared out first to one man and then to another: ‘Bring this thing here! Take that thing there!’ At this crisis, when the whole gang saw the cake was on the point of melting, they did my bidding, each fellow working with the strength of three. I then ordered half a pig of pewter to be brought, which weighed about sixty pounds, and flung it into the middle of the cake inside the furnace. By this means, and by piling on wood and stirring now with pokers and now with iron rods, the curdled mass rapidly began to liquefy. Then, knowing I had brought the dead to life again, against the firm opinion of those ignoramuses, I felt such vigour fill my veins, that all those pains of fever, all those fears of death, were quite forgotten.

This passage is actually an ingenious literary performance of animation, or better yet, reanimation. By melting the bronze – which he compared to resurrecting the dead – the sculptor recovered his own strength, as though he too had risen from the dead. Remarkably, Cellini’s metaphor of animation applies not just to the statue itself – almost a cliché topos in art literature since Antiquity, from Ovid’s archetypal sculptor Pygmalion to God modelling  Adam out of clay – but also to the material, the metal bronze. The mythical notion that bronze is a dormant or only seemingly inert substance that can be brought to life, therefore, should not be taken simply as a metaphor per se. Underpinning Cellini’s words was a widespread belief in the unique, vital qualities of the raw materials (ores, minerals, stones) from the womb of the earth. These vital materials were employed to create new forms, enabling the sculptor to equal nature and even imagine himself the almighty creator. The soul of the material was captured in its new form. The Florentine alchemist Allegretti – a friend of Cellini – formulated it this way:

Bronze is a hard, dense material that carries within it the living spirit that possesses all creatures and manufactured things, and gives them life, movement and feeling. It cannot display its power unless it is heated and its vital virtue is liberated from that which holds it captive.8

This animation and conjuration of nature is most strikingly expressed in the Naturabgüsse or life-casts that have been produced since the sixteenth century. These involve encasing real animals, plants, seashells and other natural forms in moulds for casting. The bronze, or other pourable medium, takes the place of the animal’s body, turning into a perfect, true-to-life cast of it. Crustaceans, reptiles and amphibians have been particular victims of this, to the point that this casting method became known as the ‘lost-lizard process’, a playful variant on the cire perdue, or lost-wax, technique. Bronze lizards, snakes, toads, crabs, insects or other lower animal and plant species have been transformed into individual sculptures (fig. 8). This is a tradition that continues to this day, for example in the sculpture Faggio di Otterlo, Giuseppe Penone’s 1988 bronze cast of a beech tree, including its leaves (fig. 9), and in fact in Kuijer’s concrete sculptures as well, with their inclusions of everyday materials.

Does this make Ruud Kuijer a modern alchemist, animating the everyday objects in concrete with his transmutations? Is he, too, a divine creator who, through fusione (casting) brings about infusione (the breath of life)? While he cannot be accused of Cellini-like hubris, it cannot be denied that he displays a certain bravura. His preparations are so meticulous, his team so experienced, the mixture and fluidity of the concrete so completely under control, that it all seems very far removed from the sorcery of the sixteenth-century bronze caster, but this is deceptive. Under the surface lurks the same belief in the vital force and unpredictable wilfulness of the material. The most suspenseful moment in the making of his sculptures is when the heavy, grey mass of concrete vanishes like a thick porridge into the formwork of the mould:

‘I’m extremely nervous when we’re pouring. The weight is enormous. Last Tuesday we poured five cubic metres, from a height of six metres to 12.7 metres; the sculpture would move slightly at the top as more concrete poured in – it was awful. Was happy when it was over and the concrete started to set. Concrete always seeks the weakest spot in the formwork; in Sculpture VI three small, poorly secured joists came loose – it turned out all right, just: we quickly welded a piece of iron over the spot between two props . . .’9

And then there is the tense moment when his concrete ‘life-casts’ come out of their formwork after hardening for a week or more. At each stage there is that awareness that concrete is a hard, dense material that contains Allegretti’s living spirit, which ‘possesses all creatures and manufactured things, and gives them life, movement and feeling’. Ruud Kuijer himself expressed this most aptly when he said that he gives concrete ‘a human face’.10

1 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, edited and translated by Cecil Grayson, London 1972, p. 121.

2 Denis Vialou, Frühzeit des Menschen, Munich 1992, and Georges Didi-Hubermann, Ähnlichkeit und Berührung. Archäologie, Anachronismus und Modernität des Abdrucks, Cologne 1999, p. 22.

3 Carel Blotkamp, Carel Visser, Utrecht/Antwerp 1989, p. 87.

4 Thomas Raff, Die Sprache der Materialien. Anleitung zu einer Ikonologie der Werkstoffe, Munich 1994, p. 15.

5 Sally Fairweather, Picasso’s Concrete Sculptures, New York 1982.

6 Kuijer uses self-consolidating or self-compacting concrete, a relatively new material. It is highly fluid, which makes pouring riskier, because of the greater pressure inside the formwork. Additives render it free of air bubbles. A special variant, without aggregate, was developed for his sculptures.

7 The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by John Addington Symonds, London 1889 (third edition), pp. 416-427 (quoted passage on pp. 423-424); Michael W. Cole, Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture, Cambridge 2002, pp. 50, 51.

8 Antonio Allegretti, De la trasmutatione de metalli, Florence 1555.

9 Ruud Kuijer in an e-mail to the author, dated 15 October 2012.

10 The recently developed, self-repairing bioconcrete is literally alive. Cracks are healed by bacteria that live in the concrete. See Het Parool, 8 September 2012, p. 41.