File Note 139: Lily van der Stokker - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Jessica Vaughan



Friendly Artwork Poor Me Images References Quote Biography Credits

Friendly Artwork Poor Me

For more than thirty years, Lily van der Stokker has interrogated what art can be. Why can’t family problems or a birthday party be subject matter? Why can’t art feature multi-coloured flowers, balloon writing and curly ornamentation? Or be un-ironically described as cute? Her joyous use of colour and embellishment can be seen as a direct challenge to the conventional conception that trivial decoration is incompatible with the gravitas of contemporary art. Flowers and ornamentation had been forbidden from the art van der Stokker grew up with, absent from the white, male minimalism of twentieth-century Conceptualism. In a period when many of her peers were employing an austere monochrome, her palette of optimistic fluorescent colours was a radical choice. Van der Stokker is clear about the sincerity of her work; she is addressing universal themes but embracing decoration and pleasure in order to do so. She has claimed sweetness as a serious subject, making ‘conceptual art about beauty, optimism and the superficial’1  and in doing so she has radically challenged mainstream perceptions of art.

Van der Stokker’s work is typically described as feminine, and is often read as a feminist critique of the generic ideals of womanhood. It sometimes features soft furnishings: sofas, chairs and rugs, a palette heavy with pinks and blues, a visual vocabulary familiar from the conventional construction of gender. She explores care and aging, intimate mundane activities, like ‘pulling hairs out of the drain’ (Tidy Kitchen, Hammer Museum 2015) and the banal realities of everyday life: washing, cleaning, cooking and shopping. Although these chores aren’t gendered per se, a long lineage of female artists have addressed the home, and a woman’s role within it, from Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler to Louise Bourgeois. Van der Stokker goes a step further than many of the feminist works from the 1970s and 80s that critiqued gendered domestic space: she is not attacking domesticity but elevating it, demanding it be taken seriously as a universal subject. Her topics feel taboo in their intimacy and banality, as if something so private and menial shouldn’t be examined in an intellectual manner.

Flowers, clouds, amorphic shapes and coiling outlines are recurrent elements in her work, her playful aesthetic reminiscent of absent-minded doodles. Her palette evokes the artificial turquoise of plastic bath toys, the sunshine yellow of post-it notes and the pinks of baby lotion. Their tones are also evocative of the materials she uses: colouring pencils, markers and blue and red ballpoint pens. Meticulously scaled-up from original small-format drawings her wall paintings are executed with rigorous precision, with every line perfectly replicated at scale. There is a tension in their transition from seemingly carefree scribbles to monumental murals. A defining characteristic of van der Stokker’s practice is that many of her large-scale pieces are painted on the surface of the wall, directly engaging with their context, almost invading the space they inhabit. Murals are traditionally permanent, artefacts of the fixed place and time where they were created. Van der Stokker’s wall paintings, however, are usually fleeting, lasting only for the duration of an exhibition before being painted over. Their labour-intensive installation and unceremonious eradication counter the logic of the valuable artwork. Van der Stokker questions what is permissible in art through every facet of her work; the content of her diaristic writing, her colourful aesthetic choices and the temporality of many of her pieces.

In 1983 van der Stokker moved from the Netherlands to New York, where for three years she ran an unnamed gallery with the artists Carolien Stikker and Jack Jaeger, her partner until his death in 2013. While in New York she began making drawings on paper and large paintings, which, due to the constraints of space, migrated to the wall of the apartment she shared with Jaeger. At a time when her peers were experimenting with photography, video and performance, she made the conscious decision to keep her tools and technique simple, accessible and cheap, drawing with marker and pen on paper before her move to the wall. Van der Stokker’s primary concern was with linear expression and a focus on abstraction.  Her doodle line drawings from the early 1980s evolved, and out of abstraction came language, first as an underlining or an exclamation mark, then including words like ‘Everything’, ‘Nothing’, ‘Friendly’ and ‘Good’. Not long afterwards, she moved on to platitudes: ‘Happy New Year’ and ‘Thank you’; or seemingly superficial statements such as ‘Everything is Art’ and ‘Don’t worry nothing will happen’.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Van der Stokker’s work is rooted in the tradition of Conceptual art. Like central figures of this movement including Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, she uses text to explore the condition of art, as well as more existential and universal questions. She exploits our nuanced understanding of language to present content that balances familiarity, subversion and comedy. Like some of her female counterparts such as Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger, she employs a deadpan wit or overtly emotional content to approach intimate problems and everyday functions. Her tone is distinctive, unfiltered, honest and astute, with an unconscious, naive sincerity. This is further emphasised by the conversational nature and handwritten script in her works, which allow the wall paintings to speak about themselves, their context, duration and originality as if these were human experiences2.  But not only do they speak about themselves and their reality – ‘I am an artwork and I am three years old’ (Feature, New York, 2004) – they often also directly address the viewer; ‘Get Better Soon3.  There is a vulnerability to the language, that suggests that these works are artist’s confessional on the museum walls, but the works are less straightforwardly biographical than they might seem at first. The Jack & Lily series, ‘Jack and Lily Live Together Now for 5 Years’ (1998), although referencing the relationship between the two artists, is about relationships more generally. The more recent series focused on health is not simply an exposé of the artists’ wellbeing, but also an exploration into commonplace physical misery. It has previously been said of the voice in her artwork that ‘The me is also always an us’4.

Van der Stokker sometimes uses furniture, upholstered or painted with her characteristic imagery, to extend her works out from the wall. She has also included wooden objects (Cabinet Gallery 1999) as part of these sculptural installations. When asked what is inside the boxes she replied, ‘Air, nothing. It’s all fluff; it’s to make useless extras’5.  She even questions if it really matters whether an artwork means anything at all. Her work does not make grandiose claims to ‘challenge the way we live’, but rather prompts us to notice the unremarkable details, and in doing so reveals inherent power dynamics. She unravels the persistent romantic ideals of the male genius artist and challenges classifications of aesthetic value. She celebrates nothingness as a subject itself. But her work is one of paradoxes: it is weighty in its lightness. She once said that if it were exhibited at Disney World her work would be taken at face value, while in the high environs of the artworld, where every choice is loaded, it remains provocative. She utilises ugliness, ‘poor taste’ and beauty, to call colour and pleasure into question. She has said that pleasure, and ‘the emotional subject matter somehow connected to it, such as love, kids, family, and the home’6,  was missing in the artworld around her. Art is often instrumentalised, and although social change or intellectual lucidity can be the outcome of an artist’s work, it is not obliged to have these functions. In the wake of a health pandemic that has shifted our perspective, forcing us to face the minutiae of our daily existence and to inhabit the domestic as never before, van der Stokker’s work feels more relevant and vital than ever.



2 For example, ‘We are the same’, ‘Nice being here’ and ‘Laying here together’ (Huh, Koenig & Clinton, New York, 2014). 

3 From the series ‘Wishing You Well’, 1992, billboard, Paradise Kortrijk, Belgium 2021.

4 Quoted in Nana Pernod, ‘Fun Murals with Depth’, Ensuite Magazine, January 2020.


6 Email exchange March, 2022.

Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On (Paris: Calder Publications, 1992) 

Guerrilla Girls. Guerilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2020)

Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)

Princenthal, Nancy. Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015)

Stein, Gertrude. Useful Knowledge (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1929)

Westen, Mirjam, and Museum Voor Moderne Kunst. Rebelle: Art & Feminism 1969-2009 (Arnhem: Museum Voor Moderne Kunst, 2010)

B. Wurtz, American Songs (B. Wurtz, 2016)

Jean-Philippe Antoine, Nouvelles Musiques Anciennes (Firework Editions, 2011)

John Cage, Four Walls (Camerata Tokyo, Inc, 2003)

Pole, Steingarten (Scape Publishing, 2007)

‘Very good taste is needed to enjoy the bad.’ John Waters


Lily van der Stokker (b. ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, 1954) lives and works in Amsterdam and New York City. Selected solo exhibitions include: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2019); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2018); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2015); New Museum, New York (2013); Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2010); and Tate St. Ives (2010). Van der Stokker has undertaken two large-scale public commissions. In 2000 she created The Pink Building, for which she painted the entire exterior and roof of a building for the World’s Fair in Hannover, Germany, and she designed a large ceramic teapot, Celestial Teapot, for the roof of a high-rise shopping centre in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2013.


Jessica Vaughan is a curator based in London.

Generously supported by Lead Donors and members of the Lily van der Stokker Exhibition Circle; by Mondriaan Fonds, Cockayne Grants for the Arts and the London Community Foundation and by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. With special thanks to Kaufmann Repetto, New York and Air de Paris, Paris.