Lex Horn, bikes & unexpected art

Not just bikes

I love coming across art in unexpected places. And I love discovering great artists in unexpected places. Like Lex Horn.

A few months ago, I was visiting Amsterdam and as I was leaving the central railway station, I decided to check out the new underwater bicycle parking garage which opened at the end of January this year. Netherlands is famous for phenomenal cycling infrastructure and there are continuous efforts to make cities cyclists-friendly. Just a few months ago, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, decided to make Weesperstraat, a road that carries 1,500 cars an hour in the rush hour, and three ancillary roads, closed to traffic for 6 weeks, with the goal of investigating the effects on traffic, safety, air quality, noise, and residents’ perception (one of my favourite YouTube creators, Jason Slaughter aka Not Just Bikes, made a video about it). Halsema also wants the city to be coach-free from 2024 and to introduce a ban on all gas- and diesel-powered cars by 2030.

The new parking facility, which can house 7,000 bicycles as well as several hundreds of bicycles from the OV-Fiets shared bicycle system, is intended to reduce the number of bicycles parked on the street (if you’ve been to Amsterdam, you know that they’re EVERYWHERE). The Dutch being Dutch though, they haven’t just built a bicycle parking. They’ve built a rather elegant space with a pleasant lighting system, where bicycle stands are accompanied by beautiful pieces of art, a couple of murals made by an artist I’d never heard of before: Lex Horn.

Lex Horn

As usual, Wikipedia came to my rescue. I found out that Lex Horn (1916-1968) was a Dutch artist best known for his introduction, development and use of sgraffito in monumental art during the post-war reconstruction. Sgraffito is an old Italian technique of applying 5mm layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colours to a moistened surface and, once the layers become sufficiently stiff, scratching it so as to reveal parts of the underlying layer, and thus producing a coloured image with a subtle relief. Apparently, Lex Horn was able to execute a sgraffito in one day.

The two artworks in the Underground Bicycle Parking –  The Street Accident and The Laboratory Research – and another piece titled The Hospital Visit (currently in Amsterdam UMC) are sgraffito pieces which were originally located in the Jan Swammerdam Institute in the Eerste Contantijn Huijgensstraat until its demolition in 2004. It was thanks to the artist’s daughter, Meinke Horn, that the 3 pieces were rescued (not an easy feat, with each sgraffito weighing approximately 12 tons), but unfortunately, many other post-World War II Dutch artworks are perpetually at the risk of being destroyed due to the demolition of the buildings from that period.

While sgraffito murals are Lex Horn’s most well-known pieces, thanks to their visibility in public space, the artist was also famous for making tapestries (gobelin), as he succeeded in stripping this art form of any form of decoration, which textile art is so often associated with.

Additionally, Lex Horn is know for using glass in monumental art. He’s the author of a series of installations, including three round windows with glass appliqués, in the hall of the Eindhoven station, which were offered by the municipal council in 1956 for the opening of the new station building. Lex Horn was the first glass artist who used the technique of glass appliqué where pieces of glass are seamlessly glued together to form a whole, without the contours of lead or concrete in which they are usually contained.

In the years after the war, a time of reconstruction and economic growth, Lex Horn was one of the most important and sought-after monumental wall artists. In 1948, he represented the Netherlands at the Venetian Biennale and in the 50s and 60s participated in many exhibitions at home and abroad. In 1959, he also designed a series of stamps about the Delta Works on behalf of the PTT.

But Lex Horn is also one of those unsung heroes, who after a bout of fame in the 50s, gradually withdrew from public life and remained largely unknown on the bigger art scene until his sudden death in 1968 at the age of 52. As far as I know, his work is  not part of any museum collection (during the long search for a new location for the sgraffito pieces, many institutions including the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum expressed an appreciation for the works but couldn’t fit them into their space) and I haven’t found a single publication about him in English). There are several of his works in various public spaces, but some have suffered a rather sad fate, like the wall in Kampen made in 1951 for the 100th anniversary of the former Berk tile factory. The work was removed in 2005 by a project developer due to the construction of homes, and was largely neglected (local teenagers used it as a football wall). Eventually, it got damaged so badly that there was no possibility of restoring it.

Despite a number of extraordinary works around the Netherlands, occasionally spotted by a small group of art enthusiasts and once in a blue moon shared on Instagram, Lex Horn’s name remains sadly and unjustly obscure to the wider audience.

Just because it’s not in a museum, it doesn’t mean it’s not art

As an artist whose art goes mostly to private homes, I am very appreciative of art made for made spaces, both commissioned works (like Lex Horn’s murals) and spontaneous initiatives. I can’t think of a place that wouldn’t benefit from having an artwork and I enjoy discovering art in the least expected ones.

Even though more and more financials institutions support the arts as a way to improve their image with consumers (for example, Deutsche bank spent €23.46m on arts based investments in 2013), they’re not the place one immediately associates with culture. Furthermore, their support for the arts usually means buying works from emerging artists, not producing full-blown exhibitions. But every now and then something interesting happens. In 2022, Bank of Lithuania showed “Ex It”, an installation by Yoko Ono which consisted of 100 wooden coffins of different sizes with trees growing out of them and a sound recording of living nature. According to the artist, the piece was meant to symbolize the aftermath of death, “life as a continuation”. Meanwhile, here in the Netherlands, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) has recently erected a temporary art installation to stay connected with the neighbourhood and passers-by during the 3-year renovation of its Amsterdam head office.

Besides the financial sector, another one that isn’t usually associated with art is the health sector. Sure, you do see paintings and various visual pieces on hospital walls, but they’re usually seen as pleasant and inoffensive decoration, not food for thought. But the Vital Arts organisation for Barts Health NHS Trust in England has recognised the potential of art in the hospital environment and commissions works by established and emerging artists across five hospitals in London’s East End. “We see these important civic areas as ideal places to introduce new audiences to contemporary art. We offer patients, staff and visitors meaningful cultural encounters which they might not otherwise access”, says Catsou Roberts, the company director.

And in another form of seclusion, one that’s even less likely to be associated with art, a Spanish artist known as Pejac created Gold Mine, a series of installations inside Spain’s oldest prison, the Penitentiary Center of El Dueso. The largest piece, made with the help of inmates, is a mural depicting a tree made up of thousands of hash marks which prisoners would originally draw on the walls of their cells to keep track of the days “inside”. Another one is a trompe l’oeil painting on the basketball court backboard for which the artist used the real 22-carat gold leaf. In the third one, he painted sliding doors and a soaring bird, one of his most recurring images, on a sterile, newly built corridor wall as a metaphor for potentially reachable freedom.

Art therapy is not uncommon in prisons, but the HMP Grendon institution in Buckinghamshire has taken it to a new level. Founded in 1962, it is the only prison in Europe to operate wholly as a therapeutic community, and thanks to the help of The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and Ikon Gallery, the prison has hosted two artists-in-residence, Edmund Clark (2014-2018) and Dean Kelland (2019-2023). Until 22 December, visitors can see the Imposter Syndrome exhibition which features a number of Kelland’s new films, prints and sketchbooks that reimagine the psychoanalytic dialogue that has occurred between Pop Art and Prison Art since the 1960s.

Modern art meets modern convenience

Bringing art into the realm of physiological needs has been nothing new ever since in 1917 Marcel Duchamp created his readymade Fountain sculpture, consisting of a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”. Not to mention Maurizio Cattelan’s America sculpture created in 2016 as a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat solid gold. But what about art not in the shape of but inside a toilet?

In Düsseldorf’s city center, visitors can admire the work of an artistic collective who had turned an underground public bathroom into a community art and performance venue called “Reinraum” (meaning: “clean room”). The space has been active since 2002 and after a bout of plumbing-related problems which threatened its existence, has managed to get renovated and is back with a new exhibition programme. Apparently, it is one of the last underground art spaces in the city and has collaborated with many institutions and artists from the Düsseldorf Art Academy, Peter Behrens School of Arts, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Forum Freies Theater, Essen University of Fine Arts, Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM), Gay Museum in Berlin and the Impulse Theater Festival.

While the Renraum premises have lots their original function, the residents of Kawakawa in New Zealand can still use the striking toilet facilities, designed by none other than Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The famous Austrian visual artist and architect created them during his final years of life which he spent in Kawakawa (after his first visit to New Zealand in the 1970s for an exhibition of his work, the artist decided to make the country his second home and bought property on the Waikare inlet, east of Kawakawa).

And finally, there’s a famous Keith Haring’s mural in a public bathroom at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street in downtown Manhattan. The story is that when in 1989 the LGBT Community Center invited Haring to create a work in their new 13th Street home, he enthusiastically accepted, choosing to locate the mural in the building’s second-floor men’s bathroom. Haring was 31 at the time and the Once Upon a Time mural was his last major work before his untimely death the following year of AIDS-related complications.

Unexpected bike art

Netherlands might be the land of bikes but it is also a land of bike thieves. This is why a lot of the bikes one sees on the street are pretty unremarkable, dusty, rusty, covered with tape and made to look as unattractive as possible. The Dutch generally don’t like showing off, but in this case it’s not just a question of modesty, they’re simply trying to avoid getting their bike stolen. There’s one man though who isn’t particularly bothered by the city’s bike theft statistics (approximately 11,000 bikes are reported stolen per year) and conversely, makes his bikes stand out from the rest. Nicknamed #flowerbikeman, Warren Gregory decorates his bikes with flowers, butterflies and clocks in all colours of the rainbow. Apparently, he started pursuing his unusual hobby when his wife couldn’t find her bike at Amsterdam Central. I believe that she wouldn’t have this problem at the new underground parking facility I mentioned in the beginning, which features the beautiful Lex Horn murals, where a smart wayfinding system ensures that cyclists can easily and quickly check in and out at the parking facilities. But any excuse to be creative is a good one.

I love coming across art in unexpected places. I love discovering great artists in unexpected places. And I love how these discoveries lead to even more discoveries, online or offline. Lex Horn’s murals sparked an enjoyable research and I’m excited about what other artists I might stumble upon when I’m least expecting it.

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