John Blake an American in Rotterdam

Tue 25 Apr

On Monday 17 April, 2017 artist John Blake (1945 -2017) passed away; from 1989 till 2010 he was a tutor at the Fine Art department of Willem de Kooning Academy. American by birth, Blake brought an international flavour into the Rotterdam academy. John helped introduce ‘mixed media’ into the curriculum – now quite common, then very new.

John Clemens Blake was born January 11, 1945 in Providence, Rhode Island/USA, son of John Holland Blake and Elisabeth Romano. He studied painting at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and participated in the Norfolk Program of the prestigious Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. There he acquired his BFA (Bachelor Fine Arts) in 1967. He then moved to London to do a Master at the Royal College of Art, which he finished in 1969. These were the times of great revolutions and new directions in the arts: Minimal Art for example, and Conceptual Art, and the introduction of new materials and media, such as photography and film, and video – then a completely new technology. John Blake stayed in Europe, living and working first in London, and from the mid-Eighties in the Netherlands. He was one of the pioneers of what was soon to be dubbed ‘mixed media’. He made site-specific installations, photo-constructions, drawings and sculpture, projections of slides and films – but also more permanent projects in public space.

John Blake as a tutor
At the end of 1989, after having served as a guest lecturer for a year, John Blake was appointed as a tutor at the Rotterdam academy – for one day per week to start with. In 2010, on turning 65, he retired.

Blake’s entry into the academy was initiated by Kees Verschuren, then one of the leading tutors in the Fine Arts department: “At the time we were reshaping the department into smaller branches: Drawing, painting and design; Scupture; Graphic art; and Project art & Mixed media – a completely new field at the time. To help set it up, I had hired several guest lecturers: Joseph Semah, Jeffrey Shaw, Nan Hoover, and Madelon Hooykaas & Elsa Stansfield, plus John Blake. I had gotten to know him through a mutual friend, and I knew the projects he had realized during the In Situ series of experimental art projects in public space in The Hague. Blake had done some site-specific works in Amsterdam as well. From these guest lecturers, we eventually selected Semah and Blake to become tutors at this new branch of Project art & Mixed media. We had to start from scratch: at first, we didn’t even have a decent video camera; with money we had earned by doing a commercial project we finally managed to buy some second hand ones – big and heavy-to-handle…

John, being trained at universities and with an academic mind, had a broad field of knowledge and interests, not just for fine arts but for literature as well; he was eloquent and could express himself wonderfully. A truly refined character. He knew a lot about many things, and was always formulating startling ideas and cross-references. As an artist he was internationally orientated, serving as a guest lecturer all over Europe and the US. He once organized a project for our students in Poznan/Poland, cooperating with a colleague he knew at the local academy. Anyway, he was very popular with our students, felt like one of the crowd.”


Modest and idiosyncratic
John Blake was a modest man, and idiosyncratic. Amidst his fellow tutors, he was a modest character. Despite the number of years he’d lived and worked in the Netherlands, he always remained an American, somewhat of an outsider, and an international artist. He always spoke English – somehow or other he was never able to express himself in Dutch. At the time, not everyone at the Rotterdam academy confidently managed the English language, which made conversations with John for some a tricky endeavour. For others, on the contrary, John was the man to have conversations with!

Artist René Verouden, a WdKA staff member, has vivid memories of his colleague John Blake. He remembers Blake to be a very committed tutor, tending to operate always a bit in the background. “During presentations of students’ work he often kept very quiet at first, only to give his opinion at the end of discussions: good and acute observations, well versed in very few words, calmly and very precisely chosen. Blake brought an international perspective into the academy. For us, his colleagues, as well as for his students he was a walking library: he knew an awful lot about an awful lot of artists, not just the Rotterdam art scene but artists all over the world – many of whom he knew personally.”

Alumnus Willem Besselink shares Verouden’s observations – Besselink had selected John Blake to be one of his tutors when he graduated in 2006: “I always enjoyed discussing my projects with John. He didn’t address you as a tutor would address a student; he gave me the feeling that we were talking among ourselves – as two fellow artists.”

Although Blake lived and worked in Woerden, some 30 kilometres outside Rotterdam, he was often to be found at artists’ café De Schouw in Witte de Withstraat. Often nipping his favourite glass of white wine – the gentleman that he was, only very rarely would he sip a pint, like the rest of us – he’d love to meet fellow artists, students and alumni. In 2006, he made a contribution to the Aanschouw-project. “The work was made from fragments and shards of blue glass – a variation on a project from years earlier that he’d never realized,” Frank Taal recalls, initiator and curator of De Aanschouw. “I had known him for years when one day he asked me whether he, too, could do a piece for De Aanschouw.”  Just as the other projects there, it was on display for one week only.


Kunsthalte Witte de Withstraat & Nape
A permanent example in Rotterdam of John Blake’s approach to art is the ensemble Art Stop Witte de Withstraat & Nape (2000). At the time, the axis Witte de Withstraat – Museumpark was dubbed Rotterdam’s ‘cultural axis’. In 1995, the tram stop at its crossing with Westersingel had been dismantled by RET, the local public transport. Art lovers protested and demanded a new tram stop there. John Blake turned it into an Art Stop. He agreed with RET that the stop’s shelter would be as white as a sheet, and that it would never display any commercial imagery. Thus, the window at the back of the shelter offered an unobstructed view of the Museumpark and Westersingel. There, in the grass across the water, Blake installed Nape – equally white. It’s an enlarged version of the displays Blake had seen in jewellers’ shops. The Nape is oriented towards the tram stop, gazing at it as it were, and travellers there look straight back at it. The nape, without a head, reminded Blake of antique busts – quite in tune with the solemn, imposing character of Westersingel and its neoclassical architecture. Over the years, the original shelter has been replaced by one in the present RET style, and the stop was renamed ‘Museumpark’ – but even today it’s completely white, and the only one in town without any commercial messages. Together with the Nape it’s a work of art: discrete and unobtrusive at first glance as it may be, it is idiosyncratic and deliberate – just like John Blake himself!

John Blake passed away on 17 April, 2017 after having suffered from health issues over the past years. And yet, to many of his friends his passing came unexpectedly. Many will miss John Blake. For an overview of John’s work, you may visit his website.


John Blake. Nape (2000), 20 April 2017. Photo © Willem Besselink/Ambre Petitcolas, 2017

Author Guus Vreeburg, art historian