Ivan Picelj



Ivan Picelj 1924–2011
Metal, wood and paint
Object: 700 × 700 × 57 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2016


Suasum 1965 is a square-format metal relief on a painted wooden backboard. The relief is made up of forty-nine equally sized, curved (concave) painted metal elements displayed in a grid of seven rows by seven columns. Forming a coffered surface, each modular metal unit is arranged in an alternating orientation at ninety degrees regularly across the grid. Set upon a black wooden backboard, the metal half-cylinders range in colour from dark grey at the outer edges of the grid to light grey, and are centred upon a single white metal piece. The concave metal elements reflect light and cast shadows, creating a sense of inner movement. Equally, Picelj was interested in how the perception of a work changes in relation to the movement of the viewer in front of it. In some works, such as the monumental metal relief Passage 1967 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb), each curved metal element was set on thin raised supports at ascending heights, creating a sculptural and optical rhythm. Picelj also used colour to create different optical effects. In works such as Suasum, he created a sense of light growing from dark edges to whiteness in the centre; in others, such as Candra I 1965 (private collection), he used white to create a monochrome coffered surface which responded to ambient lighting. He also worked with complementary colours, as seen in the red and green elements in Ania 1965 (private collection), which created a vibrating optical effect.

Prior to making Suasum, Picelj had experimented with making reliefs out of wood for a number of years, up to the early 1960s (see, for example, Surface IX 1962 [Tate T14675]). He was involved with the New Tendencies movement in his native Yugoslavia, an international movement of European artists and theorists who sought to establish a position that was distinct from abstract expressionism and tachisme. It advocated a new conception of art experimenting with the visual investigation of surfaces, structures and objects, and a methodically planned artistic practice based on research and the active participant. From 1964 Picelj embraced the new medium of metal, which he used either raw or industrially varnished, and which better suited his conceptual development and reflected the tendencies and new technologies of the early 1960s. He initially developed his series of wooden Surfaces by creating a number of similar works in brass, using the grid as an organising principle. In 1965 he began making metal reliefs with a square matrix, such as Suasum, each cell of the matrix filled with one concave or convex element, which gave the surface an optical rhythm, accentuated by the contrasts of white, black and grey. Having previously titled his reliefs with the term ‘surface’, in the mid-1960s he began to use individual titles for his metal reliefs, such as Candra I 1965, Naranga 1965, Ides 1967 and Grya 1967, in addition to labelling works with letters and numbers such as TQS – 3 1966 and XY – I Negro 1966. He gave this particular work a Latin title, ‘suasum’ being the supine form of the Latin verb suadeo, meaning to advise, to urge or to persuade.

Suasum was first exhibited in New York in 1965 at the Howard Wise Gallery, which specialised in constructivist art, kinetic art and light sculpture. It was American art critic Douglas MacAgy who had introduced Picelj’s work to Howard Wise and proposed to Picelj that he exhibit at the gallery. In a letter dated 25 May 1965, MacAgy had written to Picelj noting: ‘Last June I had the pleasure of meeting you in Venice through Madame Denise Rene [a Parisian gallerist specialising in kinetic art and op art] … At that time I knew your work mainly from hearsay and a reproduction or two. But your piece in The Museum of Modern Art’s “Responsive Eye” exhibition [25 February to 25 April 1963] captivated me.’ (Quoted in Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 2014, p.11.) MacAgy’s proposal resulted in the artist sending nineteen reliefs, including Suasum and Surface IX, and three paintings, which were shown in relation to the work of Brazilian constructivist Abraham Palatnik (born 1928) in the exhibition entitled Cinecromaticos by Abraham Palatnik of Brazil; Površine by Ivan Picelj of Yugoslavia: Two One-Man Shows (12 to 30 October 1965). Due to bureaucratic difficulties at the time, it was not possible to transport the works back to socialist Yugoslavia and they remained in storage in New York for over four decades. Thirteen works, including Surface IX and Suasum, were reunited with the estate of the artist in 2013 and exhibited for the first time since 1965 in the exhibition Merci Picelj at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU), Zagreb in 2014.

Further reading
Margit Rosen (ed.), A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art. New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–1973, Karlsruhe, Cambridge, MA and London 2011.
Merci Picelj. From the Ivan Picelj’s Archives and Library, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 2014, reproduced p.46.

Juliet Bingham
March 2016

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