Imre Bak

Good Bad


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Not on display

Imre Bak born 1939
Original title
Jó Rossz
Tempera on paper
Unconfirmed: 299 × 597 mm
Presented by a group of anonymous donors 2015


Good Bad 1973 is a symmetrical graphic composition produced with tempera paint on paper. The work is composed of three bold colours – bright red, royal blue and black – against a pale background. On the left, the word ‘’ (Hungarian for ‘Good’) appears in black capital letters in the centre of a red square with a strong black outline and sharply delineated edges. To the right of this square is a vertical red trapezoid also outlined in black, which acts as an auxiliary panel to the red square or alternatively transforms it into a cube. The horizontal edge of the trapezoid’s black border forms the outer edge of a mirror-image panel in blue, which connects to a blue square with black outlines. At the centre of this blue square the word ‘Rossz’ (‘Bad’) appears in bold, black capital letters.

Due to material constraints, in the early 1970s Bak worked mainly on paper and on a small scale before returning to large-scale painting on canvas from the mid-1970s onwards. The symmetrical design and restricted colour palette of Good Bad strongly resembles Bak’s other works on paper produced in 1972 and 1973, at the height of his engagement with hard-edge painting. Also typical of this early period of Bak’s practice is the subject matter, focusing on the tension between the parts and the whole and the contradictions between words and images. From 1972 Bak’s interest in semiotic theory and conceptualism led him to experiment with testing the relationship between form, colour and text in the formation of cultural meaning. His approach was influenced in particular by the writings of the pioneering Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935).

The binary opposition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with the suggestion of positive and negative moral implications, is central to the discussion of signification. The shapes of the objects in Good Bad appear to subtly allude to the infinity symbol, further reinforcing the understanding of the good-bad dichotomy at the centre of the production of verbal and visual meaning. Bak’s division of the work into two halves, with red unusually indicated as ‘good’ and blue as ‘bad’, further challenges the viewer’s understanding of these concepts. The juxtaposition of these perceived moralistic terms with the ubiquitous red-blue binary opposition – frequently assigned to everything from rival political parties to football teams – questions the viewer’s own allegiances. The work also appears to be deeply ironic, confronting both the viewer’s personal classifications of good and bad and the utopian rhetoric that dominated life under communist rule in the artist’s native Hungary. The curator and art historian Lóránd Hegyi has stated that Bak ‘creates new, subjective forms out of scraps which then lose their heroic status and context. Retaining some of their original meaning, these images acquire new significance too through new conjunctions’ (Lóránd Hegyi in Néray and Bak (eds.) 1986).

The sense of irony in Good Bad also relates to the artist’s experiences during the period of the work’s production. In the early 1970s Bak had largely withdrawn from painterly practice due to the economic and political constraints imposed on creative workers in Hungary. Along with a number of other avant-garde artists, Bak chose to distance himself from the obligation to subscribe to official artistic doctrine by limiting his activity to conceptual photography and drawing. Even so, Bak remained at the centre of the avant-garde artistic community in Budapest. He first trained as a painter at the city’s High School of Fine and Applied Arts (1953–7) and later at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts (1958–63). In the 1960s he was a member of the Zuglo Circle (Zuglói kör), which initially looked to School of Paris artists such as Jean René Bazaine (1904–2001) and Alfred Manessier (1911–1993). In the latter half of the decade, Bak’s early experiments with tachisme gave way to a more geometric abstract practice, after the young artist had backpacked across Western Europe and travelled to Russia in the mid-1960s to see art that was unavailable to him in Hungary.

In addition to Malevich, Bak has cited Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) and his fellow countryman Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) as inspirations for his practice (see Hajdu István, Bak Imre, Budapest 2003). Upon his return to Hungary he blended these influences with an eclectic range of references, including art nouveau, symbolism and Hungarian folk art. Bak and his peers in the Zuglo Circle also began to be influenced by recent developments in American art, including pop art, minimalism and hard-edge painting. Following the revolution in Hungary in 1956, these artists were keen to position Hungary in line with the global tendency towards postmodernism and eclecticism. From the mid-1960s, Bak forged a career as a pioneer of geometric abstraction and constructivism, exhibiting his work in group exhibitions in Budapest from 1966, and holding his debut solo show in 1968 at the Galerie Müller in Stuttgart. However, it was not until 1977 that the artist was given his first one-man exhibition in his native country and in 1986 he was one of four artists chosen to represent Hungary at the Venice Biennale.

Further reading
Katalin Néray and Imre Bak (eds.), Bak, Birkás, Kelemen, Nádler, exhibition catalogue, Ungheria: XLII. La Biennale di Venezia, Budapest 1986.
Márta Kovalovszky, ‘Twice Fifteen’, in Kétszer Tizenöt: Bak Imre, 1965–1999, exhibition catalogue, Szent István Király Múzeum, Székesfehérvár 1999.
Hajdu István, Bak Imre, Budapest 2003.

Julia Tatiana Bailey
June 2015

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