It comes as no surprise, at least in hindsight, that Kristján Gudmundsson showed drawings at the In-Out Center. He has made drawings throughout his entire career, and the In-Out Center might have catalysed this focus on the basics of art. In actuality, he made other art during his youth, including paintings and installations reminiscent to arte povera.
His drawings speak to a boundless penchant for thinking, coupled with an apparent reluctance towards labour. In fact, what he puts on paper is a reduced, precise, nearly negligible grammar that acts as a springboard for barely-conceivable dimensions of space and time. The charm of many ideas, usually indicated by a title, is an attempt to calculate distances of global and often cosmic dimensions – calculations that are more attractive to the mind than they are practical.
Thus, Kristján’s lines are instrumental and not evocative in a traditional sense. Rather, his drawing hand does not determine the course of the pencil. Some of the drawings that he made in 1972 even lacked a stylus, a pen, or a piece of charcoal. Instead, they were made with a rifle, titled Supersonic drawing. A rifle – not because of its aggressive potential – but because of its speed. He succeeded in making a drawing in less than a split second – specifically, in 1/1500 of a second. "An indisputably beautiful short time", the artist himself remarks. On the sheet of paper, a trace of gunpowder is visible and partially burnt. The debris was left behind after the rifle sped over the surface of the paper. Thus, the drawing consists of nothing more than a trace made by this partially burnt explosive material. Kristján made three of these Supersonic drawings.
In 1970, Kristján's brother Sigurdur, who had settled for a second time in Amsterdam, wanted his brother to join him. He found a house for Kristján and his partner Solveig on Nieuwe Kerkstraat, and sent a telegram to Reykjavik with a short text that read: "get married. love Siggi". “And we did”, says Kristján. A flight ticket was expensive in those days, so they stayed until 1979 because staying put was cheaper. Through Siggi, the couple met a lot of artists, including Pieter Holstein, Douwe Jan Bakker, and curator Gijs van Tuyl, who was responsible for the Súm show with Sigurdur at Fodor in 1971. Through his brother, he also met Michel Cardena. Dolly Melchers, the gallerist at Galerie 845, also became a good friend. She was passionate about art and people, and was a wonderful woman and socialist, explains Kristján Gudmundsson. "Once you sold, you were out". In general, Melchers would invite an artist to present their work for one time only, but Kristján was given the opportunity to have a solo show at her gallery in both 1971 and 1972.
Other factors besides the drawing hand determined the course of a pencil or charcoal line on paper. On more than one occasion, Kristján’s sayings on paper were dictated by laws regarding natural phenomena. Especially in the era of the In-Out Center, elements like the influence of gravity, the course of time, the behaviour of water, and the circuit of the earth around the sun were given visibility - a paradoxical visibility possessing a simple, mechanical character.
The Equal-time lines were another conceptual way to avoid representation or imagination. These were the works he presented in his second solo show at the In-Out Center, from October 15 to October 26, 1974. In 6 x 7 Equal-time Lines, a set of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines are repeated over three panels. The artist drew the lines with blue ink and a fountain pen on blotting paper, making some lines thin and others thicker, all related to the length of the lines and the time it took to transfer the ink onto the paper. Thus, there were seven thin horizontal lines and seven thicker ones – the vertical lines being half that length, while the diagonal lines were all of unequal lengths. These were the drawings Kristján presented at his second solo show in October 1974.
As the first artist of the In-Out Center who enjoyed a solo exhibition at Stedelijk Museum in 1973, Kristján was also one of the few members without a proper art education. He dropped out of school at sixteen, had a few jobs and took lessons that prepared him to become an airplane pilot. Nevertheless, his parents’ home offered regular, daily meetings with artists. Their father, Gudmundur Arnason, had a professional framing workshop and was also an art handler. Many visitors to the shop came together in the living room of the family – conversations about art were therefore embedded in their upbrining.
In the sixties, Kristján spent a couple of months in Amsterdam, but did not stay. He first went to the USA and then to Spain, producing small pop art paintings, and in 1965 he returned to Reykavik.
Amsterdam proved to be a wonderful environment in the seventies. In 1971, Kristján participated in Súm IV at the Museum Fodor, under the auspices of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The previous three Súm group exhibitions were organised in Reykjavik, and their friend Hreinn Fridfinsson was not only one of its founders, but made a point to include the brothers during a moment when art was not considered to be a viable future for them.
Did Súm IV predict the path of drawing that Kristján would come to follow? One of these pieces was a definitive stage in his development. On an oblong piece of cardboard, he pasted a bit of an audiotape, the high end marked with SKY and the low end marked with EARTH. Above sky was the following typewritten sentence: “(on front side of recording-tape: sound of footsteps going up stairs reaching for blue sky)”. And at the bottom under earth: “(on back side of recording-tape sound of footsteps going down stairs reaching for green earth)”. The work represents one of the poems from Performables & other pieces (1970).
Between his two solo shows at the In-Out Center in 1973 and 1974, Kristján Gudmundsson had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum – a real triumph for the artist-run scene. Visitors were deeply impressed by the high quality of his works, all following a mentality of thoroughly developed ideas transformed into a rigorously distanced language.
For instance, Typewriting piece for three keys (1972) consisted of three pages of typewriting paper. The left sheet was entirely filled with “0” – the symbol for zero. The middle page showed the sign “=” and the right piece was made by continuously pressing the space bar all over the page. The message here was that zero is equal to nothing, or to the invisible. The piece could be related to the contemporary practice of visual poetry, but it is too idiosyncratic to be assigned to that category. The book Or originated from this same vein. “Or” is a word that makes no sense without any context. What is invisible, what is silent and what is ungraspable (but still measured) are recurring themes in these works. Or was printed in 1973 by Beau Geste Press, a group of artists in Devon who also published the magazine Icelandic Schmuck in 1971. This issue of Schmuck contained contributions from Hreinn Fridfinnsson, his wife Hlíf Svavarsdottir and the Gudmundsson brothers. The founders of Beau Geste Press regularly ventured to Amsterdam and performed at the In-Out Center as well.
The catalogue issued by the Stedelijk Museum (number 550) to accompany Kristján’s exhibition is nothing short of an artists' book, and it took quite a few discussions before he received permission to create the exceptional publication. Circles is a quadrangle book, containing the same photograph of ripples in water three times. As mentioned on the backside of the cover, a small stone was thrown into the water, and the three pages proceed from light to very heavy paper, reflecting the weight of the stone that caused the ripples. Circles probably takes its quadrangle format from the photo and text work Circle, found in the Stedelijk Museum collection. This work from 1972 bears the text: "Circle made by throwing a cube". During this period, the museum was open on some weekday evenings, and extra custodians were required on a part-time basis. Kristján Gudmundsson filled one of these positions, and happened to be the custodian at his own exhibition.
Although the artists had no televisions, no telephones, no raincoats and often not enough to eat, Kristján had similar anti-capitalist views to Dolly Melchers, proven by the experience of Kees van Gelder. This philosopher and subsequent gallerist of the Icelandic artists was completely overwhelmed by one of Kristján’s Supersonic Drawings, explaining that he wanted to buy it. "Impossible", said the artist, "It's too expensive. I'll give it to you." For Van Gelder, still a student, 1500 guilders was indeed a big sum – but he was determined to pay for the masterpiece. So, with a loan from the bank and money earned from small jobs, he succeeded in bringing an envelope with fifteen one-hundred guilder notes to the house of Kristján and Solveig. "No", said Kristján. "I do not want the money". While Van Gelder insisted, Kristján went upstairs, scattering all the banknotes down the steps to the entrance. As fast as he could, Van Gelder shut the door, preventing the banknotes from blowing away. A rumour that claims the artist tore the envelope into pieces without opening it is beside the truth.
In his first show at the In-Out Center, the artist also included books. Punktar/Periods refers to a collection of poems by the famous Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. Kristján Gudmundsson selected the periods from these poems, photographed them and blew them up as prints, considering them enlargements of silence (the publication was edited by Silver Press, Reykjavik/Amsterdam in 1972).
In Nidur/Down, the distance between the highest point on earth and the lowest point in the sea is indicated by the immense length of one line. Books, as sequences of sheets, not only function as vehicles for drawings and photographs, but also as transmitters of intimacy and silence. What is more, they are distributors of unfathomable thoughts. Artists' books are modest artworks - when closed they do not betray their inner noise. No shot, no dot.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017