press release

Opening - Thursday 26.06.2008, 14.00 - 19.00

Henryk Stażewski, a devoted promoter of geometrical abstraction, claimed in one of his numerous manifestoes. A representative of the first generation of constructivists, he lived to the ripe old age of 94, so he can certainly be considered the bridge linking the ethos of pre-war modernism with late 20th century art.

Stażewski was an active member of the Cercle et Carré and Abstraction – Création groups in Paris; he made friends with Theo van Doesbug, and met Piet Mondrian. Along with Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński, he was the key figure of the Polish avant-garde, the co-founder of the Blok, Praesens and a. r. groups. Not less important was his activity in international artistic circles – his contacts with the most recognised artists initiated 'The International Collection of a. r. Group' (exhibited at the Łódź Museum), one of the first institutionalised exhibitions of abstract art in the world.

The pre-war period in Stażewski's painting fascinates by its unusual harmony and noble simplicity; its standard is comparable with the works of the leading figures of the world avant-garde. Its beauty has its roots in construction and is closely related to it. The pictorial surface is based on the principle of elementary divisions, and colours are limited to the basic ones. It is an obvious result of the influence of Piet Mondrian's doctrine of Neo-Plasticism. Stażewski was the follower of this style, not only as a painter, but also as an art theoretician and designer. Being far from uncritical replication, he was involved with several parallel lines of his creative work which shared the common feature of the impressive clarity of form. A series of white compositions based on the contrasts of texture was highly appreciated in Western Europe. One of those paintings was acquired by the Krőller – Müller Museum in Otterlo.

Just like other avant-garde artists, Stażewski called for bringing art closer to life. He aimed to blur the boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture, identifying creation with construction. This meant the beginning of a new modernist style, close to the utopian idea that art will be unnecessary when we are surrounded by beauty. Stażewski was keen on typography, advertising, and interior, furniture and small object design for everyday use. The covers of magazines which he designed in the interwar period still astonish by their daring graphics.

In the mid-1930s when Surrealism dominated the art scene, the geometrical avant-garde went through a crisis which developed during the war. For Henryk Stażewski it was an extremely tragic time as his Warsaw studio burned down during an air-raid. All paintings kept there perished irrevocably. The wave of pessimism which was the world phenomenon in the 1940s was also reflected in art. The urge to create a new convention corresponding to the atmosphere of those times resulted in the explosion of various forms of Abstract Expressionism or a return to figurative art.

The indecision of the early post-war years is clearly visible in Stażewski's painting. The artist often refers to the Post-Cubist classicism of Picasso. In the form and content of his works from the 1940s one can also trace the vivid echoes of Léger. In spite of his return to figurative painting, Stażewski made a clear division between figurative and abstract layers in his works – filling the backgrounds of paintings with a grid of lines with geometrical shapes. This proves that although he moved away from abstraction, he did not give up geometry, recognising the priority of the logical balance of composition.

After the First World War, Stażewski worked on abstract paintings consisting of geometrical shapes, though they were distant from his pre-war orthodoxy. His hesitation related to his search for a new formula in art is most clearly visible in his paintings from the 1950s when, like many Polish artists, he occasionally surrendered to Socialist Realism imposed by the political system.

In the late 1960s, colour starts to dominate Stażewski's works. Reliefs, now composed of squares, become slightly more static. The square as the composition unit of painting, the shape of canvas and painterly motifs are the major elements in his work at the turn of the 1960s.

Gradually, Stażewski returns to painting on a traditionally flat surface, however, at the same time he is concerned with new forms of artistic expression. His action 9 Rays of Light in the Sky at the Visual Arts Symposium Wrocław '70 is considered the beginning of Conceptual art in Poland.

The idea of rational arrangement, always present in Stażewski's paintings, becomes most radical in the cycle of compositions based on the system of the division of the square into 9, 16, sometimes 25 equal modules, their colours are juxtaposed through precise calculations. These paintings usually have a limited range of colours, and their smooth texture intensifies the feeling of immaculate purity.

Stażewski's works from the 1970s, thinly painted on white, show countless variants of arranging lines on the surface. In some of them, a precisely drawn line fills the surface of a painting densely, while in other works it is only limited to a few segments. Stażewski's other cycles are characterised by great colourist verve. The artist juxtaposes complementary colours, uses strong contrasts and luminescent paint. The dynamic shifts of the element of composition bring associations with Malevich's Suprematism, but the bright colours are entirely contemporary – strongly rooted in the aesthetics of the 1980s.

While the American Neo-Geo art interpreted geometrical abstraction from postmodernist positions, endowing it with unexpected meaning (Peter Halley interpreting Baudrillard's theory of simulacra), Stażewski modernised his painting once again, at the end of his life. It resulted in many small-size paintings, astonishing by the presence of a lyrical element in an apparently cool geometrical convention. Until the end of his life, the artist did not abandon writing perversely humorous aphorisms and continued gathering around him groups of young artists and critics fascinated by his personality.

'A countless number and versatility of objects and shapes continuously seen and unnoticed, the multiplicity of various structures of matter etc. inspires the artist to search for an order in chaos and for simplification through the reduction of geometrical shapes. Our everyday mediocrity is transformed into something unique and significant.', he wrote at the end of his life. The vast range of issues within the area of geometrical abstraction Stażewski dealt with is the proof of his enormous creativity. His artistic freedom and inner discipline complemented each other perfectly. His inclination to experiment did not hamper his consequent aspiration for geometrical order. The phenomenon of this extraordinary artist lies in the harmonious combination of constant changeability and consequent artistic approach.

Agata Małodobry Translated by Małgorzata Sady

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Henryk Stazewski