The fifties and the sixties of the last century have been extremely important for the development of Croatian contemporary art. That period brought many changes to visual art. Ivan Picelj, painter, graphic artist, and designer, proponent and representative of geometrical abstraction as one of the manifestations of the new view of the art world, is a key figure of this tumultuous period. His presence on the local and international scene during decades has left a lasting trace not only in different areas of art, but also on the entire cultural scene of Zagreb and in the history of Croatian museum institutions, prevailingly the Museum of Contemporary art. We have reason to say that the history of our Museum and Ivan Picelj’s life and work are tightly connected. Since 1957, when he designed the first poster for that time’s Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art, and 1959, when his works were displayed at the first exhibition of new acquisitions, until today Picelj’s name and oeuvre have been present at all major events connected with the Museum. In the period from the end of the fifties to the eighties, Picelj shaped the visual identity of this institution — let us just mention one hundred and seventy posters and dozens of exhibition catalogs and the fact that with his works he participated at five solo and about fifty group exhibitions during fifty years. Today the Museum’s collections comprise 275 of his works (paintings, drawings, prints, sketches, objects, and reliefs) created between 1949 and 1994.
However, Ivan Picelj means much more to the Museum than the mentioned numbers. His artistic belief and his strong personality have marked the past periods not only with exhibitions the visual identity, but also with the intellectual and creative spirit and atmosphere that he encouraged. This year our museum celebrates sixty years from its foundation and through a large part of this time Ivan Picelj was not only our partner at work, but also a close friend. Therefore we are happy that Ivan Picelj’s daughter, Anja Picelj-Kosak, has donated this extensive and very valuable material, her heritage, to the Museum, which included it into its holdings under the title Ivan Picelj’s Archives and Library. The library encompasses 2389 inventory units. Apart from art monographs, it is mostly comprised of catalogs, art overviews, fictional literature and theory of art, while the Archives contain different objects — personal documentation like annual report cards and the matriculation book of the Fine Arts Academy, letters, bills, awards and special mentions, things for everyday use, business correspondence, telephone and address-books, a large number of photographs, albums with photographs, negatives, video cassettes, slides, slide projectors, and films. Blueprints, collages, models, and sketches for prints and graphic design, sketches, models, and spare parts for reliefs and objects have also been preserved, then a photo-documentation and a correspondence linked to appearances at commercial fairs and the creation of exhibition pavilions, original collages and patterns for the a magazine, translations of texts for the Didactic Exhibition… There is an exceptionally extensive documentation about the exhibitions Picelj participated in. It contains texts by art critics, invitation cards, catalogs, newspaper clippings with articles on the exhibition, a correspondence, artwork lists, and a photo-documentation. In the Archives we can also find Picelj’s original works, for example a portfolio with drawings from 1955, as well as works by other artists. There is also a series of Ivan Picelj’s photo-portraits and photographs of his works, all of them taken by exceptional masters — Marija Braut, Tošo Dabac, Petar Dabac, Enes Midžić, Boris Cvjetanović, Damir Jančin, Andre Morain, Jozo Četković, Branko Balić, Višnja Serdar, Peter Knapp etc. The researchers of art tendencies of the second part of the 20th century will find the material connected with the EXAT 51 group and the New Tendencies movement most interesting, while friendly and creative associating with prominent artists, architects, gallery owners, and critics, especially the ones inclined to geometric and constructivist concepts, Victor Vasarely, Getulio Alviani, Max Bill, Zvonimir Radić, Alexander Calder, Hans Arp, Dušan Džamonja, Sjepan Planić, Julije Knifer, François Morellet, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and many others are documented by numerous photographs and a large collection of Christmas cards.
We can see all that thanks to Picelj’s systematic approach to work and his awareness of the importance of each moment, be it of artistic or organizational nature, in the process of creation of an artwork. We can also see his desire to minutely document the time and circumstances he lived in. This archive mirrors his art philosophy, his unconventional, unique lifestyle and proves his active presence at current local and international art events.
From a large amount of material, for this exhibition we have selected two topics — Picelj’s exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery from 1965 and Damir Fabijanić’s photographs taken 2010 and 2011 at the artist’s apartment-studio in Gajeva Street 2b. The connection between Fabijanić and Picelj was established by a common search for working premises and at the occasion of one of these talks Fabijanić shot a portrait of Picelj. A few months after Picelj’s departure, Fabijanić photographed the entire ambience and characteristic details of the apartment, like for example Picelj’s recognizable black canvas bag hanging on the door handle or precisely placed marks on library shelves, in this way providing us not only with excellent works, but also with the best possible document about Picelj’s archives in situ and the apartment that was a place of numerous encounters of artists.
Picelj began his collaboration with the New York-based Howard Wise Gallery in 1965, following the proposal of American critic Douglas MacAgy. His letter from May 25th, 1965 says: “Last June I had the pleasure of meeting you in Venice through Madame Denise René. It was a brief encounter — I was with my good friend George Rickey — and hardly one you would remember. At that time I knew your work mainly from hearsay and a reproduction or two. But your piece in The Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Responsive Eye’ exhibition captivated me.”
MacAgy further proposes an exhibition at the Wise Gallery to Picelj, because they specialize in constructivist art; in the USA they represent well-known names like Le Parc, Yvaral, Mack, Piene, and Uecker. Picelj reacts quickly and an exhibition of his works, together with the ones by Brasilian constructivist Abraham Palatnik was opened in October of that same year. Picelj presented himself to American public with nineteen reliefs and three canvases characteristic of this period. In the sixties the majority of reliefs and objects that he repeatedly exhibited internationally and in Zagreb, at a noted solo exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, was created. These reliefs, as Renata Gotthardi-Škiljan once wrote referring to Picelj’s entire oeuvre, are a “celebration of order, measure, and harmony”. Picelj transferred his deeply contemplated and intensely experienced art of structural order, already realized in the medium of image and print into the third dimension, without losing the atmosphere of sparkling playfulness and spiritualized lyricism. Creating his reliefs, Picelj carefully combined three elements — structural units, color, and format. Concave metal elements on thin supports are attached to a wooden ground at different height levels and pointing in different directions, which creates a sculptural and light rhythm of indented and protruding surfaces, enhanced by plastic values of painted metal parts. The setting of a square as a rhombus and a combination of a square and a triangle, especially highlighted by a contrasted set-up of structural units from lowest to highest, generate additional dynamics that, in order that full artistic expression could be obtained, demands an active approach of the viewer in the spirit of the open work theory.
Thanks to Picelj’s systematic keeping of records, we can track the development of collaboration between gallery owners and an artist from a socialist country, who invested great effort to maintain this collaboration and be present at the American market with his works. The established friendship between Howard and Ivan was shattered, because not even after a number of years, many talks and agreements, no solution for the return of works could be found. Regrettably, Picelj did not live to see the arrival of his works to Zagreb, but we are extremely glad to present them to Croatian public for the first time.
Picelj generally loved archives, and being very knowledgeable of French art and culture, he especially esteemed the work of Paris institutions that carefully preserve the archives of artists, studying and ordering them. Including Picelj’s Archives and Library into the Museum holdings we were aware of the great museological potential this material contains. Simultaneously to its commenced listing and compiling, we mostly scrutinized the issue of presentation and communication of the Archives. Namely unlike many other archives, accessible only to researchers, we wanted to bring these Archives closer to broad public and therefore apart from the exhibition at the NO Gallery, we decided to set up a permanent exhibition as a communication form that enables us a continuous contact with the public. There are few archives that remain entirely preserved after the artist’s death. Picelj’s legacy offers us a number of possibilities for a segmented presentation of particular topics, starting from scrutinizing the social status of the artist or political circumstances of the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, but still, the most important task is to enable the public to understand this artist and his world view.
And finally, a few words on the title of the exhibition. Among a few thousands of documentary objects in Ivan Picelj’s Archives and Library, the archive box provisionally marked as Graphic Design 3 also contains a paper sheet written in Zagreb, at noon of January 24th, 1963. Playing with a mirror repetition of initial characters of words and turning the date into some kind of formula, a renowned French artist and Picelj’s friend, Yaacov Agam, writes a note of gratitude to Picelj — Merci Picelj, Zagreb, 20+4+1/2. 1. 196333. Beneath Agam’s signature is a list of well-known names — Vjenceslav Richter-Riža, Vojin Bakić, Ivo Kaštelan, Božo Bek, and Kosta Angeli Radovani. We do not know what exactly the reason for this expression of gratitude was, but we have chosen this art document because it best describes one of many moments so characteristic of the life and work of an artist who marked an entire era of Croatian visual art.
Director of the Museum of
Contemporary Art in Zagreb