[dropcap]P[/dropcap]olish Art Now”, an exhibition organised by Abbey House in a space rented within London’s Saatchi Gallery, is an importunate marketing ploy masquerading as high-minded campaign to promote contemporary Polish art abroad. It has been said for years that Polish art must begin to circulate more widely on the world markets, as the time it spent hidden behind the Iron Curtain has made it go more or less unnoticed by academic circles, Western institutions and the market itself. Studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art, I can see how the number of courses related to Polish arts is increasing – a few years ago, a Finnish student wrote his master’s thesis on the Krytyka Polityczna organisation, supervised by Professor Julian Stallabrass, while at the moment there is a Polish student writing a doctorate thesis on the subject of photography under Communism in Poland, supervised by Professor Sarah Wilson. There are symposia being organised on the subject of contemporary Polish art, while the work of Katarzyna Kobro was used for one of the most recent exams in visual analysis. Names such as Krasiński, Robakowski or Bałka are familiar to the international audience, while the use of Sasnal’s work on the cover of the book “In my View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today’s Leading Artists” suggest that Polish art is doing well in the West.
Jakub Kokoszka certainly seems to think so – he is the director of Art & Business Magazine PLC, taken over by Abbey House in 2010, who then relaunched the magazine in a “new design and content format”. With these very words he began his speech at the opening night of “Polish Art Now: An Exhibition of Polish Contemporary Art” (3rd to 10th of June 2013). But what sorts of arts are being considered here? Lucy Lippard described the Reagan era and the art which was being created back then by saying “in times when even in politics there aren’t any specifics, they cannot be found in art either”. Reagan has long left office, however the tradition of using empty slogans and avoiding making any definite statements experienced an apparent renaissance at the opening of “Polish Art Now” on the 3rd of June this year.
The art so glowingly presented by Jakub Kokoszka has been created under the “patronage” of the auctioneers Abbey House. This firm, set up in 2010 by Pawel Makowski, advises investors who are in search of “safe forms of capital investment”. Their activities do not end there, however. No investment of any capital can be considered “safe”, unless it is under the total control of the organisation which is guaranteeing their clients such security. And so Abbey House has developed a system of engaging artists on five-year contracts and paying them a fixed fee for delivering regular works of art, which are then presented as “secure investments”. After all, as they claim on their website, in Polish, “the artists recommended by us will soon be the most famous of names in the world of art today and tomorrow”.
The renting of two rooms at the Saatchi Gallery and exhibiting their artists there does indeed give the impression that all the Abbey House artists are of the calibre required by the Saatchi name (which, in spite of showing work of incredibly varied quality, remains a brand which continues to launch and establish new artists into the marketplace). On the Abbey House website, promotional texts suggest the exhibition is under the patronage of the Saatchi. In reality, all that has happened is that two of their rooms have been rented – the short period of time they have been rented for (six days only) also shows the small scale of the event. In actual fact, the Saatchi Gallery curatorial team have had no input into the exhibition at all.
As an art historian, I get chills thinking about how the legends of Polish art are here being used to legitimise the young, middlingly talented artists represented by Abbey House. I won’t even mention the self-promotion being generated for the auctioneers, who are presenting themselves in London as “the platform for the rapidly growing arts community in Warsaw”. In his introduction, Kokoszka not only thanked the artists of Abbey House but also legends of Polish art history, obviously not related to the auction house, such as Wojciech Fangor, Stefan Gierowski and Henryk Stażewski, who had failed to show. It is not surprising that Gierowski or Fangor were not in attendance, seeing as no one had asked their opinion about the exhibition. The classic works on display came from Marek Niemirski’s collection – he is an artist who does not belong to the Abbey House stable, but is nevertheless collaborating with them. Having in his possession some amazing pieces of art seemingly inspired Niemirski to create the series “Collection”, which is made up of a dozen-plus paintings which show the fingerprints of other artists, including Roman Opalka, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Wojciech Fangor or Stefan Gierowski. Niemirski subsequently transfers the finger prints onto canvas, thereby creating his paintings.
Niemirski’s work, used in the poster for the exhibition, is meant to show the direct line between these established Polish masters and the new Abbey House “talent”, such as Agata Kleczkowska, Anna Szprynger or Maciej Wieczerzak. Boguslaw Deptuła, the chief editor of Art & Business and the co-curator of the exhibition, with apparently honest enthusiasm, tried to explain to me the relationship between “the fingerprint of Gierowski” and his painting Nr 100 from the early Sixties. Thanks to Niemirski, Gierowski is given a “new lease of life”, in the eyes of the folk from Abbey House. For me, Gierowski’s stunning painting is made ridiculous when juxtaposed with Niemirski’s “fat thumb”.
However, these tragic “relevancies” do not end there. Deptuła also sees similarity between Fangor’s 1966 painting “E – 14” and that by Jan Wyżykowski (“Screens V”, 2002), another artist invited to show here by Abbey House. It is hard to fathom what it is Wyżykowski’s work can express to the wider public about contemporary Polish art, being little more than a very poor imitation of Fangor’s style, a style focused on the optical possibilities of painting developed in a long gone, historically defined past. And then there was also Anna Szprynger, somehow compared to Henryk Stażewski…
But the most forced of all these attempts to find connections between artists old and new is the comparison between “Polish Art Now” today and the “Fifteen Polish Painters” exhibition which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961, organised by Peter Selz (1st of August to 1st of October 1961). The exhibition was made up of 75 paintings, including works by Potworowski, Stażewski, Fangor, Gierowski, Dominik, Brzozowski, Kantor, Lebenstein… Deptuła stressed that while at the MOMA exhibition Gierowski’s painting Nr 99 was shown, Abbey House had brought his painting Nr 100 to London. This is meant to evidence the historical congruity between past and present works. The curator of “Polish Art Now”, Sacha Craddock, made a direct link to the MOMA exhibition in her talk, suggesting that the strange creation that is the Abbey House event is somehow serving a similar purpose. While Selz visited Poland on a number of occasions towards the end of the Fifties, researching a huge amount of resources relating to Polish modern art, Craddock visited Poland, or rather just Warsaw, in the company of Boguslaw Deptuła, just twice.
Craddock’s role in the creation of the exhibition is rather unclear. Deptuła himself admitted that Craddock had little background knowledge about Polish art prior to this exhibition. She is friends with Goshka Macuga, an artist whose studio is in London, but apart from Macuga and a few other names, she knows no other Polish artists. Hence Deptuła had to organise for her a “crash course” in Polish art, or to put it another way – knowledge of Polish art in pill form. And although Craddock claims with delight to have discovered connections between Piotr Potworowski (who in 1949 was appointed professor at the Bath Academy of Art, after six years of living in the UK) and the work produced by British artists of the period during her visit to the National Museum in Warsaw, the merits of the exhibition as organised by her, with little prior knowledge of Polish art, are deeply problematic.
Apart from an afternoon spent at the National Museum, Deptuła also arranged visits to meet other Polish artists, such as Niemierski. Apparently, this visit convinced Craddock to take part in this project. The whole story seems to be strange, seeing as even during the opening Craddock admitted that she is not completely sure if any sort of “comprehensive” display of Polish arts had ever taken place in England. Why she decided to stage this exhibition, based on non-existent parallels between Abbey House artists and giants of Polish art of the past, is still unclear. I think Craddock, introduced to Polish art by Abbey House and Art & Business, has developed a totally distorted perspective of the field. The Polish art world, driven by complex relations between various curators, editors, sponsors and art critics, must appear impenetrable to outsiders. Craddock of course, with her vast store of knowledge (she was a member of the 1999 Turner Prize jury, and is the director of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries), should have invested more energies in exploring the Polish arts scene. As she herself said “Abbey House introduced me to all the artists taking part in this exhibition”, which clearly did not involve visiting Gierowski’s or Fangor’s studios, only the auction house HQ and the studios of artists they represent.
The organisers of the exhibition chimed as one that their intention was to create new contexts in which Polish contemporary art could be presented abroad. If however these contexts are dependent solely on absolutely unconvincing comparisons between Gierowski’s work from the Sixties and his “finger” as done by Niemirski, then I must protest. Abbey House, in the pages of Art & Business, declare that “the history of the Saatchi Gallery and its owner Charles is like a golden dream. His every call is correct, every investment sound, and so it will be this time. His gallery will now be the launching pad for seven Abbey House artists.” The rhetoric behind this statement is simplistic enough to need no further deconstruction. However it also demonstrates the sort of rhetoric Abbey House is using in order to increase the prices of their artists on the Polish market. “Polish Art Now” is not about promoting young Polish art abroad but about legitimizing the artists represented by Abbey House through establishing false associations with legends of Polish art history. One of Abbey House’s representatives claimed recently: “Polish people adore everything that comes from the West; when they realize that there is a demand for Polish art in the West, they will instantly want to invest in it” which only confirms the auction house’s aims behind “Polish Art Now”. In the light of such statements and the whole dubious context accompanying the show, the lack of critical accounts of Abbey House in both British and Polish press (with some exceptions such as “The Art Newspaper”) seems extremely odd. All that remains for us is to hope that this text will not be the only critical statement on the subject, lost in a sea of baseless back-slapping and self-congratulation.
The article originally appeared in “Obieg” magazine published by the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw and was then reprinted by a weekly Polish newspaper “Tygodnik Powszechny” (http://www.obieg.pl/felieton/28861
Translated from Polish into English by Marek Kazmierski