Young Generation ... at the Foksal Gallery

Autor: Magazyn Sztuki Opublikowano:

Young Generation of Curators and Artists at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, Poland, and their Attitude towards its History

Bożenna Stokłosa

Founded in 1966 by prominent art critics Wiesław Borowski, Anka Ptaszkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and artists Tadeusz Kantor, Edward Krasiński, Henryk Stażewski and the others, this gallery still operates at its original venue, at the Foksal Street 1/4, and to date is a non-commercial and artistically independent public institution.

The Foksal has very soon become legend. In the beginning its founders were in particular interested in the idea of creation by an artist at a gallery or in another space of the specific space-time’ s of his/her art presentation and in the role in this process of viewers’ perception and even participation. Their first manifesto “Un Introduction to the General Theory of PLACE” (1966) testifies to this, for in this document they have recognized, that “PLACE it is presence... PLACE isn’t divided… PLACE is instituted by [an artist]. It is created by the person, who is there. Only in PLACE (…) art is created by all people”.

Thus they have declared their preference for the concept of art as the dynamic and integral totality co-created by viewers, and the phenomenon, which figuratively or even literally has come into being before one’s eyes, although not necessarily as an ephemeral one - happening, action or performance - but mostly as a group of objects. Though ephemeral art was presented by the Foksal mostly in the 1960’s, also in another locations, it was a kind of the exhibition resembling installation artwork, which seemed in connection with this concept to become already then a hallmark and a testimony to the gallery innovative artistic policy.

Certainly, in 20th century many different concepts of modernism/avant-garde were developed, but if one identifies them in art simply with the search, since 19th century, for the new forms, mostly in painting and sculpture, one can recognize the aforementioned manifesto as the break with those two artistic currents and, consequently, as a postmodern/ post-avant-garde challenge to the earlier tendency in art to simply deform reality and, thus, separate art works from life and artists from viewers. Furthermore, if one considers the new forms or rather deformations as fulfillment of the radical modern/avant-garde demand for autonomy of art - since these forms simply have to be opposite to mimicry - one should then also interpret this manifesto, as well as art implied by it, as this demand’s rejection. Therefore it would be difficult to exaggerate “The Theory of PLACE”s inventiveness, especially in the Polish art in the 1960s.

Logically, the concept of art presentation and perception as a specific act of art creation and all-embracing whole incorporates, on the one hand, the new forms of art and, on the other, various external realities, e.g. social-political issues, treated by some artists, art critics and historians as “extraneous” to art, but by the others quite the opposite - as its essence. Therefore this concept overturns the division between “autonomous” art and “engaged” one, and implicates this division’s artificiality and falsity.

But it must be clear, that in “The Theory of PLACE” manifesto the Foksal has broken only with this concept of autonomy of art, which limits autonomy to the new forms or deformations, for one have to simply recognize the autonomy of an artistic institution and consider as art everything exhibited by this institution, even, certainly, propositions perceived by the most people as not art, but the social-political activism, since this kind of activity have been pursued by particular artists as art and treated as such by particular galleries and museums or by the art world in general. Otherwise, by the reason of total openness of the notion of art presented in this manifesto, one wouldn’t be able to make any distinction between art and non-art.

In connection with the aforementioned division between so called autonomous and engaged art one should also remember, that the authentic modern/avant-garde artists never couldn’t pursue l’art pour l’art postulate, for they have always initiated formal experiments in art in order to create the new artistic quasi-languages to, adequately, express, even in the most subtle or encoded ways, of the new sensibilities, perceptions and realities, i.a. social-political phenomena, ensuing from the impact on people’ life of many different factors, from economic to scientific and technological ones.

For this reason these artists simply couldn’t propound the opposition - generated by the aforementioned division - of formalist art versus art engaged in social-political issues. Only the ideologists of totalitarian or authoritarian political systems seem able to do it, as were, i.a., the ideologists of the socialist realism, also in Poland in the first half of the 1950s, during the existence, since 1952 to 1989, of the PRL (the Polish People’s Republic). The latter in the end of the 1940s simply rejected modernism/avant-garde, labeled by them exactly as formalist (and reactionary), and they reinforced socialist realism as, according to them, anti-formalist (and progressive), what in practice translated into idealized mimetic art - positively - engaged in social-political issues, that is to say, in a process of “building socialism”, as the PRL’s propaganda named it.

It is interesting, that socialist realism, at least in Poland, seems still influence attitudes of some art historians, theoreticians and critics towards modern/avant-garde art, for after the fall in 1989 of the PRL they started to criticize this art as being in the PRL after a thaw, which was in 1956, just formalist and not - negatively - engaged in social-political issues[1]. Thus they have taken it for granted, that modernism/avant-garde were in this system in general possible and could produce new forms of art there in order to criticize the PRL… Thereby they have treated modernism/avant-garde in the PRL equally ideologically as did the Polish ideologists of socialist realism since 1949 to 1956, only exchanging the demand for apology of the then system into the demand, with hindsight, for its criticism and, in this respect, following – implicitly rather than explicitly - the understanding by some Western art critics, historians and theoreticians of relations between modernism/avant-garde and the capitalist system[2]. Moreover, they have followed proposed by some Western art critics, historians and theoreticians the division or even the opposition between modernism and avant-garde[3]. But, imported to the PRL from the West during a thaw and later on modern/avant-garde art, as well as postmodern/post-avant-garde one, could or probably had to become there “formalist”, since this art was simply devoid of its Western context, though, paradoxically, also became the symbol of the political freedom, much as this was limited because of censorship and a possibility of real and serious repression for criticism of the PRL.

Certainly, since the 1970s some Polish artists, counted after 1989 by some art historians, theoreticians and critics among (neo)avant-garde, but not modernism, had less or more openly criticized the PRL in their art, but they had done it in order to improve the system as such, rather than to change it into the democratic one, with the free-market economy[4]. So it is self-evident, that, i.a., the Foksal Gallery has been accused of avoidance in the PRL of art negatively engaged at the social-political level and escapism into secure autonomous formalist art. But it is the only Polish art gallery, which in the PRL, just in the “Theory of PLACE” manifesto, simply deconstructed the ideological opposition: formalist art versus engaged one. Besides, i.a. in this manifesto the gallery has turned implicitly to the prewar Polish modernism/avant-garde, in particular to art and art theory proposed by Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, so also in this way distancing itself from art directly and very often in the journalistic form engaged into social-political issues. Thus one can claim, that the Foksal Gallery already in 1966 made the most original contribution to the Polish art during the PRL era, in comparison with the other contemporary art galleries.

Certainly, the youngest generation of the Foksal’s curators and artists is absolutely conscious of the great history of this venue, especially Katarzyna Krysiak , since a few years the chief curator of the gallery. She, together with Michał Jachuła and Justyna Wesołowska, was the co-curator of the exhibition “With Probability of Being Seen. Works, Projects and Documents in the Collection and the Archives of the Foksal Gallery” (15/11 2013 –3/01 2014), which presented art and the unrealized projects of exhibitions and catalogues selected from among the Foksal’s archives and its collection of works of art produced by the artists exhibited there since 1966 to 2013. The title has referred to this great history, since it has directly related to the exhibition of Lawrence Weiner, held at the Foksal in 1979.

By the way, one can trace in this title somewhat dramatic, though also ironic appeal to the cultural institutions for due interest in the future of the art collection and the archives of this, in many opinions, the most important Polish art gallery in the second half of 20th century, for the Foksal is in need of funding to finance digitalization of the collection and archives in order to make them easily accessible to the public on the gallery’s website. In here one should clarify, that the financial condition of the Foksal is most of all the effect of its objective status as the public institution subsidized by the state. In the 1990’s Wiesław Borowski, the director and the chief curator of the gallery since 1966 to 2006, fought to keep it non-commercial and therefore artistically independent during the pioneering stage of transformation in Poland of the communist system into democracy and free market economy. But at the same time he intended to improve the gallery’s contemporary financial condition, so together with the then curators of the Foksal, Joanna Mytkowska, Andrzej Przywara and Adam Szymczyk, he established in 1997 The Gallery Foksal Foundation (in Polish: Fundacja Galerii Foksal or FGF). Unfortunately, in 2001 those three younger curators broke away from the Foksal Gallery and established at the Górski 1A Street, in Warsaw, the commercial art gallery under the name of the foundation and thereby they simply deprived the Foksal Gallery extra funds. Hence, one can ironically observe, that The Foksal Gallery has no other option, but to establish new The Gallery Foksal Foundation, certainly at the Foksal 1/4Street.

One has grounds to believe, that the Foksal Gallery is not only able to maintain its status as the non-commercial and artistically independent public institution, but also, that it will maintain its artistic greatness. In her answer to my question about her, Jachuła, and Wesołowska attitude towards the Foksal’s past, Katarzyna Krysiak has claimed, that ’identity of this space to a large degree is defined by its history, archives and art collection, which are irrefutable facts firmly present in the canon of the Polish 20th century art. The gallery’s manifestos are the subject of lectures and seminars at the history of art studies, as examples of absolutely innovatory proposals questioning in the 1960s and the 1970s hitherto prevailing concepts of artwork, exhibition and artistic institution. Since then they have affected attitudes towards creativity of consecutive generations of artists, who very often feel the need to confront with the past of this space as in the case of the last exhibitions by Anna Ostoya, Daniel Malone (…)”[5] at the Foksal Gallery.

Certainly, context of any gallery is an integral part of Anna Ostoya’s exhibitions and it was at her exhibition at the Foksal, “Autopis. Notes, Copies and Masterpieces” (5/11-31/12 2010), at which she analyzed 20th century modernism/avant-garde. Autopis is a neologism originated by the artist in order to present her interest in typical for the modern/avant-garde artists experiments in art, as well as in associated with those experiments political and social utopias. To be precise, according to the short text available on the New York MoMA’s website in connection with the group exhibition, “New Photography 2013” (14/09 2013-6/01 2014), in which the artist participated, “in her conceptual practice – which incorporates photomontage, painting and writing – Ostoya revisits the histories of lesser-known avant-garde art movements in East-Central Europe in parallel with their well-known Western counterparts, pairing pseudomorphic (visually similar) subjects in compelling new images”.

Similarly, in his site-specific project “The Proof Reader”, realized at the Foksal in 2013 (21/01-28/02), Daniel Malone attempted to “reconsider the core issues and challenges laid out by the gallery from the mid-60’s and into the 70’s, and test them in relation to the contemporary concerns of culture, politics and the market”, as is written on the Foksal ’s website. Therefore at the opening performance “Winter Assembly” and the installation arranged at the gallery, as well as in the publication issued on this occasion, he referred to the chosen important works of art exposed at the Foksal in the early period of its activity. Thus one can expect, that the dialog of the Polish and foreign young artists with the great artistic tradition of this gallery will be important part in the Foksal’s further artistic policy.

The exhibition “With Probability of Being Seen” presented few dozen foreign and Polish artists as examples of the great international 20th and 21st century art from the Foksal’s past. It included works of art and documents by so prominent artists from abroad and Poland, as, e.g., Robert Barry, Ben Vautier, Christian Boltanski, Daniel Buren, Joel Fisher, Koji Kamoji (Polish-Japanese), Lawrence Weiner, Mirosław Bałka, Stanisław Dróżdż, Tadeusz Kantor, Edward Krasiński, Mikołaj Smoczyński, Henryk Stażewski, Leon Tarasewicz and Krzysztof Wodiczko. They have represented the traditions of conceptualism, Fluxus, visual poetry, performance, happening, action, site-specific installation etcetera, as well as modern/avant-garde and postmodern/post-avant-garde painting, sculpture, photography, film, video and mixed media, used in order to address to the public a variety questions concerning relations of art with the life or problems of biography, memory, history and so on.

In her answer to my question about criteria of this selection, Katarzyna Krysiak declared: “our goal was to draw attention to the gallery’s role in a creation of the history of contemporary art in the past and its possible role in a creation of this history in the future. We put emphasis on a choice of the works of art and documents showing specificity and exceptionality of the Foksal collection of art and its archives and, consequently, its identity… We devoted a large part of the exhibition to the exhibitions’, catalogues’, posters’ and invitations’ designs and projects prepared by artists especially for the Foksal, which, according us, were very interesting, but rarely exposed to the public”[6].

The Foksal Gallery has also presented art of another prominent 20th and 21st century artists, e.g. Paweł Althamer, Giovanni Anselmo, Matthew Barney, Joseph Beuys, Victor Burgin, Michael Craig-Martin, Douglas Gordon, Anselm Kiefer, Anette Messager, Roman Opałka, Arnulf Rainer, Wilhelm Sasnal, Gregorg Schneider, Andrzej Szewczyk, Luc Tuymans, Piotr Uklański, Bernard Venet and Artur Żmijewski.

In conclusion of this article one should point out, that the Foksal still doesn’t have any monograph, so one could expect on the occasion of the forthcoming 50th anniversary of its foundation in 2016, that the work like this will be written, however this task seems difficult, especially by reason of so long period of the Polish and foreign art history, which it must encompass, when both the world and art have so quickly changed.


[1] One can wonder, why some of them didn’t pose this problem before 1989, although they could, since it has been, according to them, so important?

[2] One can observe, that implicitly some of them propound the groundless reduction of avant-garde to the social-political issues.

[3] I think especially about two books: Piotrowski’s, Piotr, Znaczenia modernizmu (Meanings of Modernism), Poznań 1999 (see p. 84) end Ronduda’s, Łukasz, Sztuka polska lat 70. Awangarda, Warsaw 2009 (English version: Polish Art of the 70s), influenced, according to me, on this respect by the first. I wrote on the problem of the avant-garde’s existence in the PRL i.a. in the article: “Awangarda według Bürgera” (English translation: The Avant-Garde According to Bürger)”, Obieg, 1-2[75-76] (2007): 220-239 (The Polish version is also available on the Obieg website:

[4] In particular Zygmunt Piotrowski and duo KwieKulik (Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik). I wrote, i.a, about them extensively in my doctoral thesis: Artystyczno-społeczna problematyka zrzeszeń plastyków w Polsce w latach 1946-1976 (Grupy twórcze i tzw. galerie autorskie), promotor: doc. dr hab. Marcin Czerwiński, Instytut Sztuki PAN, Warszawa 1981, maszynopis, [The Artistic and Social Problems of the Artists’ Associations in Poland since 1946 to 1976 (Artistic Groups and so-called Author’s Galleries)], typescript.

[5] It was our e-mail correspondence from 28/11/2013 and 5/12/2013.

[6] See the note number four.