Julije Knifer

M 69-41

1969

Artist
Julije Knifer 1924–2004
Medium
Acrylic paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 679 x 952 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented as a partial gift by the estate of the artist and partial purchase with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2017
Reference
T14788

Summary

M 69–41 1969 is an acrylic painting on canvas. A black painted geometric form, made up of four thick verticals and three slightly thinner horizontals, is set in relation to a gold painted ground. The elements of the black form are seamlessly connected at right angles to create a rhythm across the surface, from left to right or right to left. The vertical element of the continuous form on the left-hand side of the canvas bleeds off the edge to the left, as does the vertical element on the right-hand side of the canvas, alluding to the possibility of the infinite continuation of the form. The top and bottom edges of the black form do not reach to the edges of the canvas as the spaces at the top and bottom of the canvas and the three vertical spaces between the upright elements are painted gold. Having previously worked with oil paint, Knifer switched to using acrylic in 1968, impressed by the new possibilities it offered in relation to the compactness of the painted surface. In M 69–41, as with other works made using acrylic, the traces of the brushwork are invisible. Art historian Vera Horvat Pintaric has noted that acrylic enabled Knifer to create colour surfaces that were ‘evenly condensed, solid and impenetrable, taking a new tactile quality’ (in Makovic 2002, p.68).

Knifer referred to the geometric form he used in this painting, and numerous others, as the ‘meander’. A member of the Zagreb-based nihilist Gorgona group (1959–66), he believed that a form of ‘anti-painting’ could be achieved by reducing the visual aspect of a painting, using minimal resources and extreme contrasts. He developed his first clearly defined meander in 1960 and obsessively repeated the motif during his forty-year career to the exclusion of all other forms, creating, in effect, a single work. In his Notes written in 1975 he commented: ‘What I am doing is not decoration, ornament or aesthetics. For me this is a series of facts that constitute a meander or a series of meanders, which are in the end just one meander.’ (Quoted in Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 2014, p.19.) He based his variations of the motif on categories such as repetition, monotony, flow, rhythm, time, patience and non-development, primarily employing the (non)-colours black and white.

In the second half of the 1950s, Knifer had created hundreds of drawings and numerous paintings in which he practiced a process of gradual reduction, variants of geometric signs in rectangular fields, continuously, day after day, as if creating a visual diary. By eliminating superfluous elements, exploring the horizontal and vertical, reducing his palette to black and white and creating a rhythm on a surface, he arrived at the meander motif. He wrote: ‘I attempted to create a form of anti-painting using minimal means with ultimate contrasts, supposed to create a monotonous rhythm’ (ibid., p.147.). The first such painting, Meander 1 1960 (private collection), consists of black, interconnected elements of different sizes on a white ground. The second, Meander 2 1960 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb), a white meander on a black ground, is a more balanced composition with identical meander arms. Knifer’s meanders, with their repetition of similar elements, create a rhythm across the surface, defined by the artist as an ‘escalation of uniformity and monotony’ (ibid., p.145). His approach was in part influenced by his discovery of serial music and the experimental music of Stockhausen, John Cage, Maurizio Kagel, Luigi Nono and others that he encountered during the Music Biennale held in Zagreb in 1961. Igor Stravinsky’s musical technique of repetition and reduction, and the composer’s phrase that music is nothing but rhythm, were also important concepts for the artist.

M 69–41 was made at a time when Knifer was turning to a more open chromatic range in his painting in an attempt to reassess the radical reduction of means that he had begun ten years earlier. It is one of six related works made between 1969 and 1973 that include M 20 A 1969, Meander 1970, MZ 01 1970, and MK 73–2 1973. Knifer titled his works in a variety of ways, using the terms ‘meander’ and ‘untitled’ at times, at others incorporating his own system of letters and numbers. These works were made during a short period when colour appeared in his work, a black meander on a grey surface, and variations of a black symbol on a golden surface and a blue symbol on a black or golden surface. The paintings were made following his travels throughout Yugoslavia where he visited various monasteries and studied the icon paintings he saw there. Reference to Yves Klein’s (1928–1962) monochromatic painting, his reductive approach and interest in transcendental and metaphysical concepts, as well as his experimentation with the colours gold and blue can also be inferred. The exhibition Yves Klein which took place at the Gallery of Contemporary Art (Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti) in Zagreb from March to April 1971 would have resonated with Knifer at this time.

For Knifer, the form of the meander was purely visual and did not have any philosophical, pictorial or decorative function, although the work could be open to different interpretations which ascribe symbolic or philosophical features to the sign. Nor was the idea of chronology or order significant for his work. He commented in his Notes: ‘I have probably already painted my last paintings, but maybe not the first ones’ (quoted in ibid., p.147). He sought to follow an objective logic, through which he recorded rhythms of events on the surface. The nihilist spirit of the Gorgona group likely contributed to his notion of anti-painting and his individual artistic approach. Active from 1959 to 1966, Gorgona sought alternative forms and means of artistic expression, shaped by the Dadaist tradition and Eastern philosophical thought. Gorgona was an informal art group with no common language, united, as art historian and curator Nena Dimitrijevic has noted ‘by the common affinity to the spirit of modernism defined by the recognition of absurdity, emptiness, and monotony as aesthetic categories, inclination to nihilism, and metaphysical irony’ (in Julije Knifer, Uncompromising, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2014, p.181).

Further reading
Zvonko Makovic, Julije Knifer, Zagreb 2002.
Ramila Iva Jankovic, Zvonko Makovic, Igor Zidic, Julije Knifer et al., Julije Knifer, Uncompromising, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 2014, reproduced p.128.

Juliet Bingham
March 2016

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