Hetty Huisnan's trajectory was definitely unique. She left the Gerrit Rietveld Academy at the young age of 21 with the highest honours (cum laude) in ceramics, and was the favourite student of the great ceramic designer W.H. de Vries. In fact, during an internship, one of her designs was taken into production. So, she graduated with vessels and made an excellent start, but the field of ceramics was too limited for her. Huisman felt attracted to far greater challenges. The ceramic department at the art school had been a compromise with her mother, who was not partial to letting her go to an art school at the age of sixteen. Though the distance between Zaandam – where she was born in 1941 in the family of a printers' company, she died in 2017 – and Amsterdam was small, the mental distance was considerable.
Not long after graduation, Huisman dismissed pottery and started researching the materials and processes that emanate from the combustion of earth. To put it simply, she researched all that is needed to turn wet earth into a baked form, and every stage of it became a field of examination. The works that she exhibited related to her findings. Even the name of her editing imprint, Void, is related to the basics of ceramics – the pot being the prototypical receptacle for all kinds of liquids and dry stuff. When nothing goes inside of it, the receptacle is void. The vessel itself has a caring and encompassing form. Another characteristic was her handwriting and signature: an energetic use of lead or charcoal.
Huisman went to Paris and worked in a sculptor’s studio with a kiln, and the man was happy that she could assist him with a tiled wall. Her recipes for colours and glaze experiments continued to be used in his atelier long after she left. She then went to Villenaux la Grande and created, without help from the potter, compositions with reliefs and colours for architectonic ceramic designs. She went to Höhr-Grenzhausen and studied materials that do not emanate from a geological origin, resulting in objects of fireproof material – a substance that refuses to be modeled into round forms.
Proceeding in this way, she gradually found herself in the domain of Post-Ceramics. In 1966, Huisman searched for affiliated minds in ceramics and went to the west coast of the United States. In San Francisco, the school West Coast Ceramics came up with anecdotally adorned vessels and exaggerated, glazed realist sculptures, which was not really what she was looking for (at the end of the seventies, Dutch museums curated some shows of this style). The fact that they were worlds apart was demonstrated by Peter Voulkos, one of the leading artists, who remarked on her slides by saying: "a good start". However, she did return having befriended James Melchert, who came to the In-Out Center a couple of times.
In the Netherlands, Huisman’s conceptual and deconstructive approach to ceramics was not met with much understanding from her fellow ceramicists. For instance, she was supposed to participate in a large exhibition of ceramic design at the Stedeliijk Museum in 1968, but one of her colleagues unexpectedly skipped her name on the list. She reacted by adding the name CeragenetiCs after her name – a contraction of ceramics and genesis. There was no further misunderstanding – her art originated from ceramics. The following year, the creation of her first artists' book was realised, which was a statement of principles titled Livre de Terre, 1969. A further step away from traditional clay work was seen in the same year, when she was again invited by the Stedelijk Museum to put on a solo show for their "Atelier" series, which presented the work of promising young artists. Six of her exhibited works were collected by the Stedelijk Museum: minimalistic sculptures consisting of variously glazed sleeves (often blue, white and yellow), shoved over a metal rod or a chain, such as Ceramic Chain Plant, which counts 36 elements of stoneware. These hybrid works hover between ceramics and sculpture and give expression to a period that saw the frontiers between disciplines disappear. It was again Wim Beeren, as was the case with Cardena, who included Huisman in a great international exhibition. Now it was Op losse schroeven, also at the Stedelijk in 1969 (too late however to include her in the catalogue). The shifting formats of art demonstrated in this now-legendary exhibition suited Huisman very well.
When she joined the In-Out Center at Michel Cardena's invitation, Huisman landed in a comparable albeit more do-it-yourself atmosphere of shifting formats. On January 17, 1973, the In-Out Center contributed a series of actions to celebrate Art's Birthday. This was the idea of Robert Filliou, who organised \ a well-attended party for the day, which included a huge cake at Neue Galerie in Aachen. Several artists and guests invented a piece. For example, Ulises Carrión wrote the prayer: "Our art that art in heaven...." For one hour that evening, Cardena's Warming Up etc. etc. etc. Company warmed up the bed of Wim Beeren and Liesbeth Crommelin. Hetty Huisman reacted in her own way: "Hetty Huisman, of CeragenetiCs, delivered at the Stedelijk Museum her ceramics without artistic interference, i.e. five plastic bags of the following content: 4 bags with a loaf of unfired clay and beer, and 1 bag with a loaf of fired clay for the scientific board of the museum only."
For Huisman, the In-Out Center offered the right intellectual surroundings, though she always said that she did not covet the best memories from these collaborations. Being the only woman among eight ambitious men was a problematic position forty years ago. It was considered normal for her to fulfill organisational and household tasks, including taking care of a baby for several days. Of course, Huisman was the only one with a ceramicist’s background and was also the only one who had lived in Amsterdam for the last decade and a half. Thus, she felt obligated to uphold various practical tasks, including searching for materials and technical local contacts, organising meetings in her studio, and finding a notary after the closure of the In-Out Center. At the same time, she did have a good relationship with most of the artists, and Ulises Carrión became a dear friend. Their mutual interest in philosophers like Chomsky and Wittgenstein played a part in this. Being a good writer herself, she understood Carrión’s passion for language and book works. She helped him throughout his entire career, the most special result being Second Thoughts, his collected essays published under the imprint of Void Distributors in 1980 in 500 copies.
From March 19 until March 31, 1973, Huisman presented CeragenetiCs at the In-Out Center. In this show, various works were standing, hanging or thrown on the floor. The heap of stones that were stacked behind the shop window, was called Insula clay. The piece consisted of blue glazed fireproof stones, partially leftovers mixed with the triangles that are used to support – like coasters – the kiln process. There was also a cone drawing hanging from the ceiling – one of a series of six, all resulting from different characters of firing such as biscuit, uranium red, silver luster or no-firing, resulting in unbaked clay (now all in the state collection except for one that previously belonged to De Appel). On the floor, Jeu d'Echec du Champs was installed. It was a chessboard composed of bricks with stoneware pieces and blue glazed handles – an artwork that is simultaneously very heavy and very fragile. In this respect, it does not coincide with the chess performance of Cardena and Lambert shown in the following month at the In-Out Center.
Just before this multifaceted view on ceramics took hold, Hetty Huisman participated in a group show with the other members from February 6 to February 17, 1974. She contributed Craft Horizons, a double-sided drawing on which graphite was poured and written, hanging with threads of lead, symbolising different media. In another group show from June 11 to June 30, 1973, Huisman contributed Ceramic Field, a work about the material graphite and its transition from a clay medium to an energy medium. This work is now in the collection of the Princessehof in Leeuwarden.
Her last solo show at the In-Out Center, from September 3 to September 14, 1974, was titled Baselines. The title alludes to more simplicity than is justified by the work, though visually it has wonderful qualities. It should be considered as an analysis of the image that a man has of a woman, in a material sense, in both ceramic history and daily language. This image is broken down into five material lines that aim for a new beginning for both man and woman. From each of the five lines emanates five successive art works. Hetty Huisman never did avoid complexities.
The small work that she made for Eén jaar mijn galerietje is much more lighthearted. For Sylvia van Berkel’s little shelf, she made a miniature of her work How gravel took to glasses. A tiny pile of sand holds a thin and barely-perceptible lens – apparently a reference to the process of making glass.
These years were extremely productive for Hetty Huisman. From February 22 to March 31, 1974, she had a second solo at the Stedelijk Museum titled Gewicht en waarde van aarde (Weight and value of earch) 1970-74. The show mainly consisted of earth from India and triangles.
For those who are not versed in the knowledge of ceramics, her projects are not easy to understand. "Ceramics", Hetty Huisman taught me in her quiet manner, "is the field of binary oppositions. What is organic is burnt to arrive at the inorganic. Earth and air, water and fire, are important factors. Earth is as valuable as is the heaven, mankind and the gods." That graphite and metallurgy not only conduct electricity but also represent sound, was new knowledge for me, but it made me understand why Hetty Huisman also worked with sound. She delved into a field called ceramics and brought a cosmos of values into the daylight. The small space of the In-Out Center could hardly contain it.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017