The front cover of Pawel Althamer(all images by the author)

Phaidon, undeniably, publishes some of the most beautiful art books out there. Large hardbacks full of glossy, colorful images, they are anything but coffee table books. Like the catalogues that accompany major museum exhibitions, Phaidon’s books are packed full of specific texts written for dedicated readers only. As a fledgling teenage artist I used to spend hours in the bookstore or library looking through beautiful reproductions of famous paintings, sculptures and photographs, and this enjoyable experience still effects my expectation of “art books.” Contemporary art, however, does not lend itself to this sort of passive, visual perusal, as artwork now requires an explanation to know what you are looking at, and even more why you are looking at it. In 1985, addressing the shift in artmaking, Phaidon launched its Contemporary Art Series, with which we have all become familiar, that focuses on a single emerging artist and his or her body of work.

The latest monograph of the Contemporary Art Series covers the provocative Polish artist and trickster Pawel Althamer (b. 1967), discussing in minute detail his “sculptures, installations and pubic interventions.” Without a doubt, Phaidon’s Pawel Althamer is the most substantial art book I’ve laid my hands on in a long time, and it’s certainly not a book for someone with only a passing interest in contemporary Polish art. One hundred and forty-three pages long, divided into five sections featuring interviews, a historian’s survey, the artist’s own writings (in this case bizarre, drug-related conversations), and a piece of literature chosen by the artist himself, I emerged from reading Pawel Althamer feeling as though I had just read the comprehensive biography of a controversial political figure — overwhelmed.

A self portrait from 1993 by Pawel Althamer.

Immersed first into Althamer’s life and workspace in Warsaw, we are then launched deep into the thought process that surrounds his artmaking and we empathize with his more conceptual inspirations that deal with social ills, alienation and post-communist societal identity.

Pawel Althamer is an engrossing, but thoroughly disjointed look into this artist’s process, and the lack of tangible artworks produced by it. Phaidon’s press release for the book states, with surprising accuracy, “Pawel Althamer’s focus on the communicative powers of art rather than on the objects it creates is central to his work, placing him at the forefront of current developments in international contemporary art.”

Pawel is an internationally known artist whose artwork is especially popular in Europe, but his name and work remain less familiar here in the States. He began his career as a surprisingly figurative sculptor, studying at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (1988-93), where his work was influenced by a number of professors who thought of “process as a work of art,” and who stressed that the way in which an idea was realized was more important than the objects produced by it. Trace influences of happenings and performance art, not to mention a deep-seated sense of community, can be found to varying degrees in all of Althamer’s subsequent artworks. In many of his early works he treated the “the exhibition as a work of art,” forcing the gallery space to function as something other than a gallery, and creating a new space somewhere between a static exhibit and a performance piece.

In an early piece, Althamer turned the A.R.T. Gallery in Poland, back into the apartment it once was, as a sort of “renovation in reverse.” He uncovered what had once existed underneath layers of fresh, white paint as the gallery was finished only weeks before Althamer took over the space. At the MCA in Chicago the artist hired a high-school friend, who had immigrated to the US where he earned his living as a house painter rather than as an artist, to come to the museum every day for thirty days to paint the walls of a single room a different color. The performance questioned the use of invisible immigrant labor, while at the same time forcing the museum to pay the painter to do his ordinary job.

In a more aggressive work, Althamer paid illegal, Polish immigrants living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to destroy and rebuild a small gallery, The Wrong Gallery, as many times as the budget would allow. The critic Roman Kurzmeyer stated in his essay discussing Althamer’s work, “from the outset, Althamer has seen the performative dimension of artistic work, which draws in viewers not just as observers but as active participants, as an essential prerequisite for a successful work of art.”

A look at “Guma” (2008) in the book.

As these works suggest, Althamer works closely with the members of marginalized communities, often those from his own poor suburb in east Warsaw, who participate in outlandish exercises of artmaking and community. Kurzmeyer says of Althamer, “his idea of art and his own approach to it, which he calls ‘reality-related,’ have a great deal to do with the lives of underprivileged people, with whom he feels a great affinity.” Althamer organizes pilgrimages and performative pieces with his neighbors, children, immigrants, the homeless, the rejected, the disobedient and the sick.

With a group of children with learning disabilities, Althamer created the figurative sculpture titled “Guma” (2008), a statue commemorating the death of a local drunk. After sculpting the statue, Althamer and the children placed it in front of the bar where the tramp always stood, as a kind of memorial to someone forgotten.

A view of “Sylwia (with Nowolipie Group)” (2010) in the book. (click to enlarge)

In another project the artist worked with the Nowolipie Group, made up of Multiple Sclerosis victims. Althamer taught them ceramics, and from their workshops they created a nude sculpture of a woman, “Sylwia” (2010), that was later assembled by the artist and cast in bronze. Transformed into a fountain that squirts water from her nipples, “Sylwia” is a beautiful piece regardless of her unusual constructio and is permanently installed in Warsaw’s Bródno Sculpture Park. Though Althamer’s students produce tangible products, the real art process is in the teaching, bonding and exchange of understanding that occurs from his interactions with them. Kurzmeyer writes, in one of his more enlightened paragraphs, “Contextualization means putting art in touch with non-artistic methods, formats and media, but it also means treating life as art.”

Phaidon’s monograph paints a lifelike portrait of an artist full of flaws, great ideas and unresolved problems. The writing in Pawel Althamer is excellent, from Roman Kurzmeyer’s essay, “To an Invisible Sculptor,” which is deeply thoughtful and informative, to the short story selected by the artist about two little boys’ playful summer woes. The personality of the artist himself comes through best, as it should, in the book’s many interviews. The lightest writing in the book, the interviews convey the quirky, sometimes thoughtless and ever-controversial opinions of the artist himself.

In his discussion with Adam Szymczyk, Althamer said of the MS patients, “I went so far as to ask the Nowolipie Group whether they thought they’d caused their illness themselves, whether they’d wanted to become ill.”

In his conversations with his friend Artur Zmijewski, Pawel talks about his unconventional spiritual beliefs and drug-related experiences. Deep in the Mexican desert ingesting peyote, Althamer tells Zmijewski, “My great luck was that I discovered a connection with the spiritual world, that I had several occasions to meet my Great Daddy.”

It is these statements and sentiments that reveal the intensity with which Althamer pushes his thoughts and artworks. There is no room for accepted ideas or conventions: the artist genuinely searches for his own answers to problematic and difficult questions. Althamer might not understand illness, but he understands the social difficulties surrounding “sick people,” and while not everyone would put so much weight in hallucinogenic experiences, Althamer uses them to reconceptualize reality and God. It will do art good to have more artists like this.

Althamer: There will be a better world than this one.
Zmijewski: How can you know that?
Althamer: Because it’s everyone’s wish.

Phaidon’s Pawel Althamer is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.