Włodzimierz Borowski was one of the artists whose work reflects the major changes in Polish avant-garde art from the 1950s until the end of the 1970s. He was born in 1930 in Kurów in Lubelszczyzna, and died on December 31st 2008 in Warsaw.
Painter, creator of environment art, happenings and installations.
Between 1956 and 1959 he studied art history at the Catholic University in Lublin, where – even during the times of Stalinist propaganda – some philosophical freedom persisted.
During the 'thaw' period after 1956, he was a student of Jacek Woźniakowski, who was one of the first professors to organise lectures about contemporary international art. Influenced by these lectures, Borowski with some of his friends decided to pursue some activities leading to the self-education and animation of Lublin’s cultural milieu, fighting – as Piotr Majewski wrote – its inferiority complex. This initiative resulted in the creation of the Zamek group, which not only rose to fame among Polish modernists but also among the milieu of the Parisian Phases movement, joining late informal painting with the original concept of 'structural art'. The group’s work is still highly regarded by art critics today. Among the group’s members were the unjustly unappreciated Tytus Dzieduszycki (who later moved to France) and Jan Ziemski (who remained in Lublin and strengthened his position as one of the most interesting local artists). Apart from them, young art critics also took part in the group. Some of them, like Wiesław Borowski, Urszula Czartoryska, Jerzy Ludwiński, and Hanna Ptaszkowska, later turned out to be great organizers of artistic life in different venues. It’s thanks to them that the magazine Struktury (Structures) was established as an addition to the literary Kamena, and 11 issues were published between 1959 and 1961. Borowski himself, after graduating and leaving Lublin, worked for Warsaw galleries Foksal and Repassage, and years later also for the Labirynt and Labirynt 2 galleries in Lublin.
He only painted at the beginning of his career. Afterwards he began creating object-images, and turned his attention to happenings and conceptual art. His first works from the times of the Zamek group are considered the most interesting examples of Polish 'matter painting' (or 'structural painting'). He started with dark, almost monochromatic, tachist canvases made using colourful varnishes (Jerzy Ludwiński called them 'tachist compositions of coloured sewage varnish'). He referenced pre-war experiments by Karol Hiller, but he saw him as rather a recipient of homage than an author whom he would like to directly follow. In contrast to Hiller he didn’t experiment with colour, but rather with texture, the matter of the painting. Early on he started experimenting with the structure of works of art and was expressive in this task: he put thick layers of pigment on the canvas and furrowed simple, hieroglyphic signs (Tryptyk / Trilogy, 1957), which sometimes retained an allusive character. In his works he mostly exhibited the plane of the canvas, only rarely crossed by a brook of dripping paint, the visible footprint of a brush, an opalescent stain of colour. He introduced symmetrical divisions of space with decisive brush strokes – legible lines. He did this in an original manner with a lot of freedom, avoiding geometrical precision. His decisions were based on the assumption that even an abstract painting retains a certain amount of non-pictorial sense, and it was this sense that he wanted to eradicate.
In 1958 Borowski – together with Tytus Dzieduszycki and Jan Ziemski – were invited by Marian Bogusz to take part in an exhibition in the Krzywe Koło Gallery in Warsaw. He showed works whose structures resembled (and exhibited) the surface of a relief, but at the same time pointed to literary contexts, underlined by titles like Uczta Nabuchodonozora (Nebuchadnezzar’s Feast) (1957). But more and more often he created pure 'compositions', avoiding any suggestions The critics compared these 'structures' to the works of Antonio Tapiés, which were exhibited at the Venice Biennale roughly at the same time, but it must be stated that Polish compositions – especially those by Borowski – seemed much better crafted. Unfortunately not many of them survived and Borowski soon stopped painting.
Searching for the borders between sculpture (Artony / Artons, 1959), environment (Manilus, Elbląg 1965 and I Pokaz synkretyczny / Syncretic Show I, Lublin 1966), happenings (VII Pokaz synkretyczny – Zdjęcie kapelusza / Syncretic Show VII – Taking the hat off, Osieki 1967), conceptual art (IV Pokaz synkretyczny – Ofiarowanie pieca / Syncretic Show IV – Furnace Offering, Puławy 1966; Dialog / Dialogue, Wrocław 1970, Est-etyka / Aest-ethics, Lublin 1976) became more and more present in his work. Thanks to the variety of these activities, his art – shaped in the milieu of new artistic movements – remains original and individual. Borowski resigned from painting and entered this path firmly, working consistantly towards the annulation of the image. The appearance of the artony/artons was the first step on this path. These were, as Jerzy Ludwiński stated:
assemblages, masses of glass, transparent rubber straws and other elements, used as a building material for a performance which started when the artist plugged it in.
When hidden light bulbs were switched on, the artons came to life. Pieces of glass and rubber snakes led the light outside, parts of the images switched on and off rhythmically. When artony were asleep, they seemed trivial, even trashy; it was the light and its rhythm that turned them into autonomous organisms. Even though these realizations by Borowski are considered an homage to Marcel Duchamp, it must be underlined that their physical status of 'a ready-made work of art' was less important than the final effect – the illusion of movement created by the changing light, reminiscent of the character of kinetic art.
To some extent these actions can be considered an important step towards going beyond the work itself – the beginning of environment. Later works by the artist can also be put in this context. Manifest lustrzany (Manilus) / Mirror manifesto (Manilus) was realized during the 1st Biennale of Spatial Art in Elbląg in 1965. 'It was a mirror', wrote Ludwiński, 'on which the artist painted and put different decorations, but everyone could see themself in this collage'. The audience was multiplied, and the artist turned their attention to themselves: they were the object of an artistic process, while he disappeared.
The following actions by Borowski were a continuation of these poetics, they also started to connect elements of environment, happening, conceptual art. In this regard the I Syncretic Show (presented in Lublin and in Warsaw in 1966) was especially significant: elements of a traditional art exhibition were connected to the arrangement of the gallery space and to a game played with the presence of the spectator. The artist displayed his early paintings, artony and mirrors in the gallery, thus creating a symmetrical whole enriched with containers filled with a chemical substance, out of which, during the vernissage, colourful 'plants' grew. This space was amplified by mirror reflections. The spectators and participants of the display became one of its parts, an inalienable element of the undertaking, which was rather an artistic performance than an exposition of ready-made, finished, unchanging works of art. The same structural elements were used during the Warsaw exposition, which became a sum of his work up to that point.
A much more spectacular action took place the same year during the Symposium of Artists and Scientists in Puławy, under the patronage of Zakłady Azotowe (Nitrogen Plants), under the meaningful name 'Art in the Ever-changing World'. Borowski presented a happening called Furnace Offering – probably his most absurd action. After careful preparation (through conferences with the directors of plants, talks with engineers responsible for the production of nitrogene fertilizers, and preparing the script, light, sound, and audience organization), the action basically consisted in the paradoxical gesture of offering the plant its own property: the artist, dressed up in a tuxedo and stood on a gallery on one of the ovens, gave a long speech in admiration of the beauty of the industrial landscape, and proclaimed that in homage to this landscape he can only treat one of its elements, the furnace on which he stood, as a work of art. This demonstration was accompanied by a song, composed by Borowski to the words 'urea, urea', which gradually turned into the national anthem. All of this happened in the evening, in the spotlight. The performance was taken with reserve – both by the workers and the guests of the Symposium. Time was on the work’s side though, amplifying the simplicity and wit, lacking from complex and enigmatic works created by Borowski in the following years.
They mostly connected the Dadaistic tradition with 1970s avant-garde, determined by conceptualism. Borowski often used ready-made objects, but changed their function, created a new world around them, manifesting an awareness of the duplicity of reality perceived by senses (Zbiór trzepakowy / Hanger stand, 1967; Zbiory stojakowe / Clotheshorse stand, 1968), both prepared for the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw). His – usually individual, one-off – realizations and performances were directed to a specific audience, usually left alone with his work and at the same time treated as a material. A significant, characteristic example of this inversion of roles was the Fubki tarb (Pubes of Taints) exhibition (Wrocław 1969), where photographs of exhibition guests were turned into showpieces (the image of the audience replaced the image-work of art; artistic 'autogenesis' cancelled the author, whose presence became useless).
The following years brought a decrease in the artist’s work, who, while working sporadically for the Labirynt gallery in Lublin, focused mostly on his theoretical activities. In 1973 Borowski received the Cyprian Kamil Norwid Critics' Award. In the 1980s, he took part in exhibitions organized under the patronage of the church, showing three-dimensional installations which often referred to religious symbolism. In 1996 at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, a retrospective exhibition of his works entitled Ślady (Traces) was organized, featuring some reconstructions of lost objects. In the catalogue of the exhibit a lot of information about Borowski’s art can be found (among others, a text written by his friend Jerzy Ludwiński).
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Department KUL, March 2004, edited in January 2009, translated by N. Mętrak-Ruda, October 2015.