Jerzy Ryszard Zieliński, known as Jurry, was born in 1943 in Kazimierzów, Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, and he died in 1980 in Warsaw. He was a painter and one of the legends of the Warsaw artistic scene of the 60s and 70s.
Painter, one of the legends of the Warsaw artistic scene of the 60s and 70s.
His legacy includes not only paintings, but also short reflective essays and poetic confessions/diagnoses concerning both existential issues and art, beginning with perhaps his most famous and eloquent verse: ‘If slandered, I will defend myself with painting.’
In the years 1962-1968, Zieliński studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, first sculpture with Alfred Jesion, then painting in the studio of Jan Wodyński and Jan Cybis, where he received his diploma. From 1971 he continued his education in the field of set design. During this period, Zieliński became friends with Jan Dobkowski, with whom he established the Neo-Neo-Neo Group. Its history goes back to the year 1965, but the joint public appearances of the artists took place in 1967-70. The first ‘smooth, metaphorical paintings of triangles’, as Janusz Zagrodzki has written, referred to as ‘áizm’, were already painted in 1963. The group’s activities included, on the one hand, challenging the methods of academic education, based on the tradition of Colourism in its Orthodox and Kapist version, and parodying solemn artistic manifestos on the other.
The artists were involved in happenings such as open-air events, as well as the writing of theoretical and lyrical commentaries, mainly authored by Zieliński. They were diverse in character: some constituted artistic statements, while others were absurd diagnoses of socio-political life. They reveal the strong identification with the time and place in which the author lived, and the great importance that artistic experience had for him. Jurry wrote:
We want (WE!) to paint everything. To develop a language appropriate for the time in which we live, allowing for fast transmission. It is time to create such a meta-language, which would be representative of both lyricism and brutality. For such is the world in which we were born.
The following fragment (from which the verse cited above originates) could also be quoted as an example of a peculiar artistic declaration, albeit of a different kind:
I am not sorry that I came in – the doors were open. After all everything is open to people – art has been open for a long time. I don’t know why. Maybe this is why I'm searching. Well, yes: searching, experimenting – very fashionable words. I love art. Doesn’t this tell anything? Pity, but that’s for the better. I do not transform myself and I do not get reincarnated, no – no – no –... I am! And this fact may be disturbing or it may not. It exists. And that’s why I paint... If slandered, I will defend myself with painting.
Zieliński’s painting was also provocative (this was less true about Dobkowski). The provocation was both schematic and personal. Jurry wrote:
To challenge reality means to create it – at any time, at any moment, at one’s own risk [...].
His painting, widely perceived as decorative, when analysed more closely, shows a slightly different layer, which turns out to be as significant as ‘the four last things’. During the existence of the Neo-Neo-Neo group it was, however, seen in the same way as Dobkowski’s work. Janusz Bogucki on the paintings of the artists:
Their canvases, constructed from flat forms in profile, with a strong, often brutal vividness, are not just a protest of these two talented students of Jan Cybis against the worship of the sensitive, pictorial substance of paintings which is so frequent among the students of our academies. They are also a bold attempt to directly connect painting with today’s reality of human existence, an attempt to speak about contemporary people through signs and associations, which are suggested not so much by the artistic tradition, as by its current trends linked to mass culture and the elements of modern civilisation.
Both artists tried to evoke these associations through the use of condensed plastic signs; they aspired to maximum compactness and expressiveness. Only Zieliński’s earliest works, such as his Self-Portrait, betray Colourism; in 1966 came the painting The White Model, where the glistening pure white silhouette of a naked woman clearly contrasts with the black background of the interiors and the grassy upholstery of the sofa; and at the turn of 1966 and 1967, the composition Still Life Act, in which Jurry used bold framing of forms characteristic of the new figuration, and at the same time, the conventional treatment of objects and space finally provided proof of the skilful handling of contrasting colours which gave the painting an atmosphere of anxiety. This feeling is present in many other compositions created around the same time, such as Fact, Young and Old, Longing (from the cycle New Creation of the World), Green Model in the Studio (all from 1967), I Look and I See, Hot, The Smile of Life (all from 1968 ).
The exhibition of ‘spatial forms’, as they have been described (in reality, flat and delicate), was a sort of a verification of the effectiveness of communication with the viewer through the language of art. It was organised by the artists in 1969 in the Polfa factory in Tarchomiń (Zieliński presented the following works: Anaximander, For You Man, Nature’s Progress, Ra!-Dość/Joy, An Exile from Paradise, and The Winner, all from 1969).
These mostly smooth floral-anatomical forms cut from fibreboard and painted with one intense colour, often evoking erotic associations, were installed high enough that they could be viewed from both sides. They made a surreal impression – flowing from the ceiling like strangers from another world, they mixed with metal pipe ducts and disrupted the dullness of the industrial interior.
The event was widely commented in the media, either as a successful marriage of art and industry, or, on the contrary, as an evident artistic mistake. Neither Dobkowski nor Zieliński were particularly concerned with the opinions and went on with their plan to educate the public, making further exhibition experiments combined with meetings and discussions; they were held in places such as the Telecommunications Equipment Factory, the National Teletransmission Plant, and the Enterprise for Social Services in Warsaw (all in 1970).
In contrast to the monothematic Dobkowski, Zieliński operated with a broader repertoire of forms. Among other things, his works contained metaphorical and sarcastic signs of existential anxiety. In the picture ironically called The Last Romantic (1969) a pair of big red pincers shown against a sapphire sky grab a small green plant; in another one – Zero Hour (also 1969) – a red tear runs down sapphire scissors, which show midnight and are visible on the background of a grass-green clock; and in Pigeon Anxiety (1970) – a red bird hovers ominously in the upper right corner of a bright green horizontal rectangle. The symbolic of these images is clear. It is further simplified by the unambiguous colours; the explicitness is also emphasised by the monumental size of the paintings (usually 150 x 200 or 200 x 150 cm). This means that while Zieliński (and Dobkowski) make use of typical artistic solutions for advertisements (simplification of form, sharpness of colour, conciseness), they do not perpetuate stereotypes and clichés of mass culture, but manifestly undermine them.
Zieliński’s works, which used painting and ready-made objects, are also significant in this respect. An example is the evocative creation Without Rebellion – an unnaturally large board of a painted head with an open mouth and a huge tongue-mattress nailed to the floor (this work was shown at the exhibition Information – Imagination – Action, Współczesna Gallery, Warsaw, 1970).
This individualistic tone dominated the work of the painter in the last years of his life; the poetics of his works changed at that time – they became less decorative, more spontaneous, raw, hasty, and expressive.
The painter took part in all presentations of the Neo-Neo-Neo group (1967-1970). Another important exhibition was the one organised by Janusz Bogucki in the Współczesna Gallery called Art Nouveau – Secession (1968). Subsequent presentations of Zieliński’s works took place in the PSP-ZPAP Katowice Gallery (1970), the Old Town Gallery in Warsaw (1971), the Capital Bureau for Art Exhibitions, among others, and posthumously – in the Gallery of the Association of Art Historians in Warsaw (1981).
The work of the Neo-Neo-Neo group was summed up in the exhibition organised in the Zachęta Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1995 (the catalogue includes a chronology and basic data concerning the activities of the two artists). Recently (2006) Zieliński’s work was brought to the public attention by Oficyna Malarska in Warsaw.
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Institute of Art History of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, November 2006, transl. Bozhana Nikolova