The Maas Sculpture in Rotterdam is one of the most successful pieces in Auke de Vries’s extensive oeuvre. Suspended above the New Maas river the sculpture, completed in 1982, acts as a link between the red Willemsbrug (bridge) and the green railway bridge. When the latter was demolished in 1988, the sculpture by De Vries was temporarily removed. In 1994 the work was given its ultimate appearance. One of the columns of the railway bridge was preserved so that after it was demolished this could remain a point of attachment for the sculpture. A large, heavy block hangs as a counterweight from this support. An assemblage of cables and shapes (a ring, a garland, rectangular forms and a ball) sways above the water towards the Willemsbrug where the sculpture is secured at two points. The placing of the various elements suggests a subtle equilibrium, as if it is not a heavy construction but a light piece of cord that remains in balance through a careful composition. The hollow ball is the lowest point of the sculpture. At high tide it touches the water and the sculpture bobs with the movement of the waves.

The reason for commissioning the Maas Sculpture was the building of a new bridge across the New Maas between its north bank and the Noordereiland (North Island). In 1978 Rotterdam Council invited artists to think of a colour for the new Willemsbrug. De Vries thought it strange that artists should only be consulted about a colour and initially did not respond to the invitation. He did, however, have talks with the urban development team and investigated the area of the bridge around the north bank of the New Maas and the Noordereiland. In the report De Vries presented in 1980 he did in fact propose a colour for the bridge, as well as making suggestions for designing the urban situation for the approaches at both ends and the siting of an art work as part of the Percent for Art scheme. At the location where he was later to design Maas Sculpture, he recommended that an art work should not compete with the high rise buildings along the bank, but should be in proportion to the intimate space between the bridges, the embankment and the river. De Vries’s colour proposal was accepted and he was commissioned to design a sculpture for the north bank.

The Maas Sculpture was not the first monumental work De Vries made. As part of the Percentage for Art programme he had been creating various large sculptures for public buildings since the early 1970s. In them a systematic arrangement of similar elements normally still predominated, like in the Wind-Breaking Sculpture (1972) for the government department for the IJsselmeer polders in Lelystad. In the 1980s his visual language became freer, both in his small, non-commissioned sculptures as well as his monumental work. Separate abstract elements in various kinds of material were now linked to one another to make unstable constructions, in which solid forms and tenuous lines alternate. There is always something of a subtle balance about these pieces, both literally and in a compositional sense. Lines and forms fan out in different directions so that his sculptures hardly seem to have a centre or boundary. De Vries’s work is always completely abstract and is seldom titled. If there is a title, it gives nothing more than a location or the number of elements the work consists of.
When making a site-specific sculpture De Vries responds more to a location’s formal aspects than its intrinsic or social characteristics. ‘Space, perspectives and sightlines of a city – that is what you must work with. […] Every spot requires other dimensions and proportions’, De Vries said about his work in the mid-1990s. He looks for a connection or contrast with the horizontals or verticals of an environment. Moreover, the scale and dimension of the site determine the size of his work. For instance, the sculpture on the New Maas at 182 metres is in fact large, but alongside the Willemsbrug and with the view of the river or skyline along the Boompjes, it is only a modest addition.
From the various design sketches for the sculpture it appears that the wind and water inspired its ultimate shape. Floating, bobbing and sinking forms, the wreck of a ship protruding from the water, a ship’s horn with the wind blasting through it, can all be traced in these designs. In the definitive sculpture the link between the two bridges and the tension of the steel cables play an important role, while wind and water create a subtle movement.

De Vries was given a second commission for a monumental work for Rotterdam in 1993 when the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) was built. For this he chose to feature his work more prominently than had been the case for his sculpture for the Maas. The sculpture that stands in the pond of the Institute, designed by Jo Coenen, is not only in keeping with the building, but with the scale and size of the surroundings as a whole. Like the NAI building itself, the sculpture on the top is not closed but has an open structure. As a reaction to the geometric forms of the building and pond, De Vries chose expressive shapes and colours.
The two Rotterdam sculptures clearly illustrate the extremes of his work. In keeping with the surroundings, sometimes he chooses a prominent identification of the location and sometimes for a more subtle and modest addition. Both sculptures also indicate two other aspects of the oeuvre of De Vries – on the one hand the suspended sculptures which are attached at certain points like a spider’s web, and on the other the sculptures that rise vertically off the ground to explore freely the space above.

Marjolein Sponselee

H. Moscoviter, Het Maasbeeld van Auke de Vries, Rotterdam s.d. [1995] / Exhib. cat. Auke de Vries. Voorstudies voor beelden in opdracht, Breda/The Hague 1988. / Exhib. cat. Auke de Vries, beelden 1980-1987, Rotterdam 1988. / Exhib. cat. Auke de Vries. Skulpturen, die 90er Jahre, Leipzig/Esslingen am Neckar/Magdeburg 1994.