Natalia LL Consumer Art 1974 portrait of woman touching her teeth with her finger
Natalia LL
Consumer Art  1974
Film still. 16 mm film, silent, 15 min 53 sec

As a year-long season of exhibitions focusing on Polish art begins nationawide, Tate Etc. brings together four Polish art professionals to discuss why art from their country is not better known abroad and why it should be

Anda Rottenberg
The existence of the Iron Curtain did not allow for much exchange of information between East and West. Only certain artists managed to get out and make a name for themselves, such as Tadeusz Kantor or Magdalena Abakanowicz. The main factor keeping up the Iron Curtain was propaganda, but Poles did not believe the propaganda they were fed, while people in the West did. Until 1989 or so many critics, artists and museum directors found it inconceivable that there could be something going on in Poland under the communist regime. So they didn’t look for anything. As a result of that propaganda, the view was that only the art that emerged in Poland after 1989 was interesting and important. Being art made in a country open to other countries, it was believed to be influenced by non-Polish traditions. This is still the case. We get critics, curators and museum directors coming here and asking about the post-1989 generation, and we’re happy that there’s a demand for their work around the world, but it’s also worth thinking about the traditions that generation drew on.

KwieKulik Activities with the Head 3 Parts still of a performance with two seated figures with buckets over their heads

KwieKulik
Activities with the Head (3 Parts)
Performed at Labitynt Gallery, Lublin, 1978

Courtesy Zofia Kulik. Photo: Andrzej Polakowski

Michal Wolinski
The act of looking back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is something of an exotic expedition. In my magazine Piktogram we like to showcase the lesser-known aspects of those times, as there are many interesting phenomena that were previously ignored or misjudged. For example, KwieKulik’s (Przemyslaw Kwiek and Zofia Kulik) struggle against official state-controlled art institutions for neo-avant-garde art strategies and new media. They were developing their art in a specific political and economical context of society under the communist regime, and were influenced by ideas such as cybernetics or Oskar Hansen’s ‘Open Form’ (an architecturally-driven, radical humanist utopia). They were anti-objectorientated materialists who believed – in a utopian way – that they would be able to change visual communication in the public sphere. They experimented with ‘visual games’, collective activities and interactions. We are now getting a lot of young curators coming here who have a different attitude to Polish art. They have not been looking for the obvious artists such as Kantor or Abakanowicz, but for those such as Ewa Partum, who recently re-created her 1971 performance piece Active Poetry in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. She was shown next to Carl Andre (Poetry Reading), Martin Creed (Words) and films by Polish artists from different generations (Image/Text) selected by me and Lukasz Ronduda. Most of the curators we meet are well-informed and interested in Polish contemporary art, and they are curious to explore any intergenerational connections.

Ewa Partum Active Poetry 1971 photograph of a performance there are white paper letters of the alphabet strewn across the floor

Ewa Partum
Active Poetry 1971
Performance in Warsaw

Courtesy the artist
© Ewa Partum

Ewa Partum, 'Active Poetry' 1971

Ewa Partum
Active Poetry 1971
Black and white photograph on paper
unconfirmed: 180 x 165 mm
Purchased 2008© Ewa Partum

View the main page for this artwork

Lukasz Gorczyca
It’s not true to say that there was no exchange between East and West. Especially after 1956, the exchange was vibrant. An example is the exhibition Fifteen Polish Painters at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961. And in the 1970s there was a generation of Conceptual artists – Jan Swidzinski, Natalia LL and the Wroclaw art scene – who were part of the international Conceptual art circuit. I think the reason for the gap in perception from outside was the lack of any institutional partner in Poland prepared to work with international museums. Remember the story of Picasso visiting Poland in 1948 to attend the Peace Congress. He offered to donate twenty of his paintings to the National Museum in Warsaw as long as somebody from the institution would go and select works from his studio. Ultimately, the museum received a collection of ceramic plates because nobody could go.

Anda Rottenberg
Well, you have to remember that the Central Committee of the Communist Party was in charge of everything, and it was obvious there could be no immediate relations between Polish institutions and foreign ones. In the case of Picasso, Stanislaw Lorentz, the National Museum’s director, who was very influential, could have visited Picasso, but he didn’t like his work.

Jaroslaw Suchan
I once did an interview with Marian Warzecha, who took part in the Fifteen Polish Painters show in New York as a very young artist. He attracted a lot of interest and was invited to take part in another show at MoMA, ‘Art of Assemblage’, which included work by Picasso, Jasper Johns and other important artists. As a result the legendary New York gallerist Leo Castelli reportedly asked him to join his gallery on condition that he moved to America, or would be able to travel to the US any time the need arose. Warzecha returned to Poland, but was denied a passport and lost the chance of a lifetime. There were many political and administrative restrictions that made any artistic exchange between Poland and the West very difficult. But perhaps it was also because the relationship between art in Poland and communist Europe and in the West resembled a typical one between the metropolis (or centre) and the periphery. The metropolis perceives itself as the place where real things happen and is interested in what happens in the provinces only if it proves to be something exotic. When Poland emerged from Stalinism and Social Realism during the 1950s and 1960s, it turned out that it had its own modern art – abstract painting, art informel, assemblage, etc – just as in the West, but as it was in a communist country, it was seen as exotic.

Anda Rottenberg
I agree with your metropolitan theory and that conditions here were difficult, but those in Russia were even more difficult and yet people took suitcases full of dissident art out of Russia from 1970 onwards. I met them in 1974, and they were living very comfortably. They might not have been the best artists around, but they were in opposition to official art. They did well because people from the West were queuing up wanting to smuggle their work out of the Soviet Union, and they paid in dollars. This was not something that happened in Poland, but that’s because Russia was still a great imperial power, while Poland wasn’t.

Lech Tomaszewski Boomenrang 1962 clay sculpture

Lech Tomaszewski
Boomenrang 1962
Chamot clay (original destroyed)

Courtesy Musem of Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw

Jaroslaw Suchan
The visual history of central Europe after 1945 is a blank slate for most of the gallery-goers, curators and critics in the West. But the situation is slowly changing. Those who initially were interested only in young Polish artists are beginning to look back to earlier periods. For example, there has recently been an exhibition entitled Starting From Scratch; Art & Culture in Europe and the United States 1945–9 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, which included post-war paintings by Andrzej Wroblewski. He was a great figurative painter who died in 1957, but strongly influenced Polish art from the 1960s to the 1980s. The question is, however, to what extent such initiatives reflect the fascination with another exoticism and to what extent do they come from the serious will to redefine the Western view of tradition, modernism and the avant-garde?

Anda Rottenberg
It’s still an aspect of the metropolitan viewpoint, because there is such a thing as aesthetic custom, a set of norms, a template developed in other countries that one superimposes on the art of this region in order to map it out better. I remember somebody looking at a Wroblewski painting and saying that one of the legs was done in the manner of Picasso. It’s as if nothing else mattered. So until we get rid of this aesthetic habit, we will not be able to bring other values, viewpoints or traditions into the picture.

Michal Wolinski
I used the term ‘exotic expedition’ in an ironic sense because that’s how some people see it, though there is always a certain risk during such an expedition. We were talking about propaganda, censorship, ignorance and the opportunism of official institutions and official critics, not to mention the lack of commercial galleries. Add to that the fact that artists worked in a context of complex limitations – in the 1960s state policy dictated that no more than fifteen per cent of the works in a show were to be abstract, but then abstract or ‘pure’ art began to be tolerated and even came to be seen as useful for propaganda. Sometimes it is a risky operation to revise existing judgments about artists’ work and attitudes. Especially when they were trying to overstep the limitations and break out of safe frames of pure art. Or when people from other fields, such as architects, started to make art. Avant-garde architects could not carry out their projects on the scale they wanted, so they experimented with space in the galleries or in theory. This was the case with Oskar Hansen and Stanislaw Zamecznik, who developed environment art in the 1950s. Meanwhile, their partner, Lech Tomaszewski, moved into theory and began conducting remarkable research and exploring the most sophisticated branch of mathematics, namely topology. He also studied the fourth dimension, applying the imagination and intuition that making art requires to the study of topology. He made extraordinary things: projects on paper or small models that were later destroyed, things that were never before attempted in either art or topology. It was the next step, a kind of neo-avant-garde approach in the sense that he went beyond art. He wanted his work to be useful. He wanted an entirely new way of thinking about space that would inspire the imagination of artists. It was, in its way, a next step after Cubism, Futurism and Russian Constructivism.

Wojciech Fangor and Stanislaw Zamecznik Colour in Space 1959

Wojciech Fangor and Stanislaw Zamecznik
Colour in Space 1959
Installation view

Courtesy Museum of Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw

Jaroslaw Suchan
There’s another possible reason why the interest of the West in Polish art was so intermittent. Maybe it was because those institutions in Poland that were able to promote art abroad preferred certain values and artistic phenomena that were too consistent with the Western image of what the art of a given period should be like. Perhaps they didn’t sufficiently stress things that were on the sidelines from the Western perspective and from our perspective as well.

Anda Rottenberg
That is a very good point.

Jaroslaw Suchan
The artists who took part in Fifteen Polish Painters, such as Wojciech Fangor and Aleksander Kobzdej, were selected, as far as I know, partly by the Americans and partly by Polish decision-makers who had a say in whose work could be shown abroad. It is typical that whenever any Polish art from outside the mainstream was shown abroad, it was not because Polish institutions promoted it, but because the world took notice on its own.

Anda Rottenberg
Having followed the art scene since at least the late 1960s, I need to say that in Poland there were really two art circles that never overlapped or permeated each other. One was that of official art – which was backed by artistic institutions. There was a hierarchy with the Central Committee at the top, then the board of the Polish Artists’ Union which toed the Party line, the Culture Ministry which also did what the Party required and the mainstream institutions that tried to get as much as they could across, but without overstepping the boundaries. And then, since 1964, there was the fringe: art that was the most neo-avant-garde, that shattered the moulds of art, and consciously established itself on the sidelines. The people and groups Michal mentioned – Robakowski, KwieKulik – were constantly in touch. Despite attempts to do so, the two circles didn’t intermesh as there were such differences between them. Naturally, official magazines such as Kultura or Polityka wrote badly about the fringe artists when they wrote about them at all. They ridiculed people such as Ewa Partum, Andrzej Partum and KwieKulik. That style of criticism survived well into the 1990s. So this dichotomy in Polish art was perpetuated. 

Jaroslaw Suchan
I would say the official and the less official did cross over. Also, the concept of official art supported by the state changed with time. What had been unacceptable for the communist authorities in 1958 and the early 1960s, when the quota for fifteen per cent abstraction was introduced, was different by the 1970s, when abstraction was officially sanctioned. It was seen then by First Secretary Edward Gierek as a way for Poland to be perceived internationally as a normal democracy (in the Western sense), a consumer economy with advertising and contemporary art. At that time artists such as Henryk Stazewski, Tadeusz Kantor, Magdalena Abakanowicz or Wladyslaw Hasior were exhibited in official art institutions, the books about them were edited by official publishing houses and their works were acquired by the national museums. The reason I’m saying this is that people in the West sometimes believe that Poland was like 1970s and 1980s Russia, with an official art circuit producing Socialist Realist works and an underground arty scene. But in Poland, after 1956 when Stalinism and Socialist Realism were rejected, the situation was much more complex.

Anda Rottenberg
The structures or models inside Poland were only a partial obstacle to its art being understood internationally. There is another, more general, point worth mentioning. The late curator and critic Harald Szeemann said that 95 per cent of people learn about art by ear. First somebody hears a name and finds out that there is an aesthetic value attached to that name. Only then will they take an interest in that work. If someone hasn’t heard a name before, they won’t have the courage to admit it. That’s why the name Alina Szapocznikow didn’t mean anything to anyone for such a long time outside Poland. I mounted an exhibition of her work eleven years ago, and I tried to offer it around the world. Not a single person expressed any interest in her. Now, ten years on, if some of her work hadn’t been shown at Documenta in Kassel, and if it hadn’t finally become available on the market, directors of the great museums would still not recognise the value of her art. It’s a similar case with Wróblewski, who represented a different kind of aesthetic and gave rise to a school of art in Poland that returned to the object, to observation. Today, there is a tendency to look for reminiscences of Conceptualism, there are post-Conceptual shows, there is a revival of interest in that period around the world. And that’s why the artists Michal and the critic Lukasz Ronduda specialise in are attracting attention abroad. But this is not an objectively historical viewpoint. It is another case of taking advantage of a trend, or being in tune with the times.

Alina Szapocznikow leg 1965 bronze leg embedded in a round lump of granite rock

Alina Szapocznikow
Leg 1965
Granite and bronze
76 x 76 x 46 cm

Courtesy Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz. Photo: P. Tomczyk

Lukasz Gorczyca
Yes. Apart from art histories that have a universal voice, there are also local histories and cultures.

Jaroslaw Suchan
The point is that certain local cultures are still seen as dominant, as being manifestations of universal culture. In the early 1990s the American critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece about Miroslaw Balka in which he wondered how he managed to become an international success. He thought it was because Balka was able to translate his very particular experience as a central European artist into the idiom of international or universal art. To me that is a perfect example of metropolitan, self-centred perspective. I don’t accept the concept of a universal idiom in contemporary art, or any other art for that matter. There is no such thing: every idiom was developed somewhere, in some place. And those places are usually the centres of economic and political power.

Lukasz Gorczyca
I believe that the universal idiom is also cracking in the Western centres that ‘invented’ and played with the idea of modern and/or contemporary art, such as Paris, New York, London and Berlin. For example, the work of the utopian architecture group Archigram, or of, say, the outsider artist Henry Darger, is going against the grain of the universalist idiom, and is now becoming a significant part of mainstream culture.

Michal Wolinski
Yes. But when I am talking about attempts to revise achievements of architects such as Hansen and Stanislaw Zamecznik, artists such as KwieKulik and Marek Konieczny, or artist-filmmakers from Workshop of The Film Form (Jozef Robakowski or Pawel Kwiek), I am also trying to highlight their importance in comparison with the current art of the younger or middle generation of artists who are successful in the West, such as Piotr Uklanski, Pawel Althamer, Artur Zmijewski and Monika Sosnowska. Their art didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor could they have been infused with certain things because art history in Poland left much to be desired.

Group portrait of Piotr Uklanski Monika Szwajewska Marek Konieczny and Cezary Bodzianowski

Group portrait of (left to right) Piotr Uklanski, Monika Szwajewska, Marek Konieczny and Cezary Bodzianowski

Courtesy Piotr Uklanski

Anda Rottenberg
I would say each of these artists follows another tradition. In the case of Artur Zmijewski, he represents a very specific attitude, that of a militant artist who’s on the side of what we might arbitrarily call the oppressed minority, be it the disabled, or national minorities. He plumbs areas of social hypocrisy, addressing issues of the marginalisation of certain people within society. And he’s closely associated with a left-wing magazine, Krytyka Polityczna. These subjects had never been taken up by Polish art, with the possible exception of Joanna Rajkowska. He’s an outstanding artist who’s become an established presence in Polish art.

Lukasz Gorczyca
However, it took a very long time for him to be noticed. Perhaps that was due to the fact that his earlier work, such as Out for a Walk 2000, where he asked paralysed people to walk, was so vulgar, savage and alien that nobody was able to stomach it. But thanks to the fact that his art took on a clear political and discursive position, and began telling stories, creating narratives about contemporary social relations, national chauvinism…

Michal Wolinski
But isn’t Zmijewski saying what Western critics and curators want to hear? Isn’t it politically correct to some extent?

Anda Rottenberg
Definitely not… It was very politically incorrect in Poland for many years.

Jaroslaw Suchan
There is a point here concerning the change that occurred in Zmijewski’s art: you said that he shows the phenomena related to the socially excluded from a very defined standpoint. But he assumed that standpoint some time ago, also through his institutional relationship with Krytyka Polityczna. His earlier works, however, are so difficult to accept precisely because they show reality stripped bare. The artist refrains from commentary, and does not help us to take the comfortable position of being on the right side. It wasn’t a critique, it was an in-your-face exposing.

Lukasz Gorczyca
I still believe that his alliance with Krytyka Polityczna is yet another of his cynical artistic games. He’s decided to use Krytyka, thinking he can use it in an equally drastic and provocative way as his work with the disabled.

Jaroslaw Suchan
Well, he is certainly an influential figure, though I think the distance between the generations is too slight for him to become a mentor for younger artists, or at least they would not be willing to admit to succumbing to his influence. 

Jan Simon Six Day Week 2004 photograph of a wall clock from a performance

Jan Simon
Six-Day Week 2004
Performance

Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warsaw
© Jan Simon

Lukasz Gorczyca
My experience with some of the artists I know or work with – Wilhelm Sasnal, Rafal Bujnowski, or the younger ones such as Janek Simon – is that they take entirely different positions artistically or politically from Zmijewski or Althamer. Whereas the latter grew up in a certain artistic tradition that can be traced back to Hansen and Grzegorz Kowalski, the people I’m speaking about make their work in a spirit of negation. They grew up unable to identify or involve themselves with a specific tradition that appeared to them as weak or compromised. We grew up in the late-communist era, which was then visibly but slowly falling apart, and started adult life in a new capitalist reality. It means our ‘past’ was automatically considered ‘weak’ in comparison with ‘new times’, but we have learned to remain distanced from the new as it is probably just another artificial construction of the reality. I would just like to say that different artistic traditions were not so formative for my generation compared with ‘bare life’ going on in a moment which was (still is?) historically extremely interesting. The tradition of 1980s painting was not a relevant benchmark. What went on in Kowalski’s studio in the 1990s – the focus on a transgressive, self-expressive kind of body art, practised by Kozyra, Althamer, Zmijewski and others – was not a point of reference either, because there was a rejection of the very strong academic streak that milieu had. Theirs was a politically committed art, but only on a discursive, philosophical level. Consequently, the younger generation produced what I would call a zero syndrome, starting from scratch. Hence their art usually verges on the psychedelic or the absurd. And since public institutions have struggled to offer support, a lot of art made by young artists in the late 1990s was purely a critique of institutions. For example, Hubert Czerepok made a work where he shipped an empty crate to a gallery because the gallery had told him that it could only cover the cost of shipping. It was an attempt to establish a new order among the ruins. 

Jan Simon Carpet Invaders 2002 detail from an installation depicting a carpet woven with a Space Invaders motif

Jan Simon
Carpet Invaders 2002
Interactive installation (detail)

Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warsaw
© Jan Simon

Anda Rottenberg
It has to be said that it’s much easier to work with dead artists. That’s the case with Edward Krasinski, who began to be widely known only when he was so ill that he had no influence over what was happening with his art. Wlodzimierz Borowski, who died recently, inevitably threw a spanner in the works whenever anyone wanted to help him to make a career. In this respect he was the most consistent of all Polish artists. There’s a hope that, in the near future, someone will take an interest in his output and describe it, because he’s one of those people who are not known even in Poland, much less internationally. He said that what mattered most to him in art was artistic attitude and not what he made. (I was there when he burned several dozen of his objects). Among the ‘undiscovered’ attitudes in Poland that greatly influenced successive generations of artists, and established a school of thinking in radical terms, his was one that has never found successors – because no one was ever as radical. But at least his work was invoked, and maybe the time has come for the world to take an interest in that attitude.

Rafal Bujnowski Visa Portrait 2004 portrait of a man

Rafal Bujnowski
Visa Portrait 2004
Oil on canvas
35 x 35 cm

Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warsaw
© Rafal Bujnowski