Painter, photographer, draughtsman, performance artist, author of objects and installations.
He graduated from the State Higher School of Plastic Arts in Łódź (1974-75) and the Institute of Art Education at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin (1975-79, diploma from Jan Popek's workshop). In 1984-85, he worked as a fellow at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, in Ryszard Winiarski's workshop. In 1979, he started teaching at the Institute of Art Education of his alma mater.
Mikołaj Smoczyński was known for creating site-specific installations and black and white photographs resembling abstract paintings. In his works, he focused on the specifics of the material he was applying as well as on matters relating to place and space. The essence of his art lay in capturing an individual's experience in reference to reality in flux.
Smoczyński's early painting works were inspired by American abstractionists, predominantly Franz Kline. He also felt a strong affinity with such styles as minimalism and Arte Povera.
Objects and installations
He only painted for a short period of time, after graduating from university. In the early 1980s, Smoczyński began producing objects that went past the definition of painting, but could not yet be described as installations. Installation art appeared later on in his practice, as an offshoot of his painting style, which had been elaborated into three-dimensional forms.
The artist decided to start documenting these altered states of space, considering photography to be the most appropriate medium for doing so. For a period of time, Smoczyński created installations in his studio, solely for the purpose of photographing them, such as in the series The Secret Performance. He carried out these kinds of actions during Martial Law. Being able to concentrate on a personal, internal experience allowed him to cut himself off from the unacceptable reality outside of his working space.
At the same time, Mikołaj Smoczyński referred to himself as a realist, by which he understood the unearthing of that which is felt through art. For Smoczyński, the creative process began with an encounter with space, and most of all with its material structure, i.e. floor, walls, shapes.
From 1992 onwards, Smoczyński created installations that turned him into an architect of space – he didn't want to transform existing constructions, but to create brand new ones. In the process he used an actual construction material – suprema, which came in modules, suitable for shaping desired structures. The colour and texture of a construction are affected by light, which was the fundamental factor in all of the artist's works. Its dramaturgy exposed the rhythm of Smoczyński's realizations and took over the emerging forms.
Some of the works in which Smoczyński used suprema include Parallel Action (Akcja Równoległa), realized at the Stara Gallery in Lublin in 1992, and Temporary Con Temporary, made in the same year, at the ZPAP Gallery in Warsaw.
Another material that the artist adopted for building his architecture-within-architecture was eternit, one of the main elements of his Direct Action (Akcja bezpośrednia), presented at the Small Salon of the Zachęta Gallery (Warsaw, 1996) and in Passage, shown in the exhibition Jerzy Nowosielski, Leon Tarasewicz, Mikołaj Smoczyński at CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw (1997).
In 2004, Smoczyński prepared an exhibition for the Labirynt 2 Gallery in Lublin titled Changing a Local Property (Zmiana właściwości miejscowej). In the lower level of the venue, he placed objects brought from his home – ones that bore special importance, as they were related to his personal history, or perhaps even intimate mythologies (such as the 19th-century icon of St. Nicholas which he had had since his birth). The upper section contained his sculptural creations – abstract and synthetic forms. Visitors were thus given a chance to relate the latter to the pieces displayed downstairs, i.e. those lying at the root of Smoczyński's oeuvre.
Two years later, Smoczyński had an exhibition at Grodzka Gallery, also in Lublin, for which presented pieces that stood out in the context of the rest of his practice: a selection of posters he made for his own shows. A lot of them were produced ex-post, purely as a documentation of the events. The posters reflected the ideas behind the shows, through letter-based and abstract ideograms. The artist applied the language of poster design in his interpretation of selected projects so as to encapsulate each of them in a graphic symbol.
Smoczyński had the unique ability to recognize the essence and character of the place in which he was installing his works. His interventions accentuated the logic behind their architecture or otherwise exposed the nuances and poetics of a particular space, which is apparent in his site-specific projects, such as Mile Posts. Project for a Tanker (Słupy milowe. Projekt dla Cysterny), produced for the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in 2006, or in his exhibition Map (Paintings and Installations) / Mapa (obrazy i instalacje), organized at the Nowy Wiek Gallery of the Lublin Region Museum in Zielona Góra.
In the last years of his life, the artist returned to drawing, mainly using pencil and charcoal on plywood with thin frames. His series Stigmatic Drawings (Rysunki stygmatyczne, 2008) and Plates (Tablice, 2008) were presented at the exhibition Indeterminate Inscapes (Figury nieokreślone) at the Starmach Gallery in Kraków, in the company Forms (Formy) – assemblage-like compositions – many of which showed round forms, constructed out of clothes hangers – inserted into plywood frames resembling shallow boxes. The single or twin circles were occasionally filled with a charcoal drawing and brown paper, e.g. in Multiplied Form (diptych) / Forma pomnożona (dyptyk) from 2008.
Awards and distinctions:
1990 – Warsaw, Stanisław Wyspiański Art Award
1991 – Katowice, Triennale of Polish Graphic, Statutory Prize
1992 – Wrocław, 5th International Triennale of Drawing, Grand Prix
1992 – Berlin, European Photography Award
Selected solo exhibitions:
1980, 1991, 1997 – Stara Gallery, Lublin, Poland;
1991, 1995 – Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, Poland;
1991 – San Diego State University Art Gallery, San Diego, USA;
1992 – E.L.A.C. Lyon, France;
1993 – Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland;
1993 – Krzysztofory Gallery, Kraków, Poland;
1995 – Art in General Gallery, New York, USA;
1996 – Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland;
1997 – IFA Galerie, Berlin, Germany;
1999 – Jesuits Gallery, Poznań, Poland;
2001 – Arsenał Gallery, Poznań, Poland;
2001 – International Studio Program, New York, USA;
2003 – BWA Gallery, Zielona Góra, Poland;
2003 – Sektor I Gallery, Katowice, Poland;
2004 – Labirynt 2 Gallery, Lublin, Poland;
2004 – Changing a Local Property / Zmiana właściwości miejscowej, Labirynt 2 Gallery, Lublin, Poland;
2006 – Mile Posts. Project for a Tanker / Słupy milowe. Projekt dla Cysterny, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland;
2006 – Author's Poster / Plakat Autorski, Grodzka Gallery, Lublin, Poland;
2006 – Map (Paintings and Installations) / Mapa (obrazy i instalacje), Lublin Region Museum, Zielona Góra, Poland.
Selected group exhibitions:
1985 – What's Up / Co słychać, Former Norblin Plant, Warsaw, Poland;
1988 – Polish Intermedia Photography / Polska Fotografia Intermedialna, Arsenał Gallery, Poznań, Poland;
1990 – Magicians and Mystics / Magowie i Mistycy, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland;
1991 – Construction in Process – Back in Łódź / Konstrukcja w procesie – Back in Łódź, Museum of Textiles, Łódź, Poland;
1992 – Łódź - Lyon, Musee Saint Pierre l'Art Contemporain, Lyon, France;
1992 – European Photography, Museum of Modern Art, Berlin, Germany;
1993 – 3th Istanbul Biennial, Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul, Turkey;
1995 – Frontiera, Museum of Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy;
1997 – Nowosielski, Smoczyński, Tarasewicz, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland;
1999 – Aspects/Positions, 50 Years of Art In Central Europe 1949-1999, Museum Moderner Kunst Stifting Ludwig, Vienna, Austria;
2000 – Duzzle Gradually, Apex Art, New York, USA;
2000 – Transmissions, Palais u Rhin, Strasbourg, France;
2000 – Arte a Centreeuropa 1949-1999, Fundatio Joan Miro, Centre d'Estudis d'Art Contemporani, Barcelona, Spain;
2001 – Here and Now, Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland;
2004 – Занурення/Zanurzenie/Immersion, Centre for Contemporary Art, Kiev, Ukraine;
2005 – Painters Take Photographs / Malarze fotografują, Baltic Contemporary Art Gallery, Słupsk, Poland;
2006 – Territories / Terytoria, The Centre for Culture, Lublin, Poland;
2008 – In the Beginning Was the Writing / Na początku było pismo, Baltic Contemporary Art Gallery, Słupsk, Poland;
2009 – International Collection of Contemporary Art / Międzynarodowa Kolekcja Sztuki Współczesnej, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland;
Author: Ewa Gorządek, CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, December 2007; updated: November 2009. Translated with edits by AM, April 2015