Although his formal education was in painting, Jan Dibbets created photographic works early in his career that evidence a fresh approach to other media and an abandonment of rigid styles. Specifically, he used photography as an analytical tool to develop new ways of understanding visual phenomena. These early works, titled Perspective Corrections (1967–1969), initiated his lifelong exploration of the essential nature of both perception and representation by combining two illusions: the assumed transparency of photography, the way an object photographed seems to occupy a real space beyond the photograph’s surface; and an illusion created by the artist himself, such as a trapezoid drawn on his studio wall and shot from an angle that makes it read as a square on the flat plane of the physical photograph.
A pioneer of what would soon be called Conceptual Art, Dibbets was included in a number of important international exhibitions, such as When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle, Bern, in 1969, and Information at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970. These exhibitions sparked communication among artists working in different countries and on different continents, establishing a sense of community among a generation sharing many of the same ideas and attitudes. His work after 1970 shows the influence of these important encounters with other artists, especially the seriality of American Minimalism. (Indeed, he and artist Sol LeWitt have had an enduring friendship.)
In Daylight, Flashlight, Outside Light, Inside Light (1971), Dibbets repeats the act of photographing his subject—two potted plants on a windowsill—twelve times under slightly altered conditions. This lyrical piece reads like a filmstrip, but in fact is an empirical study of the effects of varying light conditions. It is as if he is discovering the medium’s possibilities all over again, step by step, and seeing the world for the first time through the photographs. As in much of his work, he focuses on the building blocks of visual perception—such as light—using photography as merely one tool. Throughout his career, Dibbets has continued to employ the interaction of light and windows as a double metaphor for the camera’s lens and the human eye.
The artist soon turned this analytical eye and collaged-panorama technique to the subject of landscape. Playing with the famously low Dutch horizon line and flat topography, he gradually rotated the camera to create fictitious mountains when the photographs are assembled in a row. Here he is again relying on our trust in the medium. We have learned to believe in a photo’s ability to show us things as they are, yet the artist undermines this effect by using images of real land to create a fictional landscape. Abstraction, and the role of the artist in creating such illusions, are classic problems in painting that Dibbets’ approach suggests is also an underlying issue in photography. His works lay the foundation for the projects of contemporary artists like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand. For Dibbets, however, the artist’s role in these illusions is always revealed. As in Daylight, Flashlight, his works bear the instructions for their own creation in pencil sketches and annotations beneath the image.
In each of the ten photographs that comprise Horizon 1°–10° Land (1973), a single image of the flat Dutch landscape is rotated to create a diagonal horizon line. From left to right in the progression, the reoriented views have been framed in such a way that they drop incrementally by one degree, gradually shifting the sky back toward its natural orientation. The elements also get increasingly wide, allowing more of the skewed field of vision to be revealed. The methodical logic of this multipart piece is indicated by a sequence of degree measurements at the bottom of each photograph.
The serially additive process Dibbets uses in Horizon 1°–10° Land parallels the approaches of some American Minimalists. Several such works in the Walker Art Center’s collection include Donald Judd’s untitled red progression of 1965 and Sol LeWitt’s Cubic Modular Piece #2 (L-Shaped Modular Piece) (1966), or Arte Povera artist Mario Merz’s explorations of the medieval Fibonacci counting system as referenced in Igloo (1971). Seriality allows for controlled experiments, ordering the visual environment by repeating the same form, sometimes with slight variations according to a predetermined system. The interest in and imposition of such ordering principles was widespread in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though none yielded such poetic results as Dibbets’ photographs, which seek to understand and communicate the nature of perception by revealing our own capacity for abstraction. Today, Dibbets continues to turn his camera’s eye toward new subjects in his personal investigation of the visual world, surprising us with dizzying views of cathedrals and fantastic windows on the world.