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Ješa Denegri, The New Tendencies: A Quarter Of A Century Later [ENGLISH]
04. July 2018

The New Tendencies: A Quarter of a Century Later

Published in: Dometi, No. 9, Rijeka, 1990


Contemplating nowadays [1990] the artistic events which most closely linked the Yugoslav art scene to comparable developments in Europe, both from a conceptual and an organisational point of view, one cannot overlook some major dates in the early 1960’s. These dates (and events) hinge on two international exhibitions, held at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb under the titles of New Tendencies (1961) and New Tendencies 2 (1963). There followed three more shows: New Tendency 3, in 1965, Tendency 4 in 1968/69, and Tendencies 5 in 1973, yet the significance of these, in relation to the issues under discussion  were much more modest  in scope - particularly, on an international level.  It was a number of coincidences, but by no means sheer chance, that put a gallery from Yugoslavia, and – through this gallery, an entire cultural milieu – at the centre of European art life, at a particular moment in history.  More than quarter of a century has elapsed since that moment, but the long period has not only failed to consign the memory of this to oblivion, but has inevitably rekindled the memory of these from the beginning of the 'sixties. Let us see, briefly, what it was that was happening on the European art scene in those years, and how we can evaluate them today.


Post-Art Informel: The Situation and the Concept

There are a number of historians and chroniclers of post-war art, who claim that in the period around 1960 there were some obvious symptoms of what might be described as a watershed: one art-related and cultural atmosphere came to an end, and a new one came into being. On the European art scene, the previous decade - the period between approximately 1950 and 1960 - had been dominated by the advent, spread and then gradual decline of a wave of Art informel, which had had an Impact on almost impacted almost every milieu, where the cultural level allowed for autochthonous developments, or at least a sufficiently well-grounded adoption of this broad international tendency and artistic language. Basically, Art informel was an artistic reflection of a historical moment: what took place at that moment was a near supra-individual expression of a shared sense of uncertainty, anxiety, even fear, which had resulted from the experience of the recent past (the memories of the Second World War were still vivid enough), while the future prospects – owing to the accelerated growth in a single direction – offered no ground for complacency. Around 1960, the existential charge of the Informel reached a point of complete saturation, and as a style of painting and artistic idiom, it had become increasingly academicised, owing to the influx of numerous adherents and epigones. Concurrently, the social and spiritual climate seemed to start to hold out the prospect of changes towards a comparably calmer and more stable period, which brought about a change of mood in the field of art, as well. There were new voices, demanding a limit to the Informel, and a shift beyond it. As is typical in the artistic field, the directions of change had not been prescribed in advance and were not predetermined, but came from internal developments within the practice of individual artists, who felt the need for a change of direction and set about finding a way through. After sufficient time had elapsed, it became clear to certain critics of the day that there were two divergent ways out of the current impasse that was posed by Art informel.  Carlo Giulio Argan, who had specially dealt with the issues relating to the period, as a whole, and who had been one of the organisers of the important 1963 exhibition, Oltre l’informale, in San Marino, deduced that these two lines were Neo-Constructivist/Gestaltist, on the one hand, social reportage, on the other (Pop Art and New Figuration, being classified with the latter). In the wake of this suggestion by Argan, Filiberto Menna wrote with precision about the nature of the post-Informel alternatives:

'The streams we can nowadays consider to be typical of the international art panorama are Programmed Art and Pop Art. The typicality of these tendencies is derived from the fact that they finally take into account the general anthropological condition ever more determinedly characterized by the technological advancement and its two basic dimensions, i.e., industrial production on the one hand, and massive consumption on the other.'

And further:

“Programmed Art and Pop Art thus establish themselves at divergent, even mutually opposite positions, yet sharing the same point of departure which is the contemporary technological reality.'

Lastly, with particular reference to Programmed Art (L’arte programmata), Menna described it as an art, which

'settles, with different contributions and accents though, along the line of the pioneers in the Modernist movement whose request for the opening of humanistic perspectives in the advancement of modern engineering is being made again.'

Thus, some essentially different artistic modes of working were launched at the beginning of the 'sixties, as a reaction to the prevailing climate of Art informel. Attributes of the Informel and its offshoots, such as gesture, action, directness and physical materiality, were now replaced by new linguistic elements, such as clear, even surfaces, monochrome painting, measure, calculation, programming, dynamic visual perceptions, real movement and real light - all to be found in the work of those artists who came together for the first New Tendencies exhibition, insofar as the practitioners of Gestaltist and Programmed Art were concerned. As for the adherents of Pop Art and Gestalt, the main elements of their language consisted in affirmation of the ordinary, everyday object, and of iconographic matrices deriving from the mass media; and an implicit revival of narrative, bound up with a return of narrative figuration, based on motifs deriving from Pop Art iconography and processes. But it was not only the elements of the artistic language that changed: the ideological horizons of art changed, too, and the emergence of the New Tendencies movement was one of the key aspects of the altered climate of the post-Informel.


The New Tendencies: The Circumstances in which the first exhibition was assembeled, in 1961

Art undoubtedly possesses a spiritual essence of its own, yet in the artistic field certain developments are required, if it is to be enabled to exercise its full effect. In this instance, the particular circumstances that contributed to the realisation of the first New Tendencies exhibition came together at one particular moment, and out of this there developed the base and source of a whole international art movement. For the record, and for  the  sake of historical accuracy, we should  leave it to  Almir Mavignier, who provided the   main ideological impetus behind the event and who was, in many ways, its prime organiser and promoter, to provide us with the key testimony> Here, then, are some lengthy excerpts from the document, titled New Tendencies 1 – A Surprising Case ('Neue Tendenzen I – ein überraschender Zufall '), which was  published ten years later, in 1970, in the exhibition catalogue of Tendencies 4:

'In the year 1960, I was in Zagreb. My encounter with the artists and art critics was exciting due to the open-mindedness of an amazingly well-informed group. (…) During a conversation at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, the subject of our discussion was the report on the 1960 Venice Biennale. To the question on which so-far unknown art movements could be detected at that Biennale, I answered: None, for the simple reason that, owing to the Biennale’s structure at the moment, the art presented there had already been known through the artwork trade or through the official representation of some countries.

In order to trace any unknown movements, one had to visit studios and meet the artists experimenting with new ideas and new materials, which in my opinion included such artists as: Morellet, Gruppo N, Castellani, Mack, Piene, Wilding, Gerstner, Pohl, Adrian, Zehringer and others who sought new ways and a new artistic conception.

To provide evidence in support of my conviction, I suggested an exhibition of such artists. (…) A little while thereafter, the initial preparations began. Božo Bek, Director of the Gallery, and the art critic Matko Meštrović, in untiredly maintained intense correspondence with me, kept explaining the decisive elements of organization. (…)

The works sent in were very good on average. (…) Apart from paintings, there was a kind of plastic items which nonetheless had not one traditional property but rather the character of an object. As to the order in which the exhibits should have been displayed, it was clear to me outright: the objects should be exhibited after the paintings, that is, we should start with painting art and move toward the object.

As to the name of the exhibition, I suggested the title New Tendencies. The name comes from Stringenz – Nuove tendenze tedesche, the exhibition held in 1959 at the Pagani Gallery in Milan. The greatest surprise of the first New Tendencies show the astonishing kinship in the experiments by the artists from most different countries, although those artists knew little or, frequently, nothing at all about one another.

It was in Zagreb for the first time that the phenomenon injected into our consciousness the existence of an international movement wherein art disclosed a new conception which was experimenting with optical research into the surface, the structure and the object.

The awareness of the new optical dimension stimulated the organizers to provide documentation thereof and spread information by way of future New Tendencies exhibitions that were to be held thereafter, and outside of Yugoslavia, too.'

The first of the New Tendencies exhibitions embraced the authors whose art had been familiar to Mavignier and other organisers, and they came from the FR of Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. The core group among them gathered around the issues of monochromatic painting, new geometric abstraction, and objects made from novel manufactured materials, as well as potential, or actual, kinetic objects. The European context, to which the first of the Zagreb exhibitions belonged, implied the existence and work of the Zero Group (Mack, Piene and Uecker), founded in Düsseldorf, in 1957; the activities of the gallery/magazine. Azimuth & Azimut launched from Milan (1959/60) and spearheaded by Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani; the shows Stringenz – Nuove tendenze tedesche, in Milan (1959) and Monochrome Malerei, curated in Leverkusen by Udo Kultermann (1960). To these, we should add the foundation of the first groups: Motus, later GRAV - Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel in Paris, Gruppo T in Milan and Gruppo N in Padua, among others.

The first exhibition held in Zagreb was far from advocating technological art and its characteristic ideology; on the contrary, its hallmark was provided by some strikingly spiritual works, often in quite modest formats, which, by their structure and organisation, made clear the very origin and source of their pioneering approach. There was one unforgettable piece on display: a totally white, achromatic surface by Manzoni, produced in 1961, and the very fact that both this artist and Castellani were present at the show, served as an important Indication. The two men’s motto was the same as the title of their 1960 exhibition at the Azimut Gallery: La nuova concezione artistica. This meant that they were currently preoccupied with all kinds of post-Art informel, non-figurative orientation, and not merely with the Programmed and Kinetic Art that came to prevail in the New Tendencies movement, from the time of the second exhibition in Zagreb, in 1963.

The first Zagreb show, of 1961, was personally felt by the participants and the organisers to be an event which opened prospects and validated their own output within a circle of like-minded artists, who had known little, or nothing, about each other’s activities.  Thus, Manfredo Massironi, of the Paduan Gruppo N, recorded in his essay for the exhibition catalogue of  New Tendenicies 3 [*] that

'to all of the artists, this was a very important experience, since it made it possible to check, through the works of others, the correctness of one’s own predilections.'

In another place, the same author wrote:

'This exhibition, which in criticism left feeble echoes, was for the artists themselves of exceptional significance, because it provided an opportunity for mutual exchange of experiences (...) It was for them a moment full of great enthusiasm, which was never to be repeated, for it did not take long to see disappointments and failures.'

A few years later, and from the perspective of the first crises in the New Tendencies movement, Matko Meštrović described the atmosphere, in which the 1961 Zagreb exhibition took place:

'With Art Informel well on the wane, namely, the inceptive activity of the New Tendencies looked like something that reckoned with a "New World~", coming out as its freshest voice and foretaste… At that moment, there could be no mention of anything near contamination with the ruling practice and the criteria of its protagonists, and even the issues of bare existence were not recognized. It was the moment of sheer ideation which then failed to see any obstacles on the somewhat more serene horizon of the international political situation which might rebut it roughly.'                                             

*  'Critical Notes on  Theoretical Cross-Currents within New Tendencies, from 1959 to 1964 (Appunti critici sugli appunti teorici all'interno della Nuova tendenza dal 1959 al 1965', Zagreb, 1965).


Toward the Second Exhibition of the New Tendencies 1963

Meštrović further said that 'within a short while, the new movement displayed an extraordinary ability to  evolve rapidly at the formal level, yet this was matched by a parallel loss of artistic prowess,  and this happened in the period between the first two exhibitions of the New Tendencies in Zagreb - that is, between 1961 and 1963. It was early in February 1963 that Manzoni, exhausted by his lifestyle, which implied a most radical kind of  fuite en avant (' forwards flight'), died in his studio in Milan. But before this, numerous splits had already taken place among the participants in the first show, in Zagreb. One of the divisive points was the exhibition under the characteristic title of Arte programmata, organised in 1962 by Bruno Munari, with sponsorship from the Olivetti Company, in Milan. Umberto Eco wrote the introductory text for the catalogue, and the participants included members of the Paris-based GRAV, Groups N and T, Getulio Alviani and Enzo Mari. After Its initial showings in Rome and Venice, the exhibition toured to London and several cities in the United States, thus contributing to the international promotion of the notion, and term, ‘Programmed Art’. The organisational and ideological stimuli that used to come from the completely incurable romantic, Manzoni, who dreamed of a new artistic conception, now came from those, such as Munari and Mari, pursued design on an equal basis with art, and it was possibly for  that reason that organisational and pragmatic tasks began to gain the upper hand, in the field of activates covered by New Tendencies. At the same time, in the course of 1962, the Parisian GRAV underwent an internal transformation, which propelled it in the direction of what Julio Le Parc described as 'art spectacle, the active spectator, impermanence and programming'. As for the character of New Tendencies, it was GRAV’s view was that the above-mentioned 'evolution can bring forth fresh notions of an artwork, of its evaluation and position in the society. This results in a new critical consideration with regard to the full-scope corpus of issues in the contemporary art.'

Finally, the greatest extremists – ideologically speaking – among the members of New Tendencies in those days - the protagonists of the Paduan Gruppo N - started to problematise the relations between art and society, in conjunction with a tendency to push issues to extremes.   Among the statements written by Alberto Biasi and Edoardo Landi, on behalf of the group behalf, we can read the following:

Many of those working within the New Tendencies are well aware of the opposition between the society that comes into contact with the research in visual or programmed art and those social classes the researchers wish to address. It has been said: the relation artist-work had changed (personality cult, as well as the myth of creation and of subjective, unique and stable work, have been removed) before an analogous change artist-society took place. Our group now raises the following questions: Is it not increasingly obvious that the dependence of the relation artist-society upon the art market imposes insurmountable obstacles to the New Tendencies groups, as far as to the right to explore?'


New Tendencies 2, 1963

The second Zagreb exhibition was inaugurated in August 1963, at the very time when the consequences of the turmoil within the New Tendencies circle, dating back to the previous year, were beginning to be more widely felt. As Massironi, who was one of the principal players observed:

'It was first and foremost characterised by a strict selection of participants, and then by a troublesome search for a common ground of understanding in order to create a large-scale and unitary international movement.'

This signalled a conspicuous change in the situation, in comparison to the issues raised by the 1961 exhibition and the list of exhibitors involved. Of the participants in the first exhibition, Among the artists included in the second exhibition, who had already  taken part In the first were Adrian, Castellani, Christen, Dorazio, Mavignier, Mack, Uecker, von Graevenitz, Julije Knifer, Ivan Picelj, and a few more. But the influx of new adherents was quite striking, too, and they also included a larger group of Zagreb’s artists, consisting of Vojin Bakić, Vlado Kristl, Vjenceslav Richter, Aleksandar Srnec and Miroslav Šutej, in addition to Picelj and Knifer. Ten years exactly after the exhibition of the four painters of EXAT 51 (the Croatian Architects’ Association in Zagreb, in 1953, these former members of the group (Kristl, Picelj, Richter, Srnec) came together once again. This indicated a direct personal, spiritual and organisational link between the earlier EXAT 51 phenomenon and the New Tendencies exhibitions in Zagreb. Regardless of the differences in approach exercised by certain artists, most of the protagonists of the second exhibition, and its organisers, were aware of the fact that an international art movement had come into being - an one that been shaped, one that was relatively homogeneous, closed in on itself, and  even intolerant of other, or different, orientations. The artists adhering to this movement all believed that they shared certain features in common, as well as a  physiognomy and an ideology all of their own It was Matko Meštrović, who acted as the ideological  spokesman for  New Tendencies ideology; although today we do not know to what degree the artists shared his views or the manner of their [removed]or even whether they were familiar with them at all), there are grounds for believing that Meštrović’s assertions  can be treated as the credo of a considerable proportion of  the movement’s membership - the more so, because some of them clearly echo  certain passages in  the writings of the GRAV, in Paris and Gruppo N, in Padua . Here are two particularly characteristic passages from Meštrović’s introductory essay for the catalogue of the second exhibition, in 1963 - expressly  titled 'The Ideology of the New Tendencies,' when it was subsequently reprinted  in his book, 'From the Particular to the General' (Od pojedinačnog općem, Zagreb, 1967):.

'The "New Tendencies" appeared spontaneously in the climate the old Europe was first to feel. A positive attitude towards scientific achievements is the tradition of the pioneers of modern architecture, Neoplasticism and members of Bauhaus, which remained alive. Also alive was the confidence in the potential transforming power of technology and industrialisation. The deep-rooted Marxist thought made the approach to social change and problems constructive. Those were the reasons that made the first criticism possible in Europe, and with it came the first opposition to corruption and alienation. A reso­lute demand was made for the demystification of art and artistic creation, and for the unmasking of the dominant influence of the art market, which speculated in art, treating it in a contradictory way – as both myth and commodity. The tendency towards the suppression of indivi­dualism and towards promoting the spirit of collective work also became possible. A progres­sive political orientation was clearly expressed, and art was concentrated on the problem of plastic and visual research, endeavouring to establish objective psycho-physical principles of the plastic phenomenon and visual perception... thus excluding a priori any possibility of interference of subjectivism, individualism and romanticism which burden all traditional aesthetics. Understandably, the principles of industrial production were also resolutely adopted as the most effective instrument and method of rapid socialization of material and spiritual values; so, accordingly, works tend to be conceived in those terms in order to make them easily duplicable and accessible.'

Further on in the same essay, he wrote:

'At that level, the very concept of art must logically suffer a decisive change and be erased as such, while art should undergo a necessary scientification. Namely, it must take a course which shall advancingly reduce the components of expression, just as its psychological and social aspect shall ever-lesseningly result from a necessary emotional confrontation with the conditions of the society, i.e., it shall recompensationally break out as an incarnation of the fundamental opposites in which an individual proves helpless and unprotected.'

How many differences there were between these resolute, harsh, even apodictic claims of Meštrović, and his first writings on the same art, written a mere two years before! Obviously, this was a substantially different critical approach, in which all the arguments and even wording itself had been rationally thought through, from beginning to end. Linking New Tendencies to the historical examples of Neoplasticism and, especially, the Bauhaus tells us about his recognition that there was a clear continuity with the Constructivist tradition and a search for some kind of convergence between art and certain practical areas of life, such as architecture and industrial design. What seems particularly debatable, from a contemporary point of view, was the demand for art to become more scientfic, even to the point of cancelling itself out - seemingly, in response to the concern of many artists to develop a practice that could respond more effectively to productive social requests.  One may even wonder whether this exhibition was not. ultimately, the  creation of the designer,  Enzo Mari, who was  one of the protagonists of Italian arte programmata (the title of an exhibition in  Zagreb’s Museum of Arts and Crafts, in 1962), and whether Mari was not behind the change of attitudes that had taken place among the  organisers of   the New Tendencies exhibition - and Meštrović,  in partiular. New Tendencies 2 was the apogee of the movement, the peak of its achievement and the moment of its greatest self-confidence. The majority of artists in the movement considered that it had accomplished its basic aims, and that it only remained for them to elaborate further on their achievements and go on persuading themselves, and others, of the absolute rightness of the course they had chosen to pursue.


The Illusion of Triumph, as Expression of a Critical Moment: The Final Affirmation of the Movement and its End

At the biennial exhibition, Oltre l’informale, which took place at the same time as New Tendencies 2 in San Marino, from June to October 1963, Groups Zero, N and Uno won most of the main awards. As proved inevitable on the post-War artistic scene, it did not take long before this (neo-)avant-garde phenomenon was brought into the spotlight by the organisers of major exhibitions, the critics, the mass media, and art market. Gestaltist research (Ricerca gestaldica, as Argan termed it) and the phenomenon of art groups became the topic of the day. All doors seemed to be opening to this kind of art, and this found its way into a museum through the Nouvelle Tendance exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, in April-May 1964. At the 32nd Venice Biennale, in June, Alviani, Castellani and Mari were allocated their own exhibition spaces, and Gruppo N and Gruppo T were also represented. Yet these artists' satisfaction was spoiled by the forceful irruption of American Neo-Dada and Pop Art (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg) and New Abstraction (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella). All their previous accomplishments were eclipsed by the PR triumph the Americans enjoyed with the mass media and the art market.  However, once involved, the American market did not lay them aside either. In 1965, William Seitz mounted the exhibition, The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York, in confrontation with Op-Art, and as a challenge to the, by now,  established Pop Art. Faced with this rivalry and sloganeering, many leading representatives of the European New Tendencies movement rightly described that exhibition as a 'Pyrrhic victory' or a 'first class funeral ceremony, as Massironi ironically phrased it. In the United States, this art was given a retinal and physiological interpretation, in a showing that deprived it of any innovative elements and emptied it of any of the ideological charge that was characteristic of the European tradition.  From that moment on, nothing could prevent its trivialisation and commercialisation.

The third New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb, in 1965, attempted to call a halt to this process of erosion of its credibility, through a choice of subject that was supposed to give the event a challenging character, rather than putting on a parade of   exhibits. The exhibition was conceived by Enzo Mari, who put forward the wider issue of 'divulgation of the specimens explored'; in other words, the show focused on an examination of artists' relations with society and the effect that their  art had on society, both from the artist’s point of view and that of  the audience. However, the results of this failed to satisfy even the organisers. Mari himself proved ready to admit that

'a great part of the exhibited material [...] by no means represents exploration, being just an imitation of exploration or its commercialization'.

In the mid-1960’s, the New Tendencies movement went through a complete stratification. On the one hand, the number of newcomers grew abruptly, and on the other hand, some individuals broke away and set out to build their careers on the international art scene. The award received by Julio Le Parc at the 33rd Venice Biennale (1966) was one of the immediate causes for the disintegration of the GRAV, in Paris. And after this official recognition extended to the pioneer of the New Tendencies movement by the international art market, there could be no more talk about the avant-garde character of the these artists or their work.. Moreover, the same remarks Massironi had expressed in relation to Art informel a few years earlier could now be applied, equally well, to New Tendencies:

'An avant-garde is an avant-garde when proposed, not when accepted; when it is neither purchasable nor sellable [...] From the moment it gets absorbed, it is no longer an avant-garde, even though it does not give up a single principle of its own.'


New Tendencies and the Concept of 'The Last Avant-Garde'

In 1983, Milan saw the first critical retrospective of Programmed and Kinetic Art. It was curated by Lea Vergine, who, for this occasion, used the title, 'The Last Avant-Garde' (L’ultima avanguardia– Arte programmata e cinetica 1963-1963). Vergine gave the following justification for making use of the concept, ‘The Last Avant-Garde’: in her opinion, it was the last time that an internationally associated group of artists exhibited together with the more or less similar intention of offering,  not only a novel language-related orientation but also a whole cultural model, or world view; thus, there appeared to be reasons for considering this to be avant-garde art, when art outgrew the  boundaries of linguistic innovation and intervened (or at least sought to intervene) in the  broader social reality, and when it dreamed of modifying that reality, in accordance with its  own practice and criteria. The realm in which such art tended to develop was not merely the world of specialised institutions, such as galleries and museums. This art tended to go out into the living environment and to seek out its own place there; it turned to other formal disciplines – especially,  architecture and design –, with an aim of having an influence on the design of the  setting in which everyday life was conducted.

Referring to the historic avant-gardes of Constructivist orientation of a Constructivist persuasion and their forerunners, in terms of their ideas and their spirit, some of these artists and artists' groups, who were gathered around the New Tendencies exhibitions, hoped that their output could acquire the properties of projective modules, which could 'indicate the restoration of the environment according to some well-ordered, rationally operated and verifiable structural system”. Subordinating themselves to that objective, some of them were even ready to give up a number of intrinsic artistic qualities, such as individuality and stylistic subjectivity. A few of them went so far as readily to sacrifice the very concept, or name, of 'artist’, by designating their works   ‘explorations’ and calling themselves ‘explorers’, ‘plasticians’, or ‘fine-art workers’. Their stance also took the form of critic sing the galleries and the market system, as instruments of bourgeois society, which certain individuals or groups In the movement confronted, not only for the sake of artistic or cultural reasons, but as a social, or political reversal of the status quo, from the standpoint of leftist, or even radically left-wing, ideological postulates.

In the present-day [1990] atmosphere of a situation defined as 'Postmodern', it is difficult to have an adequate understanding for the aspirations such as these, but one should keep in mind that the New Tendencies movement emerged in the first half of the 1960’s, at a time of widespread belief in the progress of civilisation, thanks to the development of new technologies and the new media. In those years, people believed that in a fully reconstituted world, then and in the future, art and science would discover their objectives in parallel, and that the representatives of technical/scientific and humanistic cultures, instead of continuing to diverge, would prove capable of co-operating in a joint endeavour.  The artists of New Tendencies invested their energies in such aims; they would now and then be seduced by the rhetoric of the day; sometimes they would themselves initiate and/or advocate that kind of rhetoric; yet soon they realised the futility, or at least the unrealistic character, of many such a pronouncement. In the end, the outcome of such aims began to appear as yet another Utopian solution for the place of art in the contemporary world. This example showed once again that, in the social conditions in which artistic life was being led during the post-War period, it was out of the question for it to play an avant-garde role;  hence, any talk about the avant-garde in this case – unlike the cases of Futurism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, etc. – simply could not be justified. For the concept of the ‘avant-garde’ applies only to the first half of the 20th century, whereas the postwar (neo-)avant-gardes – including New Tendencies – differed significantly from the historical avant-gardes, in ideological terms. The historic avant-gardes, especially those on the Constructivist ‘wing’, had a project for building the optimal world of their desires, in accordance with their artistic ideals, whereas the post-War (neo-) avant-gardes had to face up to a similar task of (re-)construction in completely altered circumstances. And in those circumstances, they were left with no alternative option to seeking integration into a world now dominated by technology and ideology; therefore, each of their intentions, radically to change the state of affairs was a matter of verbal assertion,  rather of actual implementation. As ‘The Last Avant-Garde’ – or rather, a typical (neo-)avant-garde – the New Tendencies movement saw both ends of the span encompassed  by these two phenomena: in the beginning, they were driven on by their fascination  with taking their  first steps, and they were able to hope for, and believe in,  the promise of real change; in the end, the best they could hope for was to hang on to the existing state of affairs, even at the cost of  giving up on, or even betraying, many of their original ideals.


The New Tendencies and the Year 1968

When the ‘Great Storm of 'Sixty-Eight’ broke out (the phrase was used by Lucio Colletti, while discussing the events around that key year in the recent political history of Europe), the New Tendencies movement practically came to an end. It had had been weakening in intensity since 1965, and some entirely different artistic orientations – those of Arte Povera and Behaviour Art – were to link their destiny to the social and spiritual climate of the ‘Great Refusal’. At that time, many thought that the New Tendencies, as an art which exploited industrial materials and pleaded for an alliance between art and science, actually represented – through art – the world dominated by engineering sciences and technology, which, in the altered circumstances of late 1960’s. faced accusations coming from the radically leftist students, youth and groups of intellectuals, who found inspiration in the teachings of the Frankfurt School and the then popular writings of Herbert Marcuse. But one should not forget that it was within the New Tendencies circle that numerous critical views of the consumer society and bourgeois society, in general, of some social institutions and, especially, the art market, were articulated. That is why some of the members took the year 1968 as a continuation of their own ideas and sought a place of their own in those events. The 1968 events provided an opportunity for the former members of New Tendencies finally to come down on one side or the other: for some - and even the majority - 'Art as Art; was the only path to follow, whereas, for a small minority, any further artistic pursuit appeared to be completely senseless, in the  changed circumstances. From that moment on, the latter group sought motives for their work in some other fields of public engagement.

The state of affairs and the atmosphere in some circles within the New Tendencies around the year 1968 can be reconstructed through the statements by Alberto Biasi, the former member of the Paduan Gruppo N, when he came to Zagreb to attend the international colloquium dealing with computers and visual research, in early August, 1968. According to Biasi, the first signs of crisis in the New Tendencies movement (a 'sharpening of individual divergences') were detectable as early as in 1963, and two years later the movement practically ceased to exist, as a compact entity defined by the issues it had raised. He said that some members had turned into 'eclecticists' or 'excellent craftsmen', of the kind who were always welcomed by the art market, while others had lapsed into silence, out of scepticism. Having expressed some mainly ideological objections to the contents and programme of the colloquium in Zagreb, Biasi concluded that 'almost no one of the art workers from the last New Tendencies is present here in Zagreb today, for the most conscious of them are in their own countries busy helping the student struggles'.

However, the help provided to student struggles remained of peripheral importance in the political commitment of some members of the New Tendencies, and their central effort was directed toward problematising their own professional position. This meant that they became involved in the 1968 events as artists in the first place, and only then as adherents to the radical Left. But what could they do, or did they manage to do, as artists? It all started with contestations at a number of international art events, such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta, in Kassel, (where Le Parc and Mari declined an invitation to participate). In a series of writings, they analysed the functioning of the galleries system and the art market, in the bourgeois society. Some individuals, such as Massironi, Davide Boriani and Gabriele De Vecchi, took more decisive and farther-reaching measures, by giving up making art for a long time, or even definitively, in order to devote themselves to what they thought to be more fundamental obligations, such as environmental design, teaching at art schools or academies. Lea Vergine collected documentation on the political activities of certain New Tendencies members – Le Parc, Mari, Massironi, Boriani and De Vecchi – in the climate around the year 1968, for publication in her book, Attraverso l’arte – pratica politica / pagare ‘68.  She emphasised their courage, yet also unveiled many contradictions in the artists' views, which, she said, were rooted in the fact that that  they could not,  and did not wish to, reconcile themselves with the current circumstances, but never managed to do anything meaningful, to change them. In a review that he wrote of Lea Vergine’s book, Carlo Giulio Argan noted that, within the context of 1968, some of the artists’ bordered on 'political infantilism', and that the price to be paid for this was 'remorse' for their embarrassing status, and that what gradually emerged from this was a situation which might seem paradoxical, but was, in fact, thoroughly indicative of the destiny of modern art. According to Argan this was a turning point: politics ceased to need to govern art, but art and artists felt a need to interfere with political developments, so that modern art became extensively permeated with political attitudes, just as medieval art was permeated with religious ones, or Renaissance art with scientific ones. 


New Tendencies in the Yugoslav Context

The facts that the first New Tendencies  exhibition was inspired by Almir Mavignier, that the third one was conceived by Enzo Mari, and that all four New Tendencies exhibitions featured a broad international circle of participants in no way detracts from the  reality of the local milieu in which these events were put on. These initiatives could be launched in Zagreb, because of certain preconditions: the activities of the EXAT 51 group over the ten preceding years had provided a basis for certain affinities which became evident at a suitable moment, when they chimed in with developments on the European art scene. EXAT 51 ceased to exist in mid-1950’s, while the work of its painter members shared the same fate as geometric abstraction, everywhere, when it was swamped by the violent onrush of Art informel.  Yet the consequences of EXAT’s advocacy of the Constructivist approach to art, and of the synthesis of art and architecture, plus the issue of industrial design, found a promotional platform in the magazine, Čovjek i prostor (‘Man and Space’), in the post-EXATist period. This was particularly obvious in the issues published, while Vjenceslav Richter, a former EXATist and future protagonist of New Tendencies, was a member of the editorial team and then took on the post of the editor-in-chief. Between 1957 and 1963 the magazine, Čovjek i prostor,  systematically published writings by Max Bill, Victor Vasarely, Anthony Hill, Michel Seuphor, Guy Habasque, Margit Staber and others. The topics covered dealt with the Bauhaus, the Ulm-based Hochschule für Gestaltung, Malevich, Mondrian, Ben Nicholson, Gerhard von Graevenitz, and so on. Those were doubtless components of a particular spiritual climate, and, to put it plainly, strategic elements of a particular cultural policy.

Thus, one can say with certainty that the seed of the initiative for the New Tendencies exhibitions did not fall onto Zagreb’s soil, by chance; nor did the movement come from anywhere else, as some have maintained. The local milieu provided ample grounds for such an initiative. Yet it has to be admitted that the initiative at first attracted only a small circle of supporters, and those were mostly artists and critics gathered around the Gallery of Contemporary Art. Throughout the ensuing events, this domestic circle basically remained the same, or showed only an insignificantly growth in numbers. For that reason, the circle cannot be said to have been a representative sample of the milieu, and it always retained its somewhat exceptional character. Despite this, however, the members of this circle persisted in pursuing a particular artistic and cultural approach that inevitably drew attention to some of the features of their own milieu. These features implied a readiness to crossbreed ideas, in an atmosphere of strikingly pronounced internationalism, where it was possible to believe that change would lead to progress.  Implicit in all this, in short, was a willingness on the part of the individual, actively to engage with the leading issues of the day, in a given area of work – and in this case, this meant contemporary art. As we can clearly see today [1990], the first New Tendencies exhibitions became caught up in the short, yet stimulating, period of Yugoslavia’s postwar social and cultural development, which was characterised by a mood of optimism about the prospects of catching up with the rest of the world; and by an aspiration to belong fully to that world, accompanied, even, by a sense of being ahead of events, in certain respects. Those who are fond of comparing chronologies (dates and events) in the political, cultural and art-related spheres should be happy to spot the following coincidences: 1961, which was the year of the first New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb,  was also the year in which Belgrade hosted the First Conference of Non-Aligned Countries; and 1963, which was the year of the second New Tendencies exhibition, was the year in which the Korčula Summer School was established, and this marked the beginning of a series of meetings between many of the world's leading Marxist intellectuals that continued for many years  into the future. Far from spanning such a range of possibilities, New Tendencies focused only on art, but it shared one aspect in common with these large-scale events, and that was the fact that Yugoslavia offered a fertile breeding ground for newly established international associations of a pronounced left-wing political, or ideological orientation, that could not be found anywhere else at the time, either in the West or the East.  Foreign participants in the first New Tendencies exhibitions were fully aware of these circumstances, both at the time and later on. This was one of the reasons why they readily took part in those exhibitions in Zagreb, and why they gladly came to the openings, to join in the debates they provoked. In the broader idealistic and Utopian atmosphere of the day, the initiative born in Yugoslavia seemed to promise reconciliation between many opposing attitudes that divided the contemporary world. It is in this light that one should look upon the impressions left by the first New Tendencies exhibitions in Zagreb on the participants from abroad and the European exhibition-going public, who followed the developments linked to these events.

Nevertheless, the local response to these New Tendencies exhibitions (with the exception of those who were directly involved) was anything but warm. Few critics wrote about these events, whilst such oral commentaries as have survived reveal that people looked on these exhibitions as being the creation of an international artistic élite and a group of local artists, with their small band of followers. who laid claim to a kind of exclusivity. However, the brand of Marxism and radical left-wing convictions displayed by some of the foreign participants exercised a certain fascination for some people lacking in any immediate, real-life experience of living under socialist conditions. . What most disturbed the milieu, in which artistic debate had been largely freed of ideological content were the relatively frequent outbursts from members of the New Tendencies movement, whose fervent aspirations aroused a sense of threat, on the part of their audience.

 What concerned people most was the official endorsement that was apparently being extended to a single - and, as it happened, avant-garde - artistic tendency. It was for that reason and, especially, on account of its small following, that the New Tendencies movement did not have the local resonance that one might have expected - especially, in view of the fact that all the movement’s key exhibitions, including the first one, were held In Zagreb. However, there was more of an echo farther afield, and the impact of the movement spread steadily abroad, until it became quite widespread and diffuse, with the passage of time. One of the loyal advocates of the movement, Radoslav Putar, testified to this, later:

'Although fortune did not do its best for the New Tendencies, we can with relative satisfaction say that the germ of the phenomenon existed, developed and gave off its contents from a place which belongs to this environment.'

As is the way with art, we should look to artists themselves, to provide the key to understanding the  long-term success of the successive New Tendencies exhibitions, in Zagreb: to Knifer and Picelj who participated in the first exhibition (1961), Bakić, Kristl, Richter, Srnec and Šutej, who joined them in the second one (1963), Juraj Dobrović who took part in the third (1965), and, finally, Vladimir Bonačić, who exhibited at the fourth (1969). Each of them had his specific area of work, but there were considerable differences between them, which makes it impossible to talk of them as a cluster of like-minded individuals. One kernel was made up by the artists who, within a ten years’ span, jointly appeared on the art scene – twice. Those were the members of EXAT-51 from the early 1950’s: Picelj, Kristl, Richter and Srnec who gathered together again for the second New Tendencies exhibition, in 1963; Knifer was still active within the Gorgona group, whose other members included the critics, Putar and Meštrović, who were closely tied into the organisation of the exhibitions and  the theory of the New Tendencies movement. Furthermore, it seems that Bakić and Šutej, the oldest and the youngest members of the circle, joined the New Tendencies exhibitions out of a personal sense of solidarity, rather than a feeling that they truly belonged to the movement, and were the least ideologically motivated members of the group. . Finally, Dobrović and, subsequently, Bonačić, came at a moment when the homogeneity of the New Tendencies, as an international movement, had already slackened -  that is, when the main working topic had shifted to the  separate, specialist domain of introducing computers into visual research.

We should not on any account overlook the achievements of the organiser and critic Božo Bek, who, in his capacity as Director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art, guided this institution towards a project, which was rather a gamble, at first. He significantly helped with providing the appropriate conditions for the initial encounter between mostly young and inexperienced artists from a number of European countries. Neither should we neglect to mention Radoslav Putar and Matko Meštrović, who offered the first theoretical interpretations of this new kind of art. Meštrović, in particular, acted as a genuinely militant critic and leading ideologist of the movement. His role, in this respect, was duly recognised in subsequent art historical assessments of the new artistic tendency, by commentators, such as Filiberto Menna, Donald D. Egbert and Frank Popper. And it was this combination of critical writing with a new artistic practice and the successful organisation of a number of artistic events that created an interaction between a number of different, complementary factors and served, firmly to establish New Tendencies in Zagreb's cultural milieu.

If an art movement reaches the level at which it grows into a broad cultural development, this means that has penetrated a great many niches in the home environment, even if this is not immediately apparent to one and all.  This seems to have been the case with the developments and effects of the New Tendencies exhibitions on the Yugoslav (Croatian) art scene of the 1960’s and the ensuing years. There is no doubt today [1990] that the phenomenon was a landmark experience, in grasping the nature of contemporary art in this country. Owing to that very experience, one artistic milieu came very close to, and even integrated itself into, a wider tendency in European art. At that moment, something was taking place in that milieu that mattered a great deal to others, as well. Those others then took up the opportunity to exhibit here for the first time and, in the process, made discoveries in a new and, as yet unfamiliar, realm. As for the impact on the local environment, this was immense.  Contemporary art was finally recognised as a development which knew no boundaries – whether national boundaries or boundaries between disciplines; it came to be understood as something that was not bounded by a geographical or cultural space, but, first and foremost  belonged to its own time. It lived in its time, and defined that time by its symbolic forms and its own language of signs. The art which was promoted by the New Tendencies exhibitions is treated nowadays as a symbolic form of language, belonging to  a time which, all too uncritically - then as now -  believed in open-mindedness, progress, interconnectivity and  integration; a time that aspired to speed up the flux of history. The sense of haste had some advantages, but in the short term it also created some fallacious beliefs, for which there was a practical and ideological price to pay. It was a time, and it was an art, which engendered a prevalent belief that permanent transformation and change were inherent to the nature of both time and art: hence, the pronounced anti-traditionalism and refusal of anything local;   hence, the open, declaratory internationalism, which was not only prevalent among the participants, but radiated outwards from the very mentality of those New Tendencies exhibitions in Zagreb. It is possible that, in the charged spiritual climate, dominated by a persistent Postmodernist mood, these strikingly modern(-ist) phenomena would always have drawn a certain amount of justifiable, or unjustifiable, criticism; equally well, there may be quite different ways of interpreting the course of events.  However, despite the apparent reluctance of critics to write about these developments in the current climate of opinion, we cannot discount the possibility that there may be a renewed confidence in this typically Constructivist approach to art, in the present climate of what has been heralded (and increasingly discussed, in art criticism and theory) as the 'New Modernism', or 'Modernism- after-Postmodernism'. Yet regardless of all the oscillations in taste, there is a widespread acceptance that this was an important phenomenon, and conviction that the experiences afforded by the New Tendencies exhibitions, together with the contacts they created, and the ideas that were diffused by this means led on to many subsequent initiatives, projects and achievements. Many people, in many parts of the world, owed a greater debt to New Tendencies than they themselves may ever have realised.