Trust the Artist: An Interview with Wiesław Borowski
Agnieszka Sural talks to Wiesław Borowski about the revolutionary theatre director Tadeusz Kantor and Galeria Foksal – a leading art institution in post-war Poland.
Agnieszka Sural: 50 years ago, in the same space where we are right now, were the offices of the Plastic Arts Workshop. You worked in a big room once occupied by the reading room of Marxist classics. You designed labels and packaging that were supposed to embellish the aesthetic side of communist trade. How did these rooms turn into the Foksal Gallery?
Wiesław Borowski: The Plastic Arts Workshop was a typical monopolistic institution of the time. It produced applied art: giant containers for postage stamps and labels for bottles. Its almighty director, Henryk Urbanowicz, would veer into such moods that he agreed to create a small contemporary art gallery.
The idea came from a group of artists, Henryk Stażewski and Zbigniew Gostomski among others, and young critics, Anka Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek and myself. He bought the idea and our argument that no one ever came to the reading room because Stalinism was long gone and even members of the communist party no longer had to read Lenin, Stalin or the once compulsory magazine Nowe Drogi (New Paths). And so all those works became recycled paper.
Not far away, in the main building, was café SARP, where leading artists would meet, among others, Henryk Stażewski. They talked about art, came up with new ideas. This was a very particular time for art – three years earlier the famous Krzywe Koło Gallery, once situated in the Old Town, was closed down. It was led by Marian Bogusz, and my friends and I – Anka Ptaszkowska, Jerzy Ludwiński, Mariusz Tchorek – were affiliated with it. Ever since it closed down with a bang, modern art had had no place in Warsaw. Our artists didn't want to exhibit in official galleries, those spearheaded by the Union of Polish Visual Artists. So we looked for other options. And that's how it began.
Was it difficult to open a gallery outside of the union structures in the Polish People's Republic?
Of course not, it seemed almost impossible, but Professor Roman Owidzki, whose opinion was important to Urbanowicz, supported our endeavours. Perhaps he was impressed by the fact that we had the foremost artists on our side. They were among those that weren't persecuted by the communist state apparatus. Perhaps he was persuaded by our arguments about creating experimental art, a "forge" of applied art. That was a tactical gimmick on our behalf.
I couldn't believe that we would manage to bring our idea to life. After all, we were trying to build a space for contemporary art in a small hole surrounded by civil servants. But Urbanowicz, whom we called our patron of the arts, had the room modernised, lit, and moved the civil servants to another room. Our first vernissage took place on 1st April, 1966.
You were inside a state-led structure. Was there no pressure from above to organise an exhibition of a specific artist?
I consider it one of our biggest achievements that we managed to avoid pressure from above. Everywhere else you could see how much pressure was being exerted. The then Culture Minister Lucjan Motyka, who was also a painter, wanted to exhibit here. I told him that it would be a disgrace for a minister to exhibit in this hole. His works should be put up in a proper gallery, like Zachęta for example.
We managed to stay independent. Of course there were some humiliating situations. The boss' mood swings, the authoritarian scrapping of some projects. At other times there was peace and stagnation. When Martial Law was imposed in 1981, they threatened to shut us down. We were then transferred to a different institution (SBWA). But by then we had made a name for ourselves, in Poland and abroad, and that helped.
What were you after in the late 60s?
We wanted to create a place which would be unlike the official galleries of the People's Republic of Poland and unlike western European commercial galleries. Of course, we didn't know much about western European galleries since none of us had been abroad. But we exchanged letters, catalogues and received magazines by post for free.
We wanted to create a new type of gallery, one that shows how homogeneous a work of art can be. That work of art would be the exhibition itself. Not in the sense of it being the kingdom of the critic, or – as you would say today - the curator, but in the sense of exclusive respect for the artist, who often created his exhibition in the gallery (using it as a workshop because most of the time our artists didn't have workshops). The exhibition wasn't meant to be "a composition from a composition" but a wholesome, one-piece work of art. Of course, terms like "environment" and "happening" began to reach us.
We were aware of the fact that we were creating something with nothing; that everything was small-scale : two, three people directing the gallery and a five times seven-squared-meters exhibition room. We had to make those circumstance into an asset, we had to explain what us critics were doing there. Because we didn't want to limit ourselves to organising exhibitions, or being art experts carrying out a strategic plan, the plan of an exhibition, some kind of repertoire.
Later on, Andrzej Turowski worked with me in the gallery. He's a leading art theoretician, who first wanted the gallery to turn into a bureaucratic subsidiary, we criticised the institutional art scene. We were also critical of the gallery self-critique, expressed in the manifesto "What we don't like about the Foksal Gallery" – was and remains one of the guiding motifs of the gallery.
A couple of months before the opening, in late 1965, a happening by Kantor took place in the gallery.
Kantor's Cricotage, the first happening in Poland. marked the unofficial opening of the gallery. It wasn't yet called "Foksal", the space was just being renovated. We met with Kantor in café SARP. I was full of concern and I asked him to see the new space. We went there and Kantor said: "This is what the galleries in Paris look like. Great!" That cheered me up and he continued to support us with his works of art, ideas and opinions.
As soon as he heard of the new gallery, Kantor suggested he could do a happening. We organised it in the café of the Friends of Art Association in a small palace on Chmielna street. The props for the happening (pasta, among others) were prepared here in the future gallery. Several painters – Zbigniew Gostomski, Alfred Lenica, Erna Rosenstein, students from the Academy of Fine Arts took part in it, and so did we. The happening was performed again in the seat of the Kraków Association of Art Historians, in a slightly modified version entitled Linia Podziału (Dividing Line).
In the coming years, with the help of the Foksal gallery, Kantor would organise more happenings: List (Letter), Lekcja anatomii wg Rembrandta (An Anatomy Lesson After Rembrandt) and in the open air in Osieki, on the Baltic Sea beach Panoramiczny happening morski (Panoramic Sea Happening). Each and every one of them was a revelation written into the history of our art.
Who did you hear about Kantor from?
From a KUL university friend, Anka Ptaszkowska. She was one year below me and wrote her Master's dissertation on Kantor's paintings.
Had the legend of Kantor reached Lublin by then?
People had heard of Kantor but Anka was the only one who knew him. Professor Jacek Woźniakowski used to come from Kraków to KUL and give us modern art lectures. He probably mentioned Kantor, he knew his work and worth, but I don't think he was a big fan. He's the one who supervised Anka's dissertation. She was in close contact with Kantor. After 1955, when Jurek Ludwiński created the Zamek Group in Lublin, there were some references, although I don't think I knew Kantor's paintings.
It wasn't until later in Warsaw that I met him personally. Anka, who I often met up with, took me to the café in the Hotel Bristol where she was going to meet with Kantor and his wife Maria Stangret. I was rather intimidated by this first meeting, although Kantor was very friendly. He was already a legend at the time. I remember that meeting as a great chance: I'm meeting with Kantor himself!
What role did he play in Foksal gallery?
Anka used to discuss our ideas for the gallery with Kantor. Then he took part in a couple of project, his enthusiasm spread to me. When I got to know him better, he opened new horizons of thinking about art to me; new, different, and complementary to our experiences, stemming from Henryk Stażewski, for example, our most important initiator at the Foksal Gallery. And then, after the happenings, Kantor's presence was perhaps even dominating.
Foksal Gallery was an occasion for Kantor to mark his presence in Warsaw.
His painting exhibition in the former Jewish Theatre (Salon Po Prostu) in Warsaw was memorable. But the fact that he exhibited his art in Warsaw so often was our doing. This was a glorious time, when events in galleries took place one after the other, creating circumstances for creative thinking.
Why did he attack you in 1967 at a symposium in Puławy and raise accusations of plagiarism?
Kantor would react to things spontaneously. He accused Mariusz Tchorek, who presented the "Introduction to the General Theory of the Place", it was in 1963 during the "Anti-exhibition" in Krzysztofory that he said that "an exhibition becomes an artistically active form". And that only artists were allowed to pronounce manifestos. Kantor exaggerated a bit, there was a falling-out, and the atmosphere was unpleasant. I don't think that anyone tried to copy his text. Nevertheless a precedent was set and Kantor was partially right.
Thankfully, everything was soon forgotten and we were back to cooperating. Kantor liked the manifestos that Anka and I wrote later, like the one for the opening of the Museum of Current Art in Wrocław.
In an interview with Adam Mazur and Ewa Toniak "I hide what is not visible" you quote Julian Przyboś, who called Kantor a messenger.
Yes, the Polish poet was a big fan of Strzemiński, Stażewski and the a.r. group which he was a part of. His views on art were strict though limited. He probably didn't know Kantor's work well. Kantor played an important role by sharing novelties with everyone in Poland after coming back from abroad. Not many artists went abroad at that time. He held meetings where he would talk about current trends, new currents, assemblage, minimal art etc. He brought with him and compared with his art that which interested him. But he didn't do that for long. Later on. he mostly took his ideas and art abroad, and dazzled audiences and critics in different parts of the world.
What is more, Kantor taught all of us that art should be universal without losing sight of its motifs and sources that can be entirely private and local. National art – he used to say – only starts to matter when it crosses its own borders; otherwise it becomes individual.
How did the gallery start cooperating with foreign artists? Did Kantor help with his international contacts?
In fact, it's strange, but he didn't give us any foreign contacts even though he thought many foreign artists were very good. But we wanted to get in touch with artists from other countries. Every time we wanted to organise an exhibition with foreign artists we had to write a request to the Ministry of Culture, even though we never received any money from them. We got help from institutions like the British Council, the French Institute, etc. We had great relations with them.
But we chose the artists ourselves. We also got help from befriended critics, and the artists themselves. I think one should trust good artists because they only know other good artists. It was thanks to my friend Tadeusz Rolke that our first exhibition with foreign artists was an exhibition of Swedish artist Lars Englund. Rolke told us about him after a visit to Stockholm.
The ministry allowed us to organise up to two exhibitions with foreign artists per year. So we built a lot of contacts over the years. We showed the works of American artists Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner and artists from other countries – Ben Vautier, the Fluxus movement, Arnulf Rainer, Annette Messager, Christian Boltanski, and others. We wanted to have a close relation with these artists; they often identified themselves with our milieu.
What was your view of the art market back then?
Of course at that time in Poland there was no art market, so the gallery wasn't interest in it. Besides not everything about the art market it bad. There were great commercial art galleries in Europe and the States that set new paths in art and greatly influenced museum collections. Leo Castelli in New York is a good example, or Konrad Fisher in Germany, and many others. We had close relations with some of them, very good and close relations but we couldn't cooperate with them because we had no money.
And what did Kantor think of the matter?
At the beginning Kantor was a poor artist. He remained a proponent of gratuitous art till the end. He created his works, his theatre in poor circumstances till the end, despite being famous. Same goes for Stażewski, who was a relatively rich man because he was often visited by collectors who bought his paintings. Kazimir Karpuszko for example, an American collector who bought almost all his white reliefs in the early 60s. Stażewski had money, but he had no problems with that, he didn't care about the art market.
Why did Kantor choose you to go abroad with him and his theatre? You said you weren't friends.
He simply needed me. He wanted me to play a part in his play, but I hated acting. But he took me along to almost all the tours anyway. I helped him with contacts with the press, critics etc. When the gallery had just begun operating I didn't know him well. But when Anka left for France in 1970 and Mariusz Tchorek went abroad too, I was the only one in the gallery. And then, as I say it, I was "sentenced" to Kantor, and cooperating with him wasn't that easy.
Kantor was precise and generous at the same time. Till the end, he backed our gallery with his works, ideas and opinions. Abroad, we would often spend time together in cafés next to the hotels where all the actors were staying. He had too much free time, a characteristic of brilliant people, because he would work from 5 am. But in cafés he observed life, he pondered, he was always in a good mood. Although there were also quiet days for the actors, times when there were fights which happened when something went wrong in the play. He then held extremely tiring "penalty"rehearsals. He was an artist with the highest sense of responsibility. It was all on his shoulders.
Would you drink alcohol when you went to those cafés? Did Kantor like to drink?
No, absolutely not. Only on rare occasions would he order a cognac. He wasn't social in the common way, but everyone wanted to be close to him.
This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kantor's birth. Do you feel like Maria Jarema, a great artist and co-founder of Cricot 2 Theatre who died prematurely, suffered from the limelight put on the legend that is Kantor? She was already appreciated as a painter in the 40s and 50s.
Maria Jarema was Kantor's closest friend and a role model. So I don't know what the problem is. During her lifetime and after her premature death, he was the one who promoted her the most.
He later created his own Cricot 2 Theatre but the beginnings, he always underlined were the work of Jaremianka. He said Jaremianka to refer to the pre-war Cricot Theatre set up by Józef Jarema, her brother. And that name was chosen by Jaremianka and Kantor together. I met her thanks to Kantor and I remember feeling like she's a figurehead.
Many artists today are inspired or refer to Kantor, but they cannot be called his imitators. Why did Kantor never have imitators during his lifetime and why doesn't he have any today?
That's an interesting question, and it's hard to say why. For many years he exerted influence on theatres in all parts of the world but he didn't have any imitators. No one knew how to deeply understand his method of art, and that method evolved over the years, it evolved from show to show. At the same time all his works have something in common, a unique character. They are immaculately built but we cannot find the common key. That will remain a mystery.
You cannot say that a Kantor school or a Kantor method could be created, as is the case with Grotowski's theatre. Grotowski worked out precise rules, acting techniques, etc, and those methods are introduced in theatre schools. Let's not forget that Kantor was a painter and his theatre was a work of art – not of the art of theatre, but of the visual arts, complete and total art.
He did get many propositions of opening a theatre school but he had no interest in doing that. He did that over the course of one month at the Theatre Academy in Milan. Wonderful lectures, exercises, rehearsals and a play by the students showed at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel. A great show, approved by Kantor, you could say, and influenced by him. And there you have the answer: the show had a piece of him because he was present while it was being prepared.
Warsaw, 1st April 2015
Translator: Marta Jazowska 28/04/2015