Something to think about: values and valeurs of visibility in Zagreb from 1961 to 1986
In 1965, when Josip Vaništa exhibited his painting Silver Line on White Background at his solo show at the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art, an established artist and art academy professor was reported to have dismissed the exhibition stating that there was nothing to see in it. Offended by the professor’s remark, Vaništa wondered: if there was nothing to see, maybe there was something to think about. Vaništa was a member of the Zagreb-based Gorgona group (1959–66), whose activities marked the transition in Yugoslav art from the imperative of seeing to the primacy of thinking. The central object of this thinking increasingly became art itself, the modes of its production, dissemination and interpretation. Through a selection of ten exhibition experiments realized by Zagreb-based artists and curators from the early 1960s to mid-1980s, this chronology traces the exhibitionary trajectories of the shift from seeing to thinking, as well as its aftermath. It delineates an imaginary curve whose summit is marked by the belief that the “new,” “dematerialized” aesthetic practices had the potential to free art—and potentially, also life!—from material(istic) constraints, thus revolutionizing the traditional, “bourgeois” conceptions of art (and life).
However, this belief was soon shaken by the realization that even ideas, the primary “medium” of the new art, could be co-opted and commodified. Remaining under the shelter of galleries and museums, the new art was still visual art, and could thus run but not hide from its very condition of possibility: exhibition, that is, the act of making visible, and of assuming material and symbolic visibility. A number of exhibition projects included in this chronology are explicit critiques of the commodification of conceptual art, expressed through refusals of exhibiting that forcefully intercepted the habitual flows of visibility. Such were, for example, the gestures of curatorial strike (Ida Biard/La Galerie des Locataires) and curatorial disobedience (Željko Koščević/Student Center Gallery). The role of a curator, these gestures suggested, was not merely to choose what to exhibit but to choose not to exhibit, and in this way, refuse to participate in the hypocrisy and complacency of the art world (which claimed one thing and did another). Artists articulated similar statements of exhibitionary refusal (Goran Trbuljak), and sought alternative ways to present and communicate their work (postal communication by Gorgona; one-day exhibitions in a residential building by Braco Dimitrijević and Nena Baljković–Dimitrijević; exhibition-actions by the Group of Six Artists, the production of samizdat magazines Maj 75 and Gorgona; the artist-run space Podroom—the Working Community of Artists where Branka Stipančić curated her first exhibitions). In order to not make the selection appear as a list of exceptional or special cases, but rather to show them as part of broader individual, collective, and institutional developments on the Yugoslav art scene, I will first outline the social, artistic, and institutional context in which I situate the selected projects in this “guide,” insinuating in the process other possible itineraries that a chronology of Yugoslav exhibitions could take. I will then focus on the specific narrative that I choose here, and which allows me to frame and interpret the selected projects as a series of meta-exhibitionary exhibitions in which both artists and curators addressed precisely the very question of form, meaning, and purpose of exhibiting as a specific mode of thinking the values and valeurs of materiality and visibility.
The Yugoslav “New Art” Front and Its Arenas
Articulated from the position of socialist Yugoslavia in which a developed system of commercial galleries didn’t exist, the critiques of the commodification of conceptual art—such as those by Biard and Koščević—were often directed at the concurrent developments in the art centers of the West, or at the negatively perceived Westernization (commercialization) of Yugoslav culture and society. Implicitly, they suggested that the radical potential of the “new art” could find a more fertile ground within the ideological framework of Yugoslav socialist self-management. And, indeed, the new art practice developed with the decisive contribution and support of Yugoslav cultural institutions, most notably the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, the Student Centers in Zagreb, Belgrade, and later, Ljubljana. These institutions not only exhibited, promoted, interpreted, and historicized the new art, but also incited its production. The Proposal Section, for example, introduced as part of the Zagreb Salon in 1971, commissioned urban interventions and advocated the street as the new space where art could meet its public. The chronology presents both self-organized and institutionally organized projects, but not in order to make a point of some essential difference between them—of mainstream vs. alternative, official vs. unofficial, etc. Just as Jelena Vesić has demonstrated in the case of the Belgrade Student Cultural Center (SKC), the point is precisely that it is not possible to make such distinctions, and that SKC functioned as a site where the negotiation between structurally and ideologically disparate positions was constantly being performed: between the individual and institutional, artistic and curatorial, alternative and official, etc. The same impossibility of separating the institutional and individual, the “official” and “unofficial,” holds true for the entire Yugoslav new art practice: a number of Yugoslav artists, critics, curators, museum directors, cultural workers, independent of their institutional or anti/non/institutional position, ultimately formed a common front in promoting the ideas and ideals of the new art. This is not to say that tensions within this front were nonexistent or that there was even a consensus on what the new art meant. Some of its protagonists, particularly the Group of Six Artists, foregrounded the difference of their approach in relation to the rest of the Zagreb scene. This is evident in their embrace of amateurism, anti-aestheticism, their anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical stance, as well as their identification with the “art proletariat” (in the work of Željko Jerman). Despite this distance, they too collaborated with, and were supported by, the local contemporary art institutions with whom they could identify at least on the level of belonging to the common front of the new art. This front found its key adversary not in the socialist state, as per the typical narratives of art in socialist Europe, but rather in the “old” (i.e., bourgeois, narcissist, fetish-dependent) art, together with its national and international protagonists.
Newspapers, journals, and magazines often served as the site where this struggle between the old and new was enacted. Positive reviews of particular events by art critics who promoted the new art practice were often countered by negative responses, which resulted in a series of polemics around the artistic validity of the new art (one such polemics, for example, developed around Group of Six Artists’ exhibition-actions). In order to reach beyond the elite group of specialists and initiates, critics supporting the new art attempted to educate the broader public about its characteristics, aims, and its departure from the traditional forms of art making. An important contribution to this was a series of broadcasts on Zagreb TV that reported on individual artists or events, authored by Nena Baljković-Dimitrijević and Branka Stipančić. Starting in 1984, Dunja Blažević developed the TV Gallery, a series dedicated exclusively to contemporary art, which ran on TV Belgrade until 1991. Included in this chronology, the exhibition Lines, curated by Branka Stipančić in 1979, should be seen in relation to such efforts by Yugoslav critics. Presented in the artist-run space Podroom—the Working Community of Artists in Zagreb (Podroom is a pun on “podrum” = basement), the exhibition did not reach a broad audience. As her introduction to the catalogue makes clear, Stipančić was well aware that in Podroom she was preaching to the converted; however, the exhibition was conceived precisely as a didactic experiment, a curatorial lesson introducing the basic tenets of the new art to an uninitiated audience. By selecting artworks that all consisted of one or more straight lines and yet were intended to mean very different things (as shown by the artists’ statements exhibited next to the works), Stipančić aimed to demonstrate that the new art could no longer be judged by form only, and that it called for new ways of interpretation and evaluation. Or, to reiterate Vaništa’s statement regarding Silver Line on White Background (which was not included in the exhibition but could perfectly fit its agenda), the radical deprivation of the sensation-hungry eye—through a seemingly simple drawing of a line—offered itself instead to the labor of viewer’s mind. Or yet again, in John Cage’s words, extolling the radical reduction of the visual in Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of the 1950s: “Hallelujah! The blind can see again!”
Yugoslav artists, critics, and curators understood that such a novel conception of visual art—an art that even the blind could see—radically disturbed and frustrated the generally accepted ideas about art and its purpose. Rather than taking pleasure in shocking their audiences, many of the Yugoslav new art protagonists attempted to educate the public, motivated by the belief that the new art should contribute to the benefit of the whole society. This is particularly true of Group of Six Artists’ exhibitions-actions, most of which took place out in the open (the city streets, squares, bathing resorts, residential neighborhoods, universities), with the artists insisting on their presence next to the exhibited works, so that they could engage in conversations and discussions with passers-by. The reactions were often negative, even aggressive, as in the case of the exhibition-action at the Zagreb Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1977, when Željko Jerman described the behavior of the students, the “future cultural workers,” as vandalistic and barbarian. However, this did not halt their efforts, as well as those of other artists and curators, to reach the audience beyond the art institutions.
Starting with the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of interventions, actions and exhibitions were staged in the open spaces of the city. At the Moment, the first international exhibition of Conceptual art in Yugoslavia, featuring some of its most relevant protagonists, was organized by Braco Dimitrijević and Nena Baljković-Dimitrijević in April 1971 at the doorway of a Zagreb residential building in the city center, with an immediate access from the busy Frankopanska Street. Staged directly in the urban space in the early 1970s, a number of other curatorial projects were primarily motivated by the idea of the democratization of art. In the spirit of Dimitrijević’s and Goran Trbuljak’s individual and collaborative street actions from the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the Total Action, a collaborative one-day street event conceived by Želimir Koščević in 1970—during which the city’s advertising boards were pasted over and “a draft of the declaration on the democratization of art” was distributed to the passers-by—a series of exhibitions attempted to animate the urban space and its inhabitants, inviting artists to design site-specific interventions. Proposal: The City as a Space of Plastic Happening, organized in May, 1971 and introduced as a special section of Zagreb Salon, was followed by the equally ambitious Possibilities for 1971 (“ambients and interventions in urban space”), curated by Dalibor Matičević and organized by the Gallery of Contemporary Art Zagreb in June 1971. Some of the most memorable artistic works of the period were produced in the framework of Proposal, such as Dimitrijević’s monumental poster series of Casual Passers-By, presented on the building facades of the main square, as well as Ivan Kožarić’s sculpture Grounded Sun, which, although moved from its original location, remains as one of the city’s landmarks.
Besides commissioning new works, the art institutions engaged in collecting, interpreting, and historicizing the “new art practice” as it developed. The exhibitions, whose primary aim was interpretation and historicization of the new art, form yet another line of curatorial practices in Yugoslavia, which we could characterize as curatorial interventions into art criticism and art history. A number of exhibitions developed and solidified the critical and theoretical discourse on the new art practice, such as Examples of Conceptual Art in Yugoslavia (1971) by Ješa Denegri and Biljana Tomić, and Documents on Post-Object Phenomena in Yugoslav Art 1968–1973 (1973), both at the Musuem of Contemporary Art, Belgrade (see their discussion as part of Jelena Vesić’s contribution to Parallel Chronologies). The exhibition Gorgona, curated in 1977 by Nena Dimitrijević at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, historicized an earlier phenomenon in a way that included it in the interpretative and ideological framework of the new art. It is only with this exhibition that the “dematerializing” activities of the Gorgona group, active fifteen years earlier, became more widely known, and it is precisely the affinities of Gorgona’s work with the art of the 1970s that enabled its recognition as a key—albeit practically unknown, beyond elite circles—predecessor to the new art practice. Playing with the concept of generation, Vlado Martek poetically interpreted this crucial role of the new art in “provoking” Gorgona members to “come out” with regard to their activities in the 1960s: “We, who were in a way their children, became thus their parents […]. With [Nena Dimitrijević’s] exhibition, Gorgona became officially present in our culture, and this was a kind of birth—they were, in fact, born after their children.” The interplay between the institutional, curatorial, critical, and artistic efforts in Yugoslavia of the 1970s within an overarching, common project of the new art, can hardly be overstated. The cross-institutional and cross-republic collaborations and exchanges—e.g., between the Zagreb and Belgrade Student Centers, as well as the Zagreb Contemporary Art Gallery and the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art—further reveal the extent to which the protagonists of the Yugoslav new art saw themselves as participating in a greater project that exceeded their individual contributions. The culmination of these activities was the exhibition New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1968–1978, which took place in 1978 at the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art, as a first comprehensive attempt at historicizing and interpreting the Yugoslav new art. Exhibitions tracing in more detail Serbian and Croatian developments followed, conceived as an exchange project between the Zagreb and Belgrade museums. These exhibitions laid down the groundwork for all subsequent historical and interpretative accounts on the new art in Yugoslavia.
The Values and Valeurs of Visibility
The interest in the Yugoslav art of the 1960s and 1970s has been revived again in the recent decades, as part of the “discoveries” of Eastern Europe after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, and the revived interest in the art of the rebellious 1960s more generally. Assimilating the Yugoslav developments to the newly-designed Eastern European framework often implied a “forgetting” of the continuously strong institutional background of innovations in Yugoslav art after 1945 in order to make the new narratives fit the dichotomies of alternative = progressive = unofficial / conservative = institutional = official. As already stated, the Yugoslav case reveals the untenability of this dichotomy: at least from the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art’s launching of the New Tendencies in the early 1960s, a long-term international project dedicated to exploring the link between technology, science, and art, a number of Yugoslav institutions formed part of the art scene’s avant-garde. In addition to this forgetting of the role of institutions (and a forging of the self-sufficiency of artistic practices), and in order to partake in the rekindled international curiosity for the art developments behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslav art histories were framed as “impossible,” “interrupted,” “invisible,” so that they would maintain the exotic and (self-) exoticizing appeal of the “new” discoveries. It is precisely the legacy of critical and curatorial interventions into art history, enacted in the 1970s by the proponents of the new art front, which intercepts the ease of the proclaiming of such historiographical wretchedness, a certain melancholic enjoyment in the purported lack of histories, or their invisibility (to both the “Self” and “Western” historiographies). Since the Parallel Chronologies project similarly flirts with the idea of “recuperating the invisible past” and the “invisible history of exhibitions,” I wish to emphasize that neither of the projects presented in this chronology is a new discovery. All of them were already included in the major projects of historicization of the new art undertaken in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is true even of the curatorial interventions of Koščević and Biard, indicating an awareness on the part of the authors of these histories of the of the relevance of curatorial and exhibition practices, despite the fact that a discourse on “the history of curating” and “exhibition histories” didn’t exist at the time.
Of course, the idea of making the invisible visible does not necessarily assert a starting point of absolute invisibility, but rather a certain kind of invisibility, often pointing to the need for changing the valeur in the ratio of darkness and light, like tonal values in a painting, the need of establishing greater visibility in a transnational context, for example, or of intervening into a non-presence within the so-called Western canon of art history—and the currently trending exhibition histories. Thus, according to this logic, even if well-established written narratives on the 1970s in Yugoslavia do exist, as is my claim, it does not mean that they have achieved the attention they deserve. Perhaps, but it might also be that it is even more important to question the automated assignment of value to visibility itself, as well its ultimate purpose, with all its potential accomplishments, appropriations, and co-optations. The aim of this chronology is therefore not to bring the invisible history of exhibitions to visibility, but to point out that to deal with the question of exhibiting is precisely to take on the responsibility for thinking the dialectics of the glory and misery of visibility. The era of the 1960s and 1970s was exactly the period in which artists, critics, and curators were acutely aware of this question, and engaged explicitly with the value thus far attributed to seeing. They discovered that to make visible, to assume form, to materialize, always meant both to contaminate the world with a potentially transformative idea or vision, and to expose that vision to the risk of unwanted material and ideological abuse or expropriation. They assumed the paradoxical task of materializing dematerialization (i.e., of materializing the question of materiality itself and exhibiting a vision of de-materiality). Proposing the shift from seeing to thinking—or more precisely, to the thinking of seeing itself—they explored what it meant to show, to exhibit, to assume the authorship of, and responsibility for, the visible; to be represented as a name, an individual, a group, or a pseudonym in an exhibition, a catalogue, an art magazine, a book, or a contract; to expose oneself and others in a gallery, in a basement, in a street, on a postcard, or in a forest; to be financially rewarded or impoverished for doing this; to make exhibiting—and, ultimately, exhibitionism—a business, a hobby, a tool of political action. The projects selected for the chronology are those that were particularly attentive to these issues, as they explored the very form, meaning, risk, and responsibility of exhibiting, as the thinking of the dialectics the visible and invisible). To explore this meant to abandon exhibitionary and curatorial laziness and to think each time anew, in response to each specific context, about the form that this act of exhibiting can, cannot—or even should not—assume.
To Melt Away in the Gallery’s White-Walled Corner; to Freeze Merrily in the Snow-White Woods
The chronology opens with a written work whose author, Đuro Seder, took upon himself to inquire into this business of exhibiting. Responding to the “homework assignment” he was given as a member of the Gorgona group, which was to reflect on the idea of “collective work,” Seder devised four scripts, four attempts of materializing and exhibiting the utopian idea of Collective Work (in each case conceived as a personified art object). One after another, all attempts fail, always due to Collective Work’s physical or symbolic incongruity with the constraints of the exhibition machine. It is, in one instance, delivered to the address of the exhibition venue but, to the dismay of both artists and guests, turns out to be too large to fit through the door; in another attempt, it is successfully installed in the exhibition salon, however, it is completely ignored by the self-absorbed audience chatting away in the gallery during the exhibition opening. As a consequence, the Collective Work suffers memory loss and gradually melts away in the gallery’s corner, like snow in the street. At first sight perhaps appearing as not more than exotic miniatures in Gorgona’s esoteric and bureaucratic-like correspondence rituals, Seder’s simultaneously utopian and melancholic, chivalric and ironic, scenarios of exhibitionary failure are in fact primary reading for any critical thinking of curatorial and exhibition practice. It is for this reason that they are chosen to open the chronology, and focus attention on the meta-exhibitionary aspect of each selected project, as it is observed in its attempt to rethink the form in which a “collective work”—i.e., creative work considered to stem from, and contribute to, concerns that transcend individualistic preoccupations—can materialize and assume visibility.
Some projects address this issue from the perspective of expanding the arena of visibility, breaking through the white-walled corner of the gallery, and saving the work from melting away, obliterated by the snobbish art crowds. As already noted, the Proposal Section does exactly this, by creating a space where the “collective work” can finally get a breath of fresh air, so to speak, and address its audience clearly and confidently, despite the risks that such an act of exposure entails. Interestingly, and again challenging the established West/East dichotomies defining the freedom versus unfreedom of art (in which art’s freedom is elevated as the ultimate and unquestionable value), Dimitrijević’s politically provocative and brave Casual Passers-by was censored not in Zagreb, during its presentation within Proposal in 1971, but on the occasion of the work’s subsequent presentation in Paris during the 7th Paris Biennial in 1971. Kožarić’s sculpture, on the other hand, suffered violent feedback following its installation during Proposal, not from state or city officials, but from “the people,” the very citizens whom it tried to address. It seems that some of them couldn’t bear the sight of a seemingly abstract and absurd golden sphere blocking their learned patterns of walk, intercepting their everyday errands (but according to another rumor, it was the furious members of the “old” art front who set the sculpture on fire).
At the Moment, the first international exhibition of Conceptual art in Yugoslavia organized by Nena Baljković Dimitrijević and Braco Dimitrijević, offers yet another blueprint for salvaging the work from the suffocating gallery corner. The exhibition not only shows what is happening in art “at the moment,” but also demonstrates how it is possible to curate by responding momentarily, by circumventing the bureaucratized, institutional assembly line of hierarchical decision making, fundraising, researching, communicating, producing, insuring, contracting, etc. It is perhaps enough to send artists you’ve met and found interesting a letter asking them to participate in an exhibition, and if they accept, to ask them to immediately send you whatever work they choose. To then install it in a hallway of whatever building for the duration of only three hours, and to even manage to get an impressive media turnout. One simple letter will do. Of course, many of the now-legendary names who had accepted this simple invitation, would probably “complicate” their participation a bit more today, but reactivating this one-letter exhibition model can certainly point to the potential ways of breaking out of the curatorial impasse, which is currently felt in the learned routinization of both the discursive and organizational aspects of curating.
The Group of Six Artists took on a similar, momentary approach. Instead of waiting on a letter a by a curator, institution, or other artists, they decided to take their work directly into the open—in one case by literally walking through the city center carrying their work. It was a group project, but decidedly uncoordinated in a way that the individual artists were not necessarily informed about what the others would do or present. Again, the rethinking of the modes of materialization and visibility—and in this case also of collaboration and thus literally “collective work”—resulted in a new exhibition form: the exhibition-action. The exhibition, the Group of Six Artists suggests, is not a static presentation, it’s an action, a performative intervention; showing is always also doing, viewing is always also (re)acting.
Closely related to this is their invention of another form, in their samizdat project Maj 75, which they defined as a magazine-catalogue. Consisting exclusively of artistic contributions by participants of the Yugoslav art scene, not grouped by a theme, or framed by any interpretative texts, it functioned as another exhibition space, following the logic of one page—one work. All the more reason to consider its “F” issue as a special one. Incidentally or not, it was precisely the F issue (the issues were marked alphabetically, and not numerically), which was conceived to gather contributions by female artists of the Yugoslav art scene. Artist Vlasta Delimar came up with this idea to provide space for the presentation of the female artists, under-represented both on the art scene in general, as well as in Maj 75. While the (all-male) members of the Group of Six had conceptual and editorial (however loose and spontaneous) responsibility for the magazine, Delimar took charge of the technical side of its production (prepress and printing). The F issue can then also be seen as a symbolic shift in the hierarchy of production, in which Delimar’s invisible and manual (female) labor steps from behind the scenes to temporarily assume authority and authorship in the conceptual and creative stage of production, by focusing precisely on the work of other female artists, deemed invisible and unacknowledged. (The pun on the gendered, and hierarchical, division of the procreative roles — conception, traditionally credited to gods and men, and labor, the Biblical curse for women — unintended, but certainly not irrelevant).
All these projects teach us something about what it means to curate, to exhibit, to make visible, including the potential risks and consequences of doing so. In some cases, it was the consequences that became the central theme, materialized through gestures of interception of habitual flows of visibility and circulation of artifacts and information in the art world. In 1971, for his first major solo exhibition in Zagreb, Goran Trbuljak decided to exhibit nothing but the poster that advertised the exhibition. Alongside information about the time and place, the poster was composed of the artist’s photo-portrait and the statement: “I do not wish to show anything new or original.” By exhibiting the exhibition’s main promotion tool, while at the same time rhetorically disappointing the expectations of the audience before they even saw the show, Trbuljak exhibited the very facets that informed the author-function of art: the artist’s persona, mixed with a dose of novelty and originality. At the same time, he pointed out that the promotional devices surrounding exhibitions were more relevant than the exhibition’s actual content, which he made explicit in a following solo exhibition at the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art when he exhibited only the poster with the statement: “The fact that someone was given an opportunity to make an exhibition is more important that what will actually be shown there.” Similar gestures of institutional critique were also expressed by curators. Strike by Ida Biard (Zagreb/Paris-based curator who initiated a self-organized project of La Galerie des Locataire in 1972), and Postal Packages by Želimir Koščević (at the Student Center Gallery, Zagreb, in 1972) were oppositional curatorial statements against the commodification of conceptual art. In a reversal of the usual scenario featuring rebellious artists and conservative institutions/curators, it was Biard who rebelled against the (primarily Paris-based) artists she had worked with until then. Sending the “so-called avant-garde artists and rebels” a written note denouncing their surrender to the lures of the art market and success in the art world, she declared La Galerie des Locataries’ strike, and cessation of any further “communication” of artistic works. Similarly, in Postal Packages Koščević refused to open the box containing works from the mail-art section of the 1971 Paris Biennial, declining to participate “in the further deterioration of conceptual art” and in “its demise under the gallery and museum lights.” Citing one of the curators of the Paris Biennial, who claimed that conceptual art was marked by the primacy of the transmitting of information over the transporting of goods, Koščević exhibited the unopened package in which the conceptual artworks were transported to Zagreb, pointing to the fact that “goods,” i.e., art objects, together with their symbolic and market value, were still central to successful operation of the art system, despite claims of (physical and symbolic) dematerialization of conceptual art.
But again, these gestures were primarily oriented toward the commodification and institutionalization of the new art in the West, whereas in Yugoslavia the struggle for its broader recognition was still ongoing. As discussed above, Lines (1979), one of two exhibitions curated by Stipančić in Podroom, foregrounded the didactic aspect of curating by devising a particular exhibition format and strategy that could best convey the character and purpose of the new art to the broader audiences. Coincidentally, the concept of “line” matched the new art’s belonging to what art critic Ješa Denegri has called “the other line,” and Stipančić certainly framed her exhibition as another potential asset in the struggle for the ideas and ideals of the new art. But during the time when the exhibition was organized (1979), the Yugoslav new art practice was already preparing for its departure from the Yugoslav art scene. The New Art in Yugoslavia 1968–1978, and other comprehensive exhibitions mentioned above were already framing the new art as history, whose stories need to be documented and preserved for posterity. The tone of its historians—most of whom were at the same time new art’s protagonists—was certainly no longer militant. Looking back in 1982, Marijan Susovski, curator of the Innovations in Croatian Art in the Seventies exhibition, saw the attempts to create art out in the open and to thus “completely link art with life” as a reflection of “a euphoric state of artists and theorists in the early 1970s.” The repeated references to the initial state of “euphoria” in Susovski’s text were then contrasted to the ensuing disappointment and pessimism: “Having failed to affirm their ideas from the beginning of the decade, when they saw their place in society but did not actualize it, [the artists] would always carry a certain dose of bitterness, reflected in their later work.” On the same occasion, curator and art critic Davor Matičević speaks of a prevailing pessimism, of a turn toward escapism in the artists’ later work. This is again contrasted to their early élan, described as the “last and the most radical attempt for social engagement” that could now be seen to have been “an illusion about the possibility of a constructive approach, which did not receive an unequivocal support in practice.”
In addition to inadequate support (by which Matičević means primarily that of the state and, by extension, the society), general trends in art were not helping either: by the beginning of the 1980s, the new art was being supplanted by “new painting.” On December 31, 1981, awaiting the advent of the new year, Željko Jerman and Vlado Martek performed the action Farewell to the New Art Practice. And so, what better way to end this chronology than to go back where we started and witness another farewell gesture: Josip Vaništa’s Deposition, an action performed in 1986 with the help of his Gorgona peers, in which they took Vaništa’s painting Black Line on Silver Background (1968) to the snow-covered forests at the outskirts of Zagreb and left it there for several days, leaning on a tree. The ’68 was now ’86, and although a painting, the Black Line was not quite a “new painting” painting, but rather a relic of a time of art’s resurrection when the blind could see and when there was something to think about. After finishing his Silver Line on White Background (1965), the painting with which this narrative started, Vaništa looked through his window and saw that year’s first snow starting to fall. He recalled that it was one of those moments of grace when it seemed that “everything was in its right place.”  Leaning against a tree in the snow-covered woods outside the city, Black Line on Silver Background could not have found a more appropriate place for this ultimate act of its exhibition. Far away from the suffocating heat and walled-in corners of the gallery, the Collective Work was safe from melting, freezing merrily as the local children found it to be their smoothest and most strange sled yet.
Goran Blagus, “Slikam da bih stišao um: razgovor s Josipom Vaništom” [I paint to quiet my mind down: interview with Josip Vaništa], Kontura 43/33 (1996).
See my discussion of Biard and Koščević in Ivana Bago, “Dematerialization and Politicization of the Exhibition: Curation as Institutional Critique in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 1970s,” in Museum and Curatorial Studies Review 2, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 7–37. Available at: http://www.macs-review.com.
The latter was explicitly articulated in another project by Koščević, The Exhibition of Women and Men, which referred to the contamination of the Yugoslav cultural space with images of nudity “imported from rotten capitalism.” Cited and discussed in Bago, “Dematerialization and Politicization,” 15–16.
In Belgrade, this presupposition was explicitly posited as a topic of discussion among artists and curators in the exhibition October 75, organized at SKC Gallery in 1975. See Jelena Vesić, “October 75,” in Political Practices of (Post)Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01, ed. Zorana Dojić and Jelena Vesić (Belgrade: Prelom Kolektiv, 2010), as well as Jelena Vesić, “SKC (Student Cultural Centre) as a Site of Performative (Self-)Production: October 75 – Institution, Self-organization, First-person Speech, Collectivization,” Život umjetnosti 91 (2012).
The research by Prelom Kolektiv on the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade (initiated by Jelena Vesić and Dušan Grlja and first presented at the Ljubljana ŠKUC Gallery in 2008) was a crucial step in shifting the attention from artistic to institutional practices of the 1970s in Yugoslavia. Prelom Kolektiv, eds., The Case of SKC in the 1970s – Exhibition Notebook (Belgrade and Ljubljana: Prelom Kolektiv and Škuc Gallery, 2008).
See Vesić, “SKC (Student Cultural Centre),” 2012.
Jerko Denegri, one of the key critics and interpreters of the Yugoslav post-1945 art, has famously described this confrontational continuity of the neo-avant-garde Croatian and Yugoslav artistic positions as druga linija, “the other line,” with its roots in the interwar Yugoslav avant-gardes and their reactivation in the 1950s with the neo-constructivism of Exat 51, and culminating with new art practice of the 1970s. While linija, just as in English, means both an ordinary line and a battlefront, and while the word “line” has the benefit of connoting both confrontation and its long duration, I find the word “front” to be more fitting for the purposes of my focus specifically on the “new art” of the 1970s here. In addition, although focusing primarily on the artistic production, Denegri’s writings, which unfortunately remain untranslated, are more than aware of the role of institutions, as well as art criticism, including his own, as integral parts of “the other line’s” mission. See Ješa Denegri, Studentski kulturni centar kao umjetnička scena [The Student Cultural Center as an art scene] (Belgrade: SKC, 2003); Jerko Denegri, Prilozi za drugu liniju: Kronika jednog kritičarskog zalaganja [Contributions to the other line: a chronicle of a critic’s advocacy] (Zagreb: Horetzky, 2003); Jerko Denegri, Razlozi za drug liniju: za novu umjetnost sedamdesetih [Reasons for the other line: for the new art of the seventies] (Zagreb/Novi Sad: Kolekcija Marinko Sudac/Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2007).
See WHW / kuda.org / SCCA / pro.ba, “TV Gallery,” in Political Practices of (Post)Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01, ed. Zorana Dojić and Jelena Vesić. (Belgrade: Prelom Kolektiv, 2010).
Podroom [Basement] (1978-1980) was initiated by Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis, who transformed their art studio into an artist-run exhibition space. For a discussion of Podroom, see Ivana Bago, “A Window and a Basement: Negotiating Hospitality in La Galerie des Locataires and Podroom – the Working Community of Artists,” ARTMargins 1 (2012), as well as Ivana Bago and Antonia Majača, “Prvi broj (The First issue) / Acting Without Publicising / Delayed Audience,” in Parallel Slalom – A Lexicom of Non-Alligned Poetics, ed. Bojana Cvejić and Goran Sergej Pristaš (Belgrade/Zagreb: TkH & CDU, 2013).
Cited in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 112.
Željko Jerman, cited in Darko Šimičić, “The Group of Six Artists. Chronology, Commentaries,” in The Group of Six Artists, ed. Janka Vukmir (Zagreb: SCCA – Institute for Contemporary Art, 1998), 256.
Koščević was one of the initiators (with Snješka Knežević) of Proposal and could generally be seen as one of the most fervent advocates of the idea of art’s democratization. His exhibition at the city park of Karlovac (about twenty miles away from Zagreb) titled Gulliver in Wonderland (August 1971) should also be mentioned, as well as his project Public Festivities (1975), a series of events in the residential area of Novi Zagreb in Zagreb. See also his book, Želimir Koščević, Ispitivanje međuprostora [Investigating interspaces] (Zagreb: Centar za kulturnu djelatnost Saveza socijalističke omladine, 1978). For the concept and content of Possibilities for 1971, see Dalibor Matičević, ed., Mogućnosti za ’71./Possibilities for ’71 (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1971).
Vlado Martek, documentation of a discussion organized within the series of student workshops titled “A History of Curating: Self-organized and Institutional Practice” (Galerija Miroslav Kraljević, Zagreb, May 2009), conceived by Ivana Bago and Antonia Majača within Curatorial Platform, an educational platform on curating, led by Ivana Meštrov and Mihaela Richter.
See the exhibition catalogue, The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1968–1978, ed. Marijan Susovski, (Zagreb: Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1978).
Innovations in Croatian Art of the Seventies, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb (1982), New Art in Serbia 1970–1980. Individuals, Groups, Phenomena, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade (1983).
See Margit Rosen, A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International 1961–1973 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
I am referring to exhibitions and publication projects such as: Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković, eds., Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-gardes, and Post-Avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Tamara Soban, ed., Interrupted Histories: Arteast Exhibition, exhibition catalogue (Ljubljana: Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, 2006).
My idea of Conceptual art’s materialization of demateriality is restricted to the turn toward meta-materiality, meta-vision, meta-art, etc. But see also Davide Dal Sasso’s idea of Conceptual art, or more precisely, conceptualism, as a “new materialisation model,” by which he implies the failure of the dematerialization utopia and the following turn toward the ordinary and everyday reality that has impacted contemporary art until today (and its concern with popular culture, media, audiences, etc.). See Davide Dal Sasso, “Exploring Conceptual Art,” in “Realism and Anti-Realism: New Perspectives,” ed. Leonardo Caffo, Sarah De Sanctis, and Vincenzo Santarcangelo, special issue, Philosophical Readings, vol. 6, no.1 (Summer 2014): 101–14. However, such defined conception of new materialization could pertain to a whole variety of artistic practices (such as Dadaism, nouveau realism, arte povera, etc.) that preceded Conceptual art, and as much as the idea of a “new materialisation model” is interesting, I am unconvinced that the 1960s Conceptual art (and primarily its American developments, which is Dal Sasso’s focus) should be seen as its key point of origin (despite the fact that it is, as he also claims, the key point of the crisis of the utopian idea of dematerialization).
The police and fire brigade removed the work with the explanation that “It disturbs Paris.” See Braco Dimitrijević – Slow as Light, Fast as Thought, exhibition catalogue (Vienna: Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 1994): 205.
See Maja and Reuben Fowkes, “Croatian Spring: Art in the Social Sphere,” paper presented at the conference Open Systems: Art c. 1970, Tate Modern, London, 18 October 2005. Unpublished manuscript.
See note 7 above.
Marijan Susovski, “Inovacije u hrvatskoj umjetnosti sedamdesetih godina,” in Inovacije u hrvatskoj umjetnosti sedamdesetih godina (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1982), 31 (my translation).
Davor Matičević, “Uvod,” in Inovacije u hrvatskoj umjetnosti sedamdesetih godina (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1982),12.
Blagus, interview with Vaništa (see note 1).