Ilaria Bignotti
The Concrete Utopia

I / Introduction

This exhibition and catalogue dedicated to Croatian artist Ivan Picelj provide a much needed closer look at the international neo-avantgardes of programmed art, taking a critically systematic approach to the investigation currently underway.

Picelj was among the prime movers of the neo-concrete turn and one of the most active figures in what has been called the last avant-garde, where he can be numbered among the most “orthodox” exponents; he played a fundamental role in the ranks of the nove tendencije [New Tendencies] that emerged in Zagreb in 1961, when the movement’s first exhibition was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, bringing together an extraordinary group of artists and critics from around the world who are now unchallenged figures in the international debate and in the art market: from groups like ZERO, GRAV, Gruppo N and Gruppo T, to individual pioneers of a radical artistic rebirth blending “continuity and innovation,” such as Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani, Getulio Alviani and Paolo Scheggi.

A fully rounded and purposeful artist, he blazed a trail that ranged from painting to architecture and from industrial design to graphics for posters, catalogues and magazines (the number of incisive graphic designs that Picelj conceived and executed for his artist and architect friends or for his great “spiritual” models, like Jean Arp, Pablo Picasso, Vasarely, Rafael Soto, or Bruno Munari, is almost moving); first and foremost, one must recognize his extraordinary capacity to invent absolute forms, with a crystalline purity and dazzling intensity: forms meant to redesign the world, springing from a rigorous conception, a stubborn search for the perfect balance between perception and knowledge, built around the patient wait for repetition and brilliant discovery of variation. Forms and works that were like concrete utopias, aimed at a better way of seeing, feeling and experiencing everyday life.

An example of consummate dedication to art as work done by humanity for humanity, as an aesthetic and ethical undertaking: that was Ivan Picelj, and these are the reflections that led to this project; a necessary tribute to the artist, it fits in seamlessly with the art-historical research of this author and the curatorial direction of Cortesi Gallery, in collaboration with Anja Picelj-Kosak, the artist’s daughter and heir.

A fundamental role was played by the full, generous support of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, an enlightened public institution that maintains the nove tendencije archives, and since 2011 has also managed Ivan Picelj’s private library and archives, which the artist donated to the city and to scholars around the world, in a final expression of his love for art as a public resource. These synergies led to the 2016 exhibition at Cortesi Gallery’s London and Lugano venues, and to a catalogue full of source materials, documents, and photos from the era: tools that are more vital than ever if we want to examine the history of post-war art from the perspective of the present, distinguishing between its true protagonists and its walk-on characters.

This “concrete utopia” therefore also reflects a desire to reconstruct the facts, laying aside the subjective angles and role-playing games that often muddle and mystify the artistic chronicle of the post-war period: if a utopia is an unattainable vision that stimulates human energy and movement, calling it concrete is an oxymoron that implies attempting to construct all possible tools and discover all possible forms to actually bring it about. This is the aim of an exhibition and catalogue focused on an artist who, as his portraits suggest, used his hands to craft thought.


II / Identity/Differences

In 1992, the Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz presented an exhibition dedicated to artistic experimentation in Austria, Italy, and the Balkans. It was titled “Identität, Differenz: Tribüne Trigon 1940–1990”: three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the curators wanted to sketch a “topography” of modern art by defining the hallmarks of visual language in these three places, identifying points of contact and divergence at a time when political boundaries were being redrawn, as were interpretations of art history connected to the post-colonial debate. Among the exhibited artists, Ivan Picelj represented Yugoslavia.

This was one of the first exhibitions and publications in an international museum context that undertook a fresh examination of the relationship between art and ideology, and the contrast between the national cultural identity and international dimensions of the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements and the neo-avant-gardes of the ’60s and ’70s. On these occasions, Picelj always appeared as a reference for critically exploring the art history of the former Yugoslavia, both to define the role played by the Balkan neo-avant-garde within the European panorama, and to rethink and rewrite art history outside the beaten paths traced by a Western perspective, in order to rediscover a network of interaction and dialogue that is helping to enrich even our critical picture of the established “masters” best-known to the Western public. From this standpoint, Ivan Picelj is finally regaining his rightful place in history and art history, as has already occurred, parallel to this, for the international movement nove tendencije. A privileged standpoint for observing the exchange between artists and languages fundamental to the aesthetic exploration of the international abstract, concrete, programmed, kinetic and optical neo-avant-gardes, is being provided by the work of various institutions, among which one ought to cite ZKM – Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, which through targeted exhibitions and publications are retracing the paths of Balkan artistic experimentation in the twentieth century: from artists’ motivations for rediscovering the legacy of the early avant-gardes, to the definition and consolidation of the abstract front and the relationship between visual arts and design, to the role of cultural institutions, to the links between art and power, art, science and technology, all the way to the new dimension of artistic practices in the ’60s and ’70s.

This project therefore intends to focus on analyzing the work of Ivan Picelj, precisely in the key years in which the exhibitions of the nove tendencije movement unfolded, from 1961 to 1973, but without forgoing the necessary historical and iconographic comparison with the preceding period, and particularly the 1950s, a turning point for the development of language and definition of models.

Ivan Picelj was born in 1924, and embarked on a course of study the academy that he interrupted in 1943, to undertake an independent path of investigation: a choice that was necessary to keep his distance from the pompous rhetoric of socialist realism that was the official language of the time, bolstered by the rapprochement between the Soviet Communist Party and the Yugoslav Communist Party. A choice, moreover, that is not easy to understand from our Western perspective: though in the early ’50s, Belgrade had already fully declared its independence from Moscow, which rekindled the Yugoslavian dialogue with Western Europe, it was a slower and harder process to actually quiet the ferocious institutional criticism of the abstract-concrete art that Picelj came to fully champion, convinced of its capacity to stimulate and radically transform his country’s social and cultural outlook.

While the declarations of the Forma 1 and MAC groups were being published in Italy, and met by staunch affirmations of the realist path by Renato Guttuso and his followers, in Zagreb, the heart of Eastern Europe, Picelj and his traveling companions made works that championed freedom of action and before that, of conception; the idea of wedding art and modern science to improve contemporary society, in a new interdisciplinary merger between the arts that would look to the future while turning a critical eye back to the history of the abstract and constructivist avant-gardes, from Neoplasticism, to Bauhaus, to the Ulm School.

The dawn of the ’50s saw the birth of the “experimental atelier” EXAT 51, spearheaded by Picelj, who brought together artist and architect friends and hosted them at his home and studio at 2/b, Gajeva Street, including Aleksander Srnec and Vjenceslav Richter, with whom he had been collaborating for several years on designing Yugoslavia’s pavilions for international fairs and exhibitions. It was at Picelj’s house, in 1952, that the first exhibition of abstract art was presented in Yugoslavia; it featured Picelj, Rašica, and Srnec.

That same year, in Paris, the hub of European conceptualism, Picelj crossed the threshold of the “7th Salon des Réalités Nouvelles.” Abstract/concrete art would soon become the official movement of Zagreb, promoted by state institutions — it was no coincidence that 1954 saw the foundation of the City Gallery of Contemporary Art, the original core of the current Museum of Contemporary Art: a situation that differed from Western Europe, where one must recognize the role played by private galleries and the art market in promoting and fomenting the new directions of the artistic avant-garde, but also from the censorship that persisted in the nations behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

These events, long before the height of the nove tendencije, would prove pivotal to 1960s art history, not just for Yugoslavia, but internationally: without the seed of freedom in design, composition, and experimentation that Picelj sowed in Croatian earth, we would never have seen the lush garden of programmed, neo-concrete, kinetic and optical investigations that continue to inspire us today, as we probe their meaning and legacy in today’s hypertechnological multimedia society. That “alternative route” is what we will examine in the section that follows: a path of revolutionary principles that are firmly expressed, like the blocks of color, well-defined forms, and absolute geometries conveyed by Picelj’s works from the period.


III / An Alternative Route, 1950–1959

The works that Picelj created in that period are primarily titled Compositions or Variations, and over the years, the visual elements and colors employed gradually grow richer. The titles are sometimes spelled out by upper-case letters of the alphabet and Arabic numerals; the artist has forsworn the imitation of reality and also rejected the approach of abstracting its forms.

He freely creates new, pure forms that ask humanity and society to see things in a new, modern way, keeping pace with the transformations of technology and industry. What Picelj had experimented with a few years before in the architectural pavilions is now transposed onto the canvas, through a scientifically meticulous and calculated process, rational in its division of chromatic weight and plastic counterweight, in defining fields on the surfaces, then relying on our perceptions to develop possible depths, superimposed planes. Blues ranging from dark to light, grays, blacks, canary yellow, and all nuances of white are the colors we find contrasted in the works reproduced here. Our eyes are drawn to the Negative-Positive series that Bruno Munari was developing in that same period, as concrete objects capable of transcending even the last vestiges of still life that lingered on in abstract painting, by constructing precise fields that checkmate the gaze in a two-and-fro between successive color planes: “a freedom to move forward or back… a dynamic possibility” of color that had never been experimented with before.

Likewise, in the EXAT 51 manifesto, we read that familiarity “with the working methods and principles [of abstract art] will develop and enrich the field of visual communications in our country,” seeing “reality as an aspiration towards progress in all forms of human activity,” and thus aspiring to a “synthesis of all arts […] because creative progress in the fine arts is inconceivable without experimentation” and this progress necessarily had to safeguard “differences of opinion, which are a prerequisite for stimulating our nation’s artistic life.”

These are clear-cut, unqualified phrases, which sometimes call to mind the Forma 1 manifesto of three years before, especially its desire to bring Italian art into the sphere of current European language, “in contrast to every foolish and prejudiced nationalistic ambition,” and sometimes the manifesto of the Movimento Arte Concreta founded by Gillo Dorfles: another wide-ranging, complex figure who, like Bruno Munari, meshes with the goals of the Croatian artist; in 1966 he would present Picelj’s portfolio œuvre programmée no. 1 (produced and exhibited for the first time the same year at Galerie Denise René, another sanctuary of international programmed art), on view in the exhibition and published here in the catalogue.

The insistent call of modernity echoed through the entire first half of the ’50s, in the form of exhibitions, publications, statements, groups that were founded and merged; 1951 also saw the publication of Walter Gropius e la Bauhaus by Giulio Carlo Argan, a text that also proved fundamental for Ivan Picelj; read at the conference of the Croatian Association of Visual Artists of Applied Arts on December 7, 1951, the EXAT 51 manifesto played the same disruptive, revolutionary role that Lucio Fontana’s Technical Manifesto of Spatialism had a few months before, when read at the 1st International Congress of Proportion during the “9th Milan Triennale.” It declared the need for “synthesis,” seen as “the sum of all physical elements: color, sound, movement, space, brought together in physical and conceptual union […] fundamental forms of a new art that encompasses the four dimensions of existence.”

Kompocizija [Composition] YZ/2, from 1956, came a year before Ivan Picelj’s participation in an show that was fundamental in positioning him within the spectrum of international abstract art: 50 ans de peinture abstraite, introduced by Michel Seuphor and held at Galerie Creuze in Paris in the same year, 1957, that Yugoslavia officially participated in the Milan Triennale. Organized in conjunction with the public launch of Seuphor’s monumental Dictionnaire de la peinture abstraite, the exhibition presented 400 works by international artists ranging from Jean Arp to Josef Albers, Max Bill and the Delaunays, by way of Hartung, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Picelj, and Vasarely. A mustering of abstract/concrete, gestural and sign-based forces that Seuphor, in his preface to the catalogue, describes as a family of artists who have shaped a language over the course of half a century. If technology has transformed the world, then it is art’s task to give this new world a new soul: “we are in the presence of a momentous universalism, which momentously calls for a universalism of the spirit.”

Two years later, Denise René invited Ivan Picelj, along with artists Voijn Bakić and Aleksander Srnec, to her gallery for a three-person exhibition midwifed by Vasarely and, again, Seuphor.

Vasarely, who in 1955 presented his Manifeste Jaune at the same gallery, solemnly declared that “the future promises happiness, and a new visual beauty that moves and stirs us”; in November, he emphasized the anachronism of distinguishing between the terms painting and sculpture, calling for “a single three-dimensional sensibility.” In presenting the three Yugoslavian artists, he hailed the idea of collaboration between youthful energies in all countries to construct a universal visual edifice, which must necessarily include dialogue with “brother artists” in Yugoslavia. Michel Seuphor took a closer look at Picelj’s work, comparing it first and foremost with Vasarely’s, with whom he shares a “solid, sober” practice. Compared to the other two artists, Picelj’s language is “more monumental”, as the magazine Apollo also pointed out in its review of the show. Seuphor describes him as a “great traveler, perfectly up to date on all the movements, all the trends in global art,” an artist who “knows what he is doing” and moves “unperturbed through the realms of geometric abstraction that is rigorously flat, with no ambition to move beyond the picture plane. I love this calm, slow approach, which allows one only to move deeper”.

Similar words can be found in Art d’aujourd’hui, where Rivière describes Picelj’s pictorial exploration as structural and architectural, featuring sculptural blocks whose chromatic choices are perfectly harmonized, with great balance and stability.

Picelj therefore emerges as a key artist in this dialogue between Western and Eastern European countries, a cultivated figure capable of forging important links, sparking fertile conversation and collaboration, and painting, designing, and building works for a new kind of visual communion and communication, an incubator for the dramatic adventure of nove tendencije that would begin four years later.


IV / Storyboard Of New Tendencies, 1961–1963

The international nature of nove tendencije is reflected from the outset by the movement’s name: according to the reconstruction of Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier, it derives from the subtitle of the exhibition “Stringenz – Nuove Tendenze tedesche,” which opened on December 22, 1959 at Galleria Pagani del Grattacielo in Milan. This show featured, among others, Heinz Mack and Mavignier himself, winding up a year of “great expectations” with the concurrent foundation of the first European experimental Groups, from ZERO to Gruppo N to Gruppo T, again spanning Germany and Italy, and the definition of Azimut/h’s “La nuova concezione artistica” on the one hand and the “Monochrome Malerei” on the other.

In February 1960 Picelj was in London, at Drian Galleries, with Bakić and Srnec, and later, among the exponents of “New Painting from Yugoslavia” in leading museums throughout the US.

On August 3, 1961, the first exhibition of nove tendencije opened at the City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb. Having already extensively studied the movement,⁷ what interests us here is to define the close relationship with Ivan Picelj, who was not only present as an artist in the five editions up to 1973, but was also the graphic designer for all visual materials related to the events: an important aspect that shows Picelj’s aptitude for capturing “the spirit” of his time and expressing the unified nature of the various artistic currents that flowed into New Tendencies, as a key figure in every aspect of the movement and in its image around the world.

The artists who took part in the first exhibition were a composite group that on the one hand included figures like Piero Manzoni, the members of ZERO from Düsseldorf, Croatian artist Julije Knifer, and Enrico Castellani, who all aspired to reinvent artistic methods and forms by completely resetting the dial, through the violent, primal re-establishment of a liberated artistic time and behavior. On the other, there were members of Gruppo N and GRAV, Piero Dorazio, Ivan Picelj, who with similar intentions critically revived the dictates of historical Constructivism, in search of a possible dialogue with industry and technology, science and modernization, concentrating on the rigorous process of the work’s formation, which they conceived as a rigorously methodical layering of surfaces.

The visual and sculptural objects created by Picelj in 1962–63 and reproduced in this catalogue follow these principles: made up of wooden panels crafted into regular grids, they present the viewer with a perceptual plane that seems to be in movement. In the way that these modular units rise out of and sink into the warm texture of the sometimes natural, sometimes blackened wood — a choice unquestionably dictated by the availability of the material, but I believe also by the desire to preserve a manual, artisanal relationship with the work — Picelj’s Surfaces seem to mirror Heinz Mack’s Reliefs, where the metal is bent into modulations that maintain a preponderant note of poetic craftsmanship. The intersection of their lines probes the limits of the relationship between the upper and lower planes, drawing Dorazio’s grid paintings into the conversation. They measure themselves against Enrico Castellani’s lyrical rhythms, Gabriele Devecchi’s vibrating surfaces and Gianni Colombo’s structural pulsations; Picelj shares Castellani’s need for a “monochrome surface […] to give the works themselves the concreteness of infinity”; like Colombo and Devecchi, and more generally like Gruppo T, he reflects on time as a measurement of action, on the work’s potential in the field of industrial design and production.

In 1962, the City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb gave Picelj a solo show; presenting paintings, Surfaces and a selection of graphic designs, it offered a necessary tribute to the artist who also conceived all the graphics for the museum. To focus on his designs for nove tendencije, the poster for the second edition in 1963, two years after the first, features the artist’s signature characteristics, with circular elements that fill the surface, moving towards the third dimension: shapes that are echoed in the tactile rhythms of Picelj’s works from the period, which form a dialogue with those by the artists who joined this edition from new countries, such as Cruz-Diez, Demarco, the Equipo 57 Group (Cuenca, Á. Duarte, J. Duarte, Ibarrola, Serrano), all of GRAV (Le Parc, Morellet, García Rossi, Sobrino, Stein, Yvaral), Gruppo N (Biasi, Chiggio, Costa, Landi, Massironi) and Gruppo T (Anceschi, Boriani, Colombo, Devecchi, Varisco), plus the Dutch voice of the Nul Group, with Henk Peeters. Picelj’s Surface from 1962 reverberates with the ones by Klaus Staudt and Hugo Demarco, and with Enzo Mari’s Struttura 733.

Picelj describes them as objects meticulously created by visual artists working for the public good: “active art imposes itself as an absolute necessity that will re-establish the relationships between true values in the framework of a higher structural order… we must channel creative forces towards positive social action.” The movement to cross linguistic thresholds is now total and explicit, as we can see from two Italian exhibitions in which Picelj took part: “Oltre la pittura, oltre la scultura” [Beyond Painting, Beyond Sculpture] at Galleria Cadario in Milan and then at La Bussola in Turin from April to June 1963, and the 4th San Marino Biennale; its theme, “Oltre l’informale” [Beyond Informel], is well known, but not everyone may be aware that once again, its graphics were designed by Ivan Picelj. The first exhibition, which traveled between the two cultural capitals of Northern Italy, was introduced with extracts of texts by Umbro Apollonio, Guido Ballo, Carlo Belloli, Umberto Eco, and Guy Habasque: articles presented at conferences, or published in reviews and exhibition catalogues, that reiterate how the works on view aspire to achieve a synthesis between the arts, building a new form of visual communication for a new society where the viewer, as Belloli tells us, is already called on to be the “co-creator of the work, the existence of which takes on full significance only through the intrinsic possibilities of its own process of transferal.” This process-based approach is expressed by Picelj’s works, which demonstrate with increasing precision how the identification of a three-dimensional visual unit, a geometric element, a relationship between surface and background, can be translated into objects with which to incisively shape the everyday life of modern man.


V / New Tendencies Worldwide, 1964–1966

The period of 1964–1965 marked the greatest expansion and dissemination — but also loss of coherence and hence dispersion — of the principles and directions that fueled the nove tendencije: at the end of 1963, the event was again presented at Fondazione Querini Stampalia, where for the first time a catalogue was printed with Italian contributors. In 1964, Picelj was featured along with other exponents of the movement, first in Leverkusen, then in Paris: important opportunities for an open dialogue with European experimentation, but also to increasingly define his position within the European landscape, as can be seen, in 1964, from the show “Kinetik II” at Hella Nebelung in Düsseldorf, which included Surface XIII, also on view in this exhibition; the subsequent “Mouvement 2” at Galerie Denise René, held between late 1964 and early 1965; and nova tendencija 3 in Zagreb in 1965, which included many more participants than the two previous exhibitions and was accompanied by a catalogue in which all the texts were translated, making it accessible to an international readership.

The concern with finding a degree of uniformity among the various forms of artistic expression gathered in Zagreb in 1965 can be seen not only from the singular noun used in the exhibition title, but from the poster Picelj made for the occasion, which repeats the name nt3 as a graphic element that multiplies, spreads out and invades the visual field. This extension of forms can also be found in his artworks of the period, where a geometric, textural relief flows across the entire surface of the metal pieces — primarily aluminum and brass — which are made even more sophisticated and rhythmic, in some cases, by the internal subdivision of the field into grids that highlight the relationship between the repetition and variation of the primary element. Aesthetically flawless in their visual polish, Ivan Picelj’s objects from 1963–64 demand comparison with his Surfaces from previous years and with new works we will shortly be discussing, exhibited in the New York gallery of Howard Wise, where Picelj opened his first solo show in the United States in October 1965.

The archives at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb has yielded a remarkable wealth of information that helps us trace the circumstances and contacts that led Picelj to New York: in a letter dated May 25, 1965, Douglas MacAgy, a consultant for the Howard Wise Gallery, tells Picelj that he would like to get to know his work better, having met with Denise René’s gallery (which, as we have seen, represented the artist in France until 1969) during the Venice Biennale in June 1964 and having been captivated by Picelj’s work in the exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, held in February and March of 1965.

Without trying in this context to provide a detailed comparison of nova tendencija 3 and the exhibition that hailed the birth of Optical Art, one should note the points of contact between Picelj and the Anonima Group that were highlighted in the Time article of October 1964 about “The Responsive Eye,” tellingly titled “Op Art: Pictures That Attack the Eye.”

Thanks to Picelj, these links and contacts between the US and Yugoslavia began bear fruit in the mid-’60s, as we can see from the aforementioned letter in which Douglas MacAgy tells Picelj that he plans to write an essay about the New Tendencies for the magazine Art in America, informing him that the New York gallery represents the work of Le Parc, Yavaral, Mack, Piene, and Uecker: an important undertaking that MacAgy wants to carry out as soon as possible, telling Picelj that he will be in Zagreb on June 6 of that year.

And indeed, Ivan Picelj’s contract with Howard Wise was signed on June 9, 1965, while September 10 is the date on the list of works that Ivan Picelj prepared for the New York gallery, which, as photos of the time reveal, included several that reappear in this exhibition and catalogue: Surfaces XIII, XVII and XXX, made of wood, and Surfaces LIV and LVI, made of metal, but also new works like Candra, 1965, based on hollow units of white enameled metal, a pure, resonant mesh that forms a tactile relationship with its surroundings.

This is echoed in the working concept CTS-1, dated 1966, where the monochrome units give way to a rhythmic contrast between blue, black, and red elements, composing a vector that pulls the viewer into the very heart of the work.

On the other hand, both in Leukos 2 from 1966, a sweeping work vertically furrowed by a cadence of curved components that lighten its monumental white solidity, and Leukos 2neg, another metal monolith from 1966 that is painted black — the negative reflection, as the title suggests, of the white one — the composition becomes absolute and turns the works into modern-day totems: “Picelj holds attention on elementals, as if to impress forever the ABC of information theory, and in the process of sophistication his works become primitive without sleazy romance. Lately, besides wood he has used metal, in color, to sharpen the atavistic power of sheer unitary repetition.”

The analysis of these works allows us to focus attention on the aspect of “composition and variation” that, as we have seen, is fundamental to Picelj’s practice; he also skillfully extends it to his Collages of 1963–64 and 1964–66, which would in turn constitute a sort of model for his graphic works of 1966–71, including the previously cited œuvre programmée no. 1 of 1966, and his Cyclophoria series of 1971.

Picelj’s New York show helped his work reverberate throughout America: recognizing the central role of the constructivist vision in Picelj’s aesthetic approach, MacAgy saw a tactile urge in it that also attracted the interest of Jaques Baruch in Chicago, as we can note from Howard Wise’s correspondence with Picelj in 1970, and would soon be confirmed by Picelj’s solo show at the Chicago gallery at the beginning of that year.

The photos in the archive allow us to reconstruct the rich array of works in that exhibition, recognizing several now on view at Cortesi and reproduced in this catalogue: the collage CM-6-I, dated 1964, and the portfolio œuvre programmée no. 1, from 1966.

Turning to the description of this work, it is important to note that the process behind the creation of the portfolio is encountered throughout Picelj’s practice: having chosen the basic form, in this case a circle, the artist experiments with varying its direction and composition, working with the square and rhombus, and composing two-tone surfaces that seem to vibrate, playing on our positive/ negative perception of the relationship between color and form, depth and surface, and straining towards three-dimensionality, as Dorfles notes in 1966: “the intersection, the encounter between two opposite principles, austere programming and total chance, can yield results so surprising that one must wonder if these are not exactly the same two ‘constants’ which guide not only certain forms of visual art, but also much of contemporary music and poetry […] in the case of Picelj, this instinctive yet controlled faculty is still present: it is manifested in his already numerous series of creations. […] Due to a special effect of concavity and convexity, as well as the ambiguity of how it is perceived, the shape takes on a particularly interesting gestalt indeterminacy, which gives the sense of a three-dimensional vibration within a completely two-dimensional fabric.”

It is interesting to observe that in the same period, Paolo Scheggi, whom Picelj met in Zagreb, striking up a close friendship that is evident from their correspondence in the Fondo [Archive] Franca e Cosima Scheggi, wrote a process description that echoes the working approach of his Croatian friend:

“Theoretical process: the objects are square and derive from operations on the square. The space is divided through rotations of logarithmic spirals, logarithmic parabolas, continuous modular relationships. The inscribed shapes have elementary structures. Situation: this systematically experimental investigation borrows its spirit but not its method from elementarism and concretism; it is not attempting to be a rupture or alternative, but rather the historical and hence dynamic continuation of these visual experiments, not as a mere exercise in optical and physical phenomenology, but a structure aimed at expanding perception. The visual instability of these objects, and the evolution of the investigation, constitutes an operating method that by rejecting every artistic intention and attribute, aspires without naturalistic derivations or animistic urges to a greater dialectic of knowledge.”

This is echoed by the incisive analysis that Abraham A. Moles offers on the occasion of Picelj’s solo show in Chicago in 1970: “Its squares are squares, its circles are circles, its rhombs have parallel slides: we find here an honest attitude towards elementary forms [that] are combined into global forms in an eventually permutational play following the algorithm (mental rule preceding an operation) freely created by the artists, which will determine the supersigns of the work: signs composed of recognizable elements which the public will single out in the finished work and which will help him to understand it by constituting the intermediate stage of the “perceptive integration”. […] geometrical art is a mechanism of creation in continuous progress.”

In 1971, for his introduction to the Cyclophoria project, Moles would return to this thought, recognizing a progressive tendency in Picelj’s investigation to humanize geometry through color and its possible variations.

Referred to as a “sociology expert,” Abraham A. Moles is also in the group of fifteen key figures that Carlo Belloli, another keen interpreter of Picelj and neo-constructivist and programmed investigations, brought together for the 1966 Venice Biennale: scanning their names, one notes Alviani, Boriani, Duarte, Picelj and Scheggi, a core group that come to include other members of ZERO, Gruppo N, Gruppo T, GRAV, and many others who had already traveled the paths of the New Tendencies: once again, Picelj is shown to be a pivotal force on the international scene.

Three years later, also in Venice, Galleria del Cavallino presented a solo show by the Croatian artist — including the collages CM-6-I, 1964, and Leukos 2, 1966 — that would have enormous resonance in Italy, due in part to his parallel presence in the “Mostra del manifesto” [Poster exhibition] at the 1969 Venice Biennale, held at Ca’ Giustinian. Venice was therefore an important bridge for the dialogue between Italy and Yugoslavia, in which Picelj was unquestionably a leading voice.


VI / Family Trees

François Morellet, his wife Danielle, Ivan Picelj and Vjenceslav Richter, all cavorting on the set that Ljubov Popova designed for the Meyerhold production of The Magnificent Cuckold in 1922: its slides, stairs, ladders, wheels and cogs, and large letters on circular forms served as a playground for Picelj and friends during their breaks from hanging the exhibition “Plus by Minus: Today’s Half-Century,” presented in 1968 at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo as part of the 2nd Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today and curated by the same Douglas MacAgy who had brought Picelj’s work to Howard Wise in New York.

The great avant-gardes of Constructivism and Neoplasticism, from Kandinsky to Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian to Van Doesburg, El Lissitzky to Tatlin, and Bill to Albers, were at the heart of the festival and exhibition Picelj was invited to participate in; it included a Naum Gabo retrospective, a collection of three hundred works by almost a hundred artists dealing with abstraction — such as Vasarely, Reinhardt, Dorazio, Agam, Soto, Castellani, Mack, Uecker — and eight giant sculptures by Tony Smith, Kenneth Snelson, Antoni Milkowski, Robert Grosvenor, and George Rickey, among others. Concerts and plays, readings and performances rounded out the festival, with the participation of the Living Theater, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and many others. In the program, Ivan Picelj is explicitly thanked for taking part in the initiative, along with the members of GRAV, Vjenceslav Richter and Venezuelan artist Jesus-Rafael Soto.

A year later, we again find Picelj dancing and romping with Scheggi, Alviani, and Gambone at the Gallery of the Students Center in Zagreb: it is May 6, 1969, and as part of the “Typoetry” exhibition curated by Biljana Tomić, Scheggi has just staged the performance Oplà-stick, a theatrical action loosely based on a German avant-garde play from the early 1900s, Hoppla, wir leben! by Ernst Toller: large white letters that form a mobile alphabet, temporarily arranged on a black panel, are picked up and moved around by four actors, who use simple words and movements to act out the failure of the revolutionary ideals of ’68, through the bitter lens of Bauhaus’s broken dream.

The interplay established between the two similar situations — during their breaks, the artists joke around with the letter-objects, the alphabets of their investigation — suggests a fascinating circuit of references: on the one hand, Popova and Scheggi’s oversize letters immediately call to mind the artist books that Picelj made from 1962 to 1964, in the period of the first, pioneering explorations of visual and concrete poetry that the Croatian artist continued to pursue, aided by the Yugoslavian scene of the time, his interactions with Carlo Belloli and Paolo Scheggi, his collaboration with publishers such as Carl Laszlo’s Panderma in Switzerland. The first letter of the alphabet, a, adorns the limited editions that Picelj personalized with different chromatic choices and layouts, working with artists such as Richter, Vasarely, Alviani, and Mangelos. On the other hand, the reference to Ljubov Popova and Ernst Toller reminds us of the central role played by the early twentieth-century avant-gardes, like guiding stars in Picelj’s career, as we have seen from the very outset: family trees that are sketched, noted, compared and revised throughout the arc of the New Tendencies. From Boris Kelemen’s “Kalendar,” published in the nove tendencije 2 calendar of 1963, to Giovanni Marangoni’s “Notizia storica” for the Venice catalogue of 1963, to Lea Vergine’s “Ultima avanguardia” twenty years later, we are constantly called back to that fateful juncture of 1914–1915, from Balla’s Plastico mobile to Tatlin’s Counter-reliefs; Duchamp’s Roto-reliefs to Moholy Nagy’s Lichtrequisit, Gabo to Calder: names which, along with those of Bauhaus and the Ulm School, are the legacy from which the nove tendencije draw their spirit and method, with Picelj as an attentive spiritual heir. Proof of this can be found in an important piece reproduced here, Mythos II: in 1961, the Croatian artist began to openly declare the roots of his investigation, with those clear-cut geometric shapes that echo the pure visual sensibility of the early twentieth century. But in explicitly stating his storied roots, Picelj showed he had studied them with the margin of doubt that is the basis for all evolution. These references were never abandoned; they cropped up sometimes as performances and actions — when the work became dematerialized in the late ’60s and moved out into the street as political speech and public protest, as evidenced by tendencije 5, in 1973, already centered on the themes of conceptualism, narrative art and behavior — sometimes in the later works by Picelj considered here, from the Cyclophoria project to the gorgeous metal pieces with their modulated vibrations, celebrating an Ethos that is the declaration of a human choice, not just a design-related one.


VII / Piceljphoria, 1967–1973

The period from 1967 to 1973 marked the consolidation of Picelj’s international renown. The artist took part in the leading international festivals, such as “Art et mouvement” at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal in 1967, the coeval 6th San Marino Biennale dedicated to “Nuove tecniche d’immagine,” “Trigon 67” in Graz, or “Alternative attuali 3” in 1968, curated by Enrico Crispolti in L’Aquila. In 1969, as we have seen, he was in Venice, both for the Biennale and for a solo show at Galleria del Cavallino; this was also the year of the fourth nove tendencije, for which, as usual, Picelj designed the visuals, posters, and graphic layout for the catalogue.

But he was also on the executive and organizational committees for the event, showing an up-to-date familiarity with the new themes it presented: computer art, technology, visual and typographic poetry, performance; the movement of programmed and kinetic art on the one hand towards the viewer, called upon to become an active co-creator of the work, and on the other toward the world of industrial manufacturing and scientific discoveries, with the visionary hope of actively contributing to social and cultural improvements for everyone. These themes were addressed not only through the various exhibitions making up tendencije 4, but also through his graphics for the exhibition and for the extraordinary pages of bit INTERNATIONAL, a journal of the time that explored topics such as “the theory of informations and the new aesthetics, computers and visual research, design, the world of image-poesie concrete, television today.”

In the same period, Picelj developed new projects: his Cyclophoria series, in which the geometric shapes of the circle and square yield countless mutations and variations, showing a sophisticated insight in their use of colors skillfully orchestrated in free, joyous alternation, with the contrasting bright tones of some works countered by the almost imperceptible nuances of others.

This tactile and visual synthesthesia also turns up, in the same period, in his splendid Wertho of 1972, a treasure from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb that is reproduced in this catalogue, and answered, like a cameo, by Ethos 2, also visible here and in the exhibition. A sophisticated gem, it sums up the final stage of Picelj’s work examined in this essay: finely crafted modular metal units are arranged to form vibrant patterns, adding another level to Picelj’s investigation of the surface as an active field for man’s aesthetic and ethical engagement.

Jedes Dasein scheint in sich rund, the artist declares, borrowing the words of Karl Jaspers: “All being seems in itself to be round.” The artist exists because he constructs a new world, new eyes with which to see it and experience it. Picelj laid the foundations for this world, along with the artists who traveled with him on that extraordinary artistic path which still inspires us today.

Ivan Picelj and New Tendencies 1961-1973
edited by Ilaria Bignotti
exhibition catalog
Cortesi Gallery, London
May 24-July 22
and Cortesi Gallery, Lugano
September 14-October 14, 2016
Mousse Publishing 2016