Magdalena Ziółkowska (ed.), “Notes from the Future of Art: Selected Writings by Jerzy Ludwiński” (Book Review)
Notes from the Future of Art: Selected Writings by Jerzy Ludwiński, ed. Magdalena Ziółkowska, Eindhoven Rotterdam: Van Abbemuseum, Veenman Publishers, 2007, 240 pp.
After the great success of comprehensive translational enterprises, such as Between Worlds (2002) and Primary Documents (2002)See Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes 1910-1939, ed. T. O. Bensen É. Forgács (Cambridge: The MIT Press 2002); Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, eds. L. Hoptman, T. Pospiszyl (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002)., the volume Notes from the Future of Art: Selected Writings by Jerzy Ludwiński is another strong example of introducing an important part of Central-European art theory to the English-speaking public. Obviously, in contrast to the aforementioned publications, Notes from the Future of Art shows an artistically, geographically and historically limited perspective on art that was developed by Ludwiński between the 1960s and the 1980s, mainly in Wrocław. However, a focus on detail seems to be the most accurate strategy in this case, since it works as a lens that can lead to insights into the center-periphery relation behind the Iron Curtain in general, and the Polish reception of conceptualism in particular.
Jerzy Ludwiński (1930-2000) was an art theorist, critic and curator who worked constantly on the periphery of the state system, and at the same time and partly because of that, he was familiar with current concepts of art that were, at the time, being discussed in the West. It is worth mentioning that under officially decreed socialist realism and being a student of art history (1953-1955) at the Catholic University of Lublin – an important, but politically marginal academic institution that was barely exposed to communist cultural ideology – Ludwiński already knew a significant number of the world’s contemporary artists, including Dubuffet, Fautrier, and Pollock (note that Cracow, a city incomparably more strongly marked on the Polish art map than Lublin, was still under the influence of French surrealism at the time). As a result Ludwiński and a circle of Lublin artists started undermining modernistic paradigms of art under the aegis of the “Zamek” Group (1957-1960); they were the first ones to do so during the Polish “thaw” (i.e., the liberalization of cultural politics from 1955 onward).
Ludwiński remained a key figure within the field of art of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a founder of the Mona Lisa Gallery (Wrocław, 1967-1970), a semi-official institution that created a broad platform for diverse exhibitions, happenings, and actions of leading conceptual artists, including Włodzimierz Borowski, Jarosław Kozłowski, Jerzy Rosołowicz, and Tadeusz Rolke. Simultaneously, presentations at the Mona Lisa were accompanied by Ludwiński’s and the artists’ own theoretic statements, regularly published in the Wrocław monthly Odra that provided ongoing confrontation of textual ideas with their realization. Ludwiński also became a significant participant (a reader and/or commissioner) of artistic symposia and plein airs, which – very common in Polish People’s Republic at the time – though they were supported by the state, nevertheless played an important role as a zone of freedom and circulation of ideas. Ludwiński took part in the famous 1st Symposium of Artists and Scientists, entitled Art in a Changing World (1966); the symposium Wrocław ’70 that is frequently considered as the peak period of Polish conceptualism; and in successive editions of the Meetings of Artists and Art Theorists in Osieki, where the critic announced for the first time the main theses of his widely discussed text Art in the Postartistic Age (1970), which was later printed in the equally famous Mona Lisa catalog Sztuka pojęciowa [Conceptual Art], published in the same year.
The selection of Ludwiński’s writings is divided into three parts: Art, Institution, Artist that correspond to the aforementioned contexts. Notes from the Future of Art sequentially presents different areas of Ludwiński’s intellectual activity: rich thoughts about the definitions, evolution, and future of the conceptual avant-garde (Ludwiński as a theorist/thinker); brave postulates and projects regarding the institutional framework of the new art, which after all remained a utopia under communism (Ludwiński as curator); finally, explanations and commentaries on current actions by the artists nearest to him (Ludwiński as critic). What is particularly intriguing is that each set of archival texts is followed by newer conversations from the 1990s and 2000s, in which Ludwiński consecutively takes on these different roles. Although, of course, the three underlined functions (and thus also the divisions in the anthology) seem to be quite fluid, one may point to the most fundamental texts included in the different parts.
There is no doubt that, among the many important texts in the first section, it is necessary to pay special attention to Art in the Postartistic Age, in which Ludwiński makes an effort to reconsider the condition of art after the experience of the 1960s: a happening, event, ephemeral art, on the one hand; and environment, the development of multiples, and minimal art, on the other. According to Ludwiński, the result of the pluralism of artistic media that goes beyond the traditional work of art should be called “impossible art” (the term is taken from Thomas M. Messer’s article in Art in America). Deriving from the best avant-garde traditions (from Duchamp and Cage in particular), Ludwiński’s “impossible art” is defined by “the complete devaluation of the original and of [the] hand-made quality of a work of art,” “the elimination of the material object itself,” “an entirely new way of recording a work of art,” “the incorporation of time,” “the new complexity of the relationship between the artist– the work of art – and the viewer,” and finally, “the complete disintegration of both [the] spatial and temporal structure of a work of art” (pp. 19-21). Furthermore, what makes Ludwiński’s proposition valuable is that passing his own judgments, he embarks on a dialogue with the most influential artists, art theorists and intellectuals of his time. Besides Arakawa, Kaprow, Klein, Kossuth, Morris, Siegelaub or Smithson who are directly mentioned, Luiza Nader, a researcher of Polish conceptualism, also finds affinities with George Kubler, Lucy Lippard, and John ChandlerSee the well-received dissertation by L. Nader, Konceptualizm w PRL [Conceptualism in Polish People’s Republic], Warsaw: Warsaw University Press, 2009, pp. 98-117.
In accordance with his anti-modernist understanding of art, Ludwiński outlined his vision for an adequate institutional shelter for conceptualism in the texts that dominate the second part of the anthology: first in The Museum of Current Art in Wrocław [General Concept] (1966), and later in the program for The Centre for Artistic Research (1971). According to Magdalena Ziółkowska, the editor of Notes and author of a doctoral dissertation about Ludwiński’s institutional concepts, Ludwiński’s Museum of Current Art radically transformed the conventional understanding of the museum as defined by its collection, history, values, opinions, and particular works. “The ‘playing field’ marked out by Ludwiński – Ziółkowska writes – was nothing less than a platform for ideas and reflections heading into the future, dedicated to art being created in a certain moment […] to which the traditional aesthetic and formal categories no longer referred. […] In contrast, new categories – such as attitude, creative process, artistic fact, concept and reality – became the components of the ‘open system’” (p. 10).
Although Ludwiński’s ideas were never actually used to found a real museum, some important concepts were realized in the Gallery Mona Lisa in Wroclaw. Indeed, the Gallery acted mainly as a “testing ground” for “art in the postartistic age,” and the most important texts included in the last part of the anthology should be understood mainly as traces of Ludwiński’s engagements into his artists’ actions. Undoubtedly, this is the case with The Mimicry of Neutrdrome (1968), and, above all, with A Report from the “Anti-Happening” (1969). While in the first text Ludwiński gives a detached curatorial comment on Rosołowicz’s objects (the so-called Neutrdromes, designed to investigate the visual aspects of a work of art), the second one is an account on a momentous happening in which Ludwiński was involved. During Włodzimierz Borowski’s famous “anti-happening” entitled Pubes of Taint that concerned the subjectivity or presence/erasing of the author (January 31, 1969), it was Ludwiński who read the manifesto that had been prepared for this occasion by the (absent) artist himself. Ludwiński’s report of this happening remains the best documentation of his commitment to Gallery Mona Lisa as a critic and curator.
To sum up, Notes from the Future of Art is a very representative selection of Ludwiński’s fundamental thoughts during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The book gives a profound insight into the local character of Polish conceptualism and its numerous connections with Western artistic/intellectual circles. Such a twofold understanding of this phenomenon is also underlined by the erudite Counter-Dictionary compiled by Luiza Nader, which orders and interprets the most important notions used by Ludwiński in the articles collected in the volume. Additionally, the anthology reflects on the nature of Ludwiński’s writings as work in progress; this is made possible thanks to the reproductions of his original diagrams, drafts, and short remarks (all along with their transcription). The English-speaking reader may use this book both as an insightful introduction to Ludwiński’s views on Polish conceptualism or as an introduction to Polish conceptualism as such.