Ješa Denegri, Gorgona [ENGLISH]


Published in: Polja, 224, Novi Sad, 1977

It was the novel ways of comprehending the structure and the meaning of a work of art, based on mental and post-aesthetic attributes, as well as the emergence of a broader social and spiritual atmosphere, that had conditioned the newest developments and opened up the way to a better understanding of a whole range of artistic processes. In Zagreb, the phenomena to which this general comment refers include some examples of Radical Art informel that appeared between 1956 and 1962 and all the activities of the group named Gorgona (‘Gorgon’), which was active between 1959 and 1966. The fact that there was not only a temporal overlap of these two groupings, but a reduplication of some of their members tells us something about the existence of a broader situation, which should also be seen as embracing some of the  issues tackled In the first exhibition of the New Tendencies exhibition, in 1961. Within this overall situation, a number of issues cropped up that were related, not only to formal innovations, but to some of the underlying causes, which ultimately implied a shift in certain basic fundamental presumptions, with regard to the material, status and meaning of a work of art within a concrete social and cultural setting. The characteristics shared in common by all these phenomena (which, of course, were distinguished from each other by questions of artistic language) lay in the search for consciously developed alternatives, which went beyond an unquestioning acceptance of local tradition. All these alternatives emerged, as a consequence of rejecting Socialist Realism and being willing to embrace some of the novel aspects of contemporary experience, in questions of form and superficial appearance – thereby creating an acceptable room for manoeuvre in the still relatively constricted climate of the times. Setting out from  the initial position of  seeking alternatives to  established, or newly developed, artistic criteria, the artists who might be said to have belonged to the  immediate 'post-Art informel' wave branched out in two different directions, which took them equally far, both from their original starting-point and from each other:  one group, belonging to Gorgona and Art informel, moved towards an accentuation of individualist and Existentialist premises; whilst the other, belonging to  New Tendencies, chose the path of working collectively, along scientific lines, within the broader international framework of the Neo-Constructivist movement. The latter group gradually succeeded in winning most of the chances to manifest their ideas, but the former remained in the background of many current streams, up to the time when the change in atmosphere gave rise to the emergence of still newer artistic conceptions. At that point, it experienced the moment of   critical re-examination and art-historical re-evaluation.

The factual background to the formation of Gorgona, a description of the local and international contexts In which it took shape, and a detailed analysis of the contributions of Its individual members have been accurately covered by Nena Dimitrijević, in her introductory essay to a publication printed on the occasion of the group’s exhibition by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in March-April 1977. Many of Dimitrijević's conclusions need no further elaboration. As we have mentioned above, the activity of Gorgona actually formed part of the whole complex of events that had taken place in European art around the year 1960, when the dominance of Art Informel was well on the wane and the first post-informel movements were beginning to emerge. What brought the members of Gorgona close to these concerns was their belief that the field of art was considerably vaster than the practice of producing particular aesthetic objects, as well as their timely sense that the inner structure of artistic language was beginning at that very moment  to be rid  all external formal, or symbolic supports and reduced to the level of concrete statements that rested on the awareness  that what was needed now was to  bring together the moment in existence and the moment of the artistic act – even to the point of obliterating any distinction between the two. That a tipping-point had been reached is clearly illustrated by the following passage from a statement by Piero Manzoni, titled 'Free Dimension' (and it is not irrelevant, in this connection, to point out that Josip Vaništa was currently maintaining a correspondence with him about his planned special issue for the Gorgona anti-magazine, in 1961):

'Allusion, expression, and representation are non-existent problems today, whether or not one is dealing with the representation of objects, facts, ideas or dynamic or inert phenomenona. A painting has a value only inasmuch it is, if it totally is: Nothing need be said, it just is.' (Azimuth, 2, Milano 1960).

The artists of the Gorgona circle fulfilled both the basic requirements of Manzoni's thesis, in that, in their paintings (by Josip Vaništa, Julije Knifer, Marijan Jevšovar and Djuro Seder) and sculptures (Ivan Kožarić), they consciously used strikingly non-representational and non-referential forms of expressive idiom (one would call it 'tautological' nowadays, with the hindsight of experience afforded by Conceptual Art), whilst simultaneously practising a whole range of activities, in which they  which deliberately turned their back on all specific forms of visual arts medium. Actually, the latter activities formed part of their everyday experience of existing ('Gorgona-style meetings and debates' and 'Gorgona-style use of mail' were deliberately selected forms of artistic behaviour).

Thus, what kept the members of Gorgona together were not any formal or stylistic similarities, so much as rather a mental affinity to each other and a shared understanding of the very nature of the language of art. It was this that conditioned the fact that all the individual members of the group used different codes of articulation, without any loosening of conceptual bonds that held them together;  for instance, the paintings of Jevšovar and Seder came within the orbit of Art informel, while those of Knifer and Vaništa (after 1964) might be said to have represented a kind of  Minimalist Abstraction, whilst all four artists were  conscious, in essence, of fostering  a notably concrete, anti-illusionist form of visual expression,  which proved to be the decisive factor, in keeping them together within a single spiritual and intellectual realm. The other characteristic trait of  all these artists was their ability to go beyond the confines of the traditional means of expression, by  mixing up  elements from  both artistic and extra-artistic domains, and incorporating elements such as words, texts and lettering into their work, as in the case of  Dimitrije Bašićević's / Mangelos'  joint formulations and choice of 'thoughts for particular months'; or the explanations given by  Radoslav Putar, Seder and Kožarić for their collective works; or Knifer’s ironic 'appeal'; or, for that matter, Vaništa’s extremely precise description of the form and size of a painting that he had never executed. These were all examples of the treatment of verbal material, as a separate and autonomous means of articulation. As far as the symbiosis of visual signs and textual media was concerned the publication of eleven volumes of the anti-magazine, Gorgona, was of particular importance, both for the scale of the endeavour and for its conceptual approach, which set it apart from any normal considerations of print quality or graphic design; as such, the ‘anti-magazine' was a solution, which was years ahead of the current vogue for 'artists' bookwork'.

The anti-magazine, Gorgona, was financed by the members of the group themselves -, often by Vaništa, on his own. The exhibition activity undertaken at the Studio G (Šira Salon), a private picture framers', was similarly uncontrolled and uninstitutionalised. This was not a matter of mere material necessity to Acting independently of some of the more official channels of cultural was not merely a matter of material necessity.  This was a deliberate expression of the group's intellectual stance, as they did not wish to take any advantage of – or even to reckon with  – the commonly accepted forms of promotion that were offered to  publishing houses and galleries. And things really could not have been otherwise, if we bear in mind the very origins of Gorgona’s approach, for the group’s had displayed, from the very beginning, a particular attitude that modern critics frequently refer to as ‘artistic negativity' – i.e. a kind of radicalisation of ideas and attitudes that implied an attack on some of the very foundations of the dominant attitudes and expectations that were exposed, when the purpose and meaning of art were called into question. Gorgona carried this radicalisation through to the inherent structure of their own artistic language itself, as well as to their corresponding behavioural strategies. It was part of Gorgona’s mentality, deliberately to deny any monumental or representational character to the art object, and that, logically, involved a denial of the social function that went with it. On the contrary, Gorgona's works cannot be utilised for any purpose, not even for commonly practised forms of cultural and artistic display in a given milieu; neither can it be praised or picked apart through standard critical procedures, since uncritical acceptance rejects the very possibility of judgment, whilst critical examination is of no concern whatsoever to the artist, if he is not willing to subject himself to it. The work can only be registered as an existing fact, experienced as a literal presence, and deciphered as an idea, a thought or a gesture, which first of all belongs to its author, as an autonomous entity, existing beyond any individual form or existence. Nothing better serves to define the true nature of those interventions than the following description, by Vaništa:

'Gorgona’s thought is serious and scarce — Gorgona advocates absolute transience in art — Gorgona does not seek a work or a result in art — The group evaluates according to situation — The group is defined as a sum of all its possible interpretations — Ascribing the highest value to what is mortal, Gorgona does not speak of anything.' (1961)

If one of Gorgona’s founders claimed that it 'does not speak of anything', how can we discern the qualities and essence of this phenomenon? How can it be incorporated into the layers of historical and cultural experience? Naturally enough, Gorgona 'silence' is itself a kind of specific strategy of articulation: for, whilst suggesting nothing in the form of a manifesto and attacking nothing directly, in particular, it did undoubtedly exist, at a level of parallel artistic and extra-artistic  pursuits; this, it was related to the group's everyday bahviour and productive activity. It was thanks to these qualities that the work of the Gorgona’s members is nowadays seen to have anticipated numerous phenomena within the complex field of post-object, post-aesthetics, art. Yet it is noteworthy that there were differences between the domains which, in principle, concerned, not only the time in which this work was produced, but some of the surrounding issues, as well. The artists of the Gorgona group really did question the need for the materiality of art as early as fifteen years ago [seen from the time of writing, in 1977]; they relativised the value of craftsmanship and the manual execution of their work to the very limit and stretched the concept of medium to maximum degree,, but they were free from prejudice or inhibition, when faced with the imperative to use 'novel techniques'. However, they were not led on by a particular analytical or sociological approach, in any of the ways that are so characteristic in art today. They were conditioned by a kind of existentialist impulse that forced them, as individuals, to carve out areas of spiritual regeneration for themselves within the enclosed, de-energising cultural milieu of the time and to create a situation where they could meet, in an atmosphere of fellowship. Although Gorgona may not have been driven by a specific programme, they shared is one fundamental trait, which was a determination to strip away all pragmatic or functional considerations from anything they turned their hand to. Put simply, this was a deliberate way of making 'ugly' and 'monotonous' paintings materially fragile, short-lived sculptures. Above all, they aimed to create many layers of meaning from the contents of a multiple texts and graphic signs, as a means of concealing their habitual awareness of the vain and paradoxical nature of all explicitly declaratory judgments. Therefore, those were not experimental methods directed at ostensibly enriching the repertoire of views in circulation, but, on the contrary, they were methods of reduction, tending merely to shift perceptions a fraction away from ‘zero point’. Hence, the often-emphasised claim about the underlying negativity of many of Gorgona's ideas, though this claim inevitably also provokes the opportunity for approaching the evaluation of this entire phenomenon in a totally different way. For each initially provocative artistic act, once it has achieved its desired impact within the cultural system, then triggers myriad questions with regard to its own origins and contribution, and thus acquires a certain positive meaning, which cannot be fully grasped, without making some kind of forceful intervention into the harsh reality of the given situation. And Gorgona was, sure enough, a symptom of some very delicate and mentally affecting events, and a symptom that served as a divisive point and challenge to the views of many people, and to the situation in which they found themselves, both at the time when the group was established, but to people who are witnessing an extreme polarisation of opinion, when it comes to evaluating all aspects of the recent and current artistic practice. Nevertheless, whether or not we feel disposed, nowadays, to support or reject what Gorgona stood for, the  group is now becoming firmly integrated in the existing  art-historical ‘tissue’ and continuing to perform a dual function within it, as stimulant and corrosive agent. Ultimately, this implies some kind of process, through which certain attitudes to life and ideology increasingly gain in strength, while others become eroded and lapse into a field of ever-increasing critical doubt.

It was the novel ways of comprehending the structure and the meaning of a work of art, based on mental and post-aesthetic attributes, as well as the emergence of a broader social and spiritual atmosphere, that had conditioned the newest developments and opened up the way to a better understanding of a whole range of artistic processes. In Zagreb, the phenomena to which this general comment refers include some examples of Radical Art informel that appeared between 1956 and 1962 and all the activities of the group named Gorgona (‘Gorgon’), which was active between 1959 and 1966.

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