New York Times: Avant-Garde Time Capsule in Polish Apartment

(originally published by the New York Times/IHT –November 15 2010)

WARSAW — Unbeknownst to most residents of 64 Aleja Solidarnosci (Solidarity Boulevard) — a drab gray Communist block near Old Town in Warsaw — an apartment on the top floor is one of the most important places in Poland’s avant-garde art history.

It was in No. 118 that two of the country’s most influential 20th-century avant-garde artists — Henryk Stazewski (1894-1988) and Edward Krasinski (1925-2004) — lived and worked for more than two decades. It is now home to the Instytut Awangardy (Avant-Garde Institute), a museum, exhibition and archive space.

The apartment has been kept in a state of entropy since Mr. Krasinski’s death in 2004. In this avant-garde world, a twig seems to grow from the floor, photographs hang from the ceiling, bills and stuffed mice are attached to the walls, fake broken eggs are scattered on the table and Mr. Stazewski’s old bed frame frames one of Mr. Krasinski’s exhibition posters.

It’s a very special place with many layers of historical and artistic reference — it’s magic,” said Sabine Breitwieser, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMAin New York, who edited the 2006 book “Edward Krasinski: Les Mises en Scene.”

The apartment is a visual archive of both Mr. Krasinski’s and Mr. Stazewski’s work, though after the latter’s death in 1988 his family removed almost all of his paintings. Mr. Krasinski’s goal was to keep the traces of the friend who had helped support him financially over the years. The studio became a kind of living art installation, with the wires left hanging and discoloration on the walls where Mr. Stazewski’s paintings had been displayed.

Since Mr. Krasinski’s death in 2004, the institute has been run by the Foksal Gallery Foundation, or F.G.F., one of the most prominent commercial galleries in Poland, and though it is still owned by his daughter, F.G.F. has a 20-year contract to administer the space.

The “institute” is meant to perpetuate the avant-garde movement, said Andrzej Przywara, F.G.F.’s chairman and co-founder. “The name is a little big ironic and it’s more like the name of the project than a serious institute with structure,” he said. “Our aim was to protect this place, so we decided not to move this installation to a museum, because then you have to decide what is art and what is not.”

The artistic history of the apartment dates to 1963, when the Communist government gave the space to Mr. Stazewski, who was considered a living legend within both the Polish and European avant-garde art scenes. Born in Warsaw, the artist was one of the original members of the Polish Constructivist avant-garde movement as well as one of the founders of the Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi (Art Museum of Lodz), one of the oldest continuously run modern art museums in the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Stazewski frequently exhibited in Europe and gained an international reputation.

The majority of his works from this time were destroyed during World War II. After the war, Mr. Stazewski continued to be an artistic renegade, despite the restrictions of Communism, taking part in international exhibitions of Polish contemporary art and co-founding the Geometric Abstract movement in the 1960s. His work varied from abstract pieces like “Relief 6” (1968) — five rows of purple, blue, green, orange and pink squares that look as if they are dancing — to “Figural Composition” (1950), a painting of what looks like a weeping angel, that was influenced by Socialist Realism and Cubism.

In the early 1960s, the authorities relaxed their cultural policies somewhat, and avant-garde art was no longer seen as overtly political. The government granted Mr. Stazewski the apartment to use as a live-in studio, which he shared with the painter Maria Ewa Lunkiewicz and her husband.

Though most visual art in Poland at this time was relatively far removed from politics, there was a feeling among many artists that radical contemporary art — exemplified by avant-garde — could form a resistance, said Adam Szymczyk, the director of Kunsthalle Basel and the co-founder of Foksal Gallery Foundation. “Stazewski was a political artist par excellence and Krasinski was a complete anarchist and individualist,” he said. “They were indirectly posing a threat to a system that was all about leveling down the differences and making everyone think the same, whereas these guys were thinking differently.”

In 1966, Mr. Stazewski — along with several other artists including Mr. Krasinski and Tadeusz Kantor, and art critics like Mr. Krasinski’s wife at the time, Anka Ptaszkowska — founded the Foksal Gallery (of which Foksal Gallery Foundation is a spinoff). The gallery went on to become the country’s most influential noncommercial gallery, showing both the work of Polish artists and of international artists like Lars Englund and Alain Jacquet. It was there, and by extension in Mr. Stazewski’s studio, that Polish and international artists, thinkers, critics and writers would gather to discuss and debate.

By 1970, however, there was a split over ideology among the gallery’s founders. Mr. Krasinski and his wife were also separating, and he needed a place to live. Mr. Stazewski invited him to move in to the apartment. For the next 18 years the men lived and worked together in the same space. “They were curious about each other’s work but fully independent of each other as artists, and in a sense it was competitive,” Mr. Szymczyk said.

While both artists were alive, however, it was not a real competition. Mr. Stazewski was a legend during his lifetime, and Mr. Krasinski was not a well-known figure outside Polish artistic circles. But after Mr. Stazewski’s death in 1988, his fame began to wane, while Mr. Krasinski’s career flourished with international exhibitions in galleries in Berlin and New York, and a large posthumous show at the Generali Foundation in Vienna in 2006.

His works played with the ideas of space, time and chaos, including “Intervention” (1975), a drawing of a three-dimensional structure with a line of blue tape that juts up into the piece and then carries on along the wall. (The use of blue tape was a trademark in most of Mr. Krasinski’s work.)

Today, the front door of the apartment that the artists shared has a life-size photograph of an elderly Mr. Krasinski with both hands raised and a bemused expression on his face. Inside are two main rooms, while Mr. Krasinski’s bedroom, which has a separate entrance, has been turned into a guest room for visiting artists. (Last year the Spanish artist Jorge Peris was in residence while working on an installation for F.G.F.) A pavilion has been built on the terrace and there are frequent exhibitions and lectures held in the space.

In keeping with the Foksal Gallery’s reputation for controversy, there has been a fair amount of mud slinging over how the apartment has been marketed. The gallery’s current director, Katarzyna Krysiak, says F.G.F. markets the studio as mostly being that of Mr. Krasinski, since he is the artist whose popularity endures today.

Mr. Przywara rejects this idea and says the real issue is how to preserve the state of the apartment, given that temperature and other conditions are not controlled the way they would be in a museum. “We are trying to keep this body of work together, but I am absolutely sure this will not last forever.”