Modern art review

The year 2007 was strange for contemporary art. It was a year of great international events such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel, and Sculpture Project in Munster. Lots of art, lots of projects, lots of artists. But, maybe even because of this overwhelming quantity of everything, one might feel that something is missing, that something must be changed, that some ideas have become exhausted and boring.

Artists advanced a huge range of strategies and, of course, not all of them failed. I find the idea of a comeback of aesthetic values and some kind of formalism interesting. Further, I feel that it provides at least a glimpse of possible future developments.

But, with regard to the endurance and patience of the reader and an eye to the size of this article, the more general perspective will be glossed to better focus on our more local Polish outlook.

In Poland, 2007 was a year of anticipation for something that we could not precisely characterise as a longing for fresh air and change. It appeared instead to be a year of summation with a strong presence of recognised masters. In 2007, we had three excellent unveilings of artists who we all believed great, but nobody actually knew why. Now we know why, and it was a pleasure to experience a complex and admirable show of Katarzyna Kozyra at Wroclaw, read a manifesto of Artur Zmijewski at “Krytyka polityczna” and see a long-awaited presentation of Wilhelm Sasnal’s works in Warsaw.

A domination of masters often forebodes weak followers, and that was also visible this year. Exhibitions accompanying two important art competitions for emerging artists (the Geppert Prize and “Spojrznia,” the Deutsche Bank Foundation’s award for young Polish artists), revealed a state of stagnation in young art.

However, chasing about for a new Sasnal and always younger future artistic superstars yielded no visible results, an outcome few galleries proclaimed. Two names were especially visible in art discourses this year – Tomasz Kowalski and Przemyslaw Matecki. Do they really represent the new standard we’ve been longing for? We will see, but I wouldn’t be too sure of it.

Also two notable publications that were supposed to be presenting emerging Polish artists and representatives of the young Polish scene – Tekstylia bis (ha!art) and “Nowe zjawiska w sztuce polskiej po 2000 roku” (“New phenomena in Polish art after 2000,” Center for Contemporary Art, Warsaw) – seem to be restating the status quo, rather than foreseeing new directions. Of course, their appearance is of great importance both for popularising contemporary art in Poland and serving as a compendium for people interested in the art world. But because of their tendency to encapsulate the field, they heighten the feeling of conclusion rather than preface.

This attitude also carried over into some curatorial endeavors. “Polish Painting of the 21st Century” in Zacheta, the National Gallery of Art, was in my opinion both an important and symptomatic presentation. Emphasising the strong appeal of the medium, the exhibition provides a roster and summation of the achievements of Polish painters gaining visibility and appreciation abroad during the course of previous years.

This year also had some shows of artists recognised abroad and who came back to present their works to ungrateful Polish audiences. This was the case with Marcin Maciejowski (Gallery Artpol, Krakow and Pies, Poznan) Jakub Julian Ziolkowski (F.A.I.T. Gallery, Krakow) and Wilhelm Sasnal (Zacheta, The National Gallery of Art, Warsaw).

Besides art shows, prizes and rankings, theoretical discussions raged. The most significant was that accompanying the competition for building the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw, which consequently resulted in the rejection of its determinations. The competition’s international jury selected a project proposed by Swiss architect Christian Kerez. His design, lets call it a neo-modernistic building of monumental style, was rejected by the board of the museum as being dysfunctional and unsightly. The decision started a stormy discussion about the goals and duties of a contemporary museum, escalating into further discussions concerning the place of contemporary and modernistic architecture both in the city and in society at large.

The Kerez project has as many advocates as antagonists. It is most likely not the end of the debate, particularly considering the odd legal status of the competition. It has been a refreshing diversion for the art society.

Interwoven with the debate over Kerez’s modernistic project, the topic of modernism and its heritage has been often raised. The topic has been present in Polish art and culture far longer than just this past year, but I believe this year’s suppositions were a type of coronation for the subject.

This conclusion is supported by two significant events: the opening of the Institute of Avant-garde at Edward Krasinski’s Studio, one of the greatest Polish neo-avant-garde artists (rediscovered by Foksal Gallery Foundation) and the presentation of Monika Sosnowska at the Polish pavilion during the Venice Biennale. This show was a great success and an important voice in redefining modernistic heritage, with its distinctive architectural, societal and esthetic conceptualisations. These two events fulfilled the goal of recent discussions, proclaiming a new era of the contemporaneous existence of historical consciousness and modernity. So it is also a kind of end.

In spite of the dark vision of the Polish art scene, with its stagnation and seemingly inevitable endings, I remain optimistic, though questioning the shape of future developments, which remain hidden beneath the horizon.

Some small steps have been made. The Contemporary Art Museum in Warsaw has a new director and a new board, and the chances that it will finally be built have improved. The project for the Contemporary Art Center in Krakow has also been accepted. Public collections are growing and, also because of that, the art market has been launched in Poland. New galleries – ZPAF i S-ka, Krakow; Artpol, Krakow; F.A.I.T., Krakow; Starter, Poznan; and others – have appeared, indicating that a shift of generations will eventually happen.

This time the institutions and galleries are ready before the art itself has appeared. Perhaps, new situations and new possibilities will lead to a revitalisation of art.

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