Elizabeth Dee had a brave and rather curious idea to host an exhibition of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde. Allegedly prompted by her encounter with the work of Dóra Maurer — a seminal figure of the scene and one of the very few Eastern European artists who has enjoyed visibility in New York during the past decade — Dee hosts a show which is as compelling and opaque as its subject. Curated by András Szántó, a Budapest-born, New York City-based cultural consultant, With the Eyes of the Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies is a dense survey of over a hundred works by thirty artists, and although it is the first presentation in New York City of this barely known topic, it contains not a single label, only brief wall texts.
The familiar artistic idioms range from large-scale, colorful, geometric abstract paintings to happenings like Tamás Szentjóby’s, “Sit Out/Be Forbidden” , conceptual work such as Dóra Maurer’s, “Proportions,” 1976), and body art projects that include Tibor Hajas’s, “Extinction,” (1979) by artists whose names are anything but familiar within the New York scene. Ilona Keserü Ilona’s stitched linen tapestry evokes the textiles of the Pattern and Decoration movement, Imre Bak’s boldly colored, abstract canvases bring to mind hard-edge painting, and Maurer’s painted wood panels are reminiscent of the work of Jo Baer and Lygia Pape. Readily available connections are also present in some of the exhibition’s performance-based pieces — the black and white studio photographs of Katalin Ladik’s and Tibor Hajas’s naked and often distorted bodies share obvious affinities with the work of Hannah Wilke, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, or the Viennese Actionists.
The links that seem to bridge the Cold War division between East and West stem as much from the thorough documentation of avant-garde movements (such as Dada and Surrealism) in Central Eastern Europe, as from the postwar artistic networks created among the countries within the Eastern Bloc. The cultural information exchange among countries without art markets was prompted by a desire to break their isolation by learning what was happening in Warsaw, Krakow, and Prague, as well as in New York and Dusseldorf. For artists in Hungary, where traditions of radical art had been scarcer than in Poland or Czechoslovakia, local networks were particularly useful in reclaiming a half-real, half-imagined place in the Western canon. Infrequent and invaluable travels to Vienna, Stuttgart, Cologne, or Paris, and semi-secretly circulated catalogues of exhibitions such as documenta 4 (1968) and When Attitudes Become Form (1968) provided additional knowledge about the contemporary art scenes beyond the Iron Curtain. An exhibition of shared affinities, With the Eyes of the Others is a case in point that postwar Central Eastern Europe was, as Boris Groys put it, the “close Other” of the West.
What makes this exhibition compelling, however, is not kinships and affiliations, but the key difference that separates the Hungarian neo-avant-garde from the work of Western European and North American artists: artists in Central Eastern Europe worked in authoritarian states. In Hungary, under János Kádár’s soft dictatorship from 1956 to the late 1980s, all forms of cultural production were governed by inscrutable and fluctuating censorship laws. The participating artists, whether dissipated bohemians or stout ascetics, were placed outside or on the periphery of official culture during the years of Goulash Communism. Since they operated through well-rehearsed practices of self-censorship, most of their works were tolerated by the regime, but as Szántó writes in the catalogue, they still had to play “a perpetual game of hide-and-seek with the authorities.”
What makes the exhibited works unique is their often veiled yet inescapable politics — one way or another all of them are expressions of dissent. The non-figurative works by Keserü Ilona, Bak, Maurer or, István Nádler and János Megyik, among many others, defied the official disapproval of abstract art. The abstracted ethnographic motifs in Keserü Ilona’s and Bak’s paintings, for example, Keserü Ilona’s “Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms (Tapestry)” (1969) and Bak’s, “Purple-green-blue,” (1967) contested the Kádár regime’s often vulgarized cultivation of folk culture. The nude studio performances and unauthorized street actions by Ladik, Hajas, and Szentjóby challenged socialist morals and the power of the police state. The exhibition also displays the photographic documentation of Bálint Szombathy’s solitary march with a Lenin poster in hand on May Day, “Lenin in Budapest” (1972), as well as the graphic works and mail art projects of the formidable Endre Tót such as “I am glad if I can type zeros,” (1975) which demonstrate other aspects of the political — namely parody and satire. More than a typical ingredient of conceptual art, humor is a strategy of dissent and a survival tool: it can transgress social codes, blur lines and obfuscate meanings, thus making the task of censors more difficult. Tót’s postcard, “Look! Here’s a giant zero for yoo!” (1974) is a modest yet intricate joke on the viewer, a commentary about the futility of art making, as well as giving a cheerful finger to any and all higher powers.
This is an exhibition of uncharted territories, given that Eastern European avant-garde art tends to be a blind spot in the Anglo-American narrative of the neo-avant-gardes. And unfortunately, With the Eyes of the Others requires from its audience a knowledge of a region and its history that the gallery presentation alone does not provide given the lack of labels and the paucity of information in the wall texts. The catalogue, especially the essays of Hungarian art historians, Emese Kürti and Dávid Fehér, is therefore recommended reading — they provide much-needed contextual information that helps us read in-between the lines and recognize the politics of dissent in the art we see.
With the Eyes of the Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies continues at the Elizabeth Dee gallery (2033/2037 Fifth Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan) until August 12.