The New Art of the ’Seventies in Yugoslavia: Properties, Events and Evaluation(s)
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).
‘Art of the early 1970s saw a broad-scale eruption of diverse possibilities - Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Photorealism, Body Art, Process Art, Performance Art, etc. provide grounds for a talk of pluralism and offer evidence that there was no longer one dominant stream’ (Rosalind Krauss).
As a ‘key period’, when Modernism and early Postmodernism intermingled, and when ‘linguistic pluralism’ became the dominant force, the ’seventies were a landmark in the history of the twentieth-century art, whose consequences we are living with today. What gave these years their decisive character were the radical questioning of the language and very nature of contemporary art; the change in status of the work of art; the profile and behaviour of the contemporary artist; the artist’s political views and attitudes; and the extent to which the artist’s response to social changes is reflected in his work. One further quotation is worth inserting here, as a gloss on the socio-political background to the emergent art of this period: ‘The early ‘seventies was a period when people were still reeling under the impact and shock of the events from the end of the previous decade… In 1968, students in the majority of Western European countries had literally risen up. From Berlin to Rome, and from Milan to Paris, a state of open rebellion had spread through the universities’ (Lucio Colletti). However, this rebellion not only spread through the universities; it swept across squares and streets, and through the working class quarters of cities, not only in Western Europe, but throughout the United States of America. The younger generation of Yugoslavs was no exception. And it was against this social and spiritual background that a new artistic situation developed in the 1970s, and new languages began to be developed, in response to the prevailing circumstances.
In point of fact, it would be more accurate to say that the new ‘linguistic pluralism’ had begun to take shape as early as the late ’sixties, and had already heralded a politically inspired ‘Great Refusal’, in the artistic field. Shortly afterwards, the same thing happened in real life, and in society. In his book, Precronistoria 1966-1969 (Florence, 1976), a kind of selective chronicle of radical events on the art scene and corresponding theoretical background to these turbulent years, Germano Celant enumerated many of the key factors that had contributed to this ‘epistemological break’ in our understanding of the nature of art. They included: the first exhibitions of Arte Povera, Sol LeWitt’s programmatic texts, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art, Joseph Kosuth’s Art after Philosophy, Lucy Lippard’s critical essay The Dematerialization of Art, and two curatorial exhibitions of 1969: Wim Beeren’s Op Losse Schroeven, in Amsterdam and Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form, in Berne. The art in question became (and remained) known as Arte Povera (‘poor’ art), Antiform Art, Concept Art (or Conceptual Art), Dematerialised Art, Body Art, Environmental Art, Land Art, Process Art, Performance Art, Multi-Media Art, and all kinds of expanded forms of art. In Yugoslavia, all these forms of artistic [removed]and others, too) were bracketed together under the label of ‘The New Art Practice’ (nova umjetnička praksa).
The New Art Practice, 1966-1978
The first attempt to register a critical and art historical interpretation of ‘The New Art Practice’ in Yugoslavia was undertaken in 1978, at a moment that seemed ‘far enough, yet not too far, from the beginning’. The occasion for this was an exhibition of that title at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, accompanied by a voluminous catalogue, edited by the Gallery’s curator, Marijan Susovski. The Gallery had already earned a reputation for its adventurous exhibitions policy and respect for its support for progressive ideas and developments in art - especially, in its role, as initiator and organiser of the international series of five New Tendencies exhibitions, from 1961 to 1973. Thus, the Gallery of Contemporary Art was a natural place to offer timely support to the New Art Practice of the ’Seventies and a prestigious arena for the first retrospective dedicated to the phenomenon that spread throughout the entire art scene in Yugoslavia, at the time. When we read Marijan Susovski’s introductory essay again now, it is immediately apparent that the Gallery had sought, not only to treat the phenomenon in question in an historical perspective, but to offer consistent support to the radical ideological stance and alternative behaviour of the protagonists of the New Art of the ’Seventies, against the background of the prevailing social and political conditions: ‘Forced to carry out their activities within an artistic context that did not suit them, the artists inevitably came into conflict with whatever got in their way – tradition, the accepted canons of art and art education, outworn conventions, the institutionalised character of art, and their own social position. They advocated polemical forms of art, radical change, and analytical and critical artistic activities that were supposedly viewed as ‘acts of social relevance.’
In keeping with the methodology and interpretative possibilities of the day, the artistic phenomena presented and examined in this exhibition encompassed the pioneering, Ljubljana-based group, OHO (including those of its members who had gone on to establish the experiment in communal living, Family at Šempas) and the events comprising ‘The New Art of the ’Seventies’ in Zagreb, Novi Sad, Subotica, and Belgrade and characterised the contributions made, both by the younger generation and by a number of individual senior figures. Regardless of some minor omissions, which were perfectly understandable and justifiable, in a pioneering project of this nature, the Zagreb exhibition, The New Art Practice 1966-1978 and its catalogue (now available on the Internet) still provide indispensable source material for anyone interested in investigating this first art historical reconstruction of developments in the area of the New Art of the 1970s throughout the whole of what used to comprise the ‘Yugoslav art space’.
The OHO group had two retrospectives in Ljubljana: one organised by Tomaž Brejc at the Students’ Cultural Centre, in 1978 and the other, organised by Igor Zabel, at the Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, in 1984. OHO was the earliest manifestation of the ‘New Art’ in Yugoslavia since the group’s beginnings can be traced back to the mid-‘sixties and ended as early as 1971, when a number of its members transformed their activities into the Family at Šempas. By any account - whether by European or global standards – OHO deserves to be considered as one of the earliest manifestations of ‘The New Art’. Several facts testify to this, including the references to it in Lucy Lippard’s book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (London, 1973) and Gillo Dorfles’ Ultime tendenze nell’ arte d’oggi (Milan, 1973). The Oho Group had not only participated in a number of important exhibitions abroad, including Aktionsraum (Munich, 1970), Information at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1970), and the International Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum (New York, 1971); their exhibitions in Zagreb (1968), Belgrade (1969, 1970), Novi Sad (1970) and Sarajevo (1970) were very impressive and had a direct impact on successive innovative developments across the entire artistic arena of Yugoslavia. The abrupt termination of the group’s existence in 1971 was explained, by its founders and members, as an expression of their resolve to reject any form of integration into the institutional system of their own country, or the art world at large. It happened at the very moment when they had been offered a number of enticing opportunities to make an international career, in the wake of their outstanding success abroad.
In his analysis of OHO, Brejc divided the group’s short-lived, yet intense, activities into three distinct phases: Under the Label of Reism, 1966-68; Arte Povera – Land Art: Shows and Projects, 1969; and Transcendental Conceptualism, 1970-71. An approximately similar categorisation was adopted by Zabel, in From Reism to Conceptual Art. The concept of ‘Reism’ (a term launched by Taras Kermauner) applied to the visual poetry, books and everyday objects that comprised OHO’s early productions and implied reducing the work of art to its constitutive material elements – the very ‘thing’ (res), in itself. The midway stage in OHO’s development coincided with the phenomena of Ambient Art, Arte Povera and Performance Art (exemplified in the exhibition, Pradjedovi (‘Great-Grandfathers’), at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in 1968) and artistic interventions in the urban environment (the streets of Ljubljana and Belgrade) and the Ljetni projects (‘Summer Projects’), in the countryside in the vicinity of Ljubljana and Kranj, respectively. As for the concluding chapter in the history of OHO, Brejc said it was marked by ‘an intimate and collective orientation towards mysticism and transcendental meditation, which relied only on telepathy, super-sensuous perception and energy, as its vehicles’; whilst, to the members of OHO, ‘that period, considering their lifestyle, meant a return to their inner selves… Their communal existence, thoughts and meditation grew into a firm relationship and a truly spiritual manner of working that developed from friendship into a rounded emotional, mental and experiential entity.’ After that, it was scarcely surprising that OHO’s existence should have come to an end, with the transfer of the majority of its members into communes, either at home (to Šempas, in the Vipava Valley) or abroad (to Findhorn, in Scotland, and elsewhere).
The artistic and, above all, lifestyle experiment, referred to as ‘the OHO Phenomenon’, was a unique case in the whole of the New Art around the turn of the 1960s and ’70s. On the one hand, OHO could boast its early emergence and well-timed positioning at the centre of the new developments associated with The New Art; on the other hand, the group was characterised by a highly ethical view of artistic and art-related behaviour that was fully in keeping with spirit of ’68. Thus, it endeavoured to rise above the exigencies of professional exhibition organisation, in its attempt to offer a model of human existence that was inspired (albeit it, at the cost of anonymity), by a high degree of introversion and intimate spiritual engagement.
Innovations in Croatian Art of the ’Seventies
Soon after the 1978 exhibition, The New Art Practice 1966-1978, the Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Zagreb, started work on organising yet another retrospective, to highlight the contribution that artists in Croatia had made to developments in the 1970s. This came to fruition in 1982. The title of the show was ‘Innovations’, as a substitute for the term, ‘The New Art Practice’. The period covered by the exhibition, ‘Innovations in Croatian Art of the ’Seventies’ Inovacije u hrvatskoj umjetnosti sedamdesetih godina, began with 1967 (Hit Parade, at the Student Centre Gallery) and ended with the advent of Primary and Analytic Painting in the late 1970s, on the eve of the emergence of postmodernist ‘New Image’ painting in the early ’eighties. ‘Innovations’ was conceived and organised by the Gallery’s curators, Davor Matičević and Marijan Susovski, both of whom were close in age to the artists and artistic developments represented in the show. Hence, the striking affinity of this work to The New Art of the ’Seventies. We can see this even more clearly today, by looking not only at the formal resemblances, but at some of the common underlying assumptions. Thus, to Matičević, the innovative characteristics of the home-grown art of the 1970s included ‘the use of the new media, changes in the modes of artistic activity, a new conception of what constituted a work of art, and a specific sense of social commitment’; whereas, according to Susovski:
‘The ’seventies saw the rise of new media and new linguistic models of art, as a result of the abandonment of painting and of the two- and three-dimensional shaping of the plane and space, combined with the prominence given to ‘shaping human activity. The art that developed out of the new modes of thinking, perception and engagement could not be limited to a single linguistic pattern or only one kind of poetics. The free use of the most diverse materials led to an entirely novel artistic output. This open and flexible art, which foregrounded the individuality of the artist and his needs, depended on the nature of the artist’s commitment and the phenomena with which he was engaged. It was comprehensive, because it aspired to be as close to nature and social reality as possible; thus, reality is immanent to it, and not realism, in the commonly understood sense of the word. Once freed from the object shaped or painted in the classical manner, the artist turned to the phenomena, occurrences and meanings hidden in objects or concepts, to the sublime and the word concealed within us, as individuals, or as constituents of various social communities; the artist now wanted his output to be endowed with meaning and have the weight of critical utterance. At the same time, in the process of negotiating the use of new materials, he was forced to re-examine the concept and function of art, and the meaning and importance that could be attributed to the place of art, and the artist, in society. It was a quest for the art’s identity, premises, conditions, opportunities, limitations and results. The new media and linguistic patterns – photography, film, video, Polaroid, performances, actions, interventions, environmental art, installations, body art, process art works, diverse organic and inorganic materials, books, gramophone records etc. – all became at one both the vehicles and the objects of exploration. Such innovations in the art of the ‘seventies were conditioned by the new attitudes to culture, morality, and social and political reality, at a local level and on a wider, not to say, global scale’.
Further on in the same text, Susovski goes on to say that
‘The new media and new modes of articulation dealt with the phenomena of culture, sociology, political and economic conditions. This unmasking of the reality, and the impossibility of actually changing it, allowed for new forms of culture, whose anti-conventional and anti-traditional nature was expressed in the discovery of alternative languages, media, magazines, workplaces and exhibition spaces. The artist gained a heightened degree of self-awareness, as a person and as an individual who did not want to be marginalised within the social structure; this encouraged him to respond to the art system within which he was working – i.e. the galleries and the market - which excluded him from taking part in social developments. Artists came to see their role within a broader social context, and not merely within the narrow system of the art world. They dealt more with the ethical than the aesthetic issues of art.’
Thanks to the detailed study and interpretation that had been called for, in putting together the Innovations exhibition, Croatian art of the 1970s came not only to be examined in great detail, but to be firmly integrated, from that moment on, into the most recent chapter of the avant-garde, which provided historical continuity with earlier movements, such as the magazines, Zenit, Dada Tank and Dada Jazz, and the post-war neo-avant-gardes, including EXAT-51, New Tendencies and Gorgona. All this provides convincing evidence and arguments for the thesis that there existed what might be called ‘The Other Line’ in Croatian art of the 20th century.
The New Art in Serbia 1970-1980: Artists, Groups, Phenomena
In April 1983 – not so very long after the end of the decade which had been the subject of the exhibition - the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade devoted a retrospective to the New Art of the ’Seventies which had developed in Serbia and published an accompanying catalogue, with ample interpretative and documentary material. The most demanding part of the work on this exhibition was done by the museum’s curators: Jasna Tijardović, Jadranka Vinterhalter, and Ljubica Stanivuk. The term ‘The New Art’, in the title of the show, openly implied a link to the ‘expanded concept of art’, whose protagonists in the 1970s included groups and individual artists from Novi Sad, Subotica and Belgrade. This was a rather complex and polycentric art scene, where a number of independent and mutually unrelated art phenomena existed side by side, fostering a range of strikingly heterogeneous approaches and techniques.
The New Art of the early ’seventies in Serbia was characterised by groupings of young artists: Bosch+Bosch from Subotica, Kôd and (Ǝ from Novi Sad, and an informal group of six Belgrade-based authors who came together at an early stage in their careers, to organise the activities of the capital’s Students’ Cultural Centre. As a form of organisation, these groups reflected the common desire of people belonging to the same generation and sharing similar ideas to articulate and put into practice their right to personal artistic and existential views. As a result, the New Art of the ’Seventies in Serbia gave rise to two forms of organisational model: one was the activism of the groups from Vojvodina, whose explicit neo-anarchist socio-political energy ensured that they steered clear of both the advantages and limitations of artistic professionalism; the other was the loosely connected, temporary grouping of the six authors in Belgrade, who had, from the beginning, aspired to build up their own separate individual profiles and positions and gradually achieved this, both in their own country and on the international professional art scene. In addition to this was the emergence of a number of artists from the previous generation, who ventured onto the terrain of The New Art, either after spending an earlier, formative period in isolation or as a result of making a decisive break with their own previous artistic practice.
Regardless of the respective differences between these groups and individual artists, in terms of their work and earlier development, what bound them all together within the context of the New Art of the ’Seventies, in Serbia, was the common front they presented to the prevailing versions of ‘moderate Modernism’. Zoran Popović, one of the protagonists of the New Art scene in Belgrade, explained those relations and attitudes from his personal standpoint:
‘We realised that we had been virtually anaesthetised by the new dogmas of the status quo, which had become dominated by an unquestionable art practice that had complacently allowed itself to become locked into dialogue with an endless variety of modernist forms. … All life was excluded from this high modernist art.’
In the ’seventies, it looked from the outside as if those who were interested in admitting ‘life’ into their art were required to abandon the self-sufficient aesthetics of painting and sculpture, in favour of the immediacy of body action, which involved the artist in ‘speaking in the first person’ in non-fine art spaces and employing media, such as photography, film and video, to create a record of their actions or performances and turn them into valid forms of artistic communication, in their own right. A conflict soon broke out between the institutionalised and alternative varieties of artistic positioning. This seemed to focus on the opposing concerns of those who used the classical media, on the one hand and those who resorted to the new media, on the other. However, the conflict went deeper than this and was rooted in essentially different ideas about the nature of art itself that reflected changes in the social, cultural and artistic climate. This was the first time, in the 1970s, that the Serbian ‘art world’ had found itself so divided. The split was not, as on previous occasions, between different tendencies among people with a shared understanding of artistic values; this time, it concerned fundamental ideas about the nature of art. Consequently, the art scene in Serbia in the ’seventies - and especially in the first half of the decade – went through an extremely exciting period of polarisation and conflict, which has been without parallel, before or since, and which extended not only to differences between generations and artistic language, but to a conflict between ideologically irreconcilable fronts. It was only with the dawning of the postmodernist, pluralist spiritual climate of the 1980s that the gap started to narrow; and only then did a new atmosphere of relative tolerance make it possible to engage in the art historical study and evaluation, represented by the exhibition, Nova umetnost u Srbiji 1970-1980 – pojedinci, grupe, pojave (‘The New Art in Serbia 1970-1980: Artists, Groups, Phenomena’), at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Belgrade.
The groups Kôd and (Ǝ)
The activities of the conceptual groups Kôd and (Ǝ, from Novi Sad, were examined within the exhibition The New Art Practice 1966-1978 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in 1978, with an accompanying commentary by Mirko Radojičić; and in the retrospective of these groups’ work organised at the Museum Contemporary Fine Art in Novi Sad, in 1995 - this time, with an introductory catalogue essay by the curator of the exhibition, Miško Šuvaković. Recently, in 2005, the same museum published monographs and staged exhibitions of work by Slavko Matković and Bálint Szombathy, two leading members the group Bosch+Bosch, from Subotica – both events, being curated and written about by Nebojša Milenković. This undertaking was preceded by a study show, Central European Aspects of the Avant-Gardes in Vojvodina 1920-2000, at the same institution, in 2002. Thus, the whole complex of radical, innovatory phenomena in Vojvodina at the beginning of the 1970s has been belatedly surveyed in detail after a long period of marginalisation, and eventually re-evaluated, in the light of the significance of the issues raised above.
Like OHO, but unlike the adherents of the New Art of the ’Seventies in Zagreb and Belgrade, the members of the groups, Kôd and (Ǝ, based in Novi Sad, were not young artists, but were predominantly students of literature, foreign languages, philosophy and architecture. All of them were strongly marked by the lifestyle and culture of the young generation of the day: they had had an affinity for Beat poetry and rock music, they displayed a New Age sensibility and shared the mentality of the ‘Great Refusal’ of the movements of 1968. Their ambitions lay outside the realm of professional art; instead, they championed the principle of ‘living artistically and living their art’. Their activities ranged from textual and theoretical conceptualism to political/neo-anarchist activism, from the standpoint of their own social milieu’s ‘criticism of everything existing’, which, in turn, provoked an extremely repressive response from the local authorities – two members of Kôd, receiving draconian sentences and having to spent many months in prison. At the time of their activity, and even until recently, they were exposed to a high degree of marginalisation and were discredited by the locally dominant forms of ‘moderate Modernism’. In exchange, however, they earned a reputation for being capable of producing strikingly extreme, sophisticated forms of artistic expression.
The emergence of the conceptualist groups in Novi Sad, together with the cluster Bosch+Bosch, in Subotica and the artistic duo, Verbumprogram, in Ruma, as well as Vojvodina’s ‘New Art’ in the ‘Seventies, combined to produce the particular phenomenon of the ‘expanded concept of art’, as an ideal and, ultimately, a utopia for like-minded members of this generation.
The Reason for ‘The Other Line’
Not only were the 1970s a particular period in art, with its own specific outcomes, but the period can also be seen as an all-embracing spiritual climate, in which the conditions were finally ripe for a fresh reading and nuanced interpretation of the many artistic developments which had gone before it. Looking at the then Yugoslav art space of the ’seventies on its own, it has to be said that this was the time, when the re-evaluation and rehabilitation of historical avant-gardes such as Ljubomir Micić’s Zenithism (along with Josip Seissel's / Jo Klek's work) and Dragan Aleksić’s Dadaism, in Zagreb; Slovene Constructivism, led by Avgust Černigoj; and the the art-related aspects of Surrealism in Belgrade, from the first half of the 20th century; as well as postwar neo-avant-garde phenomena, such as EXAT-51 and Gorgona, and the Zagreb offshhoot of Radical Art informel - all feeding into the production of The New Art of the ’Seventies - jointly contributed to a moment which it is clearly justifiable, with hindsight, to define as the culmination of a continuous line, for which we might propose the concept of ‘The Other Line’, as an alternative to the prevailing ‘First Line’ of the modernist mainstream. It does not really matter whether this provisional term can be justified, from a functional point of view; what matters much more is the fact that, in some milieux, and in the former Yugoslav art space as a whole, throughout the twentieth century, there evidently existed a solid artistic and cultural nexus that could demonstrate a spiritual kinship, in relation to the principal issues at stake. Nowadays, there can be no doubt that the unparalleled, and unrepeatable, artistic achievements of the 1970 can be attributed, in large part, to the spiritual climate, in which any form of experimentation with the expanded concept of art seemed perfectly legitimate.