Jasper Krabbé started his artistic journey in one of Amsterdam’s more infamous graffiti crews, United Street Artists. In the decades after, he evolved into a prominent name in the Dutch art world, not shying away from television and other public appearances to spread his profound love for the culture. His elegant practice stretches from primary painting to mixed media and the sculptural, often reflecting memories of places, events, and people. Always in search of the soul behind whatever he captures.
Coming from an artistic family and bloodline, Jasper’s artistic education was extensive. His graffiti-led learning on the streets of Amsterdam, followed by the Rietveld School of Art & Design in Amsterdam, where he graduated cum laude in 1992. He continued his studies at the prestigious Cooper Union in New York. Since 1999, his work has been on regular display, with solo and group exhibitions appearing in the Netherlands and most parts of the world. Today you can find his works at De Nederlandse Bank, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, numerous international private collections, and soon one of our stores. One of Jasper’s pieces will appear there as part of ARTZUID, a sculptural exhibition he is responsible for curating around Amsterdam.
We met up with Jasper at his beautiful studio, in the inspiring industrial heritage of Hembrugterrein, right on the border of Amsterdam. This monumental compound was formerly used to produce firearms, artillery, and ammunition, and currently is home to a variety of cultural and creative tenants. The barrack-turned-studio is spacious and full of light, that leaves enough room to think. In one of those moments of reflection, we spoke about his life in the arts – the importance of exploring unfamiliar creative terrains, allowing those expressions to manifest organically, and how this ambitious creative journey became his main goal in life.
First of all, lets talk about your experience getting clothing completely made-to-measure for you. Were you familiar with the process?
The fascinating thing is you have to look at yourself in the process. You are confronted with yourself in a certain way, which is a special thing. I have done this before, but this was a particularly nice experience. We have created some outfits that really suit me. Not a traditional suit cut completely tight, but with a little more breathing room. It felt like a new experience that I ended up with that.
Yes, you had to look at yourself. In your practice, you look mostly at others. What is it you look for in someone when creating portraits?
In my work, I look for much more than likeness. Of course, a portrait should physically resemble the subject in some ways. But for me, the search is much more than an inner resemblance. It’s about seeing someone “for real”. I search for what’s inside. The best compliment I ever received was from Ziggy Marley who said, “You didn’t just capture the physical, you captured my soul.” That is also exactly what I strive for in my work. That’s a very elusive thing, of course. It usually manifests itself in the physical somewhere, if someone has a certain “spark” in their eyes when they talk about their passion, for instance. At that moment, you really feel the person. When you try to capture that, you get closer to the soul of someone.
Each person also has multiple “sides” of course. So, making a personal choice in terms of representation feels the most honest for an artist.
When I make a portrait, I often see that it looks like the person, but it is not yet what I want to show about that person. If I then make a second or third version, I always end up with a different representation. That search for who someone is, in the moment of our encounter, is the research of my practice. You also have to give yourself time to experiment, to try things out.
Has that particular outlook changed over the years?
Yes, definitely! In the past, I used to paint portraits from a photograph. I wouldn’t do that anymore. Now I follow my observations, which I include my sketches in, sometimes supplemented with memories that stuck with me in some way or another. Generally speaking: I think your outlook as a human being changes with age, period. In my case, that coincides with a certain growth as an artist. In this growth, both the personal and the technical aspects come together.
My work stands or falls with an open mind. If I have a preconceived idea of something, it is very likely I will portray that. So I always try to really meet the person in who they are at that moment. That requires an openness and a freedom that I have to feel as a human being. And that has developed tremendously over my life. Time has made me better able to look for the deeper “character” of the people I portray.
Is that how you have developed as an artist: with a clearer view of what you see and how you translate this into your work?
I think it is about recognizing what a painting should have. The personal feeling, or conviction even, what a particular painting needs from my perspective. Regardless of whether it’s a portrait or something else. Indeed, that comes with age. Also being able to recognize when you decide a painting is finished. That insight grows over the years. Sometimes you also end up somewhere with a painting and it just isn’t right. You have to be very honest with yourself about that. Recognizing things like that has become easier over the years. Being an artist is really just asking yourself questions. And daring to trust the choices you make in response.
I sometimes have created something in only 15 minutes and yet I had the absolute feeling that it was right. And you could say: “But you made it in only 15 minutes!” My response would be: “I made it in 53 years and 15 minutes.”
In terms of constant growth, I also don’t really believe artists when they say: “I’m only this kind of an artist”. I believe that openness and even the essence of being an artist lies in questioning things over and over again. The artistic journey is more important than a fixed style. If I had wanted to, I could have made a fixed choice several times in my career: when I did my collected drawings or the Japanese paintings, but I just wasn’t interested in that at all. That would be like a surrendering of my artistry.
It would mean you are no longer staying open to new things.
I hope to always keep that openness. To always be able to explore new things. For me, that freedom is the ideal within being an artist. I don’t know what I’m going to make tomorrow. In a way, that brings great uncertainty, but even more so, it brings enormous freedom to create something that I can’t think of beforehand. Seeking that interaction with “the providence” in the hope of getting the right prompt remains the relentless quest of an artist, I believe.
In the context of those kind of twists of the universe: one of the men depicted in the paintings here in your studio is Clyde Semmoh, a stylist who died a few weeks after our shoot with Benja Bruijning due to a COVID infection. A strange coincidence.
How extraordinary! To me, he was the epitome of someone who was always open to other people. In everything he did; professional skateboarding, DJing, and styling. That was also reflected in the tsunami of reactions after he passed away. He made no distinction between whether you were old or young, established or new to a scene. That’s why reactions came from literally every corner of Amsterdam. He will be greatly missed, but his openness will long be remembered.
Circling back to the subject of creative development, you are also currently engaged in other things including the television show Portretten van Krabbé [Portraits of Krabbé] by Dutch public broadcaster AVROTROS.
My television work always has something to do with my artistry. I see that as an extension of my practice. It’s not like I ever participated in a game show. The public aspect of art has always had a role in my life. That was literally the case when I was doing graffiti. Even then, I really felt what I was doing was for everyone and should be seen by everyone. I still feel that way about my other art now. So, I don’t mind advocating this on a platform like television.
Do you see your curatorship of the upcoming edition of ARTZUID in the same way?
Absolutely, with the added benefit that in this role I can express my love for other people’s art too. I try to fulfill that work from the idea that art is for everyone and should be seen by as many people as possible. In addition to curating, I am also working on a large sculpture that will be presented at ARTZUID. Sculpture is a relatively new development for me. In fact, I am also working on a Holocaust monument that will be placed in Diemen. In recent years, decades even, I have mainly been painting, after having made sculptural work when I was younger. It gives me a new way of thinking. I’m very much looking forward to unveiling it in Amsterdam and seeing it become part of the environment. Besides that, I’m also looking forward to showing a smaller version of the sculpture at Beethovenstraat. A lot of things to look forward to!
It’s a cliche, of course: but I really try to make it all about the journey.
The 8th edition of the large-scale sculpture exhibition ARTZUID will take place from May 20 until September 24. The route through the South of Amsterdam starts at the Museum Square in front of the Rijksmuseum and stretches for 2.5 kilometers south along the Minervalaan, the Apollolaan, and finally up to the train station Station Zuid.
Be sure to visit the AM House Amsterdam during ARTZUID to see one of Jasper Krabbé’s new sculptures, made especially for the biennial.