I am glad: A view into the Hungarian neo-avant-garde at Elizabeth Dee Gallery

Endre Tót, Very Special Gladness Series – I am glad if I can read Lenin, 1971-76

Tongue-in-cheek is an excellent strategy for flying under the radar while drawing your audience in, as both artist and viewer share the knowledge that the intended meaning differs from that of the surface. “I am glad if I can read Lenin” is just such a deadpan statement from artist Endre Tót in the 1970s, part of a series of black-and-white portraits of himself with captions that explore the gladness of advertising, picking his nose, standing in a public square, holding a sign, or scratching his butt. Happiness–or the sarcastic recollection of it–over performing basic actions highlights the restrictive atmosphere of the times. Of all the artist’s conceptually driven works, these wry skewerings of the limited room for personal agency under the Socialist Hungarian state point most directly to the context in which Hungarian artists worked in the 1960s and 70s. Paradoxically this limiting context also created a freedom from commercial incentives and a camaraderie that is abundantly on view in a group exhibition currently up at Elizabeth Dee in Harlem.

Installation view, With the Eyes of Others, Elizabeth Dee Gallery

With the Eyes of Others,” a survey of Hungarian neo-avant-garde art at Elizabeth Dee offers a balanced and broad presentation of work made during the 1960s and 70s, work that often seems as fresh and complex today in the context of a New York gallery as it did when it was made some 50 years prior in Budapest. The neo-avant-garde refers to the second wave of Hungarian artists who pursued radical artmaking strategies, from the 1950s through to the regime transition in 1989, drawing on the historical strength of the avant-garde of 1920s and 30s. The 1960s and 70s became a high point, mythologized today around an aging generation of counter-culture figures who, with the regime change, found themselves re-categorized on the permitted and, indeed, lauded side of the art scene in Hungarian society. While such a focus might seem like a historical niche, the works on view compellingly make the case for their international connections, linking back to American artists such as Robert Smithson, as well as charting specific territory related to making art under a repressive government that officially supported Socialist Realism as part of its cultural policy. Here, instead of positive, monumentalizing depictions of everyday life that glorify Socialism, you find a wealth of avant-garde artistic strategies designed to resist such placid narratives.

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The most arresting works on the ground floor are large, hard-edge abstractions, in painting on canvas but also on metal or in tapestry. Ilona Keserü’s incredible, well-preserved tapestry recalls painterly abstraction in a craft medium as well as traditional Hungarian folk designs for graves. István Nádler’s painted abstractions recall earlier avant-garde figures such as Malevich as well as the Hungarian Lajos Kassak in their geometric manipulations of space and planes that still recall the touch of the hand. Ágnes Berecz points out in her review in Hyperallergic, although there are clear connections to abstract artists working in the West as well, “what makes the exhibited works unique is their often veiled yet inescapable politics.” The political import of these abstract works, pointedly not Socialist Realist, contrasts greatly with Western ideas of abstraction as a withdrawal from politics, as notably promoted by art critic Clement Greenberg in New York.

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Upstairs, a fantastic but dense group of conceptually driven works are on view, representative of the many figures who were important in the Hungarian art scene during these decades. Work by Katalin Ladik, Miklós Erdély, and others finds a performative use for photography, documenting actions that could not easily be shown in Socialist Hungary. An exception is Tamás Szentjóby’s 1972 action Sit Out/Be Forbidden, documented here by three grainy black-and-white photographs that show a long-range image of the artist sitting in a chair on the street, having put his belt around his mouth. The artist did so knowing that the act would be considered subversive by the vigilant Hungarian police. Accounts differ as to whether police arrived before or after Szentjóby left, an example of how mythmaking has grown among this now-legendary group of artists, who have been canonized as artists of resistance. In contrast to this confrontational attitude, consider the more lighthearted resistance of Endre Tót, who employs the phrase “I am glad” frequently in his works. While the tactics used differed from artist to artist, the unofficial art scene was united in its pursuit of radical avant-garde strategies, and the many methods were all valid tools in the hands of artists looking for new forms of expression. While in places like New York, camps formed around different artistic styles, Hungarian artists, perhaps united by a common enemy, were a fairly close group.

László Beke, Handshake Action, Balatonboglar, 1972, Gelatin silver print, 21 1/4 x 15 3/4 inches

The work tucked just under the stairs, László Beke’s Handshake Action, a conceptual photographic grid documenting artists shaking hands at the summer getaway of Balatonboglar in 1972, speaks to that dimension of the works on view: they were made by a tight-knit avant-garde art scene interested in forming connections with the outside world. This grid marks the meeting of Hungarian and Slovak artists, a rare large gathering that stressed the solidarity of the Hungarian scene and its desire to be in contact with the art world outside of Hungary. This desire is likewise seen in the mail art of the period and the devout perusing of major art world periodicals such as Artforum. Despite real limitations, Hungary was not a closed circuit, and many of the artists on view had meaningful if limited tours in Germany and other European countries, at times also exhibiting there. However, with no commercial market to speak of and limited exhibition opportunities, work was made for oneself and one’s friends were the primary audience. The intellectual drive to experiment and create formed an atmosphere of surprising freedom within a repressive context. “With the Eyes of Others” provides the best gateway to into the complexity of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde that New York is likely to see for some time.

On view at Elizabeth Dee gallery in Harlem through August 11.

A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

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Hilma af Klint in her studio, 1895

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is pictured above at age 33, looking entirely comfortable in her studio space in Stockholm among figurative works and wooden furniture. This conventional photograph does not hint at her other body of work: large and dynamic abstract paintings that preceded work by such pioneers of abstraction in modern art as Kandinsky and Malevich. “The Keeper” exhibition, up at the New Museum through September 25, boasts a beautiful gallery with 16 of these audacious, tactile, spiritually driven exercises in expressing the nature of a godly reality through reduced line and color. They make a case for a kind of abstraction not encompassed by the story of a move toward reduction and simplification in response to an increasingly chaotic modern world.

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Installation view, “The Keeper,” New Museum, 2016

Af Klint was in fact trying to express a complex vision of the world. John Yau describes af Klint’s exhibition history and context wonderfully in this essay on Hyperallergic. Yau clarifies how the artist arrived at the mystic belief that “painting was the best medium for bringing the invisible or occult world into the visible.” Her readings in theosophy led her to pursue schematic illustrations in which color has distinct emotional valences (for example, blue represented masculinity; pink, spiritual love). As the image below suggests, af Klint’s works are tactile and imperfect, as if the artist was unconcerned with rigorous line for its own sake, but rather pursued form to make visible the underlying order she found in the world. Her abstract paintings were not shown publicly until 1986, writing her out the history of modernist abstraction that she pre-dated. Since then her work has been increasingly shown.

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The Swan, No. II, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Why did Massimiliano Gioni and the other curators include these paintings in “The Keeper”? They don’t suggest an interest in preservation in themselves. Rather than small sketches or drawing diagrams on paper, af Klint choose to work in paint on large canvases, despite the fact that she did not show or sell these works as she did in her concurrent figurative practice. Instead, she preserved these works at home until her death in 1944. Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, also included af Klint’s work in the Central Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. At that time, he defended her mystic occultism, which to many people would separate it from art as such, saying:

“placing a work [of art] next to materials that are difficult to classify [such as af Klint’s], thus repositioning it in a narrative dimension, the reinterpretation of the piece is reactivated as both the trace of a personal experience and a different means through which to conceive our image culture. Thus the work of art returns to its former existence as a mysterious object charged with multiple meanings, and returns to presenting a view on the world.

…What really interested me was to reveal the mysterious and, at time, even mystical fascination with art….To escape from the definition of a work’s quality according to its market value. I believe it is essential that works are inserted into a discourse that embraces the entire system of images, including pieces that do not conform to the rules of the market”

I Dream of Knowing Everything: An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni on the 55th International Art Exhibition, by Christina Baldacci (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2013)

Perhaps one can interpret preservation more generously, in which case these images display a need of the artist to preserve a vision of inner reality of the world. Their size is impressive. Yet, the square format does not recall the human figure, as is sometimes ascribed to vertically oriented canvases. They remain removed from the human experience in their non-figurative imagery as well–for example, in the dynamic composition of radial swirls spiraling across a red background as in The Swan, No. 9 below. Af Klint also used recognizable elements at times, such as birds or astrological signs. In her hands, these elements serve a symbolic purpose rather than an attempt at illusionism.

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Af Klint’s paintings do an amazing job of unsettling notions of abstraction in art history and the role of mystic diagrams in high art. The paintings do not confirm to the rules of the market, certainly, but they don’t confirm to the story of high art either. I, at least, experienced them as powerful and challenging images. Even at the overwhelming Central Pavilion at the Biennale, af Klint’s few contributions exercised some kind of magnetic appeal. Seeing a larger group of her paintings at the New Museum now is rewarding, as they easily slip into the Modernist, white cube context but still resist clear categorization. It is touching to see the fragile application of paint and imagine the strange tenacity which drove a young Swedish women to create such unconventional works that operate even today on several registers.

100 Years According to “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney

Motley The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do  Detail: Detail, Motley - The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, Archibald Motley, c. 1963-72

I walked in through the back. The first painting I saw in the Whitney’s retrospective exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was The First One Hundred Years, a striking phantasmagoric diatribe about race relations in the United States, as you can see in the image and detail above. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s (1891–1981) last painting, it was completed in 1973 after nearly a decade of reworking. He did not paint again. While the rest of the exhibition makes the case implied by its title—Motley, a black artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a jazz age modernist deserving of greater recognition—through a coherent body of work, this painting sticks out as something else entirely.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Motley’s works are presented (if one were to begin at the beginning, unlike me) chronologically, first as a room of Classicizing portraits with clearly defined forms that create gravitas. Then, the exhibition proceeds through scenes of Bronzeville, the area of Chicago where Motley lived, worked, and played, to Mexico, which the artist began to visit in the 1960s. These genre scenes often present figurative groups in social atmospheres—nightclubs and city streets—and these people are largely black, or rather gradations of brown, unusual at the time and also seen in his portraits of family members. With arrestingly tilted spatial constructions and high-key color, the scenes are vibrant, pulsating with a bluesy rhythm. Motley often takes advantage of artificial light to strange effect, especially notable in nighttime scenes like Gettin’ Religion (pictured below).

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

These works hint at a tendency toward surreal environments, but with The First One Hundred Years Motley is in starkly symbolic territory, jumping from colorful but largely Social Realist depictions to an order dictated by an internal compass. The full title of this painting is “The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do,” which begins to suggest the wallop the canvas carries. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and JFK hover in a blue twilight scene amid a house with a devil and a dove and a tall tree bearing a hanged man next to the Statue of Liberty. The red of a Confederate Flag and the devil stands out among the all-over blue tonality. A dark void with suggestions of features haunts the middle, reminiscent of an unarticulated Francis Bacon. In great contrast to the realism, conviviality, and safe distance of the other canvases, here Motley pulls no punches.

The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72. Oil on canvas.

Rather than understanding The First One Hundred Years as a way of ending the exhibition with an exclamation point, perhaps this painting offers a more directly political lens with which to understand the rest of his oeuvre. The genre scenes and portraits are of course already political for creating visual representations of black culture and showing black bodies. But the manner in which Motley depicts black people is a little more difficult than that; Motley’s figures are stylized and general rather than representing particular individuals, but sometimes they verge on grotesque caricature with skin painted an unmodulated black and mouths oversized, garishly red. The labels at the Whitney propose that it is a form of irony on Motley’s part, at a time when irony was rarely seen in painting. The contention is that those in the know would understand that the artist was dramatizing stereotypes rather than taking them at face value. Titles such as “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” also suggest he pointedly engages with social constructs.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. (145.1 × 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

While I don’t have an alternate explanation than the Whitney’s, it is still a shock to see titles that refer to racial designations that would have seemed backwards in Motley’s own time and depictions that from any white painter would read as straightforward racism. In a review in the Wall Street JournalPeter Plagens writes that

Motley called himself a “blues aesthetician,” and the dualism implied by these two words is indicative of his whole career. Motley longed to create a visual equivalent of black music’s vigor, slang and dialect. As a black artist, he could be fearlessly ironic in portraying African-American life, but as an academically trained and Paris-modernized outsider, he couldn’t help but see his subjects through a distancing lens.

That dualism that makes some of his work difficult collapses in The First Hundred Years into pathos and conviction with no distance or irony. The 100 years of the title refers to the centenary since the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the history that Motley depicts since that event looks like a nightmare rather than progress. Perhaps most jarring, it feels relevant today.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is up at the Whitney through January 17.