Completely new at Peter Freeman Inc., which includes five Eastern European artists, underscores the artists’ shared desire that “art should proceed from the basic, elemental and essential,” as the press release states, while also reflecting on the aesthetic and socio-political issues of their geography and historical contexts. Organized by Croatian art critic and curator Branka Stipančić, the exhibition features conceptual artworks created between 1949 and 2020 by Mangelos, Mladen Stilinović, Julije Knifer and Goran Trbuljak, all from Zagreb, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia); and Július Koller from Bratislava, Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia). For these artists, starting from the elementary meant raising existential questions about how to deal with language and humor or irony in art. The works relate to or relate to alphabets, dictionaries, notebooks, book covers and puns — Completely new takes the viewer back to early learning in the classroom.
flawless Tabula Rasa series (1951-56), consisting of 10 tempera drawings of black rectangles, represents the main theme of the exhibition: how each of the artists conceived of art as a means of communication that had to be liberated from the past in order to move forward. The artist’s (1921-1987) work explores how to spell, write and form words and his other works in the exhibition include alphabets, a globe and the handwritten name ‘Pythagoras’. The rectangles have multiple meanings that place the work in a historical context and can both counteract and reinforce the idea of a ‘tabula rasa’ – in his notebook he used them to represent black graves, the absence of friends and relatives to acknowledge those killed in World War II.
The artist Mladen Stilinović (1947-2016) gets the audience involved. About her dice game “Pain Game” (Igra-Bol; 1977) at the reception for seven minutes. However you roll the dice, the result is always the same: “Pain” is always written on the surface. In “Dictionary – Pain Letter A” (2011) the artist replaced the definitions of all words beginning with the letter “a” with the word “pain”. A statement on their website said: “When I say pain, questions are immediately raised: what pain, whose pain, where the pain comes from, as if pain needs to be explained, analyzed. There is nothing to explain…. the pain is there.”
Both Julije Knifer (1924–2004) and Goran Trbuljak (born 1948) used basic forms to assert a critical relationship with painting and drawing. Knifer – who like Mangelos was a member of the neo-avant-garde Gorgona group – reduces the visual to its basic elements. His canvases on display repeat the same black and white vertical and horizontal lines. Trbuljak, the only living artist in the exhibition, captures the concept of artistic preparation in an absurd state of limbo. In 1974 he began the preparatory drawings “An Artist’s Exercise” in which he exercised his eyes and hands by writing dots in square notebooks without ever going beyond the “exercise”.
Július Koller (1939–2007) transformed and questioned language by painting question marks on everyday objects, sometimes as a performance (documented here by photographs). Unlike Yugoslavia, which had moderate communist policies, Czechoslovakia took a stricter approach to artistic and personal liberties. For the artist, a simple question mark was a universal sign of humanity’s doubt and insecurity, reflecting his country’s socio-political instability.
The aim of the Yugoslav state to modernize the country was to promote artists and the neo-avant-garde. Artists were encouraged to explore a new language and to challenge traditional notions of the art object. Teaching something new was centered on the utopian socialist idea of the new man – the ideal citizen and man of the future.
From Scratch: Mangelos, Julije Knifer, Julius Koller, Mladen Stilinovic & Goran Trbuljak continues through April 16 at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Soho, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Branka Stipančić.