Bas Jan Ader

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Bas Jan Ader
Born 19 April 1942
Winschoten, Netherlands
Died Lost at sea, 1975 (Approx. aged 33)

Claremont Graduate University

Otis College of Art and Design
Occupation Artist/Photographer/film-maker (former)
Spouse(s) Mary Sue Ader-Anderson

Bastiaan Johan Christiaan "Bas Jan" Ader (1942-1975) was a Dutch conceptual artist, performance artist, photographer and filmmaker. He lived in Los Angeles for the last 10 years of his life. Ader's work was in many instances presented as photographs and film of his performances. He also made performative installations, including Please Don't Leave Me (1969). Ader was lost at sea in 1975 between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, United States and Ireland, when he set out to sea from Cape Cod in a small sailing boat as part of an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. His empty boat eventually washed up on the coast of Ireland.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Born 19 April 1942, Ader grew up in Winschoten. His father, Bastiaan Jan Ader and his mother Johanna Adriana Ader-Appels were both Calvinist ministers. His father was executed in 1944 by the German occupying force for helping Jews escape The Holocaust. His mother raised him and his brother.[2]

During adolescence Ader took art classes at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, and later in the United States during a study abroad program. Ader graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design in 1965 with a BFA, and from the Claremont Graduate School in 1967. After graduating, he taught at various institutions, including Mount San Antonio College, Immaculate Heart College, and the University of California, Irvine.


Ader created a handful of photographs as well as several short black and white films in which he is the sole performer.[3] One of his most famous works, I'm too sad to tell you, consists of a 3 minute silent black and white movie of him crying, several photographs (long hair and short hair versions) and a post card mailed to his friends with the inscription "I'm too sad to tell you".[4] The tears may be seen as real due to the tradition of the “melancholy white male artist” and yet may also be suspect as being a performance for the camera. This tension is characteristic of Ader and has inspired many artists to create homages to his work.[5] The work is seen as being conceptual art but in the romantic art tradition due to the expression of emotion. It is an ironic statement of the artist taking on all of the embarrassment while leaving it open to the viewer as to whether or not to take on the embarrassment as well.[6]

Other films include him sitting on a chair on a pitched roof until he falls, one where he is hanging on a branch until his grip gives out and he falls into a stream, and a film where he rides his bike into a canal.[3]

In 1969 - 70 he anonymously published the satirical conceptual art magazine “Landslide” with his friend William Leavitt. The magazine featured “interviews” with non existent artists, such as “Brian Shitart” and pranks such as “expandable sculpture” which was five packing peanuts in an envelope. Although satirical of conceptual art, the magazine itself is considered a work of conceptual art.[7][8]

In what turned out to be his final performance piece, In Search of the Miraculous, he had a choir sing sea shanties at his studio in Los Angeles while he set sail from Cape Cod in a small sailing craft headed on a solo trip to Europe where he had planned for another choir to sing shanties upon his arrival. Due to his death at sea, the piece was not completed.[3] The title “In Search of the Miraculous” was a reference to P. D. Ouspensky's mystical book In Search of the Miraculous.[9]


Ader was lost at sea while attempting a single-handed west-east crossing of the Atlantic in a 13 ft pocket cruiser, a modified Guppy 13 named "Ocean Wave". The passage was part of an art performance titled "In Search of the Miraculous". Radio contact broke off three weeks into the voyage and Ader was presumed lost at sea. The boat was found after 10 months, floating partially submerged 150 miles West-Southwest of the coast of Ireland.

His body was never found. The boat, after being recovered by the Spanish fishing vessel that found it, was taken to Coruña. The boat was later stolen.[10] Ader's mother wrote the poem From the deep waters of sleep after having what she described as a premonition of his death.

Reception and impact[edit]

Two retrospectives have occurred, one at the Sweeney Art Gallery in Riverside in 1999, curated by Brad Spence[11] with catalogue contributions by Thomas Crow, Jan Tumlir, and Brad Spence. In 2006, Camden Arts Centre held a retrospective of his works.[3] In his review, Richard Dorment stated that while the pieces initially seem absurd, such as Ader's photograph of his clothing strewn on the roof of a house, they become poignant in the context of Ader's life - Ader's mother had frantically thrown their possession and clothing out of the windows when she was forced out of their home after her husband's death with hopes of being able to retrieve them later.[3]

Erika Yeomans' conceptual documentary In Search of Bas Jan's Miraculous (1998, 40 mins., mixed media) on Ader's life and art was featured on This American Life in 1996.[12]

Since the 1990s he has been seen as an “artist's artist” with a European traveling retrospective of his work, and an exhibit at MOMA, and the Claremont Museum[13]

Inspired by Ader, digital movie pioneer Rene Daalder proposed a new genre of art called “Gravity Art” in 2008. Gravity Art is based on the idea of gravity as a medium.[14] Bas Jan Ader is seen as the founder of this genre for the themes in his work of falling and letting go.[15]

See also[edit]


Specific references
Other sources
  • Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous, London: Afterall Books, 2006. ISBN 1-84638-002-2.
  • Maike Aden-Schraenen, In Search of Bas Jan Ader, Berlin: Logos Verlag, 2013. ISBN 978-3-8325-2295-7.
  • Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-226-03853-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wei, Lilly (May 2014). "Vanishing Artist". Art in America (New York: Brant Publications): 57–60. 

External links[edit]