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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth


Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.


The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

img_0980   img_0981

The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.


In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.


Self-fashioning in Apartheid-era Studio Portraits on view at the Walther Collection


S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Family Portrait), 1974

For a women to style herself both in traditional male clothing and then sedate, proper female attire in the same photo shoot plays on gender boundaries even today; I did a double-take on finding such portraits in an exhibition of South African photography from the 1970s. The selection of black-and-white photography currently up at the Walther Collection Project Space, “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa,” features insightful works taken by Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley in the 1970s and 80s. Kitty’s studio portraits allowed his subjects to model themselves as they wanted to be seen, exposing their hopes and aspirations. Implicitly they offer insight into the complexity of this particular context: the 1970s South African city of Pietermaritzburg and lives of some of its “non-white” citizens. Under Apartheid, these middle and working class people were classified as African, Indian, or Coloured–a legal status that would be reflected in the ID booklets that everyone was required to carry. Kitty, politically active and opposed to Apartheid, earned his living partially from ID photos, even as his studio became a place for political discussion and the modeling of more complex images of self.


S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Three Men Dancing in a Line), 1975

Kitty’s vernacular photography transcends the sometimes stilted atmosphere of the studio. Boys dance ecstatically in modern dress; a female stands like an unsmiling statue in traditional clothing. The popularity of photography studios at the time in South Africa recalls the initial emergence of photography in the West, with Nadar’s studio in Paris and the fad of carte-de-visite. There is an informality and vitality to the rapidly shot images that was impossible 100 years prior, but these images similarly circulated in the private domain. Here, images were also served specific social purposes, such as the family album or a token for a boyfriend working in a distant city. What is on view is a self-fashioning that is perhaps fictional but not coerced; rather it presents how subjects wanted to see themselves. At some level though, cut off as we are from the subjects and place, we can only wonder as to an individual’s motivations.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding an Umbrella), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding Umbrella), ca. 1982

Why did the unknown young woman want to be photographed in both traditional and men’s clothing? In the image above, the women dresses in a skirted outfit featuring Zulu beadwork, according to what would have been customary in her tribe. In the image below, she wears pants and poses next to a floral arrangement. In both her bare feet contrast with European umbrella. Kitty’s studio had a minimal backdrop of curtains, and a few props that reappear from portrait to portrait, such as the umbrella or a telephone. Commercial European goods served as synechdotes for modernity to the sitters who chose to use them. These two photos, like the abandon of the dancing boys, suggest the playfulness that was found in Kitty’s studio.

A newfound appreciation for African studio photography and vernacular photography brings these prints into an art context for the first time. Their history is fascinating and reflects the racist system that they were created under: a local museum curator bought the negatives of Kitty’s studio after his death, and then threw away a wide selection because it portrayed Africans not wearing traditional, ethnographically acceptable ways of dress and ornamentation but rather as individuals freely embracing modernity in different ways. An intern saved them in a garage until they were bought by the current New York-based owner.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men's Pants), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men’s Pants), ca. 1982

Seeing the works complicates our idea of the desirability of European modernity or what modernity looked like in South Africa: sitters appear not only equally comfortable in traditional garb and European dress, but consciously using them as signifiers. As Okwui Enwezor writes elsewhere about the work of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta: “the image is, above all, to be read as a pictorial sign of various representational intentions of the sitters rather than the objective, detached, autonomous practice of the photographer alone” (Events of Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, 2010, p. 33). This kind of freedom of self-fashioning would have been rare for the middle and working class patrons whose social lives were structured around the racist limitations of Apartheid. The contradictions inherent to these photographs, unlike those of “art photography,” are not shaped purely by an artist’s vision but are the result of a complex place and time, one that we have fascinating access to here. The collaboration of the photographer and the sitter gave private voice, and now documentary access to the viewer, of a changing South African identity which struggled with the movement away from colonialism, racism, and surveillance.

“Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa” is up at the Walther Collection Project Space at 526 W. 26th St, Suite 718 through September 3.