ON ONE SIDE OF THE SAME WATER: Marek Bartelik with Wiesław Borowski
A recent exhibition at the New Museum in New York called Ostalgia brought together works of art by more than 50 artists from what was formerly Eastern Europe and illuminated the growing ambiguity in the way that Communism is being reevaluated in the art of the region after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But with its arbitrary and inconsistent choice of artists and works and a meandering narrative, the show revealed how difficult it is to historicize art in thematic exhibitions. Nevertheless, the show (as well as the upcoming 30th anniversary of the declaration of martial law in Poland in reaction to the Solidarność movement) has provided a perfect pretext for shedding additional light on the artistic activities from the period when the eastern parts of Central Europe and Russia were under Communism. During this time, the legendary Galeria Foksal in Warsaw played a seminal role as a unique art institution, confronting and absorbing the ambiguities of the oppressive political system in Poland.
Wiesław Borowski ran Galeria Foksal from its inception in 1966 until 2006. A perceptive critic and an important catalyst for the work of many artists, he was the gallery’s spiritus movens. Today Galeria Foksal remains a unique institution in the context of Polish art and beyond, but it seems to fit with difficulty into the artistic life of present day Poland, which is animated by the activities of new museums, commercial galleries, artists, and critics with international aspirations and successes. One might argue, however, that as the gallery stays true to its “old” agenda of detaching art from direct involvement in politics, it remains as subversive as ever in its subtle but persistent opposition to post-Communist Poland’s power systems, which are now engaged in the rapid commercialization of art. Telling the story of Galeria Foksal might be, in fact, crucial to putting in context the history of the important transformations of art produced in that region before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Marek Bartelik sat down first with Wiesław Borowski in Galeria Foksal in Warsaw more than four years ago. This interview was conducted over the course of a year by e-mail, and updated this September.
Marek Bartelik (Rail): How did your involvement with Galeria Foksal start?
Wiesław Borowski: I moved to Warsaw after graduating from the department of Art History at the Catholic University in Lublin in 1955, during the so-called “thaw” in Poland, which followed the period of severe political repression and the imposition of socialist realism that started soon after the Second World War. New independent artistic circles were being formed around the Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków and the Krzywe Koło Gallery in Warsaw, both of which staged public discussions about the meaning of and directions for modern art and culture in Poland. A group of young art historians who had graduated from the Catholic University, Jerzy Ludwiński, Anka Ptaszkowska, Urszula Czartoryska, and I belonged to the circle associated with Krzywe Koło, which was run by the painter Marian Bogusz. We assisted in the preparation of exhibitions by a number of artists who are now classics, such as Henryk Stażewski, Zbigniew Gostomski, and Edward Krasiński, as well as the Lublin-based group “Zamek” (“Castle”). We also helped organize a large exhibition of contemporary art on the occasion of the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) Congress in Warsaw in 1960, during which we met many important art critics, among them Pierre Rastagny and Dore Ashton.
Because the government closely monitored artistic activities in Poland, we created a parallel “second system,” which consisted of various art events in cafés and private homes. Particularly vibrant discussions took place in Stażewski’s apartment. Krzywe Koło was closed in 1965, since it was considered too subversive. Our meetings thus had to be moved to another place. A café belonging to the Society of Polish Architects (SARP) on Foksal Street became our new gathering place. But we dreamed about an independent exhibition space to show works of innovative local artists.
One day I obtained an assignment to produce commercial graphic works for the Workshop of Plastic Arts (Pracownia Sztuk Plastycznych, PSP), which had its office in the former Zamoyski Palace near our café on Foksal Street. My task consisted of commisioning from leading Polish designers new labels for various consumer goods, which were supposed to replace the generic “temporary labels” commonly used. It was one of those purely ficticious jobs, a distraction from the real agenda of the government of some sort, because most of the newly designed labels were never used. But something did change: that place on Foksal Street, where the Workshop of Plastic Arts had its office, would soon host Galeria Foksal. The artists Stażewski and Roman Owidzki convinced the director of that institution to let us use the office as a gallery space. Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek, and I drafted a program for the gallery, with four major objectives:
1. To make the works of independent artists available to the public (those artists were supposed to receive technical assistance from PSP);
2. To create an international context for Polish art by establishing direct contacts with artists and art institutions abroad (none of three of us who ran the gallery had ever been abroad);
3. To benefit from the experience of the Polish avant-garde (Stażewski and Kantor in particular);
4. To change the character of the “exhibition” from its traditional passive form of displaying art to one more dynamic and interactive.
To our great surprise, PSP’s director (his name was Henryk Urbanowicz), a bureaucrat not devoid of fantasy, approved our program, and that’s how the gallery began. In the fall of 1965 (when the gallery was still under construction), Tadeusz Kantor presented his first happening in Warsaw, called “Cricotaż.” After Kantor’s presentation, the inaugural exhibition took place on April 1, 1966, with works by Gostomski, Krasiński, Owidzki, Stażewski, and Jan Ziemski. Some of these names mean nothing or little to the Western audience, but they were crucial in staging important transformations in art, and not only in Poland.
Rail: You chose a new path for your gallery, but, at the same time, decided to continue the tradition of the Polish avant-garde. In fact, you embraced two strands of it, for Stażewski represented a direction related to international Constructivism, whereas Kantor carried on the activities of Polish pre-war avant-garde theater, extended them to happenings, and followed Informel in his paintings. Was it difficult to bring these two traditions together, ideologically and artistically?
Borowski: Yes, Stażewski and Kantor, today legendary figures in Polish art, represented different artistic tendencies and came from different experiences, but there was no major conflict between them, particularly in regard to the gallery’s mission. The former was a successor to the international avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s closely linked to Paris; the latter, much younger, continued the artistic path of the association known as Kraków Group (Grupa Krakowska) from the 1930s, which did not have a concrete program but artistically was close to Cubism, Abstraction, and Expressionism. They had extensive contacts with other artists both in Poland and abroad. It is useful to recall here that Stażewski was a friend of Mondrian before the war, and introduced Kazimir Malevich to the Warsaw avant-garde in 1927, before Malevich reached Berlin. Kantor facilitated contacts with the Cricot 2 theater in Kraków for us, which represented the most progressive aspects of the avant-garde theater in Poland; Stażewski did the same with the prestigious Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, which hosts a world-famous collection of international modernism.
Moreover, after what they had experienced during the war and under Stalinism, neither of those two artists was orthodox in his interests. For them, art stood above politics. Stażewski respected Jackson Pollock. Kantor, who kept in touch with the Informel artists in France and Switzerland, became interested in American art, which he perceptively analyzed in a series of lectures delivered after his return from the United States in 1965. With their impressive knowledge of modern and contemporary art, both artists inspired many young artists and critics who gathered around Galeria Foksal.
Our objective was to conduct artistic activities without major interventions from the government. To achieve this, we often had to engage in a rather perverse game with the censors. Artistically we were open to all kinds of art, as long as it corresponded to our vision of the gallery, which was rather inclusive. Kantor might have captured the best of our situation back then: “It was the time of inner dilemmas; as if I were standing at a crossroads and could not decide which road to choose. I was not afraid to follow several roads though; I was not ashamed of it. I consider it an expression of freedom of imagination.”
Rail: How informed were you about new tendencies in international art?
Borowski: Despite the fact that socialist realism had already ceased to be officially imposed in the late 1950s, we continued to be cut off from the West. There was a strong desire for change, but there were only a few examples to follow. In Poland, the tradition of modern art was already interrupted for several decades, first by the war, then by socialist realism. We did not have museums of modern art (except for the Muzeum Sztuki), galleries, or private collections. There was no true independent press, no influential art magazines. Occasionally we had access to ARTnews, Studio International, and Opus International. So we decided to contact innovative artists abroad and, eventually, invited them to exhibit in our gallery. We wrote letters to numerous Western galleries asking for catalogues and publications devoted to contemporary art. Some art magazines, Art in America (and later Artforum International) gave us free subscriptions. It was unbelievable; a young gallery behind the Iron Curtain gained access to important publications on art. In return, we started to mail invitations and catalogues from our shows to artists and galleries in the West.
Rail: During its existence Galeria Foksal has presented works by a highly impressive group of foreign artists. Which shows were the most important in your opinion?
Borowski: Our first “foreign” exhibition, Volumes, in 1967, featured the work of the Swedish sculptor Lars Englund. It was followed by the Robert Barry show (with a beautifully designed catalogue) and the exhibition of the Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, who came from Nice to attend the opening. That’s how we were able to learn firsthand about American Conceptualism and Fluxus. Those exhibitions were also important because they “put a human face” on the artists whom we considered mythical. Ultimately, they became our friends, and often visited us in Warsaw. Those artists—here I should add the names of Christian Boltanski, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Craig Martin, Annette Messager, Anselm Kiefer, and Royden Rabinowich—helped establish work relations between Galeria Foksal and art institutions abroad.
Rail: How did that collaboration with Western galleries look at that time?
Borowski: As a nonprofit space with a very limited budget, Galeria Foksal did not have many opportunities to organize individual exhibitions of our artists in the West. But Western galleries helped us actively in bringing their artists to Warsaw, which was very important for us, because we had very few of them in Poland at that time. Only Kantor, with the international success of his Cricot 2 theater, could frequently show his art in galleries in Paris and London. (In 1976, his exhibition Emballages was presented at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.) Particularly important for our gallery were the following group exhibitions with the participation of our artists: the III Salon de Galleries Pilotes (a presentation of 14 galleries, among them Dwan Gallery and Schmella Gallery, at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lausanne) in 1970; Exchange between Artists: Poland-USA at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1982, and Dialog at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1985.
Rail: The 1970s were extremely productive for the gallery. The name Galeria Foksal became synonymous with the most innovative and consistent artistic programs, not only in Eastern Europe, but on the international scale as well. No other art gallery in the former Soviet bloc came close to it in terms of showing such an exclusive group of international artists. Galeria Foksal stood for many as a symbol of integrity of artistic vision, achieved despite (or because of) political restrictions. Did the gallery remain open during the tumultuous 1980s?
Borowski: Our gallery always avoided engaging directly in political activities. It was evident to us that our enemy was the political system that suppressed freedom of speech and hampered artistic exchange. But we also believed that art ought to oppose oppressive ideology with its proper methods and means, without having to directly respond to particular socio-political conditions. However, the birth of the Solidarność movement in Poland in 1980 created an unprecedented situation for us. The art critic and historian Andrzej Turowski (who co-ran the gallery with me for 10 years) and I formed a cell of that revolutionary trade union within PSP, which counted 270 members. I was asked to run it, but I declined because I thought such a task was more appropriate for a worker.
The gallery was shut down after martial law was declared in December 1981, and remained closed for the next four years, during which independent art was shown in illegal alternative spaces and churches. When the political oppression eased and the government allowed reopening of some independent art institutions, we were incorporated into an official central agency that was running most of the art spaces in Warsaw. Despite being treated like just another of the numerous galleries in the Polish capital (many of which were artistically backward), we managed to continue our ambitious program. Young artists, such as Andrzej Szewczyk, Tomasz Tatarczyk, Leon Tarasewicz and Tomasz Ciecierski had shows with us. (Once again, those names might not be familiar to the Western audience, but their contribution to changing the curse of Polish art was significant.) We continued our international program with shows of Daniel Buren, Anselm Kiefer, and Christian Boltanski, among others; as well as such Polish artists as Stażewski, Gostomski, Krasiński, the Polish-Japanese artist Koji Kamoji, and Krzysztof Wodiczko (who already lived in North America).
Rail: How much did the situation of the gallery change after the collapse of Communism in Poland in the late 1980s?
Borowski: When the end of Communism in Poland was officially declared in June 1989, the gallery presented the art of Stanisław Dróżdż, whose previous exhibition had been closed down on December 13, 1981, when martial law was imposed and his works in that show were destroyed. We also strengthened our contacts with international artists. In 1990 I traveled on a scholarship to the United States, where I again met with Lawrence Weiner, who introduced me to important American artists. The same year Weiner traveled to Warsaw with a show called Ta sama woda (The Same Water). He was followed by Robert Barry, as well as by several artists from Western Europe, Franz West and Luc Tuymans among them. After Kantor’s death in 1990, with so many younger artists—such as Wodiczko—now absent from Poland, Mirosaw Balka filled the need for a major artist to be associated with the gallery.
The end of Communism was a huge relief, psychologically, morally, and politically, but it did not drastically alter our activities in the gallery. Most of the cultural institutions in Poland continued to operate in the old style into the 1990s, before they acquired the new managerial skills so common today. We continued the “old” style in a different manner. Our gallery remained nonprofit and independent from the current trends. Foreign artists, who were very well aware of the danger of commercialization, kept exhibiting with us, and our artists started to exhibit abroad. So, for the time being, we remained highly optimistic.
But we were already functioning in a different ideological context. During Communism the “enemy” was immediately identifiable, and we had known how to preserve our independence. But now things were different. Artistic life in Poland became more dynamic; some Polish artists gained major international recognition, and they started to sell their works at high prices. But did it mean that we needed to change our program? And if it did, which aspects of our artistic activities were supposed to be altered? For the time being, we chose to follow the motto accompanying Weiner’s exhibition: ON ONE SIDE OF THE SAME WATER.
The new reality caught up with us nevertheless. In the mid-1990s Galeria Foksal experienced internal difficulties, which led to a secession of the young employees, who subsequently took over a foundation with our name in it—to conduct strictly commercial activities, which was clearly against our statutes. It was an obvious sign of a new direction in Polish art: linking art to art market. Despite this violation of our principles, which led to two “Foksals,” the genuine Foksal has managed to survive and continues its program.
I retired from running the gallery in 2006. The former director of the Museum Sztuki, Jaromir Jedliński, ran the gallery until 2009. Currently, younger curators Katarzyna Krysiak and Lech Stangret serve as the gallery’s directors. We keep showing both established and emerging artists. The current exhibition of Zbigniew Gostomski (open until October 12) makes me think about that inaugural exhibition in 1966, in which he participated. 45 years of the gallery existence provides enough time to realize that art does not change as quickly as we are often led to believe. Or more precisely, that art institutions, as changing as they need to be to represent our time, must preserve those principles in which I have always believed, independence from commerce being one of them.
Rail: My final question, spoken from the perspective of someone living in the West: Why do you think that learning the history of Galeria Foksal matters to the Western audience?
Borowski: I hope that the fact that we have continued to exist as an alternative gallery despite limited resources, which in the era of costly exhibitions matters a lot, and the challenge from “Fundacja Foksal” to the non-profit sector of art exhibiting in Poland is an important lesson to anyone, regardless of where he or she lives. Nowadays, we function parallel to both the government and the mainstream artistic scene in Poland, which represents “new masses” dependent on advertising and free market economy. It does not matter that we exist on the margins of the official art scene. After all, that’s how we have always functioned. We have saved our independence from the ideological sector of art management. It is a price we were willing to pay under Communism, and we are willing to pay it now.
Please check back; still to come more statements about Foksal Gallery from the artists who exhibited there. If you would like to share your thoughts about Galeria Foksal, please contact the Rail at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will post your comments with the interview.
“Our contact with Western artists had a largely private character, because Galeria Foksal did not represent the official art of State Socialist Poland.”
“For numerous artists from the Soviet bloc, Galeria Foksal was a ‘window to the West.’”
“There were no galleries [in Warsaw], really. Everyone was sitting around; artists were working out of their apartments and drinking vodka in buildings that were not destroyed during the war. They managed to keep the gallery going by claiming that it was architectural.
There was something very suspicious about the whole scene, but also very imaginative. They had to be very clever about how to survive.”
“Wieslaw Borowski is a great man. I have made so many projects with him. He always helped me a lot in such a modest way. He doesn’t like to speak much, but each time he speaks he says something so true and so important. I really love him.”
Marek Bartelik is the current President of AICA-USA, the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics. He teaches art history at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. His new book, Gentle Rain: Journal of a Nomadic Art Critic, is scheduled to be published in 2012.