Though he disappeared nearly forty years ago—lost at sea in a small sailboat, in the execution of a work he titled “In Search of the Miraculous”—Bas Jan Ader has come to exert a near gravitational force on the contemporary art world.
Born in Holland, Ader studied in Los Angeles (at Otis and Claremont) and worked here for nearly a decade before his disappearance. His oeuvre was slight: a handful of photographs and videos documenting private performances, primarily. But there is a clarity, a sincerity to the work—spiritual as much as emotional—that resonates powerfully to this day.
A selection of photographic studies at Patrick Painter offer an intimate view on two of Ader’s most poignant works. “I’m Too Sad to Tell You,” from 1970 and 1971, was a performance that involved the artist crying before the camera; it was documented in both video and photographs. The photographs on display here capture an act as raw as it is elusive, as intrinsically moving as it is baffling.
Even more touching, in part because more rare, are eighteen small, shadowy studies from “In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles),” the first part of the three part work that resulted in Ader’s death.
The images, so drenched in inky shadows that they are often difficult to make out, depict Ader walking from the Hollywood Hills to the beach with a flashlight, a slight, often distant figure against the backdrop of a sprawling city.
It is the flashlight that is the heart-rending thing: a tool absurdly out of scale with the demands either of the city or the existential quest implied by the title. Like the sail boat that Ader set out in across the Atlantic, it was too small by every measure for the task at hand—but it was what he had, he seems to be saying, and there is something pitifully admirable in his intrepid use of it.
Patrick Painter, 2525 Michigan Ave. B2, Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through March 9. Closed Sunday and Monday. patrickpainter.com