30 September, 15

Rediscovery of the Avant-Garde

Discussion “Rediscovery of the Avant-Garde” at the viennacontemporary 2015 art fair

The Aksenov Family Foundation supported a number of talks at the discussion platform “Keys to Contemporary Art” at the viennacontemporary 2015 Art Fair. The first talk, “Rediscovery of the Avant-Garde”, was chaired by the Deputy Director of the MUMOK, Rainer Fuchs and took place on 25 September, 2015. The participants – Kathy Battista, Director of Modern & Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art; Maria Rus Bojan, curator and art historian; and Marika Kuźmicz, Head of ARTon Foundation – discussed the rediscovery of avantgardistic and neo-avantgardistic art from Eastern European countries, both in the Eastern European spheres and in an international framework.

To evaluate the current situation, historic experience is fundamentally important, an issue which was readily addressed. The basic questions of the talk were: What relations between social policy and the development of art are reflected in the history of reception of Eastern European avant-gardes both in the East and West? What role does the current rediscovery play? In what ways do art theory, exhibitions and the art market influence this rediscovery?

As Rainer Fuchs observed, it should first be said that the avant-garde is a very broad notion and there were no major movements in the 20th century that could not somehow return to the roots of the avant-garde or modernism. The neo-avant-garde is mainly linked to the 1960s and 1970s, both in Western and Eastern Europe, but this was not the first or last wave of interest in the historical avant-garde. This constitutes one of the most exciting topics of the current discussion: what were the reasons for each of the avantgardistic upheavals – in the 1960s, after the fall of the Iron curtain, and now?

This might explain why it is so complicated to categorize all these neo-avantgardistic movements. However, it is also difficult because each country (particularly from Eastern Europe) wanted to reflect and transmit to the viewer its own history through art. It was in the second half of the 20th century that national histories started to stand out from the previously universal flow of history.

Interpretations of the avant-garde differed greatly.

For example, the Romanian tradition on which Maria Rus Bojan spoke rejected abstract painting, pushing forward figurative imagery instead. One of the most prominent artists is Cornel Brudaşcu, largely influenced by American pop art, which was justified by the changes in the political course of the country. When Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power, he preferred to proclaim that Romania had finally escaped Stalinist influence by reestablishing relations with the United States of America. Richard Nixon visited Romania as a result and in 1969, a significant exhibition was held titled “Disappearance and Recurrence of the Image: American Painting after 1945”. It became a major survey of pop art and had a very important impact on certain artists, which echoed in the further development of art and artists in the following generations, for instance, in Adrian Ghenie’s paintings. Ghenie was the artist who represented Romania at the Venice Biennale 2015.

Marika Kuźmicz, Head of ARTon Foundation, works with the oeuvre of the Polish neo-avant-garde, which mostly consists of conceptual photographers and early video artists. The foundation has been digitalizing the artwork and their documentation. What was discovered during the process is that very little is actually known about the artists who appeared to be highly influential for further generations. Kuźmicz notes that they could find neither catalogues nor texts; only invitations to the exhibitions remained. The overall condition of the archive was so poor that if a few more years had passed, it would have been impossible to save the work in the archive. One of the objectives of the foundation is to re-connect these artists with the younger generation through exhibitions.

The extent to which it seems possible is another urgent topic in the discussion that was touched upon by Kathy Battista. She admitted that when she began to explore things on the margin like feminism nearly 20 years ago, her PhD supervisor was more than surprised. Now, art practices that used to be marginal are heading to the center of the cultural industry. It is also important to note that the cycle of how long it takes marginal practices to become mainstream has become much shorter. Now, this evolution to the mainstream takes just several years, instead of forty. Avant-garde art (which Battista equates to marginal art) appears, on the one hand, as a resistance to glossy shows, such as those of Jeff Koons or Anish Kappor. On the other hand, it is also much more affordable, which benefits art collectors and art institutions. The paradigm of the market we are living within inevitably influences all sorts of art, regardless of its techniques and topics, which actually jeopardizes the very radical spirit of marginal art, in Battista’s opinion. In an epoch where art is overdocumented, where it is too impatiently rushed to the forefront, thanks to having the Internet at out fingertips, the only chance to retain this radical spirit is to pull back from the digital mode and get back to analog.

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