With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies*

Curated by András Szántó

Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York
2 May – 11 August 2017

Harlem is not what it used to be. From a dangerous part of the old New York of the 1970s and 1980s, this quarter chock-full of gorgeous late 19th and early 20th century architecture has morphed, during the past decade or so, into a rapidly gentrifying hotspot of New York Cool. From restaurants serving haute-cuisine inspired by traditional African-American cooking in clubs known for their long-standing commitment to Jazz, to patisseries run by Senegalese immigrants serving the best of French baking, Harlem has become a magnet for middle- and upper-middle-class New Yorkers, mostly – though not exclusively – African American in heritage. Cultural institutions such as galleries and concert venues are relocating to the area, evoking the “Harlem Renaissance,” the period during the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, when Harlem was the locus of an unprecedented explosion of African-American cultural production, from theory to literature, from Jazz to painting, and from modern dance to popular entertainment.

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Participating Artists:

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Gábor Attalai, Imre Bak, László Beke, Miklós Erdély, Ferenc Ficzek, Tibor Gáyor, Gyula Gulyás, Tibor Hajas, Károly Halász, István Haraszty, Tamás Hencze, György Jovánovics, Ilona Keserü Ilona, Károly Kismányoky, Katalin Ladik, László Lakner, Dóra Maurer, János Megyik, László Méhes, István Nádler, Gyula Pauer, Pécs Workshop, Géza Perneczky, Sándor Pinczehelyi, Tamás Szentjóby, Kálmán Szijártó, Bálint Szombathy, Endre Tót, János Vető

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Catalogue with essays by András Szántó, Emese Kürti and Dávid Fehér.

With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, installation view, (left: Ilona Keserü Ilona, Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms (Tapestry), 1969 | right: Imre Bak, SUN–OX–FACE, 1976), Elizabeth Dee, New York, May 2 – August 12, 2017. Courtesy Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photo by Etienne Frossard.

Thus, it is perhaps not so surprising that a gallery of contemporary art recently opened in Harlem should host what is surely the first comprehensive North American showing of the Hungarian Neo-Avant-garde, both in its conceptual and Neo-Constructivist varieties. The exhibition is outstanding in quality as well as being ground breaking in its content. Elegantly and spaciously arranged on two levels of this large commercial gallery space (almost, though not quite the entirely of the Gallery – there is a fine exhibition of work by an African-American woman artist in an upstairs gallery), it takes the visitor on a journey of discovery of Hungarian unofficial artistic production of the mid 1960s through the early 1980s. The selection of works is superb. The geometric-abstract and systems-based formalist work of artists such as Imre Bak, István Nádler, András Mengyán and Dóra Maurer is of the highest possible aesthetic quality, of a quality that matches or even exceeds that of the equivalent works currently on display at the National Gallery in Budapest.

This is no trivial matter, for when one introduces any public to a previously barely known or unknown body of work, it is crucial that the quality be as good as possible. First impressions are important! By rights, this should not have been the first important showing of such work, as the exhibition of the Latin American and East-European Neo-Avant-gardes at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of years back should have introduced the New York public to this body of work. The sad truth is, however, that it did not, or rather it barely did so. Hungarian content in this major museum show was so thin as to be barely perceptible. This is regrettable, but offered curator András Szántó all the more opportunity to fill the gap created by the MOMA exhibition. And fill it he does!

István Nádler, Untitled, 1968, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 × 47 1/4 inches (120 × 120 cm). Courtesy the artist; Elizabeth Dee, New York; and Kisterem, Budapest. Photo by Miklós Sulyok.

The show is beautifully curated, which short but pithy and perceptive wall texts that don’t burden the reader with unnecessary details. In a few carefully wrought sentences the visitor ignorant of the Hungarian context is able to garner an informed glimpse into an aesthetic realm defined by a set of political constraints and opportunities barely comprehensible to the American public. From the unspoken cultural taxonomy of the “three T-s” (támogatott, tűrt, tiltott), to the specifics of a paternalistic “goulash Communism,” Szántó deftly places these works into an aesthetico-political context using broad, highly articulate strokes. While the Neo-Constructivist work is impressive both in size and in quality, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the exhibition is its presentation and treatment of the conceptual and performance-based production.

With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, installation view, Elizabeth Dee, New York, May 2 – August 12, 2017. Courtesy Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photo by Etienne Frossard.

Károly Kismányoky, With the Eyes of Others [detail], 1973, four gelatin silver prints, 11 3/4 × 16 1/2 inches (30 × 42 cm) each. Courtesy the artist; Elizabeth Dee, New York; and acb Gallery, Budapest.

Hungarian conceptualism and performance was second to none in East-Central Europe, a fact that seems to have been lost on the curators of the above-mentioned MOMA exhibition, and this show makes a for a strong argument to support my (and, I surmise, Szántó’s) claim. Deftly arranged according to principles that were both thematic and aesthetic, this material takes the visitor on a journey through the minds of a vigorous, brave and determined generation of artists working both within and just outside of the borders of both Hungary and legality (work by Bálint Szombathy and Katalin Ladik, then based in Újvidék/Novi Sad, in the former Yugoslavia, is also included.)

Katalin Ladik, Poemin, 1978/2016, six gelatin silver prints, 11 1/4 × 15 3/4 inches (28.5 × 40 cm) each. Photos by Imre Poth Gelatin. Courtesy the artist; Elizabeth Dee, New York; and acb Gallery, Budapest. Installation photo by Etienne Frossard.

Bálint Szombathy, Lenin in Budapest [detail], 1972/2016, thirteen gelatin silver prints, 21 5/8 × 16 7/8 inches (55 × 43 cm) each (framed dimensions). Courtesy the artist; Elizabeth Dee, New York; and acb Gallery, Budapest.

To see the work of outstanding artists such as Endre Tót, László Lakner, Miklós Erdély, Péter Halász, Tibor Hajas and Katalin Ladik presented so well is deeply satisfying. Ladik in particular is given emphasis front and center in this installation, deftly including not just visual work (photography, photographic documentation of performance, etc.), but also of her barely known but brilliant sound work. This is important because Ladik has unjustly languished in the shadow of fellow (at the time) Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramović, and it is high time that she be given her due, not just in East-Central Europe, but in the West as well. If one considers that some of the best Neo-Constructivist and conceptual work in the show is by Dóra Maurer (who divided her time between Austria and Hungary), and some of the most thoughtful and exciting conceptual and performance-based production is by Ladik, then one realizes that Szántó has broken the mold of the still-dominant male-centric view of Hungarian art history.

Dóra Maurer, 5 out of 4 I-III, 1979, acrylic on wood, 74 3/4 × 94 1/2 inches, 190 × 240 cm overall. Courtesy the artist; Peter Kulloi; and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

The presentation of conceptual work in a gallery setting is always a difficult proposition due to the often diminutive nature of the objects to be presented: a gallery visitor could easily feel lost in a sea or small-scale photographs, video monitors and cases showing various forms of documentation, mail art, exhibition catalogues and the like. Szántó has mitigated this pratfall by eliminating tombstone information labels from the installation entirely, relying on information cards that the visitor can carry along with them, instead. This, combined with a sure eye for curatorial arrangement, results in an installation that is both navigable and aesthetically pleasing. This makes it far easier to absorb the avalanche of information. He also provides a shelf full of documentation in the form of exhibition catalogues, monographs and the like in a reading corner under the stairs, allowing any interested visitor to plunge even more deeply into this now-lost world. Szántó’s exhibition is a worthy companion to Éva Forgács’s recently published monograph/essay collection on 20th century Hungarian avant-garde art, much of which is dedicated to the Neo-Avant-garde. In combination, these two documents afford – at long last – the opportunity to those unfamiliar with this rich body of work, to begin to appreciate what these artists achieved in often difficult circumstances. The exhibition is highly recommended.

With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, installation view, Elizabeth Dee, New York, May 2 – August 12, 2017. Courtesy Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photo by Etienne Frossard.

With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, installation view, Elizabeth Dee, New York, May 2 – August 12, 2017. Courtesy Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photo by Etienne Frossard.

With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, installation view, Elizabeth Dee, New York, May 2 – August 12, 2017. Courtesy Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photo by Etienne Frossard.