Tabula Rasa

written by Ivica Župan

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Until 12 July the Glyptotheque housed the exhibition Tabula rasa: The Primary and the Analytical in Croatian Art by Zvonko Maković and Mladen Lucić, and their associates Damir Sokić and Ante Rašić. The exhibition was presented in Pula Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria in September and October and its authors used it to draw attention to an almost forgotten segment of the Croatian contemporary art practice. The exhibition included representative works by the following artists: Milivoj Bijelić, Boris Demur, Slavomir Drinković, Marijan Jevšovar, Dean Jokanović Toumin, Željko Kipke, Ivan Kožarić, Antun Maračić, Marijan Molnar, Goran Petercol, Dubravka Rakoci, Ante Rašić, Damir Sokić, Mladen Stilinović, Goran Trbuljak and Josip Vaništa.


The authors expanded this interesting and instructive presentation and included other examples of self-referential painting where the artist expresses an analytical and reflexive attitude, shifts the procedure from an immediate or expressive plan to the metalinguistic level, by engaging in the discussion about art and its specific linguistic instruments at the very moment of creative act. The exhibited artefacts cover a wider time span, from 1964, i.e. Vaništa’s Black Line on a Silver Background, in which the author reduces the painting to a simple line, to 2007, when Kožarić vehemently referred to the existing status of art by breaking and tearing canvas stretchers of blank white canvases. All works are marked by a non-iconic approach and the lack of every scene and every trace of illusionism, which could result from the act of painting.


Generally speaking, the crucial characteristic of the art of the 1970s is dematerialization of the object of art. In most extreme cases the disappearance of the physical corpus of the artwork is reduced to a simple mental image, pure thinking – a concept – beyond the plastic object. In this context and pursuant to such an understanding of art, art as a manual discipline is understood as a historically completed category – the classical pictorialism was proclaimed completely exhausted. A more detailed insight into numerous art practices of the period, however, reveals a somewhat different situation. Variations of the application of new technical static and moving images (photographs, videos) were developed, but painting did not run dry, although the artist was no longer the most common or most important representative of the family of contemporary artists. But, this was not representative or expressive painting, abstract geometric art or lyrical art which was subject to visual parameters of the form and evaluation, but rather painting which kept its consistent material status and developed towards a new primary/elemental/analytical stadium, based on mental and conceptual propositions.


During the second half of the 1970s in Croatia, there was a revival, albeit in a totally different manner, of a somewhat neglected classical medium of sculpture and, especially, painting. In terms of elemental tautological operations, a fairly large number of authors was included in the production of rigorous self-referential mentality and extreme reductionism. In their final years of graduate studies and later in the workshops of masters Ljubo Ivančić and Nikola Reiser (sculptor Drinković in the workshop of master Antun Augustinčić), Demur, Kipke, Maračić, Molnar, Petercol, Rašić, Sokić and Bijelić, introduced, in the purest possible form, the reductive, analytical and tautological practice in the Croatian contemporary art. They focused on the elemental material information of the work and dismiss everything which could not be verified visually or tangibly. At the same time, similar tautological processes are detectible in the works of other artists such as, for instance, Jokanović-Toumin, Trbuljak and Stilinović. The Gallery Nova played a crucial role in the affirmation of these artists, where most of them held their first solo exhibitions, usually accompanied by catalogues.


Primary/elemental/analytical art of painting is, therefore, an integral part of the post-formal, post-aesthetic and post-objective mentality of the art of the 1970s, which arose from the self-referential and self-observing mentality – almost everything which belongs to the time period between 1967 and 1979 includes the experience of conceptual art. Primary painting was one of the stages of the mobility of the contemporary art of the period, a global trend of a smaller scale in comparison to other global trends embraced by the Croatian artists. Typical representatives of primary painting in the usa are Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, and in Europe the painters of the group Support-Surface (Louis Cane, Marc Devade etc.) and bmpt (Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni).


Chronologically, creation of primary painting appeared in 1973 in Belgrade, and then in Zagreb and Ljubljana. The art was opening up at that time; the process of changes and going beyond linguistic paradigms was initiated. Those were the events which, besides art, referred to a wider cultural and ideological coordinates and contexts; new positions and institutions were formed, and art and reception of art were also criticized.


Reaffirmation of painting, therefore, started by the artist’s focus on the painting as a material fact, made of a canvas and what is put on the canvas or removed from it, by applying only those operational procedures which are typical of a specific discipline of painting. In other words, the focus was on a specific synthesis of conceptual art and painting called analytical/primary painting. In other environments this type of non-iconic and non-intentional painting was called elemental, fundamental, processing, referential, a painting as a painting...


These authors do not want their creative practice to depend on a predefined social context in a given moment and their paintings do not bring about discussions on the material world from the point of view of a symbolical or metaphorical enhancement of the scene. Instead of their activism in specific social and political circumstances, engagement and interference in external real existential or mundane issues, these authors focus on a reduced group of autonomous and internal plastic issues, by expressing their own opinions on the nature and phenomenology of painting as seen in the terminology of the very artistic practice. They direct the essence of the organism of painting towards its internal, structural function in its post-referential, post-iconic and post-morphological state. They believe that a painting should include all linguistic and metalinguistic issues and they envisage a painting as a linguistic problem based on its own internal conditions of formulation, and they intentionally rely on the factors of plasticity – colour, space, creative process, all the way to the record of every individual brush stroke. Therefore, they relied on the elements of painting, which must be verified and, accordingly, affirmed in practice. In an intentional, orthodox, determined, dedicated, devoted, concentrated and passionate manner, they dismiss the classical pictorial values, objectivity, narrative, illusion, allusion, expression and even colour, which would undoubtedly lead to the revelation of the sensory and organic foundation of the artist’s imagination, sensibility, emotionality and spirituality, and they focus exclusively on the fundamental ontological assumptions about creation of an artwork.


Although this phenomenon was not typologically uniform in our region, the structure of the paintings reveals the elementary nature of the media, testifies to the working process and lays bare the physical act of creative act, free of any emotional and psychological charge, every form of representation, reference, metaphysical, literary, aesthetic and any other superstructure. Constantly persisting on the autonomy of the visual field, the painters aim at denotation, non-mimesis; they are not interested in any association but in the painting as a self-referential work, a metalanguage, a tautology, an original and self-sufficient visual field. By insisting on tautological study of visual means of expression, these authors avoid to include even specific easily recognizable objective information into this scant material minimalism – the texture of the canvas or other material which is being interfered with, the intensity of the coat of paint, a barely visible shift in the basic colour scheme – or to connect their work with theory, linguistic or philosophical structuralism.


A painting is reduced to zero degree, a bare object, it is seen as a strictly specialized procedure from whose sphere of activity all forms of objectivity, expression, narration, fiction, allegory, iconic, expressive and symbolical elements are removed: simply put, the model of a painting as a scene and a window from which the painter observes the external world is rejected. A painting is, therefore, not a screen but an object; nothing is happening in the painting – it is a real body in a real space. The painter meta-critically comes to grips with the basic ontological assumptions of creating a work of art, and uses working tools to demonstrate all stages which lead to the completion of the final stage of the work of art.


The inner spiritual substrate of these painters focuses mostly on the means – propositions, analytical reflections on the nature of art, discussions on its productive procedures and the status of its products within artistically codified rules, i.e. within specific linguistic games performed in the phenomenological and mental area of art.


Painting needs to be analysed in its structural process, and not in its morphological variations. It deals with its own ontology, possibilities and limitations of a painting by using its integral parts. In primary painting the practical operation of painting is important, the operation reduced to the final elementary procedures, and also the procedures which rely on a direct material and analytical record of used means of work and the process of their use. The basic idea underlying this practice is that painting consists of what it is –colours, canvas and manual process – and the goal of such a method of work is to dismiss every kind of representation so that the observer can see only what a painting is made of.


The painting is, therefore, the result of a structural process and its fundamental principles, and its creation is the culmination of critical awareness of the possibilities of painting and its production. By radical reduction of the means of work, the authors have placed bare materiality in the centre of the artefact; they question the nature of a painting, a sculpture, the medium in general, limiting their examination of painting to bare physical and processing characteristics (foundation, brush stroke, coat, layer…) What is at stake here is drawing closer to a specific type of an empirically verifiable work, the orientation towards an important linguistic issue which insists on the analysis of the meaning of constituent factors of the very artistic practice.


The painter focuses on a reduced group of independent and intrinsic problems of art, by removing the aesthetic and pictorial part from the organization of the visual field, and by seeing a painting as an object which has a structurally organized system of basic constituent elements. A painting and a sculpture are created with a certain amount of analytical opinion and simplicity of actions in order to prove that a work of art is an objective, material work, in order to analytical record the material process which leads to a work of art, to an analytical record of painting or sculpture in the process of the use of artistic means. We can observe visible and completely bare artistic procedures reduced to totally obvious and transparent facts of painting practice – a canvas as the natural foundation of the act of painting, materiality of colour with which this procedure is performed, brush strokes made with a painting kit as the means of artistic procedures.


One of the significances of Tabula rasa is that it brings the phenomenon of primary sculpture back into focus. Many things we use to explain primary painting also apply to primary sculpture because they are complementary activities. Sculpture is also bare explication of the authors (Sokić, Rašić, Drinković) elementary work in the material and there are no extensions or additions there – the authors limit themselves to inspection of bare physical and processing characteristics. A sculpture displays nothing but a visible process of its creation in appropriate material and means of work, and is created by structural lines of identical elements (granite panels, ceramic tiles, terracotta, paraffin, wood cubes, light bulbs, paper bags or boxes…), often shaped in irregular geometric configurations. The plastic value of the sculpture arises solely from the material the author uses.


One of the significant characteristics of primary sculpture lies in erasing the boundary between a painting and a sculpture – the three-dimensional and the one-dimensional – which is obvious in, e.g., Rašić’s White Sheets (Bijele plahte) from 1977. It is a specific type of procedural behaviour which results in the elaboration of objects presented in the procedural and physical medium of painting. White sheets, glued to jute and coated in white poly-colour, and their free falling folds emphasize material qualities of the structure and create a strong sculptural impression.


Sculpture does not exist as an isolated artefact – it absorbs the exhibition space and they create ambience together. Sculpture is not a firm or a closed material product anymore, nor a closed and immovable body of art, but an idea realized with different means of work, a construction taken from the pedestal on which the classical function of sculpture as a monument is based. It is located directly in a space, most often on the gallery floor.


Primary painting, which also applies to other examples of self-referentiality at this exhibition, also reflects, in discreet as well inconspicuous manner, the artist’s ideological positions at the time, mostly displayed in their rejection of any additional meaning externally read into the painting, in order to preserve the artist’s position as the bastion of his/her unconditional spiritual, social, political and moral autonomy. In other words, there are no concessions to aesthetic or other possible projections, which implies that it is contrary to all possible demands and expectations of painting or art itself by the public. This practice, therefore, has also a certain emotional and, above all, moral investment.


These authors also reveal their own artistic and human behaviour, their very transparent ethical, aesthetic and political attitude towards the history of art, the idea of great art. Every glorification and mystification of alleged universal and permanent dimensions of the history of art in, above all, the system of value of the local culture represents a cynical shift from the socially acceptable and marketable art, and their works can be seen as deviations, nonconformities, refusals to relate painting and plastic art in general to the local environment of the time. Therefore, we can recognize the social dimension as well: the artist – forced to be a loner – in his/her time and specific societal and social circumstances demonstrate a dismissal of any social integration.


Due to the lack of expressive and subjective elements in the visual field, their works, formally speaking, appear extremely reduced. They are, therefore, stripped of any likability; they are laid bare to the extreme, and are everything but good and beautiful paintings. That is why this practice is remembered as provoking the local environment, as demystifying artificially created artistic aspirations and aura, as demystifying powerful prejudices of the local environment and the ingrained conventions of good and beautiful painting. This is why this type of painting lacked the local support in which it was created, more than any other art discipline at the time. This artistic generation refused to take at face value the then current and widely spread perception of plastic art pursuant to the tradition of the local and national context. The art of prevailing moderate modernism, which these informed and cognizant students from Zagreb – the participants of this metamorphosis of the problem, with a different understanding of artistic language, behaviour and operational procedures – encountered on the domestic artistic scene, appeared as a new dogma, a new status quo, as an ossified belated-modernist academic art (aesthetic formalism) mostly produced by the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts, founded on the ossified conventions of art and burdened with arbitrary extra-painterly contents. In any case, it was accepted by the society not only as a definite artistic practice, but also as a spiritual entrapment which the mentioned students avoided in their attempt to embrace the modern innovative comprehensions of art. Their art was, therefore, ignored and unnoticed by the art establishment, although it must be said that it was exhibited in all group exhibitions in Zagreb at the time.


The production of these painters remained short-term and small-scale; the end was logical since the premises of this production were soon exhausted although its innovative characteristics were not lost. Authentic individuals and their artistic production, attitudes based on their own beliefs defended by firm and uncompromising views, have remained undisturbed in their foundation, preserved in their own consistency, and today they can serve as a model to most contemporary authors, as frivolousness their standpoints leave behind does not contribute to anything but a conscious creation of nonsense.