During the period 1961-1973, five international exhibitions of concrete and constructive art under the title NEW TENDENCIES(NT) were organized by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb. At the peak of the so called „Cold War“, artists and scientists throughout the world, presented their work in Zagreb, and within the exhibitions NT established a unique platform for the exchange of ideas and experiences from the area of art, the natural sciences and engineering. With the multi-lingual journal Bit International (1968-73, 9 numbers), which accompanied NT, Zagreb became a point of initiation for aesthetics and media-theoretical thought.
Thus – in short – the first NT exhibition in 1961 was marked by various linguistic options that characterised the artistic climate „after informell “. Apart from the participants such as Almir Mavignier, Zero Group (Otto Piene, Heinz Mack) and Azimuth Group (Enrico Castellani, Piero Manzoni) – contained works that were bent mostly on a system research (Francois Morellet, Karl Gerstner) and optical research of the surface and the structure of objects (Marc Adrian, Julio Le Parc, Günther Uecker, Getulio Alviani, Gruppo N – Biasi, Massironi, Chiggio, Costa, Landi). The second NT, in 1963, offered a homogenisation of the language and idea of one then pretty integral international movement characterised by the „scientification of art “, the preprogrammed and kinetic art, new technical media as a means of researching the visual perception based on the Gestalt theory. The third NT, in 1965, when first symptom of the crises of the movement become apparent, treated the theme of „divulgation of investigation exemplars “, the relationship between cybernetics and art, and Vjenceslav Richter, Aleksandar Srnec and Ivan Picelj exhibited lumino-kinetic objects. The symposium on the same topic preceded the exhibition. The fourth NT, in 1968-69, as already announced at the third, introduced then new technical equipment like computers under the name „computers and visual research “ into artistic practice which was dominated by the information theory. In the end the fifth NT, in 1973, beside from expanding toward constructive and computer art also expands into conceptual art problematics.
Founded as an autonomous art and culture initiative of small group of artists art critics and gallery directors, the series of five Zagreb exhibitions is today perceived as one of the signs of then stimulating social, political and art atmosphere that enable dialogue and created a platform for gathering of domestic artists and their akin partners from both sides of the so called „Iron Curtain“, and especially those from progressive art circles in Western Europe who often during their stay in Zagreb pointed out that only in that atmosphere they were finding opportunities for unrestrained demonstrations of their often ideological standpoints. The movement was truly international, transgressing both Cold War blocs and including South American and, later, Asian artists. This situation, unique within the Cold War context, was possible due to Zagreb’s position in then socialistic, but non-aligned Yugoslavia.
And betwen these meetings, dates and events alongside stand one of the key figure in Croatian art scene from the early 50s of the 20th century ongoing, the Zagreb based artist Ivan Picelj. Since he matches the two complementary areas of his practice, the aesthetic and the functional, Picelj can be perceived as the spiritual and ideological heir of European historical Constructivism and its subsequent post-war transformations and modifications. Through many initiatives, contacts and mediations Picelj managed to bring his country closer to his favorite European circles and events.
It is not only Picelj’s continuation of the same basic vocation of art with a constructive approach, reviling tradition along the lines of Bauhaus, De Stijl and the Russian avant-garde movement, but also a detailing, a complementing, even a significant idiomatic realization of the same vocation, now expressed in the terms of Neo-Constructivist, Gestalt and Programmed Art. And Picelj was one of its internationally recognized champions.
He reinforced this position by participating in several exhibitions that were important at the time, from the `San Marino Biennale Oltre l’informale` in 1963, where critic Giulio Carlo Argan and Pierre Restany tried to articulate the artistic situation ‘after Art Informell’, to `The Responsive Eye´, the controversial exhibition of William Seitz in the MoMA in New York in 1965, where the spectacular and ephemeral triumph of optical art was seen by the politically engaged European participants of the Zagreb exhibitions of NT as essentially nothing but a promotional and commercial betrayal and distortion of their initial ideological postulates. One of the currents of the post-informell art situation was renewed impetus of a constructive understanding of art by which the NT movement and the work of numerous individuals and work group gripped the then international art scene, with which Ivan Picelj and the Croatian branch of this movement had its special place.
Picelj’s activist roles in local art scene reach back to an earlier age. He was a member of EXAT-51 (Experimental Atelier), a group that he cofounded in Zagreb in 1951, and signed their Manifesto. Year later they performed a first exibition in Picelj’s home in Gajeva 2b, and in 1953 the Kristl-Picelj-Rašica-Srnec Zagreb show, which was the first exhibition of abstract painting in Croatia (i.e. in ex-Yugoslavia). On the trace of the inheritance of historic avant-garde they advocated a new world in which art, along with other segments of art production, would play one of the most important roles, would merge with everyday life and become accessible to all.
Two postulates of the EXAT Manifesto – pleading for the legitimacy of abstraction and bridging the boundaries between ´pure` and ´applied` art – found the most devoted practical executor in Ivan Picelj. His painting during that time, mostly called Compositions, typologically belongs to the geometrical abstraction based on principle of composition, deliberated harmonisation of orderd geometrical shapes and their corresponding harmonious colour and tonal relations, alongside any reference to the world of subject-related facts outside the actually artistry of the painting itself. Such a completely individual visual quality of abstract painting was considerably innovative conceptual phenomenon in Croatian art, not just in relation to the ruling ideology and practice by the socialist regime but also in relation to other post-socialist phenomena, mostly dependent on the painting heritage of local interwar intimism and colourism. Today, this crucial role of the paintings of Ivan Picelj and other group members, as important as the other achievements of EXAT in all other areas of its activities, has been fully confirmed by history, as one of the decisive steps in the engaged transformation of Croatian art towards its radical modernisation of that time.
The next conceptual step in Picelj’s oeuvre happened in the early sixties, when he joined the NT movement. We already mentioned Picelj’s part in the organization and presentation of the New Tendencies and the series of exhibitions of that movement in Zagreb. After that, as a cultural change in idiom: from the compositional principles of geometric abstraction to the structural procedures of building in relief, first in wood and then in metal. Picelj has made an entire series of reliefs followed by objects in metal based on the stuctural order of the constituent parts. The notion of structure in connection with these objects implies a selection of one of the standard element-modules which, multiplied through an industrial technique, is built into the whole of the work based on a previously strictly foreseen and executed layout of all such elements. And these elements with their convex-concave shapes and mutual arrangement are laid out so that they allow the light to fall on their recesses, by which the originally static relief grows into the potential dynamism of the plastic object.
And the spirit of this identically structural principle of form can be found in the graphic prints from his Oeuvre programme’e No 1, published by Galerie Denise Rene‘ in Paris in 1966, which forms the introduction to Picelj’s intense production in the silk-scrin technique which he continued to develop in the next several decades.
Graphic works have a significant place in Picelj’s opus, both in terms of quality and quantity. They are mostly made in the silk screen technique, which he used professionally in several graphic collections, from the first one, published by Naprijed in 1957, to the last one the Ulm Variations, published in 2006. Picelj was not a classical graphic artist, who carves a wooden or metal plate with his own hand. He uses the silk screen technique as the most suitable way to multiply a work of art in the light of the thesis of ‘divulging the specimens of research’, as that thesis is understood and represented in the ideology and practice of NT. As a true off studio artist, i.e. an artist without a studio as his working space, an artist who uses the services of technicians for the final realization of his works, Picelj frequently used the print medium as the appropriate method of multiplying a work of art and giving it the status of a multi-original, where his predilection for utter purity and clarity in the formed structures is admirably fulfilled by the nature of the silk screen technique. But in absence of the possibility of realizing this multiplicative art as three-dimensional object, Picelj resorts to the more accessible procedure of making graphhic prints, developing silkcreen technique though time to the highest design levels and achieving one of the priority areas of his own overall graphic art production.
In Picelj’s author profile, the field of graphic design, and with this the discipline of poster design intended primarily for cultural institutions and events, is on equal footing and an itegral part of his entire opus. Picelj rightly holds that standard of the design quality is importan in graphic and industrial design, and this in principle is equally possible to achive in a gaphic print and in a poster design. Educated in the heritage of historical constructivisam and concretism, Picelj build a coherent system of a well laid out and pure mode of using visual signs and messages, the visal form letterforms in his graphic design thus confirming and showing how the language of design is fundamentally equally able to develop in artistic works which the artist creates according to his own decisions. Picelj’s typeface was Helvetica and there’s even a a legend that he brought a first set of Helvetica type back in 1950s to Croatia, in one big, heavy suitcase.
Picelj was known to secure his demands for high standards in design through the fact that he influenced the raising of the culture of the graphics industry in the milieu in which he worked. The principle of the socialisation of aesthetic values, which was one of the main premises of his artistic worldview, in adition to his painting, objects and graphic prints would be more effectively carried out in the product of his graphic design. As with his art, Picelj’s graphic design has significant intenational affirmation. Through visual identity of the periodicals, and the way he created posters and cataloques, Ivan Picelj set top standards of visual communication and culture that are equally actual today.
During the 90s at the end of last century, Picelj dedicates himself to his own illustrations and unique drawings. The Variation series rendered in graphite pencil on paper that originated in 1993, is an example of Picelj’s systematic thought process through shape, plane, format, dimension, proportion, blackness, whiteness, and all this tasted on experience with the steady act of drawing strokes which in their entirety never overwhelm the surface of the page but leave light traces of the paper’s surface to peek through beneath the black graphite layer. These very methodical and very refined drawings are evidence of his long cultured and well preserved acute artistic nature.
Picelj founded and systematically developed his creative thought on the strict principles of the heritage of historical constructivism, as well as the achievements of geometrical abstraction and the programmed art of New Tendencies, but he did not stop there. Instead, he continuously reinvented himself with each new phase, retaining a certain freshness almost till today, as demonstrated by series of drawings, objects and graphic works in the 1990s and after the year 2000. This confirms not only the strategic soundness and consistency of his basic artistic ideology, but also his personal faculty of imagination, which is precisely the thing that makes Ivan Picelj first and foremost, in the very essence of his calling, an artist who thinks and imagines with the help of forms, colors, structures, creating ultimately an art of accentuated visual variety in a conceptual unity in other words, creating an art with numerous features and characteristics of some kind of ‘exact fantasy’.
The artistic, formational and wider public practice of Ivan Picelj covers the entire second half of the 20th century, passing through various phases. Having survived the postmodern reaction, he has been promoting the recently revived principles of modernism, opening numerous concrete issues, and the answers provided by practice, always holding prominent positions in the innovative and alternative ‘second line’ of the art and culture of his environment. Although many years of work and human bonds have brought him close to his cultural environment, he has never allowed the local coordinates and criteria to subdue him, but has kept his spiritual, ethical and existential autonomy, which makes him exemplary, turns him into a role model.
Ivan Picelj has successfully defended, equally and in parallel, the integral view of art and the integrity of the artist.
Denegri, Ješa: Picelj, Izbor radaova 1951.-2006., Oris, Zagreb, 2006.
A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–1973, Edited by Margit Rosen, ZKM / MIT, 2011
Ivan Picelj, grafični opus 1957-2003. : Mednarodni grafični likovni center Ljubljana, Novigrad, Galerija Rigo, 2003
Ivan Picelj, Kristal & ploha : 1951. – 2005., Zagreb, Galerija Klovićevi dvori, 2005
About the Exhibition
The exhibition, authored by Dr.Jerica Ziherl, presents a small part of Ivan Picelj’s collection of graphic silk print works, objects, artist books, paper reliefs, designed poster, catalogues and books made between 1964 – 2006, and brought together at one place for the first time in Linz. As Ivan Picelj is not possible to conceive outside the context and continuity of the New Tendencies movement, the exhibition in Linz is accompanied by the Absolutely Black and White group print portfolio, produced at The International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana in 2005, which includes fourteen screen-prints by fourteen artists somehow connected within NT platforms. The print portfolio summarizes the original positions of the creative principles of art stemming from mathematics and physics. The portfolio was conceived by Getulio Alviani, Picelj’s closes friend. Actually this is where the idea for the Linz exhibition developed from, which would connect artists and their lasting friendships throw-outs latest graphic arts with the older production of Geometric, Programmed, Systemic, Kinetic and/or Optical Art.
Ivan Picelj (Okučani, 1924 – Zagreb 2011), a painter, graphic artist, drawer, sculptor, designer and cultural promotor was one of the of the most significant figures in Croatian arts of the second half of 20th century and a worldwide renowned author. His trademark domain of work was geometric abstraction, but he was also a prominent graphic designer, one of the pioneers of modernist design in Croatia.
Ivan Picelj studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb 1943-1946 when he discontinued his studies and began his career as a free-lance artist. He was co-founder of EXAT 51, together with the architects Bernardo Bernardi, Zdravko Bregovac, Zvonimir Radić, Bozidar Rašica, Vjenceslav Richter, Vladimir Zarahović, and the painters Vlado Kristl and Aleksandar Srnec. In 1952 with Rašica and Srnec, he exhibited at the 70 Salon des Realties Nouvelles in Paris (first exhibit of artists from former Yugoslavia without mediation of the state). In February 1953 he showed his work at the Kristl-Picelj-Rašica-Srnec exhibit at the Association of Architects of Croatia in Zagreb, and in March of the same year at the Grafički kolektiv gallery in Belgrade, the first public exhibit of abstract art in a socialist/communist country. Together with Aleksandar Srnec and Vojin Bakić, he exhibited in the Denise René Gallery in Paris in 1959 and he started his long-term cooperation with this gallery.
In 1961 he started working with structures and programmed surfaces in wood and metal. In 1962 he began to publish „a“ and published a total of seven issues. He produced a series of programmed paintings in 1964, and in 1966 in Paris Denise René published a portfolio of Picelj’s prints containing 12 plates (foreword by Gillo Dorfles). Besides numerous one-man exhibits, Ivan Picelj participated at numerous exhibits of Constructivist and Kinetic art, and New Tendencies worldwide. For his works he was awarded on several occasions in Croatia and abroad.
Dr. Jerica Ziherl, Novigrad, 30 March 2016
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