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Aneta Grzeszykowska & Jan Smaga, Avant-garde in the Bloc, Warsaw

Alternative topographies

by Matuszkiewicz / Sienkiewicz

It is not a novelty that the eyes of art critics, historians and dealers are pointed towards eastern Europe. Everybody knows that the Avant-garde movements of these countries are being rediscovered. In this issue we decided to study this subject in detail, and we focused on Warsaw. While the founder of Piktogram magazine in the previous pahes tells us about the local artistic scene, the following research by Maria Matuszkiewicz and Karol Sienkiewicz presented at the Foksal Gallery Foundation within the conference titled Avant-garde In The Block and exclusively published by Mousse, tells us about the studio of Henryk Stazewski and Edward Krasinski, a place that became legendary for Polish radical art (and not only Polish, since also Daniel Buren was an habitué of the studio). It is a troubled and even quarrelsome story that intersects with the experience of the Foksal Gallery and combines Tadeusz Kantor and Adam Szymczyk, the young and brilliant curator of the Basel Kunsthalle. Turn about, guys, and head to the East.

The decision to allot a studio/apartment on the top floor of an apartment block on Swierczewskiego street in Warsaw to Henryk Stazewski, a member of pre-war artistic collectives (Blok, Praesens, a.r.) and co-founder of Muzeum Sztuki in Lódz, reflected the change that was taking place in the communist regime’s policy towards avant-garde artists following the period of officially decreed socialist realism. In 1963, Stazewski moved in along with painter Mewa Lunkiewicz and her husband Jan Rogoyski. They lived together until the couple’s death in 1967.
Stazewski had his daily ritual. He got up early and worked all morning. At exactly twelve o’clock he came to the Polish Architects Association café, or SARP, very close to Foksal Gallery. He’d frequented the place since the 60s, initially with Mewa Lunkiewicz. He had his own table at the café, under his own painting hanging on the wall. From five in the afternoon he entertained guests at the studio. In the 60s, the place functioned as a salon for artists and writers, as well as members of the pre-war intellectual elite. Stazewski, the most prominent living representative of the pre-war avant-garde, a man who personally knew Malevich, was besieged, especially by the young.
In 1966, when the Foksal Gallery was founded ( . . . ), Stazewski’s apartment represented an important place for the milieu’s social life. Close collaboration between the Foksal critics—Wieslaw Borowski, Anka Ptaszkowska (Edward Krasinski’s wife) and Mariusz Tchorek—and artists lasted for about four years. It was ended in 1970 by a conflict directly provoked by Tadeusz Kantor’s negative reaction to the NEW FOKSAL GALLERY RULEBOOK proposed by Ptaszkowska and Borowski, which provided for transforming the gallery into an institution that would be distributing information about spontaneous artistic initiatives taking place outside it. The argument between Ptaszkowska, on the one hand, and Kantor and Borowski, on the other, concerned also the gallery’s decisionmaking processes and revealed Kantor’s domination. ( . . . ) In the autumn of 1970, Ptaszkowska decided to emigrate. Krasinski moved in to a small bedroom in Stazewski’s apartment.
The rift at the Foksal Gallery remained taboo for years, and yet its reverberations continue to be felt to this day. In the gallery’s history, it was a dramatic moment—two of the three critics who had founded it now left, and two important artists—Stazewski and Krasinski—stopped to exhibit there for more than a decade. The studio continued to attract crowds of people. ( . . . ) When Ptaszkowska came to Poland in 1974 with Daniel Buren, they didn’t show up at the Foksal Gallery. Instead, Buren stuck vertical strips of tape on the windows of Stazewski’s apartment. The action was carried out under the auspices of Ptaszkowska’s Parisbased experimental gallery that didn’t have a fixed name but was rather called by the number of each consecutive event. Buren’s performance was no. 25. The guest list contained not a single artist or critic connected at the time with Foksal Gallery. Buren also pasted white vertical strips on the windows of Repassage gallery on Krakowskie Przedmiescie street, where Krasinski’s exhibition was held at the time.
By the early 1980s, the conflict had been appeased and collaboration between Wieslaw Borowski and Foksal gallry, on the one hand, and Ptaszkowska, Stazewski, and Krasinski, on the other, was restarted. In the summer of 1982, an exhibition took place at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, organized by Anka Ptaszkowska under the patronage of Henryk Stazewski and Sam Francis—an exchange between Polish and American artists. The project closed with the Polish artists donating their works for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and their American counterparts for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lódz. Wieslaw Borowski co-organised the exhibition, and the majority of its Polish participants were artists connected with Foksal Gallery. The studio again became a meeting point for the Foksal milieu and a place of pilgrimage for Foksal’s foreign guests.

Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga, detail of Krasińskiego 10/154
courtesy: © Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga

While living under one roof, Krasinski and Stazewski had different lifestyles and frequented different places in Warsaw. Krasinski got up late and went to the bar, usually the Miraz on Plac Teatralny. On his way, especially in the later years, he liked to drop in to a nearby bar to play the slot machine, which at some point became his addiction. At the Miraz, by the table at which he sat, a photo hung on the wall of himself with the inseparable blue scotch tape. Krasinski gladly talked to accidental companions, but usually he spent his time alone. Around four o’clock he returned home. In the evenings, when, in Stazewski’s lifetime, the studio was crammed with people, Krasinski could often be found at the Gruba Kaska café next door to the house.
Stazewski’s death on June 10, 1988 was a shock for Krasinski. In early April of the next year, he opened an exhibition at Foksal called IN MEMORY OF HENRYK STAZEWSKI that recreated with photographs in the gallery’s cramped space the studio where they had lived and worked together for 18 years. The exhibition was not only a tribute to an artist and a friend, but it also emphasised the connection between the studio and the gallery. After Stazewski’s death, the studio’s appearance changed. All of the artist’s paintings and sketches were taken away. Only marks left by the frames remained on the walls, and from the ceiling hung the wires on which the paintings were once suspended. From that moment on, Krasinski had the whole studio at his disposal and he conducted all kinds of interventions in its space. Among the actual pieces of furniture stood dummy ones brought from the Foksal exhibition. Virtually no one saw Krasinski at work, the new objects and interventions appeared as if by themselves, casually—a dry stick protruding from the floor, a suspended globe with the blue strip in the equator’s place, mice running across the floor and on the pieces of furniture, eggs positioned in various places . . . The void left by Stazewski slowly began filling with the presence of a work whose nature was entropic and fleeting.
( . . . ) During that time, interest in Krasinski’s work was growing. From the early 1990s, among the visitors to the studio were the young collaborators of Foksal—Andrzej Przywara, Joanna Mytkowska, and Adam Szymczyk. For the young generation of art historians, Krasinski was a living legend, a link with the times they didn’t know. He thus played the same role for them that Henryk Stazewski played for the young adepts of art from the 50s. The new people at Foksal were also interested in the gallery’s history. It was thanks to their efforts that studies were published on the subject, which, however, was not received favourably by Wieslaw Borowski and the older generation of artists. The book KANTOR FROM THE FOKSAL GALLERY ARCHIVES, published in 1998, sparked another conflict at the gallery. The authors wanted to discuss hitherto ignored facts and hear out also those who had once left the gallery: Tchorek and Ptaszkowska. It was the first publication that discussed in detail the conflict at Foksal at the turn of the 60s and 70s. With the time, the generational conflict at Foksal intensified. The main contentious areas were, on the one hand, the question of historicisation and, on the other, the way the gallery should function. Eventually, a split took place. Borowski stayed at the gallery, and Przywara, Mytkowska, and Szymczyk left to pursue their Foksal Gallery Foundation, set up in 1997 and from 2001 residing at Górskiego street in the center of Warsaw. Anka Ptaszkowska became the foundation’s close collaborator. Its curators took care of Krasinski’s studio during his illness, as much of the last two years of his life the artist spent in hospitals and sanatoriums. Following Krasinski’s death on April 5, 2004, together with the artist’s daughter, Paulina, they decided on the studio’s future. Today, too, the foundation is in charge of Krasinski’s studio. ( . . . )
Thanks to its over forty-year-long history, the studio is a place of immense historical and symbolic capital. The fragility of the material traces, the necessity of evoking facts from an uncertain memory— contribute to its almost legendary aura. ( . . . ) The peculiar sense of belonging, and the need for belonging in a place and in a community cemented by a common history – remain unfathomable.

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