In Memoriam – Piotr Piotrowski (June 14, 1952 – May 3, 2015)

It was with great shock and sadness that we learned of the passing of our dear friend, colleague, and collaborator Piotr Piotrowski. His groundbreaking contributions to the study of art from Eastern Europe, boundless energy, willingness to challenge entrenched views, desire to provoke discussion (no matter how uncomfortable), and his commitment to democracy and social justice distinguished him among his peers within the region and beyond. Piotr belonged to a post-war generation of Eastern European intellectuals who experienced life under communism first-hand and who later observed and participated in the often painful and unsteady transition to capitalism and democracy. His contributions to art history, criticism and theory often commented on those realities. They also reflected his keen awareness of the significance of geography, in particular, the disadvantages and advantages of living on Europe’s margins. His was one of the most original and fearless voices in recent discussions concerning the politics of global art and art history. Piotr’s presence and keen insights will be sorely missed at any gathering that addresses these issues in the future.

Piotr’s unique perspective on art and art history in Eastern Europe was deeply rooted in his experience as a Polish art historian coming of age in Pozna? in the 1970s. As an undergraduate student at the Institute of Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University, he became involved with the gallery Akumulatory 2, which was started by the Polish artist Jaros?aw Koz?owski, then a young professor at Pozna? Academy of Fine Arts. From 1970 to 1975, Piotr participated in developing an ambitious program for the gallery and occupied a front seat from which to observe the networks of the international neo-avant garde. As he later noted, Akumulatory 2 “not only transgressed international borders, but also attempted to avoid engendering a hierarchical perception of geography. It hosted not only Western artists but also Eastern European ones.”(Awangarda w cieniu Ja?ty. Sztuka w Europie ?rodkowo-Wschodniej, 1945-1989 (Pozna?: Dom Wydawniczy REBIS, 2005); In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, translated by Anna Brzyski (London: Reaktion Books, 2009).) This first hand experience of geographic horizontality of global art networks in the 1970s, along with his encounters with artists, critics, and art historians from other Eastern European countries, extensive travels across the Eastern Bloc, and later Western Europe as well as the United States, shaped Piotr’s views on Eastern European art and the limitations of traditional art history.

Piotr’s granular and contextual approach to art history, in particular his insistence on the importance of local political conditions and the unique dynamics of local art scenes, challenged the assumption of the Eastern Bloc’s homogeneity that persisted within the literature. He was also among the first to problematize the historical narrative of resistance and collaboration that tended to identify all forms of Modernism with dissident politics and Socialist Realism with propaganda and ideological opportunism. Piotr began his investigation of this fraught subject in 1991 with a long essay “The Decade. On the Artistic Culture of the 1970s in Poland,” which suggested a set of much less clear-cut political alignments between official and unofficial art and art criticism during the 1970s.(Dekada: o syndromie lat siedemdziesi?tych, kulturze artystycznej, krytyce, sztuce -wybiórczo i subiektywnie (Pozna?: Obserwator Publishers, 1991).) In 1993, he extended his analysis to the historic Russian avant-garde in a book entitled Artist between Revolution and Reaction. A Study of the Ethical History of Art of the Russian Avant-Garde.(Artysta miedzy rewolucja i reakcja. Studium z zakresu etycznej historii sztuki awangardy rosyjskiej (Pozna?: Adam Mickiewicz Univerwersity Press, 1993).) In 1999, he returned once again to the subject of Polish post-war art in Meanings of Modernism. Towards a History of Polish Art after 1945. The book situated his earlier critique of Polish art and criticism of the 1970s in a much broader historical and political context. In addition to pioneering a critical reading of artworks and art practices based in theoretical approaches then current in Western art history, Piotr raised difficult issues of co-dependence and outright collaboration between the artistic avant-gardes and the communist regime in Poland after 1956. Notably, his book provoked a storm of controversy and was nominated for the NIKE 2000, the highest literary award in Poland. The media coverage brought Piotr, not for the last time, into the public eye and established him as the leading figure of a new generation of Polish art historians – fully conversant with theory, engaged in the reassessment and revision of established art historical narratives, and eager to participate in discussions that extend beyond national borders.

The politically grounded critique of artistic responses to the changing political and economic conditions, as well as his critique of the dominant culture, remained the hallmark of Piotr’s work throughout his career. His complex engagement with politics ran the gamut from direct action to critical scholarship. Between 1981 and 1989, he actively participated in oppositional politics in Poland as a member of the underground NSZZ Solidarity and was co-editor and contributor to the underground newspaper Obserwator Wielkopolski (Wielkopolska Observer). Later, his political views found an outlet mainly in academic and curatorial work, though he continued to champion causes involving intellectual, artistic and academic freedom as well as the rights of minorities. Often, his academic works and public statements precipitated debates and controversies that were not necessarily confined to artistic and academic spheres.

Piotr had a profound impact on Polish art and art history. He was a widely read author of eighteen books, edited volumes, and exhibition catalogues as well as over one hundred articles and published essays. He organized numerous conferences, served on boards and frequently participated in public discussions. Piotr received his academic degrees from the Institute of Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) in Pozna?, where he also taught throughout his career. Between 1996 and 1999 he served as the Institute’s Associate Director for Research and from 1999 to 2008 as its Director. Under his leadership, the Institute became the most outward directed and theoretically based Art History program in Poland. One of his most enduring legacies was the development of the Institute’s library collection through the systematic acquisition of key art historical as well as theoretical texts published in Western Europe and the United States. Piotr’s interest in theory and new art-historical methodologies also guided his work as co-editor of the journal Artium Quaestiones, published by the Institute of Art History at AMU. During his tenure as the journal’s co-editor from 1997 to 2009, Artium Quaestiones became a platform for theoretically and critically based art history. In particular, it was identified with semiotic and psychoanalytic approaches, as well as gender and visual studies, publishing works by younger scholars, including Piotr himself, and translations of texts by Georges Didi-Huberman, Hans Belting, T. J. Clark, Rosalyn Deutsche, Whitney Davis, Jonathan Flatley, Douglas Crimp, Horst Bredekamp, Rosalind Krauss, Nicholas Mirzoeff, W. J. T. Mitchell, Mieke Bal, Hal Foster, and Norman Bryson, among others.

Early on in his career, Piotr recognized the importance of active engagement with scholars outside of Poland. His travels in Western Europe began with a month long visit to France in 1978. By the end of 1990, he had spent two months in France, two months in England, and a year in the US on a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in Washington D.C. He was one of the first, and arguably one of the most active art historians from the region to succeed in developing an enduring engagement with the United States. He stayed in New York for the first time in 1989 for three months on a Kosciuszko Foundation fellowship, returning in 1994 for a four-month stay as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Together, these prolonged residences provided him with material for a book of essays dealing with aspects of American 20th century art entitled In the Shadow of Duchamp: Notes from New York (1996).(W cieniu Duchampa. Notatki nowojorskie (Pozna?: Obserwator: 1996).) Other extended stays followed: at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (2000), the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2001), the Clark Art Institute (2009), and, finally, at the Getty (2015).

Concurrently, Piotr maintained an active engagement with colleagues and institutions across Europe, often serving as a guide and catalyst for discussions, projects and meetings that reimagined traditional geo-cultural configurations and challenged deeply rooted assumptions embedded within national art histories. He began engaging with emerging discussions over the identity of East Central Europe and its art in 1999 with his contribution to the catalogue for the exhibition After the Wall. Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe (Stockholm: Moderna Museet). After 2000, he became a key advisor and collaborator of Erste Foundation, guiding its critical engagement with Eastern European art and art history, and more recently was a research advisor to the FORMER West project (2008 -2015), which considered the legacy of 1989 through a critical dialogue with post-communist and post-colonial thought.

Piotr was also a key collaborator for a number of US-based initiatives focused on Central and Eastern Europe. Between 1999 and 2002 he was part of an international team working on The Central European Avant-garde, 1912-1932: Exchange and Transformation project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was also a founding member of the CAA affiliated society of Historians of German and Central European Art & Architecture (HGCEA), and an active contributor to both Centropa and ARTMargins, two journals that have become key platforms for scholarship and critical writing on Eastern European art, architecture, and art history.

Piotr came to the attention of a much wider audience with the publication of the English translation of his groundbreaking book In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989. The book extended his critique of post-war developments in Polish art to the entire Eastern Bloc, providing a sophisticated analysis of the complex interactions between local conditions (political, economic, cultural) and artistic practices that developed in response to both internal and external factors. In the Shadow of Yalta was the first major text to attempt a critical comparative overview of postwar art in Eastern Europe. As such, it opened floodgates for the re-evaluation of long held views on national art within individual Eastern European countries and created a model for a comparative approach to the art of the region. Selective and partisan, it generated a fair amount of push back from those who disagreed with Piotr’s analysis or found mistakes in his text. No one, however, could negate its singular importance as the first English language study of the region from the perspective of an insider. Published originally in Polish in 2005, it appeared in English translation in 2009. The Croatian edition followed in 2011 and work on Italian and French editions is currently under way.

Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2012, brought Piotr’s narrative into the near-present. Intended to be a sequel to In the Shadow of Yalta, it examines developments in Eastern European art and art institutions after 1989. Focused on carefully chosen case studies, the book functions more as a theoretical text on post-communism than a traditional art historical narrative. It diagnoses the ambivalence of the post-communist transitions, traumatic engagements with the past, and unfulfilled promises of democracy, and traces the emergence of new forms of art practice. It also includes a key chapter on museums in the new post-communist Europe, postulating a critical role for these institutions as mediators of the region’s traumatic past and suggesting a dramatic shift in their social and cultural function.

Piotr’s interest in exhibitions and museums can be traced to his early days as Assistant Director at Akumulatory 2 gallery, and later as Senior Curator for Contemporary Art at the National Museum in Pozna? (1992-1997), where he organized important shows on the Pozna? avant-garde gallery odNOWA (1993), Polish art ca. 1956 (1996), Jaros?aw Koz?owski (1997), and Zofia Kulik (1999). From 2005 to 2007, he served on the advisory board for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, a troubled project project that he discussed in Art and Democracy. In 2009, Piotr was appointed the Director of the National Museum in Warsaw (NMW), the flagship institution of the Polish National Museum system. Mired in financial problems stemming from long-term underfunding, lack of fundraising, massive deferred maintenance costs, inefficient staffing, and lackluster programming, NMW would have posed a huge challenge to anyone taking over its leadership. For Piotr, it represented a unique opportunity to develop a new model of a critically engaged museum that could function, on the one hand, as a forum for critical dialogue and debate over pressing contemporary issues and, on the other, as a self-reflexive institution actively involved in examining and questioning its own traditions, assumptions and values. Ultimately, his efforts to modernize and revitalize the museum and to develop an ambitious program of exhibitions and public programs were unsuccessful. Faced with organized opposition from museum workers and lack of support from the museum’s board, he resigned from his position in 2010. His experience of trying to develop a new program for the NMW, however, provided him with an opportunity to think more broadly about the function and responsibilities of museums in contemporary society. In 2011, he published his last book, The Critical Museum, in which he offered a critique of the current museological model and proposed an alternative one that envisioned a museum fully endangered embedded within the political, social, and cultural processes of democracy.(Muzeum krytyczne (Pozna?: Rebis, 2011); Serbian edition: Krit?ki Muzej (Belgrade: Evropa Nostra/ Centar za muzeologiju i heritologiju Univerziteta u Beogradu, 2013).)

In the most recent years, Piotr deepened his engagement with on-going debates that reimagined art history as a global discourse on world art and visual culture. Once again, he was refocusing his work on the post-war period by introducing a global perspective onto the analysis of art produced in Eastern and Central Europe. His last major unfinished project aimed at “‘Globalizing’ East-Central European Art after 1945,” and proposed to rethink the issue of Europe’s peripheries in a global context, connecting the art of the region to other global margins and, ultimately, charting an alternative critical art geography for the post-war period.(For further discussion of see one of Piotrowski’s last published essays issue 12: Contemporary Politics and Historical Representation (August 12, 2014):