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JUDITH HOFFBERG

E-LETTER FROM EUROPE




Dusseldorf--buildings designed
by our own Frank Gehry.


DÜSSELDORF

On the road to attend the Art Critics Annual Congress in Poland this year, I landed in Düsseldorf to find three new Frank Gehry buildings, one in titanium, one in stone and one in brick along the riverside, which is being regenerated as a restaurant, cinema, design and gentrified area for the up and coming middle class in this beautiful city. The three buildings, not exactly alike, certainly attract attention and change the whole feeling of the waterfront, which is overpowered by a glass structure so large that it overpowers the park it overlooks. This is the County headquarters building, more like the Ford Foundation than like the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County.

In Düsseldorf, I visited the marvelous Book Gallery Mergemeir, which is the outgrowth of 50 years in the bookbinding business. A program of exhibitions highlights certain artists which owners Renate Mergemeier and Anna Grassl present in a beautiful gallery setting. This time it was a retrospective of Takako Saito, a Japanese Fluxus artist who came to Düsseldorf 20 years ago and stayed. Unfortunately, I could not stay to see her celebrate this event with a happening on the river, floating various sizes of white cubes which she had made by hand –hundreds of them—on the Rhine on the 28th of May.



Warsaw--Old bank building,
still unrepaired a half-
century after WW II.
WARSAW
Poland is a country of paradox. With an economic program that has brought financial progress to a people that had been living under the shadow of Communism for so long, Poland still lives with its history, and the marks of that World War II regime is everywhere. There is Joe Stalin’s gift to Warsaw, an oversized towering building which makes every citizen and visitor seem ant-like in comparison, now called the Cultural Center but which is as far from culture as you can get. Or the oversized highways that seem to make crossing to the other side the greatest of obstacles. Yet the young people are buying hip hop clothes, shaving their heads, wearing T-shirts with UCLA and Winnie the Pooh and the Simpsons with great aplomb. On the radio you hear Madonna and all the rest, and the only noticeable difference from home is that they speak Polish.

With a Ministry of Culture that takes its responsibility seriously and someone like Anda Rottenberg, who made this Congress so successful, we saw an amazing selection of museums and galleries. The visual arts are alive and well, and living in Poland. The older artists seem to have accumulated information and experience to temper their new work with the memories of the old. Sofia Kulik, the Polish representative at the last Venice Biennale, creates a visual data-bank of black and white images she culls from older art and then pieces together into large wall-size murals consisting of small black and white photos. With a design of a kind of tapestry or carpet, these taken as a whole are patterned art made of individual parts which tell a story about culture past and present. The studio of Magdalena Abakanowicz, in a bourgeois neighborhood, is a delicious counterpoint to the regime she had to represent when she was the artist selected by the Communist government to go abroad and represent her country in exhibitions and Biennales. This amazing woman sculptor is now represented at the Metropolitan Museum on the roof garden through late fall as well as at the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her generosity with great cocktails (vodka of course) and homemade treats was balanced by a slide lecture on her work delivered with great zest and passion.

Then of course, there were visits to palaces which have become museums of great note. In a Palladian style palace, called Krolikarnia, we attended an opening of The North--The South: Transcultural Visions, which included (among others) work by Bill Viola as well as Bruce Nauman. Under a full moon with the stars as a canopy, we ate a sumptuous meal and felt miles and years away from the contemporary art inside the museum. At the Contemporary Art Center in the Ujazdowski Castle there was an incredible opening of the exhibition Conceptual Reflexion in Polish Art with heavy emphasis on conceptual art of the 1960s and ‘70s, as well very recent work. This Contemporary Art Center covers music, dance, films and video, hosting 300 projects annually--with artists from all over the world including John Cage, Frank Gehry, Lynn Hershman, Alison Knowles, Matt Mullican, Joseph Kosuth and many more. This castle was reconstructed beginning 1974 and completed in 1981. The space seems larger than the Geffen and covers more floors.

A fascinating exhibition called Fauna appeared at the Zacheta Gallery, with the theme of animals in almost all the work. The show allowed American Barry Flanagan and Nedko Salakov from Bulgaria to commune with artists from all over Europe in addressing the subject of animals. Conceptually designed by Mikhail Minidlin, a Russian curator, art critic and director of the State Center of Contemporary Art in Moscow, along with a young curator at the Zaheta, this was a very popular show. Featured Russian and Polish artists’ works delighted the public of all ages.

To talk of Warsaw without telling you about history would be unrealistic. There is a shadow of the Holocaust everywhere. Lest we forget this not just for the Jewish population, but for all of Poland, reminders of this horrible chapter in history are everywhere. Commemorative plaques on many buildings, cite facts and figures and people who were killed, or who helped assist in the resistance or uprising in the ghetto. Monuments commemorate an event or a person or the whole reaction to Hitler’s grand plan. I was with two Swedish critics as we saw the memorial monument to the Jewish Ghetto, made of Swedish marble, once designated by Hitler to be used to construct memorials of an extinct people. The irony was very sharp as we looked upon the monument surrounded by a large green meadow. The art that is made by Jewish and Christian artists alike is touched, tinged and tainted by the memory of the past. You don’t have to be Jewish to have been affected by this history, and thus, it continues to appear in so much visual art.

Since 1994 the Polish Artists Union has sponsored a series of exhibitions of book arts, including book illustration--and the Polish artists are very great illustrators, especially of children’s books--as well as artist books and book objects. A show at the National Library in Warsaw was whimsically installed on cardboard boxes, large enough to set up end to end to create pedestals for these wonderful bookworks. Under the leadership of Alicja Slowikowska and Radek Nowakowski the artists are determined to find venues to show their evolving book art and make a contribution to the growing audience and artists throughout the world who are creating works of art in book form in ingenious ways. They go to book fairs in Frankfurt, Leipzig, New York, London and other venues to in order to exhibit and demonstrate once again that Poland is making important contributions to this field.

LODZ

In the city of Lodz, there is an International Artists’ Museum, a museum without walls with a worldwide channel of community, linking artists and intellectuals from various media through a chain of autonomous, locally-run art centers. Formed during the Construction in Process III [1990] in Lodz, which was returned to Poland after the collapse of Communism, this is the only independent museum in the world run directly by artists. Emmett Williams, a founding member of Fluxus, and an Amercian poet and artist, has been its president since that time, directing the museum with its moving trans-national events. A number of offices around the world in Berlin, Bydgoszcz, Cardiff, Dublin, Eindhoven, Melbourne, Moscow, Paris, Tel Aviv, New York look to Lodz as their nerve center. The next Construction in Process will take place in Poland in 2000.

Not far from Lodz is the amazing Centre of Polish Sculpture in Oronsko, 120 km from Warsaw. Surrounded by a vast park, the center is housed in a 19th century manor farm consisting of a restored palace, orangery and manor buildings. The family who founded it gave a house and a studio to Polish painter Joseph Brandt, who set up the Oronsko Independent Academy in 1877. Here 200 artists from around the world annually come to study, create and execute works of art in sculptural form. Artists get housing, a studio, and specialists to help them make sculpture and realize artistic projects whose only limits are space and properties of certain chosen materials. Sixty technicians are at the artists’ beck and call to work in plastic, stone, wood, bronze, ceramics or paper. Many of the works are left in the sculpture park as a permanent exhibit. Some artists have a live-in studio, but have dialogue with their peers at meals and symposia. There is also a hotel for artists on the premises for those who prefer. There is also a Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, two smaller galleries called The Chapel and The Orangery, broad meadows and ponds, and so much more. The exhibition we saw was one called Models of the World, a demonstration of the links between science and art, by two Polish artists and one from Finland. This was a poetic and beautifully installed exhibition that remains an amazingly resonant visual experience. For more information, contact them at: ul. Topolowa 1, 26-681 Oronsko, Poland. ph/fax: (48048) 362-1916. E-mail: crporo@polbox.com

As far as Lodz is concerned, it has one of the largest collections of modern art in the world, second only to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The International Collection of Modern Art is part of the Museum of Art in Lodz, founded in 1930-31 on the initiation of the a.r. (revolutionary artists or real avant-garde) group headed by Wladyslaw Strzeminski, an eminent Polish painter and art theoretician. It gathered works by artists from everywhere in Europe who were asked to give to the collection--Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Fernand Leger, and many more artists who were at that time not accepted by the official museums. After the period of Social Realism, when none of these works were allowed to be exhibited, contacts and cooperation were renewed and many works of art by major artists were donated to the collection. By the end of the 1960s, the museum began to catch up with the gaps that had been enforced by the regime. As a result, works by Tadeusz Kantor, Roman Opalka, Abakanowicz, Wodiczko, Balka and many more were added to the collection, where many works have been lent to other institutions abroad and in Europe for shows. One of the highlights of the collection is a body of work by Joseph Beuys, donated in 1981 by the artist himself. After a visit to this museum, you learn how much you do not know about the history of art, even of European art. Sam Francis, John Baldessari, Chris Burden and many more Los Angeles artists have contributed to this collection. In fact, there is a Los Angeles-Lodz connection.

One of my primary interests is artist books, and one of the main reasons for coming to Poland was to visit Jadwiga and Janusz Tryzno, who direct Correspondance des Arts, a private foundation they founded in 1980. Situated in a monumental villa of a former industrialist, collector and patron of the arts before World War II that is located in the center of Lodz, the villa was chosen as the seat of the museum for its high cellars adaptable for printing and paper workshops, and for the large rooms with 19th-Century interiors suitable for concerts, meetings, and exhibitions. The villa has been slowly renovated by the Tryznos in order to make it comfortable as a workshop, an exhibition space, and a papermaking shop. The foundation owns 600,000 different typefonts, a composing department and various typographic machines, equipment to make handmade paper and also bookbinding equipment, an offset press, and, yes, even computer equipment. Currently, they are trying to get the old bookbinding equipment from the Museum of Krakov. They also own 250,000 type matrices, some of which represent the Hebrew and Yiddish fonts which were used to pulish Sholom Aleichem and other great Jewish writers. They own the first and the last matrix cutter ever manufactured. They are trying to maintain all their printing presses and machinery, which are now antiques and relics of a past technology, and no longer exists except here.

The foundation has had a number of exhibitions and collaborators in various book fairs as well. They have been seen in the U.S., England and Ireland, in Germany, in France and in Israel. Renowned throughout the world, Correspondance des Arts is now looking to create a permanent collection of artist books, with an emphasis on Polish artists first and then an extension to inter-national bookworks as well. They are also creating a reference collection of books about books, the nucleus of which comes from the collection of the founders.

The foundation’s Museum of Book Art seeks to preserve the place of the book as an important part of Polish culture after World War II. The destruction of private presses and publishers caused the tradition of the ‘the beautiful book’ to cease to exist until the 1980s, when the authorities allowed for private purchases of printing equipment. It took a long time to find out more about the emigration printing houses, and soon the Tryznos received enough acclaim to convince the director of the Library of the University of Lodz to examine its collection of art books. With the exhibition in 1992 of Books and Pages, the Museum of Book Arts finally reached wider recognition and acclaim. The Museum attracts bibliophiles and artists, as well as young people and students. The Tryznos fund the Museum through their bookbinding, printing and design business, but this is never enough. They hope to develop grants to make the foundation stable. Its future is still not defined, depending upon its non-profit status, which is still to be determined by the Polish government. Meanwhile, it continues in its efforts to make the ‘beautiful book’ live again in Poland. The address is: ul. Tymienieckiego 24, Lodz, Poland. The e-mail addres is: bookart@lodz.pdi.net

Example presses from the
collection of the Museum of
Book Art, Lodz, Poland:




















The Poles really know how to publish, and I came away with a library of catalogues, documents, artist books, and a myriad of other documentation that made the trip not as portable as I had wanted. Art organizations do their best to document, present and generally excite through the printed word. Of course, that brings up the problem of language, but English seems to be an alternative language, one that is used as an accompanying translated text for almost everything. I do not think this was done especially for AICA Congress attendees, but for the art community abroad. If you cannot come to Poland, you can in fact read about the art in English in their catalogues.



Krakov's Kazmir (Jewish Ghetto),
showing a wrought iron gate with
menorahs as design (best seen
in full size version of the
above photo).

KRAKOV

In Krakov, the dominant artist is Tadeuz Kantor [1915-1990] designer, educator, performance artist, author of numerous texts on art, statements and manifestos, who in 1942 founded the Independent Theater; in 1945, the Group of Young Artists; the Club of Artists in 1948; the Cricot Theater in 1955; and in 1957, he co-founded the Cracow Group. During this trip I saw a number of exhibitions dedicated to various periods of Kantor’s career, including one at the most viable commercial gallery in all of Poland, the Gallery Starmach, which seems larger than any gallery in Chelsea in New York City today.

The Gallery Potocka was Krakov’s first privately owned gallery, founded by Maria Anna Potocka, who has been showing artists since the 1970s in four different galleries. The nucleus of Gallery Potocka will be included in the Museum of Modern Art in Niepolomice, an international collection consisting of works of art donated by artists and including several
hundred works in drawing, sculpture, objects, installations, video, audio works, photographs, films, etc. A library, collection of visual documentation, and collections of papers of the artists will also be part of this first museum of modern art to be established in Poland since World War II. The collection includes Eric Andersen, Marek Chlanda, Ken Friedman, Jochen Gerz, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Milan Knizak, Geza Perneczky, David Rabinowitch, Daniel Spoerri, Petr Stembera, Peter Weibel and many more Polish artists.

Although my Polish vocabulary amounts to about ten words, you don’t have to be fluent to pick up a palpable feeling of well-being among artists here, a camaraderie, a continuous dialogue of intelligent discourse as well as contention. It makes for an organic art community. The country is full of farmland, but it is fruitful in the cultural development of a post-war, post-regime country that is constantly inventing itself.

I write this in memory of Dick Higgins, a great artist, musician, writer, theoretician, poet, painter, and Renaissance man who touched my life deeply and left his mark in Poland as he did in countries all over the world. Fluxus will never be the same without him, and I will not either. May the art history books written in the future recognize him and other artists of the 1960s who seemingly do not exist in most histories of art, at least not as yet. Book artists, avant garde artists, performance artists are all recognized here in Poland. Perhaps we could learn from them to never forget.