Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art – Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975

Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art – Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975, Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. May 31 – September 5, 1999

Zdzislaw Jurkiewicz, ‘Unreachable Stairs’, project, 1970. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975. Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. All images are © the artist. They may not be used for any purpose without express permission.

Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art. Experiences of Discourse, 1965-1975, exhibiting at Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw from May 31 until 5 September, 1999, is the most comprehensive review of the achievements of Polish conceptual art until now. It features works created between the end of the 1960s and the first half of 1970s. The exhibition attempts to sum up an artistic tendency which still exerts a considerable influence on the development of art in Poland.

By rejecting the pre-existing models of making art and eluding the power of socially and culturally endorsed artistic discourse, conceptual artists, in Poland and elsewhere, took the risk to “act” in the sphere of the imagination, simultaneously striving to devise the means to communicate their experiences adequately. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art captures the history and character of Polish conceptual art through its sources and development, including the reconstruction of works that no longer exist and the realization of works that previously existed only as projects. These are: “The Changing Outside Conditions” by Andrzej Dluniewski; “Untitled” by Stanislaw Drozd; “Level of Discussion” by Jerzy Fedorowicz; “Unreachable Stairs” and “Bathroom” by Zdzislaw Jurkiewicz; “Exercise in Ethics” by Jaroslaw Kozlowski; “Cybernetic Control System” by Zbigniew Makarewicz.

Jerzy Rosolowicz, ‘Utensil for Catching Dew’, 1974. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975. Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. All images are © the artist. They may not be used for any purpose without express permission.

Review by Ken Lum

Meaning in Polish conceptual art derives as much from what is not said as from what is said. This is in contradistinction to the eponymously named American version of concept art where it could be said that what is not said may or may not add to its meaning, depending on how generous one is to its political character or lack thereof. Why this should be so is in large part an outcome of the geopolitical context from which Polish conceptual art emanated, as opposed to the unrestrained environment in which Americans made their art. As a result, an interesting intertwining of purpose can be discerned, at least to my eyes, between the two identically named versions of the purportedly same global art movement. The two conceptualisms needed one another and used one another for their own purpose. Polish conceptualism needed American conceptualism to push its allegory of politics behind the guise of apolitical universalism, while American conceptualism, largely ambiguous in its concerns for political matters, used its connections to Polish conceptualism to enhance a political content that is missing from its own work. Leading American conceptual artists, it is well known, showed in Poland primarily at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw. This served the purpose of circumscribing American art with moral and ethical considerations, something which was necessary to dispel the traditional American aporia towards any discussions of art in relation to realpolitik. American artists benefited from their Polish connection, much as the French intellectual Andre Malraux benefited from his tours to politically engaged and often tumultuous places. Yet the fact remains that there was very little, if any, reciprocation on the part of American artists towards Polish artists. There is hence much for a Westerner to discover at the exhibition Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art in Warsaw. Artists or artists’ groups such as Druga Grupa, Zbigniew Gostomski, Zdzislaw Jurkiewicz, Jaroslaw Kozlowski, Eugeniusz Smolinski produced some of the finest, and most intelligent art of the time anywhere. Funny, heartfelt, intellectually complex and full of bittersweetness, this exhibition is a discovery of artists who are not only unknown and largely ignored in the West, but also of what was always a problem or at least a limit to its American cousin version. Polish conceptualism was always juxtaposed with the cruel absurdity of its environment. A good example of this is a performance by Druga Grupa entitled Memorizing” which was dedicated to remembering an absolutely useless bit of text as a means to not only underline the many imposed rules Poles had to remember and follow in their daily lives, but also as a utopian deflection from these imposed rules. Another important feature of Polish conceptualism was the insistence on interaction with the audience, which meant that Polish conceptualism was never quite like its American cousin, namely a largely metaphysical formalism. In Polish conceptualism, metaphysics was only the first step of a philosophical proposition, the second step being its application and its rootedness in material and concrete relations. What is remarkable is how taking this second step did not render the works didactic, nor did it diminish their utopian allusions. On the contrary, by grounding their art in relation to an analysis of the genuine political terms from which it was derived, Polish conceptualism ensured that its utopianism was that much more achingly fragile and painful to espouse. It has become de rigueur within the American field of art history that Conceptual Art in all its manifestations was primarily concerned with the project of institutional critique, especially of the museum. This is certainly the thesis behind a recent exhibition in New York entitled Global Conceptualism. Equally de rigueur is the primacy of American and Western European conceptual art in formulating both in theory and in practice a language which spread itself outwards to the further recesses of the world, including 1960s and 1970s Poland. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art challenges this American reading, which has become the conventional reading of conceptual art. The fact that anti-establishment sentiments pervaded the radicalized political environment of the 1960s does not necessarily mean that an art movement emanating and operating against such a background should have assumed radical politics as its own project. It could be argued that moving away from traditional object forms and from museum spaces was artistically liberating and that the presumed death of the museum was simply a presumption made by every contemporary artist. Artists in America, Canada and Western Europe deftly played with the idea of new territories for art while developing the museum and gallery networks that would support these new territories. Institutional critique was a concern of certain artists, but only a small part of the entire conceptual art package.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, ‘Ladder’, 1975. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975. Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. All images are © the artist. They may not be used for any purpose without express permission.

Review by Adam Szymczyk

“The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” This statement made by the American artist Douglas Heubler provides a concise definition of Conceptual Art and an explanation of its critical motifs/aspirations. Conceptualism emerged during the turn of the 1960s and 1970s in opposition to Abstract Expressionist painting and Pop Art, the latter drawing extensively from the domain of things and their representations. But also in opposition to Minimalism which, giving up a claim to individual expression and the work’s reference to reality, made a fetish of the material itself, its rough presence and geometrical form. Lawrence Weiner, in 1969, provided three “innocent” rules of conceptual practice: “1. The artist may construct the work; 2. The work may be fabricated; 3. The work need not to be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership”. Conceptualism brought to completion the twentieth century’s strife to negate representation and to put into question the objective/material status of the work of art. Reinhardt’s black canvases and Duchamp’s gesture of abandoning art for the sake of chess are form part of the twofold genealogy of Conceptual Art, which is both rational and dadaist at the same time.

Thirty years after, it may be seen that what remains of the most radical anti-objective art is a lot of stuff, which, in its radical modesty, looks very well in museum spaces. Photographic and textual documentation provides material evidence of numerous attempts to escape matter. Two recent exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw are devoted to this legacy (Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art. One of the two exhibits, curated by Pawel Polit, takes a historical approach: “Experiences of Discourse: 1965 Ð 1975”).

According to the exhibition’s curator, conceptualism could be roughly described with the help of four notions. Information, i.e., the work of art acquires the status of a document, it is an attempt at the immediate and neutral recording of reality. Collection, i.e., the work dispenses with form, understood in a classical sense; what replaces form is a structure of concepts, symbolic notations, or the enumeration of the work’s elements. Openness, i.e., the rejection of all specialization within the framework of a particular artistic medium. In other words, painting and sculpture may be used in a work of art interchangeably or simultaneously with photography, text or numerical notation. The economy of a message determines the choice of means. Process, i.e., the final product (the object to be looked at) frequently reduces itself to a certain “before” or “after” the work (a project or an account of an event). The ontological status of the work of art, then, is determined in temporal rather than in spatial sense, the work becomes dematerialized / dematerializes itself.

If we accept dictionary definitions of conceptualism (concept art=analytical art that makes use of text and contemplates its own field without being produced for the purpose of contemplation), the inclusion of certain works in this exhibition seems questionable. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of the works selected by Polit pose important questions, even if they fail to deliver final and universally valid answers.

Jaroslaw Kozlowski, ‘Excercise in Ethics’, 1975. Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975. Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. All images are © the artist. They may not be used for any purpose without express permission.

These questions frequently concern the status of the object, as is the case, for example, in a work by Zdzislaw Jurkiewicz that shows a piece of white, clean, thin linen bearing the inscription “white, clean, thin linen” (1970), or “Landscape” by Eugeniusz Smolinski, a banal representation with an illusion of depth, which can be also perceived as a flat map of some imagined continent. Other questions frequently concern the viewer him or herself. We almost twist our backs when reading a text inscribed in spiral form by Wanda Golkowska (1971) saying, among others, that “realization is secondary to thought Ð conception”. In “Open Structure” (1968), the same artist invites us to play a game consisting of black and white cubes whose order one can rearrange on a rectangular surface. Conceptual reflection consists in the questioning and critiquing of pre-existing concepts, and not in the creation of utopian, global proposals. Take, for example, “Lodz Piece” by Andrzej Dluzniewski (1971): a map of the city of Lodz, with a circular fragment cut out from it, is accompanied by an instruction to turn this fragment by 17 degrees within a time span of 7 seconds. The instruction demands from the viewer that she imagine sounds which the sudden turn of a fragment of a city could cause in reality. A work like this, of course, is not a project, but a small scale artistic provocation prompting us to reflect on an allegedly stable and non-transformable order of reality, embodied in the structure of a city.

The works by Dluzniewski and Golkowska are unquestionably one of the major assets of this exhibition. There are also other exceptionally interesting works in it, created by artists who are more or less forgotten nowadays: Maria Michalowska, Ludmila Popiel, Elzbieta Chodzaj, Jerzy Fedorowicz, Wieslaw Smuzny. Other artists, such as Wlodzimierz Borowski, Zbigniew Gostomski and Stanislaw Drozdz, make us aware that conceptual reflection can also imply an important existential dimension. Their works reflect important issues by the scantiest means imaginable, sometimes nothing but a few words. Such conciseness is a rarity nowadays. Our time is characterized by a widespread lack of time, which is why this kind of reflection has become much less accessible nowadays.

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