The work of the group EXAT-51 was accomplished in the early 1950’s (its members issued their Manifesto in 1951, and four painters exhibited their work in 1953), but this art circle, or its individual members, also acted in keeping with some principles that had characterised the group’s practice and ideology several years before and some years after these important dates.
Yugoslavia was one of many European countries that move or less consciously accepted the need to get to rise to the challenge of the new communications technologies and to get to grips with television, in particular, as a key factor in shaping the contemporary 'civilisation of the image'.
There is no need to emphasise the fact that the artist’s sense of his own individuality is one of the major characterisitcs of all art, regardless of the time or place; that this sense is common to all artists; and that all artists tend to give the express it as forcefully as they can.
Those were the early 1960’s, a short period of economic prosperity in Yugoslavia and, even more, a time of a great spiritual enthusiasm, when the Zagreb-based Gallery of Contemporary Art staged a series of exhibitions of the international art movement, New Tendencies.
One of the most peculiar phenomena in the history of Croatian and Yugoslav art has entered the historiy books under the name of Gorgona (‘Gorgon’), this being the name in Greek mythology for a monster, whose eyes, supposedly, had the power to turn to stone anyone who dared look into her face.
It was the novel ways of comprehending the structure and the meaning of a work of art, based on mental and post-aesthetic attributes, as well as the emergence of a broader social and spiritual atmosphere, that had conditioned the newest developments and opened up the way to a better understanding of a whole range of artistic processes. In Zagreb, the phenomena to which this general comment refers include some examples of Radical Art informel that appeared between 1956 and 1962 and all the activities of the group named Gorgona (‘Gorgon’), which was active between 1959 and 1966.
The Concept of a ‘Yugoslav Art Space’
The concept of a ‘Yugoslav art space’ denotes the geographic area and political environment in which the polycentric and decentralised, yet at the same time unified, and shared, art life of the ‘Second Yugoslavia’ (1945-1991) was maintained. It was polycentric and decentralised, because it consisted of several cultural milieux and their capitals, i.e. the republics of the former country which have meanwhile become independent states; unified and shared in common, for it was interlinked by numerous personal and institutional ties between the many active participants in Yugoslavia’s art scene of the time.
In contemporary European art, the concept of Art informel implies a complex which goes beyond one particular school, movement or ‘style’: actually, that is a 'state of mind', characteristic of the situation in the early post-war years, when the atmosphere was transformed and gradually altered the whole complexion of the 1950s.
Anyone fortunate enough, closely to have monitored the birth and development of Arte Povera, to have witnessed Kounellis’ live horses and Merz’s igloos displayed at the Galleria L’Attico in Rome, in early 1969, to have listened to Beuys retelling the legend of his life, to have read and leafed through Celant’s book, with its illustrations of Land Art, Anti-Form, ‘Poor’ and Conceptual Art, and to have heard about Szeemann's exhibition in Berne, When Attitudes Become Form, could not fail to be tempted to go along with Renato Barilli’s prediction that future art historians, discussing the history of 20th-century art, would divide the entire period into two halves - the age preceding, and the age following the critical year, 1968.
General Characteristics of the New Attitudes to Art
Although the evolution of art undoubtedly follows a continuous pattern without sudden interruptions marked by fixed dates, a number of symptoms support the claim that a new situation arose some ten years ago, in the late 1960s, which, it seems, can be justifiably treated as a specific period in the history of post-war art. It goes without saying that the new developments contained many direct or indirect influences and elements discernible in the period preceding it, but it also shows a sufficient number of characteristic constitutive elements that gave it a separate identity.
Two quotations – actually, two paragraphs taken from the wider context of some lengthier texts – summarise the principal developments in art of the 1970s:
‘The ’seventies were not just a decade like any other in the twentieth century, but a crucial period in which Modernism made its last original contribution, before surrendering to the various forms of Postmodernism that came into being, from the middle of the decade onwards.’ (Tomaž Brejc).
Contemplating nowadays  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).
What the New Tendencies were
This somewhat imprecise term jointly designates a series of international exhibitions staged by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in the following chronological order and under the following, precise tiles: New Tendencies , 1961; New Tendencies 2, 1963, New Tendency 3, 1965; Tendency 4, 1968/69; and Tendencies 5, 1973. The alterations in the titles are slight, yet noticeable enough.
In his recent text, The Year 1968 and Visual Arts, the Italian critic, Renato Barilli, said that 1968 marked one of the crucial dates in the history of contemporary art. Barilli claimed that any future consideration of art would have to refer to the situation pre-1968 or post-1968.1
The influence of a milieu on the emergence of different movements in 20th century art is a subject of endless debate. Once engaged in a discussion of the pros and cons, it does not take too long before one realises that the forms in modern and contemporary art – and that applies to the earlier periods, as well – have not occurred at random places or random moments; on the contrary, they were created by individuals who lived in concrete historical circumstances, who worked in those circumstances, and who were constructing their identity within a specific geographic, cultural and social area.
A number of events that took place between 1966 and 1969 marked crucial stages along the path towards the dematerialisation of the art object - i.e. a the process which implied a transferral of working methods from the formal onto the cerebral plane...
The farther we progress into the 1980’s and the artistic period that has been characterised by the processes termed ‘Postmodernism’, ‘trans avant-garde’, ‘Hyper Mannerism’ and so on, the more difficult It has become to decide from which standpoint we should view the art of the previous decade - the tumultuous 1970's - which represented a period of great change and even greater (though probably only partially realised) efforts at change, as well as a period of great aspirations, only some of them fulfilled.
Two issues of the magazine, Azimuth and twelve exhibitions at the Azimut Gallery sum up the activities of Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani in Milan, at the end of 1959 and in the first half of 1960.
The concept of ‘The Other Line’, which is conditional and ungrounded in art theory, anticipated and suggested the grasping of one particular set of events in contemporary Yugoslav art. These events were in contrast to, or consciously distinct from, certain dominant streams in art; they formed a specific area, which basically aspired towards radicalisation of the notion of ‘art’ and, therefore, towards the radicalisation of artistic behaviour.
A Factual Sketch
The group of painters, architects and designers under the name of EXAT 51 (abbreviation for Eksperimentalni atelier 1951) has for a long time been considered, by general consent, to be a phenomenon of fundamental historic significance to the Croatian art and culture in the period after the Second World War.