Zdenko Tonković
From EXAT to the New Tendencies

By the end of the fifties of the last century, informal painting lost its creative power, both as a means of expression and as a more encompassing procedure — a world view. A paradigm was generally exhausted in all the richness of its offspring. The new society and civilization were consolidated and gained momentum. The speed of technological progress was unique in history and its results were almost simultaneously applied to everyday life. Science shifted the boundaries of cognition further and further, while its achievements experienced popular divulgation. There were radical changes also in education; it adjusted to new needs, schools of new disciplines and curriculums were founded, e.g. design. All these are lines of force that imbued fine arts, now generalized into visual arts. There arose new aesthetic considerations and interest areas: attempts were made to adapt the methodology and categories from natural sciences to creative artistic activities, to an open system of “technological aesthetics”, with the final aim of possible quantification of “aesthetic reality”. The interpretative set of notions was revitalized: generative aesthetics, entropy and information, algorithm and stochastics, cybernetics and communication, micro and macro aesthetics were the category notions in those years. They emerged from Bense’s aesthetics and the Ulm Design School. The artwork is viewed liberated of the “mimesis zone”, as a pure autonomous co-reality and a parallel existence. The author became an “operatore estetico”, a researcher whose work is supported by mighty companies (Olivetti, Philips, and even state commissions), often a member of groups that kept cropping up everywhere.

The practice of the new avant-garde was correspondent to the new category apparatus. It globally came about on the presuppositions similar to Russian and German avant-gardes about forty years earlier: October and Weimar. The constructivist tendency as a generic term was a common denominator of this new avant-garde. In this stream Picelj was internationally accepted into the family of geometrical abstractists from his very beginnings, from an invited exhibition in the EXAT quartet at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris 1952. The genesis of his poetics surpasses the scope of the introductory text tailored to this occasion, so it will focus only on the exhibited works.

This exhibition is opened by a painting that shows Picelj’s new position after EXAT’s geometrism. He painted it as a diptych, as a fugue inspired by Malevich, as his encrypted position that he had reached the “zero level”. The wings of the diptych are a negative and a positive, with a central asphalt black square on the dark half and a red circle on the light half, both immersed in the music of dull and clear paint layers. Both symbols have their square ground: tar black and ivory white, while the rest of the picture framework is completed by deep blue cobalt and chalk white. In this implicit hommage to Malevich, divested of any metaphysics, Picelj brought the vocabulary of his classical geometric abstraction to contemplation of complex (inter)relations of the intertwined forms and practical application of the gestalt theory as the starting point for kinematic spatiality. In his further exhibitions he liberated himself from the EXAT collectiveness and took the responsibility for his actions alone, not as a painter anymore, but as “le plasticien”.

The earliest relief at the exhibition is a transitional work from Picelj’s geometrical abstraction of the post-EXAT period into its new plastic and kinetic interpretation. The earlier flat composition is cut into wooden flutes, like some kind of intaglio in a vertical line raster. The result is a three-dimensional and vibrating surface whose reception changes when the observer or the light moves. There emerges a new, multidimensional formative space, whose principal characteristic is change: in order to enable movement, along with the abscissa and ordinate it also contains a spatial axis and a time variable with its calibration. In Picelj’s case, this movement is virtual and enabled by a new plastic whole, but becomes effective through an external impulse. Surface from 1957 was created at the time of Picelj’s first active contacts with the circle of artists around the Denise René Gallery, where at that moment the disputes caused two years earlier by the exhibition Movement (Le Mouvement) and a schism between some of its major protagonists were at their peak. This exhibition was a promotion of physical movement in visual art, of kinetics (it would be more appropriate to say kinematics, but we shall pragmatically retain the commonly accepted term) and its meaning in the second half of the century is compared to the one cubism had at its beginning. Through affinity and through experience as well, Vasarely’s variant of kinetics was close to Picelj: changeable work perceptions are dependent on the movement of the observer, i.e. “l’oeil-moteur”. In that spirit, Picelj conceived his Surface almost as a kind of anamorphosis of an abstract painting. In such transformation it was also better suitable for an architectural application, for a mural, then for a gallery wall, for public places instead of private contemplation. (Such Surface, spatially conceived and with its reverse side also executed in metal, was proposed for the Yugoslav Pavilion at the EXPO 1958 in Brussels. Had it been executed, today it would be quoted right after Vasarely’s partition wall at the Caracas University 1954).

Picelj soon abandoned any eidetic sediment at the basis of his plastic expression, treating the surface in a free rhythm. He formatted the “plastic whole” to a square, and designed a plastic field as a square within a square — along the lines of Malevich squares on a white surface. He retained the vertical raster in the basic organization, achieved by slats and their interspaces. The density of the raster is varied through the width of slats, reaching from sticks to pickets, and their distance, thus achieving a resonance surface that he would turn into a relief, a light-bearing surface by molding the face side of the slats. The profile of the slats is undulated, machine-turned, with horizontal indentations between profile themes. The morphology of this relief is determined by profiles of each construction element: thus slats become structural units, the modules of a new syntax. Picelj logically enters the poetics of programmed art.

Along with new technological procedures and plastic strivings, directed at a retinal stimulus, at a “responsive eye” — in these reliefs/Surfaces the observer can also discover archetypal, subconscious associations, for example to painting: Picelj used different processed sorts of wood that in their materiality, additionally painted, remind of painting qualities: of colors, tonal values, and factures. They also, in general impression, remind us of totemic appearance. It is maybe interesting to mention that Picelj in his apartment had a large African native sculpture in a prominent place (just mentioning that it was Ivan Seifert’s gift — as a reminder to a Paris-based architect with a Zagreb diploma who should not be forgotten). They also recall vertical plastic characters, especially cuneiform script; the experience of the Surface as a composed “forme” of lead characters for the letterpress.

In 1962, Picelj founded his new “l’alphabet plastique” by Surfaces executed in wood — by designing the plastic field as a square inscribed into a neutral square ground, in an orthogonal and parallel distribution of full and empty stripes — the full ones horizontally segmented in a repetitive relief pattern and the empty ones as flutes — their spaces and shifts, in a differing existence of the topography of the plastic zone at the movement of the observer or light.

At the end of his path, in his last exhibition at Denise René’s in 2007, Picelj returned to such “kinematising” of the surface through application of the rhythm of basic rectangular b/w structures to pleated paper.

To the new technologically aware sensibility of artists by the beginning of the sixties wood was a too romantic material, subjective in itself, overburdened in historical and symbolical terms: the contemporary spirit demanded new materials. Picelj also felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of his previous plastic expression and he also felt the new needs of time, so it is logical that he underwent a technical and conceptual evolution. He accepted metal as his material and used it either raw or industrially varnished.

In some of his brass Surfaces he came close to his experience in wood (as if color warmth and palpable materiality had drawn them close), but a new constructive will is clear. The material segment is equalized into strips of the same width and isomorphic semi-sinusoidal profile. The flutes are gone and the strips interchangeably cling together, so that the amplitudes and minimums regularly interchange as arses and theses, half-cylinders and flat surfaces. Picelj uses the polishing of metal for a latent kinematic dimension of the Surface, activated by external impulses. He further problematizes his experience by joining four such Surfaces, mutually reclined at right angle, into a square. In addition to all inner movement, Picelj additionally destabilized this square by hanging it diagonally. Unlike Mondrian, who turned just the frame of the square, retaining the vertical Cartesian system within it, Picelj, aware of the problem, as this was indicated by his later serigraphs titled Remember Mondrian, inclined the entire coffered Surface.

With his brass Surfaces from 1964 Picelj almost completed his alphabet commenced in wood: he introduced metal, regulated the grid as the basic organization of the plastic field in simple combinations and sequenced the rods with uniform highly polished module elements. He cleared the syncopes and introduced the possibility of a diagonal.

Next year Picelj concluded the plastic language of his Surfaces. The grid evolved into a clear square matrix and module elements dissolved into a new “palette”, into pressed cuboid envelopes with soft edges, squarely cut half-cylinders, bent strips and cubes. Sometimes he places them on a petiole, detaching them from the ground and thus enhancing the spatial independence of the field. He industrially varnished the elements of his new expression in a limited color range or polished them to high gloss. His works got individualized by titles.

The panel with a plastic field is set strictly vertically, respecting gravity. Columns and rows of the matrix are in correspondence with the dimension of the ground. Each cell of the matrix is filled by one element, turned with its bottom or a cavity towards the viewer: concave or convex, plus and minus, which makes the field finely rippled and glimmered. New quality is introduced by the color of the module: it either provides the body with a tone illusion, light growing from dark edges to whiteness in the central cell, with a variant of a light-colored center in monochromatic environment, suggesting the decay of space, or the modules are white, so that the field relief is dependent on lighting, or they are interchangeably complementary, which introduces another level of optical interference. Picelj’s color in these objects is never raw; it is always nobly toned and finely tuned. His formats are of chamber size, as well as in the previous surfaces, but they can easily be imagined in monumental scope.

One of Picelj’s exploratory paths led towards the format. In Leikos the field became a vertical assemblage of half-cylindrical square particles as a trajectory of flakes, joined in rhomboids with not more than three in a diagonal row. Stressing the lightness of this line structure, the color is shining white. Ryo concludes this selection by renewed interest in the coexistence of parts in a whole, as if Picelj summarize a gestalt after each covered stage. In a horizontally bisected field, the upper part is sequentialized by varnished grooves made of metal sheets, as staves interchanging in yellow and red, while the lower part is a matrix filled with deep blue colored half-cylinders. Closing this register, it was as if he hears Boogie Woogie from Mondrian’s last paintings.

Through a couple of years at the end of the fifties and the first half of the sixties of the last century, Picelj developed a new plastic expression, evolving from a painting on canvas to a plastic object. At the time in which science and technology, informatics, especially computers, took command (in a paraphrase of Giedion’s book), Picelj found his place naturally, through the logic of his evolution. The exhibited objects show his way from EXAT to New Tendencies. He was ready for a new beginning: from matrix to pixels, from permutation to binary code, from esthete to co programmer, the way was not long and soon Picelj found himself in computer art and its derivatives. And, ingrown in firm belief on social purpose of the aesthetic object, he turns to the folders of serigraphs as an emulation of multiples and immerses in intensive preoccupation with graphic design. But, in spite of all the rationalization of sources and protocols, it transpires that an artist by vocation is at work, and we conclude this preface with Klee’s words that Picelj would certainly approve of: “We keep constructing and constructing, but intuition is still a good thing.”