ELLIE VOSSEN 1948-1998
I LOVE PAPER BECAUSE IT SUCKS
ELLIE VOSSEN 1948-1998
Riet van der Linden
I LOVE PAPER BECAUSE IT SUCKS
ELLIE VOSSEN 1948-1998
Revolution in the air
Ellie Vossen was born in 1948 in Bunde, a village outside the city of Maastricht in the southern Dutch province of Limburg. She was the youngest of five children in a Roman Catholic family of shopkeepers.
After completing her secondary education, she studied fashion at Maastricht’s Stadsacademie art school in 1964 and 1965. But her artistic ambitions went beyond fashion design. Moreover, she wanted to break with her familiar surroundings and to stand on her own two feet. In 1966, following a brief spell at the Instituut voor Industriële Vormgeving (the Institute for Industrial Design) in Eindhoven, the 18-year-old left for Antwerp with her friend and colleague Hetty van Boekhout. Here, she took the entrance examination for the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (KASKA).
KASKA was an extremely traditional art school. By contrast, Antwerp was a dazzling and sophisticated city in the 1960s where – unlike Amsterdam - Dutch Limburgers were given a privileged position. Ellie Vossen immediately felt at home in Antwerp and she was to live there for the rest of her life.
After studying textile techniques for four years at KASKA, she attended a post-graduate course in monumental art at the Hoger Instituut Antwerpen from 1970 to 1973, and was able to continue working independently in her own studio. She was a successful student and won various prizes. It was during these years that she also developed her interest in philosophy and politics by attending Professor Nagels’ lectures in cultural history.
Meanwhile textiles and fashion still exerted their allure, and she was making her own clothes that frequently involved extravagant creations that made her the centre of attention. In addition, she was now working in her studio at the Hoger Instituut on her first monumental sculptures that entailed jute and rope. The art world was in full swing. Textile art was particularly exciting at that point and the first examples of these developments had been shown at the Lausanne International Textile Biennale that was set up in 1962. This Biennale, which was a tremendous stimulus and example, had been set up by the French artist Jean Lurçat, to encourage the design and weaving of modern wall hangings. But a number of Eastern European artists, including the Pole Magdalena Abakanowicz, had pushed the art of weaving in unexpected and revolutionary directions by creating monumental works with free, sculptural forms.
During the 1960s, an increasing number of artists, including Ellie Vossen, discovered the potential of textiles as an autonomous, artistic medium. Form, material and technique were researched in new ways that were not based on either functionality or tradition, an approach that was used in other art forms.
These new developments were soon copied in the Netherlands. In 1968 the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem organised an exhibition called Works in Textiles with nine artists including Loes van der Horst. This exhibition was an important event because it introduced the Dutch public to the modern textile art forms of a new generation. Amsterdam then followed Haarlem’s example. Between 1969 and 1989, the Stedelijk Museum held a large number of exhibitions such as Perspective in Textiles (1969), Structure in Textiles (1974) and the Miniature Textiles Biennale (1982). There were also various one-man shows by artists with a new approach to textiles who had begun to operate in the art world on an independent basis. These included exhibitions by Loes van der Horst in 1973 and 1981, Sheila Hicks in 1974, Herman Scholten in 1974 and 1991, Daniel Graffin in 1977, Jagoda Buic in 1978, Anna Verwey in 1979, Margot Rolf in 1984 and Desirée Scholten in 1987.
However, there was a downside to the museums’ enthusiasm for the new textile art. The artists who had been brought together in Haarlem had completely different approaches and were in no way a group. Their only link was the material that formed the basis of their selection. Nonetheless, they were subsequently seen as being a cohesive group of textile artists, a label that would create difficulties for some of them for the rest of their lives. By basing exhibitions on the material rather than on individual artistic starting points, textile art would be constantly associated with feminine ‘handicrafts’. For instance, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam began to collect textile art on a relatively large scale but only for its department of applied arts!
Textile art’s emancipation had also spread to Belgium by the beginning of the 1970s. However, the attitude towards its innovations was considerably more guarded, as Jan Walgrave writes elsewhere in this book. Just as in the Netherlands, the new textile art was presented in Belgium as a separate category of exhibition despite the different starting points of the individual artists.
Ellie Vossen was aware of the difficulties facing the new textile art. But with her Dutch background and her interest in both monumental art and textiles, she mainly felt inspired by the new avenues that were opening up for her.
A love-hate relationship with textiles
A photo dating from the 1970s shows Ellie – long-legged and colourful - standing next to an imposing textile sculpture. The photo was taken in her studio at the Hoger Instituut in Antwerp and was probably made just before the work was transported to the 6 x Antwerp exhibition that was held at Roermond’s Gemeentemuseum in 1973.It is a spatial object made of unbleached cotton rope that is almost three metres long and hangs from the ceiling. The sculpture resembles a living organism with tentacles and aerial roots. This early, expressive work by Ellie Vossen is a typical example of the spatial hanging sculptures that were made from the beginning of the 1960s. Its sheer size, its dramatic, primal power and the use of natural materials reveal the unmistakable influence of the Polish pioneers of textile art, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Tapta, who were much followed.
Ellie Vossen soon shifted her focus away from the material’s organic effect and onto a more conceptual approach towards shape and space. Here, she may have been inspired by American sculptors such as Oldenburg and Christo, who at the time were exhibiting at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp.
Her development is clearly documented in three detailed designs for monumental, spatial sculptures that also date from the early 1970s. The first, somewhat surreal drawing is for a vertical floor sculpture of three ropes that have been wound together. The three ends of these thick ropes enter the wall at the same height so that they look like pipes that are connected to an energy source that drives them and twists them together into a human form where the frayed strings at the other end create a thick shock of hair.
A second, less dramatic drawing shows a sturdy, upright plait that is once again made of three ropes and where the ends make a rapid, rotating movement.
A third drawing shows the design for Variable Situation, a space-filling installation that was made in two versions. A photo of the maquette (scale 1:10) of the first version, which dates from 1972-1973, shows what looks like a soft sculpture of a machine that consists of two cylinders or drums, one of which is connected through a tube to a chaotic heap of rope from which a vertical pipe emerges and disappears at an angle of 90 degrees into the wall. The cylinders are covered with jute that has been crudely sewn together with rough, upright seams of stitches. The design shows the cylinders rotating as if they are being driven.
It was during this phase of her development that the studio visit took place that Jan Walgrave remembers elsewhere in this book. The Belgian National Commission for Arts and Crafts had asked him to prepare an exhibition called Contemporary Ceramics and Textile Art from Antwerp, which was to be held at the De Sterckshof Museum in Deurne-Antwerp in 1974. He did not understand these textile cylinders and tubes, ‘one of which was a good three metres high’, but nonetheless included the second version, Variable Situation II, in the exhibition.
Variable IIwas similar to the first version but the cylinders or drums had been ‘wrapped’ in pieces of canvas in a way that is reminiscent of Christo.
Just how narrow-minded Belgium still was at that time is illustrated by the scandal created by Jan Hoet, the director of Ghent’s Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art, when he bought a ‘flying machine’ by Panamarenko in 1976. In 1979 he was even threatened with the sack for purchasing Wirtschaftswerte by Joseph Beuys!
Ellie Vossen (who greatly admired both Panamarenko and Beuys) was a part of the dynamic of that era with her portrayal of mechanical processes. That same zeitgeist is exuded by a series of machine-like drawings that the American painter Eva Hesse made in the mid-1960s during a period spent working in a former textiles factory in Germany. It was in this factory that Hesse created her first sculptures from the textile materials that were just lying around.
Hesse belonged to a small group of avant-garde artists in New York. Her new work was recognised and placed in the context of a general movement of artistic innovation that included Christo, Oldenburg with his soft sculptures, and many others who used textiles as a medium. Ellie Vossen, who as a young installation artist had not yet found her place in the gallery and commission circuit, allowed herself to be incorporated into Jan Walgrave’s group of ‘textile ladies’.
Marie-Jo Lafontaine, a Belgian contemporary of Ellie Vossen, initially participated in the same group shows including the Textile Art Triennale in Lodz (Poland) in 1978 and in the Contemporary Textile Art in Flanders exhibition in 1979. Lafontaine opposed being excluded from thecurrent art debate and the fine arts world because of being labelled a ‘textile artist’. Her monumental, monochromatic wall hangings were considered at first to be a form of applied art. She felt that this was completely unjust because her objectives could be compared to those of the Minimal Artists she admired such as Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. Her arguments resulted in her black monochromes being exhibited alongside sculptures by Carl Andre at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1978. She had already switched to video and photography by 1979, which is what she is now known for.
The Dutch artist Loes van der Horst (born 1923) has also spent her life fighting the stigma that she feels is associated with the term ‘textile art’. For that reason she decided to stop participating in the Lausanne Biennales in 1973.
Ellie Vossen never spoke about this issue in public but, according to her friend and colleague Hetty van Boekhout, she did not want to be seen as one of Walgrave’s ‘textile ladies’.
Meanwhile she was hard at work and she taught art several days a week to support herself. She must have mostly spent the rest of the time in her studio. In 1974 she entered a maquette of her 7 plus 1 installation for the 7th Lausanne Biennale. The international jury, which involved both Willem Sandberg and Edy de Wilde, judged the 765 international submissions and selected just 60 participants including Ellie Vossen.
Larger Than Life
7 plus 1 was a continuation of Variable Situation I and II. The sculpture consists of four supple tubes of woven, unbleached cotton that have been strengthened with iron and where each tube has a diameter of 15 cm. Together they create a loose interweaving of two horizontal and two vertical forms on a base measuring four by five metres. The frayed ends of the woven tubes are contained in large drums or cylinders of transparent plastic. One of the eight drums has been placed upright outside of the base and is connected to a tube that has been pushed upwards.
Just like Variable Situation I and II, it suggests a mechanical process that evokes the atmosphere of a laboratory experiment by the use of cool plastic and white cotton.
The colossal sculpture was given a prominent place at the 7th Lausanne Biennale right in the centre of the main hall of the Palais de Rumine. The regional press in Limburg, Zeeland and Flanders focused on the Limburger Ellie Vossen, who was also the only participant from Flanders.
Paul Haimon discussed her work in detail in his review of the Biennale in the Limburgs Dagblad of 21 July 1975. Under the headline ‘Ellie Vossen from Bunde in Centre of Museum’, he described ‘the project that is based on the principle of weaving’, as ‘a monument in textiles for controlled movement’. He portrayed Ellie as a tall, young woman who was ‘one of the most remarkable figures at the private view because of the casualness with which she wore a fashionable, long garment that was inspired by Eastern costumes’. Ellie’s response was dry but amusing: ‘I studied fashion for two years in Maastricht so it’s not difficult to dress tastefully and for a reasonable price.’
Piet Sterckx of de Nieuwe Gazet interviewed her on 9 May 1975 under the headline: ‘Ellie Vossen Elevates Textiles to Sculpture’. Her hands were bandaged when he met her on the day that her work was to be sent to Lausanne. She told Sterckx that to complete this work, she had spent four-and-a-half months plaiting the six-metre-long tubes in the cellar of the Hoger Instituut! Sim van den Bos, a ballet dancer friend who helped her with this work, remembers that during this time Ellie Vossen suffered from both agoraphobia and hyperventilation. The many hours of monotonous work must have driven her to the point of physical exhaustion. She came from a generation that believed that you had to suffer for your art. For instance, Marie-Jo Lafontaine described herself as a human machine, an extension of the loom. Lafontaine based her approach on the assumption that her extreme exertions would charge her hangings with an energy that the viewer could experience on a physical level.
In the interview with Sterckx, Ellie remained reticent about the interpretation about her work’s content: ‘I can’t deny that there’s a form that grew from my heart and intellect, and that undoubtedly there’s a whole world either in it or behind it, but I don’t like people trying to pin it down in some concrete way. However, I have to say that the work is more than just playing around with materials. For me, the beauty of the cotton or the fabric is just not enough in itself although it used to be some years ago. When you first start working with these kinds of materials, you always fall slightly in love with them. (...) That’s why I started to work in a more detached way. And perhaps that’s also why I’ve added metal and plastic to the textile materials. To be honest, the textile’s presence is almost coincidental. I’m concerned with the sculptural aspects. The sculpture’s eloquence – that’s what it’s all about.’
These are the words of an artist who was working on a particular program and was well aware of the prejudices concerning textile art.
Loes van der Horst had already assumed this same, detached attitude towards both materials and technique in 1968 when she participated in the previously mentioned Works in Textiles exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. Van der Horst stated quite openly that she had switched from painting to textiles for purely practical reasons. And just as Ellie Vossen opted for plastic and iron, Van der Horst was one of the first to use smooth, synthetic fibres, ‘which were not burdened with connotations of natural warmth or domesticity’! The fact that textile art assumed such monumental proportions at that time may have partly been a reaction against these prejudices. For instance, Ellie Vossen told Sterckx that ‘small works are too close to amateurism. They really mustn’t turn into bits of knitting.’
Several months later (22 July 1975) a full-page article by Paul Maartense was published in the Provinciaalse Zeeuwse Krant under the headline: ‘Ellie Vossen (27) in Lausanne Biennale. Textile Sculptures Acquire Strength and Dimension Through Size and Spatial Effect’. The article begins with a quote by Ellie Vossen where this time she agrees to discuss her work’s content: ‘This sculpture depicts the complexity of human relations and connections. The trunks, which are reinforced with wire and woven from natural-coloured cotton, represent the life lines that are attached to transparent cocoons that emit life that then finds its own way’.
Maartense introduced Ellie Vossen as an artist who, before Lausanne, ‘had reached the ceiling of anonymity’ and was mainly conspicuous in exhibitions ‘for her work’s colossal dimensions’. Maartense: ‘She regards her inclusion in this prominent world exhibition for textile and tapestry as an initial breakthrough for greater recognition and, more importantly, as an acknowledgement of her style, originality and working method’.
When Maartense brought up the subject of her work’s size, Ellie commented:
‘A textile sculpture is not necessarily good because it’s big and it gets all the attention and is impressive. (...) Nonetheless, a large textile sculpture will communicate its intentions more rapidly and directly because the viewer is physically involved with it. This is actually the most important reason why I love working on this scale.’ This remark clearly shows that Vossen, like Lafontaine, primarily focused on communicating with the viewer. Her comments also distinguished her from an artist such as Loes van der Horst, whose monumental installations were a response to the spatial environment. This difference in approach was possibly connected with the lack of policy for this area in Belgium. ‘A large work should be integrated correctly into the architecture and there are not enough opportunities for this’, was what Ellie Vossen told Maartense. ‘I’ve never had a commission and I’ve never sold anything at an exhibition. I have lent a work (Variable II, R.v.d.L.) to the museum in Roermond, and I think that that’s quite an achievement’.
Vossen was well aware of the international developments in the textile art of the day. She praised the progressive artistic climate in the Netherlands that, in her opinion, had overtaken the Eastern European countries and had gone into the lead with America. By contrast she felt that textile art in Belgium was still essentially considered to be an artistic craft that was made by ‘the little woman (sic) behind the loom’.
By the time this interview took place, she had apparently overcome her resistance to small-scale work. This was possibly because she now had the prospect of a one-man exhibition at the De Zwarte Panter gallery in Antwerp. Vossen told Maartense that for a change she was ‘also working on small, relief-based textile objects where the changing light creates different visual patterns and shadows.’ She added: ‘The relation between this work and the viewer is completely different. A small textile object on the wall excludes the space around it. The viewer must adopt a more cerebral attitude. He stands opposite it calmly and passively so as to be able to grasp its intentions.’
‘The event is an entire human life’
(Wout Vercammen on Ellie)
In the spring of 1976, Ellie Vossen made her solo debut at the De Zwarte Panter gallery in Antwerp with the exhibition Number Tapes Weaves and 7 plus 1.
Many former KASKA students felt that they had acquired a new home in the gallery of Adriaan Raemdonck, who was also a former student. De Zwarte Panter was already housed at its present location in the Sint-Julianusgasthuis hospital, an historic complex at Hoogstraat 70-72 that also includes a spacious chapel. Photos of the exhibition show that the chapel created the perfect ambiance for 7 plus I and her new mural work. This new work consisted of a series of suspended, diamond-shaped rectangles, which involved transparent plastic plaits that had been cut into strips, along with the Number Tapes Weaves that entailed a series-based investigation of woven tapes that took the rectangle as its point of departure.
This exhibition was commended by the Belgian Association of Art Critics as being one of the season’s best solo shows in Belgium.
The Number Tapes Weaves series was particularly well received. This work was actually a personal interpretation of the various basic principles of weaving and was created in number tape, which is used in the textiles industry for indicating clothes sizes. Using this narrow white tape, with the numbers woven into it in red thread, she wove various types of weaves such as flat weaves, twilled weaves, waffle weaves along with twisted and double fibres, which resulted in a great variety of surface structures. She constantly increased the complexity of the woven structure by applying different kinds of weaves within a single composition and by using both the front and the back of the number tape, which she called positive and negative. The visual potential of the red numbers was exploited in an ingenious way that accentuated structures, varied and shifted the line constructions, and deepened or blurred the colour so that a cross shape, a centre formation or a star-like form could be created. She succeeded in achieving poetic effects particularly by utilising the abstract back of the tape with its threads that had been loosely attached and detached.
‘The work looks extraordinarily sensitive, mostly like pink-tinted miniatures where the numbers on the back of the tape suggest Arabic script’, wrote the critic Paul de Vree in De Periscoop of September 1976.
Ellie Vossen had an extraordinary sense and control of her materials. Aesthetic qualities flowed in a completely natural way from the harmony that she created between the material, the weave or structure and the colour.
The exhibition at De Zwarte Panter was opened by Florent Bex, who at the time was the director of Antwerp’s International Culture Centre (ICC), which was an important platform for experimental art in the 1970s. In his opening speech, the notes of which are still stored in the De Zwarte Panter archive, Bex was referring to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message when he described her work as ‘an extremely elemental investigation’. He felt that Ellie was ‘one of the few to withdraw from the medium’s tradition.’ However, these compliments, which clearly made her ‘one of the boys’, were only partly true. Although she was certainly involved with an extremely elemental investigation, she had not withdrawn from the medium’s tradition. On the contrary, she had explicitly chosen weaving as the starting point of her investigation, which in turn had resulted in an austere geometry that had much in common with the Zero Movement. Moreover, she was not interested in a pure l’art pour l’art approach, as Paul de Vree also noted in his comment: ‘Ellie Vossen calls her work ‘number tape weaves’ and it is precisely the word ‘weave’ that refers to the reflective side of her intentions.
Apart from the number tape, she had also begun to use text tape during this period, which she had made in a small factory that she had discovered. Two small text tape works that measure 20 x 20 cm, and are called Square and Circle, can be seen as witty comments on Minimal Art because they literally refer to themselves. Circle consists of a combination of unbleached cotton, a white text tape with the word ‘circle’ woven into it in red thread, and red pencil. A square containing two concentric circles has been drawn in red pencil on a rectangular scrap of unbleached cotton. The drawing is divided by horizontal pencil lines where the distance between these lines is the same as the width of the letter tape. The letter tape has been woven alternately into the cotton in the inner most circle.
Her self-confidence would have certainly been boosted by her participation in the Lausanne Biennale and her subsequent, successful exhibition at De Zwarte Panter, which was very important in terms of her acceptance within the fine art circuit. Notes that she made between 1975 and 1979 about the Number Tape Weaves (or ‘small works’ as she called them) show that they sold well. The number tape, as combined with her virtuoso technique, made this work both unique and extremely aesthetically attractive. Her systematic and regular working method, the geometrical structure and the modular construction (the repetition of numbers and words) were in keeping with Minimal Art. The use of prefabricated, everyday materials imbued this work with a contemporary and authentic character.
Her contact with Wout Vercammen, with whom she had a happy and intimate relationship between 1976 and 1980, was of considerable importance. Vercammen, who worked with Hugo Heyrman and Panamarenko on countless happenings in the centre of Antwerp during the 1960s, had both an interesting circle of friends and good contacts in the art world. Moreover, she relaxed when she was around him and was able to unwind.
In 1978 Ellie Vossen recorded in her notebook the details of her latest work in the 180 x 180 cm letter tape series:
Large diamond (with cross). Text tape positive x negative.
Silver or black tape in transparent Plexiglas frame.
Spatial work that can be seen from both sides.
(Owned by Bernard Blondeel)
This monumental work, which was freely suspended in the space, formed the apotheosis and the definitive conclusion of her involvement with the concept of positive/negative. The front and the back had completely merged into each other and no longer formed an antithesis.
Large Diamond was exhibited in 1978 in the Fattura exhibition in Bernard Blondeel’s Spectrum Gallery in Antwerp. This exhibition was the first group show that Ellie Vossen had participated in that did not focus on textile art. Here, she was the only woman and the youngest artist to participate alongside six Antwerp artists who included Wout Vercammen.
This was an exhibition of works by experimental artists: Luc Deleu was represented by a design for an alternative housing project with house boats that were partly self-supporting; Filip Francis attempted to create a bridge between performance and the practice of painting by, for instance, painting with both hands, with his feet or while blindfolded; Wybrand Ganzevoort had produced DIY kits of constructivist sculptures; Dominque Stroobant had made photos with a camera that he had built himself; Thé van Bergen had created a series of paintings where he explored the principle of originality, and Wout Vercammen presented perverse, handwritten Dada-esque texts such as ‘Legalize Consciousness’.
It was amongst these works that Ellie Vossen exhibited Large Diamond along with her latest work that consisted of relief-like ‘wall hangings’ of cellulose paper on a textile support, which involved the documentation of a controlled capillary process of absorption.
A black-and-white photo from the Fattura exhibition catalogue shows a freely suspended canvas in the form of a vertical rectangle with a modular structured composition that consists of 26 rows of nine paper handkerchiefs. The paper handkerchiefs are still folded in the same way as they were in the packet. They have been placed seamlessly next to each other in a horizontal direction and stitched onto a black canvas support with a sewing machine. Colour has been applied in a special way that creates a relief effect with an upward and downward movement.
The work, which is called Vertical Movement, measures 180 x 100 cm. The composition has been systematically structured according to a plan that had been determined in advance and was implemented in various stages. The paper handkerchiefs had been ‘treated’ before they were sewn onto the support. Ellie Vossen first made 26 stacks of handkerchiefs, each of which was placed for a certain length of time in a measured quantity of water to which a dye had been added. The first stacks were left to absorb the fluid until they were saturated, after which she adjusted the process so that each subsequent pile absorbed less and less until the point where the paper stayed completely white. Once they were dry, the 26 stacks were separated into single handkerchiefs and placed in rows that were analogous to the absorption process: the darkest rows are at the bottom with the colour gradation developing in an upward direction. The composition reveals both the regularity of the absorption process and the course of time.
On the basis of Ellie Vossen’s previous statements, one can assume that this work also entails more than simply playing with materials. A vertical strip runs through the middle of the composition, which is as wide as a single, folded handkerchief, where the colour gradation occurs in a downwards and, therefore, in an unnatural direction. Human intervention in a natural process is revealed here in the form of an artificial reconstruction.
Just as the Number Tape Weaves were Ellie’s personal interpretation of the basic principle of weaving, once again this work creates a bridge between the female tradition of handicrafts (in this case, the appliqué technique) and Minimal Art. The dye technique that was applied here has much in common with the great textile traditions of India, Japan and Indonesia where dying textiles is regarded as an autonomous art form, particularly when dye resistant techniques are involved. The growing interest in non-Western cultures in the 1960s and 70s led to the artistic application of these techniques both in Europe and the United States. Ellie Vossen’s fundamental approach to the controlled capillary process of absorption as linked to ecological considerations is, so far as I know, unique in the art world.
Apparently this was also the opinion of Bernard Blondeel, the owner of the Spectrum Gallery, who purchased Vertical Movement and also organised a one-man exhibition of her new work in that same year.
As always, her writing consists of brief working notes and small sketches. Under the heading ‘Spectrum’ Exhibition 6 Oct.- 4 Nov. 1978, she describes thirty works that clearly indicate the course of her development. Just like the Number Tape Weaves, she began simply, on a small format and without using colour. The works’ complexity was then increased systematically.
The first ten ‘cloths in small Plexiglas cases’, as she called them, measure 50 x 50 cm. She started with a series of three that are now owned by Sam IJsseling, the philosopher and expert on Husserl, with whom she had a close friendship.
Series of 3.
White handkerchiefs cut in two(small squares) on a silver-grey background.
Stitched with white silk (no visible seams).
Beneath this description are three small sketches of identical squares that are transected by a diagonal line: from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right-hand corner, from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right-hand corner and two diagonals that cross each other. In the numbers that follow, she began to play with the formal potential that the material provides as a support: she utilised the raw seams so as to create a variety of surface divisions and structures that are constantly based on the square.
For the first time she mentions the use of colour in Work Number Nine:
Violet-blue drenched handkerchiefs (square) stitched on black material.
Crude seams so pronounced relief.
(owned by Philip Francis)
This process-based work left little to chance. In a separate notebook, which she reserved for technical details, she collected colour experiments and she carefully recorded each work’s colour, the duration of its immersion process and the number of hours that it took to complete.
The first ten works were followed by a series of three monumental canvases measuring 180 x 100 cm, which were entitled Vertical Movement, Vertical Movement + Horizontal Confrontation, and Vertical Counter-Movement (Middle Sections White).
This phase was concluded with Black Spring, a canvas measuring 280 x 190 cm that was shown at various textile exhibitions in Flanders, Poland and Norway. Just as the Number Tape Weaves evolved into spatial work, she now began to make three-dimensional objects in paper: the Stacks.
She wrote in her notebook:
20 ‘little packets’ of handkerchiefs tied together and drenched o r dyed. Owned by Guy Stevens, Sam IJsseling, Angèle Bourgonje, Herman de Ceulenaer, and Bernard Blondeel.
I love paper because it sucks
In the summer of 1979 Ellie Vossen was invited by Florent Bex to participate in an international group exhibition at the ICC called Art with Paper as Work/ Work with Paper as Art. Ellie Vossen and Lena Halflants were the only women amongst the 13 exhibitors.
Each artist was given two pages in the simple, black-and-white catalogue to present illustrations and a personal statement. Ellie Vossen limited herself to an illustration of a half-open, folded paper napkin on which she had written in ink in block letters I LOVE PAPER BECAUSE IT SUCKS. This sentence, which was unusually exuberant for her, was written like lines at school in three rows beneath each other on the lower surface of the napkin. The first row is clearly legible, the ink has run in the second row and in the final row the words have been absorbed into the ink.
On the opposite page of the catalogue are six photos of the six sides of a cube that document the controlled capillary process of absorption. Here, a cube consisting of a stack of paper napkins has been tied together with string in such a way that it has divided four of the sides into two while the top and the bottom have been split into four. The cube was then immersed for a certain length of time in a measured quantity of water to which a dark dye (ink?) had been added. This dye saturated the bottom half of the cube and was then sucked along the strings so that a pattern was created. The effect of damp on the bundled paper and the drying process reveal the paper’s capacity to expand and contract as a material while its texture is reminiscent of the surface of textiles. The cube as an object is purely the documentation of natural processes but, as a part of the installation that Ellie Vossen made for this exhibition, it has now acquired an engaged context.
All the artists in this exhibition explored the fundamental characteristics of paper and many of their statements could have been written by Ellie:
Eric Croux: ‘In my work, paper is not simply the work’s support, it is the work itself. (...) Irregularities in the systematic rhythm create surface tension’; Alex Nijs: ‘Apart from the act of “painting”, the support is also involved in the painting’s process’; Frank van den Berghe: ‘Since 1970 I have been trying to upgrade my material (materials) to the level of matter. For these pieces, regularity and innate characteristics have been essential for visualising my ideas’.
Ellie Vossen’s contribution to this exhibition went a step further. She presented an installation that resembled a happening and had been carefully prepared. This installation can be precisely reconstructed on the basis of two, detailed plans that she made and to which she added a hand-written explanation:
Plan (1) Material/Working Process
Material: 25 cellulose paper napkins that have been tied into bundles. Each napkin measures 20x20 cm, the bundles create a cubic form measuring 100 x 100 x 20 cm.
Working Process: the bundles of paper are placed in a quantity of fluid. The way in which the dye is absorbed into the material is determined by the amount of dye and how long they are immersed for.
Duration: the period of the exhibition.
Amount: a) to be determined by the number of people present at the exhibition’s opening and their desire to co-operate: a particular quantity per visitor.
b) ... litres are added for each day of the exhibition.
c), d), e), etc.
The Dye’s Composition: a) water from the River Scheldt.
b) each day’s coffee grounds from the ICC coffee machine.
Plan (2) Fluid Container.
Plan (2) consists of trials of the immersion process involving the fluid container that was made from a plastic sheet with fastenings on each corner to which a rope could be tied and attached to the wall or ceiling. This plan also includes the installation’s definitive version where the sheet has been filled with a quantity of fluid and the 25, cube-like bundles of cellulose paper napkins have been arranged to form a square as based on a formation of 5 x 5. The austere modular construction of the square and the emphatic materiality of the cubes, which are slowly saturated with the waters of the River Scheldt and are turned increasingly brown with the coffee grounds that are added with each new visitor, imbue the process of change (which each visitor contributes to) with a fixed and regular structure. A photo of the installation’s construction shows Ellie Vossen and five colleagues, including Wout Vercammen, toiling away with funnels, buckets and a sounding rod. Vercammen remembers that period well: ‘Questioning yourself, engagement as opposed to structure, was becoming increasingly important for her. She experienced the “dye-absorbing images” as the height of freedom.’
Belgian art had reflected ecological issues since 1975, and had been influenced by events such as the publication of the Report to the Club of Rome. By contrast, the organised women’s art movement, which had spread to Europe from the United States during the 1970s, failed to catch on in Belgium at that time.
Ellie Vossen was certainly aware of feminist publications, but her attitude here is not clear. Her documentation includes a somewhat extraordinary project that dates from 1979: a fictional letter to the Anti-Professor Siemershof Department. In this letter, she writes that, through an intermediary, she has come into possession of a number of manuscripts and autobiographical notes by Julia Siemershof-Vuylsteke, the wife of the afore-mentioned professor. This lady had submitted a manuscript called Scorching Grievances of Ladies to a number of publishers in vain. In her letter, Vossen offers to send this eight-volume text to the headquarters of the Anti-Professor Siemershof Association . She also states that, now that her husband was the subject of considerable scandal, Julia Siemershof-Vuylsteke felt that the time was ripe to write her memoirs. She already had a title: ‘Growing Together and Growing Apart; Looking Back on My Marriage with Prof. S. But for practical reasons, she could only begin working on it once her divorce had become final and the alimony had been settled satisfactorily! A page from Imaginary Books in Eight Volumes by Julia Siemershof-Vuylsteke includes a scorch mark that has been made by an iron on plastic.
Probably Vossen was poking fun at the so-called confessional literature of the women’s movement of the day that included Anja Meulenbelt’s The Shame Is Over, which was published in 1976 and caused a great deal of commotion. However, this project may have been more than a mere joke as is demonstrated by the 1981 exhibition papiers d’affaires in Amsterdam’s Stempelplaats, where this piece was shown alongside work by Peter Oosterbos, Agnes Smit and Rien Timmers.
Ellie Vossen had now assumed a special and prominent position in the Flemish textile circuit, which had been pioneered by Jan Walgrave. Lausanne was apparently no longer an option. A work by Ellie is featured on the cover of the catalogue that accompanied the 1979 exhibition Contemporary Textile Art in Flanders, which had been organised by Walgrave. This show with work by 12 women and one man opened at De Warande in Turnhout and then travelled to Lillehammer and Bergen in Norway. Three Number Tape Weaves, measuring 70 x 70 cm and dating from 1975, were included: Nine Diamonds, Line Structure and Dégradé. Squares (Resist Dyeing), a 1978 work measuring 200 x 200 cm, was also shown and was included as a black-and-white illustration in the catalogue. Squares consists of a square constructed from 25 squares (5 x 5). Each square is made from 18 folded paper handkerchiefs that had already been drenched in fluid, seamlessly placed next to each other and stitched to a canvas support in such a way that a edge was left on all four sides. The 25 squares were then crudely stitched together onto the front. The raw edges of the material create a grid effect so that the support has become a constructive element in the composition. The handkerchiefs’ upper edges bear a slight fingerprint that the dye could not penetrate (resist dyeing). Walgrave wrote in a short text about the work that: ‘Her art is not based on singing colours or a sparkling imagination; it is the silent witness of her logical and constructive mind that is revealed in an austere aestheticism’.
The exhibition showed a wide variety of works by the artists who at that time determined the face of Flemish textile art: Lieva Bostoen, Jacques De Groote, Veerle Dupont, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Lut Lenoir, Liberta, Leen Lybeer, Marga, Ingrid Six, Corinne Toussein, Hetty Van Boekhout and Edith Van Driessche. It was a cross section of textiles’ diverse potential: from weaving and embroidery to wool reliefs, small, spatial installations and woven wall hangings.
Ellie Vossen’s curriculum includes a visit to Japan in 1979. In fact, she was to visit the country on several occasions. She was extremely interested in Eastern culture and aesthetics, the traces of which were to become increasingly apparent in her work. She still used paper as her exclusive material, with the controlled capillary process of absorption as her technique.
Apart from the exhibition Merchandise in Montevideo in 1983, her work would only be included in textile art group shows from 1979 onwards. She had not been reviewed by the art critics since Lausanne in 1975 and her one-man exhibition at De Zwarte Panter in 1976.
She showed the ‘little packets’ of bound and drenched or dyed paper handkerchiefs, the Stacks which she began in 1979, as small autonomous sculptures. That was until her work took a new direction. She began to separate the tied bundles and to hang the unfolded napkins as separate sheets underneath each other in long, vertical strips on the wall.
The folds in the earliest examples form a cross with a dark, star-like structure at the centre, as if an explosion had occurred. Each sheet came from the same bundle and therefore had a similar pattern that, thanks to the working process, was subject to slow, serial changes. In another work, the cellulose napkins were hung over each other like roof tiles that created yet another new pattern when viewed in its entirety. This work has a spiritual quality; it is free and less controlled.
In 1983 she included a new series of these Dye-absorbing images in the group show Merchandise at Antwerp’s Montevideo. A photo of this exhibition shows two pink-red ‘wall hangings’ that hang in vast, vertical strips across an untreated brick wall. These hangings consist of square paper napkins that have been placed right next to each other and stitched in rows of nine onto a textile support. The resulting patterns are once again very systematic, and the composition has been developed in the usual way with a colour gradation that moves in an upward direction. The squares on the top row have only a vague red dot at their centres like the Japanese flag. When viewed in its entirety, this work looks like a radiant dawn.
There was much emphasis on colour during this phase of her development. The composition’s structure still involves a grid form but the patterns flow into each other organically and without lines.
After this exhibition, her curriculum mentions two other shows in 1984 and 1989. And that was it.
In 1992 and 1993 she made a series of small squares of drenched and painted tissue paper. Some of the squares include a separate V form that has been painted on a monochrome background on which ‘sutures’ have been applied in crude stitches. There are also studies from 1995 for a monumental commission that was never realised. Two, related abstract compositions in yellow marl sand are her final works.
When the axe entered the woods, the trees said:
one of us is the handle
(Ellie Vossen’s favourite haiku)
Franck Gribling met Ellie Vossen in 1988, and all the time that he knew her there was a large package in her cupboard on which had been written: ‘In the event of my death, please destroy the contents without opening or reading them’. The contents of this package, which her family removed after her death in 1998, are unknown. With so little personal information available, it is tempting to speculate about them. What was it that she could not or would not part with during her lifetime? Were they personal memories? Or her collection of fluff from Vercammen’s navel that, as he tells us, she collected as ‘notes’?
Who was Ellie Vossen? The image that emerges from the stories of friends and colleagues is completely contradictory. There is the Ellie from the early years in Antwerp who was determined to live in a passionate way. There is the Ellie who suffered from stress and hyperventilation. And there’s the Ellie with the image of the strong and independent woman, a perfectionist who wanted to have everything under control, and whose demands of herself became greater and greater. This was a woman who travelled a lot because she could only relax on journeys. She loved cats, and was a woman who felt that the little things in life were important. And she was a woman of taste who felt attracted to Eastern aesthetics and philosophy.
Ellie Vossen belonged to a generation of engaged women who fought for autonomy and an independent, professional existence. Her friends and colleagues say that she loved to talk about art, but rarely about her own. As I understand it, art formed her frame of reference from which she tried to come to terms with life.
During her brief career as an artist, she first operated within the world of monumental art but found it impossible to achieve her ideal of working with architects on her own. As based on the principles of weaving, she then developed a form of Minimal Art that related to the fundamental research of the 1970s.
Weaving entailed order, the systematic and structure, and gave her a sense of security. But weaving was also the perfect metaphor for what she was involved with on a contemplative level. In addition, the combination of horizontal and vertical lines as a grid was one of the formal principles of Minimal Art. But in practice, textile art and Minimal Art were two separate worlds that she nonetheless managed to span.
Ellie Vossen was also an enthusiastic teacher of art. She taught for more than 15 years at the Academie Sint Joost art school in Breda, where she was one of the few female teachers and was the source of much support for her young, female students. Her educational views were inspired by the Bauhaus and she championed a broadly based, general basic curriculum that emphasised a knowledge of materials and techniques. Art was always central to her thinking, and probably education provided her with the satisfaction that she no longer found in her artwork.
Her art career stagnated in the mid-1980s. International art movements with utopian ideals had made way for radical individualisation. The interest in textile art and in Minimal and Fundamental Art was on the wane. Times had also changed in Antwerp. Florent Bex, the inspired director of the ICC and the stimulator of young Antwerp artists, lost his job in the mid-eighties.
In the more than ten years that Ellie Vossen worked systematically on her oeuvre, art critic reviews were limited to the regional press and to some Minimal pieces in simple catalogues. After that she and her work faded into the background. A factor that possibly played a role here is that – despite her unconventional use of materials, crafts and working techniques – she was always stuck with the label of being a textile artist.
Florent Bex knew Ellie Vossen well but failed to stick up for her. In his recently published book Art in Belgium after 1975, Ellie Vossen – who was one of the few women artists in the small group of innovators in Antwerp in the 1970s – is only included in the list of names along with a select number of her exhibitions and the date of her death. Significantly not a single textile exhibition is mentioned, not even her participation in the Lausanne Biennale.
In 1976 Adriaen Raemdonck of the De Zwarte Panter gallery donated 7 plus 1 to the Museum van Oosteinde. Ellie Vossen died in 1998.
Riet van der Linden is an art historian and a freelance journalist. She worked from 1984 to 1995 at the Foundation for Women in the Visual Arts in Amsterdam where she was editor-in-chief of the women’s artists’ magazine Ruimte, Vrouwen en Kunst.