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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.