Hungary Eyes

Friday, August 4, 2017

In 1970, the American land artist Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty, his most famous work. A large dirt coil jutting 1,500 feet off the Great Salt Lake’s northeastern shore, made of some 6,000 tons of basalt rock, Spiral Jetty is a stirring, mysterious work, one that simultaneously suggests man’s triumph over nature and his insignificance on a cosmic scale.

That pieceand the terrifying, wondrous freedom that it evoked—took the art world by storm. One of the many artists influenced by it was a young Hungarian sculptor named Károly Halász. Although Halász could never hope to realize such a massive work in his own country, he began a correspondence with Smithson, who sent him slides of the piece, as well issues of Artforum. When Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973, Halász was moved to celebrate the artist by creating his own miniature Spiral Jetty off the Danube.

Halász’s story is a typical one. Although they lived in the heart of the repressive Eastern Bloc, Hungarian artists in the ’60s and ’70s were enthralled by the goings-on of the global avant-garde. A new, revelatory exhibit on view at Elizbeth Dee Gallery, “With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies,” shows that the illiberal nature of their society could not stop these artists’ insatiable desire to create.

“Many people find it surprising that some of these artists were so well informed,” curator András Szántó told me. “It is inconsistent with our image of the Iron Curtain as a wall that could not be punctured or traversed. Yet there were some artists and writers who obtained permits to travel in those years. They brought back their memories, and suitcases of books and catalogues. The artists corresponded with their Western counterparts. Whatever difficulty they had in obtaining access was offset by the intensity of their interest in getting their hands on this material.”

And as the more than 100 works on display can attest, these artists were plenty interested. Spread out over the gallery’s two expansive floors, the show feels like eavesdropping on a boisterous meeting of Hungarian dissidents, their contradictory ideas ping-ponging off the walls.

“With the Eyes of Others” focuses on Hungary under General Secretary János Kádár, at a time that saw the Eastern European nation caught between Soviet authoritarianism and Western freedom. “A series of reforms introduced in 1968 brought the country a measure of consumerism, while also considering Kádár’s power,” said Szántó. “The level of freedom ebbed and rose depending on the current composition and mood of the Politburo and the level of pressure from Moscow. But by the early ’70s, Hungarians were enjoying a certain kind of good life that was the envy of others in the Eastern Bloc. Travel became possible, though it was severely restricted. Popular culture thrived. Western movies, novels, jazz were made available, again with restrictions.”

That freedom, and its incompleteness, motivates much of this exhibition. The art seems caught between two identities—aware of everything happening in the West, but unable to engage with it explicitly. Instead, it thrives on hidden meanings and subtleties. It’s an approach best summed up by something one of them once wrote: “Art is what is forbidden.”

Like Halász’s miniature Spiral Jetty, these pieces take Western trends and, against the backdrop of communist Hungary, turn them into something else. Gábor Attalai’s Red-Y Made series, for instance, takes pieces by contemporary artists like John Baldessari and Joseph Beuys and paints over them in red. One of these, an appropriation of Andy Warhol’s Mao, is particularly impressive, recontextualizing that propaganda-riffing piece within an actually propagandistic society. Tamás Szentjóby’s Czechoslovak Radio, 1968, is another example of this Western-style subversion. A brick with a yellow, speaker-like circle drawn on it, the piece’s reappropriation of an industrial form echoes the contemporaneous arte povera movement, while its evocative title and material composition lends themselves to political interpretations. In works like this, the inability to express discontent more openly elevates the art, giving it a subtlety that so much protest art seems to lack.

In other cases, the artists subvert communist practices through the vernacular of the communist state, using the same sort of large-scale, depthless imagery as their official media. Bálint Szombathy’s performance piece Lenin in Budapest is one such example. Captured in 13 photographs, it shows the artist walking around Budapest after a May Day parade carrying a large placard of the Soviet leader. It suggests the oppressiveness of communist history and ideology, and the way that the state invades daily life. Szombathy’s Poetry & Language series is even more direct in this, showing scenes of artists, workers and others with “poetry?” and “language” stamped on them. They suggest both the government stamp of an official records file, and the emphasis on clearly delineated concepts under communist governments. They concern themselves with the place of indefinable terms in a society where everything is defined.

That’s not to say that all of it is quite so political. Abstract hard-edge paintings, inspired by artists like Frank Stella and Al Held, abound. Yet these too are uniquely Hungarian. Ilona Keserü’s Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms (Tapestry) is representative, taking the style of those American artists and using it to depict a traditional Hungarian cemetery.

Although some of the art is angry, this is ultimately a hopeful exhibition. As repressive as things may have been in 1970s Hungary, the government was never able to stop these artists from doing what they loved. It’s a reassuring message in our political climate. Today, Hungary is one of many countries whose leader has drifted toward authoritarianism—over his tenure as Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has consolidated his power through attacks on enemies in the academy and the press. But this exhibition shows that not all hope is lost. It’s harder to suppress free speech than it looks.

“With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies” is on view at Elizabeth Dee Gallery through August 11.


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