In 1929, the same year that New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrated its opening, the a.r. group of Polish avant-garde artists established the International Collection of Modern Art in Lodz. The group of pre-war art works they amassed laid the foundations for the Lodz Museum of Art. Nearly 80 years later, in late November 2008, the museum opened a new viewing space to the public: ms2, situated in a 19th-century factory complex that once employed 6,000 workers, comprises 3,000 square metres of permanent exhibition space and 600 square metres for temporary shows. It is the first museum in Poland fully equipped to host a permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century art, as well as works by eminent late-20th-century artists such as John Baldessari, Dan Graham and Günter Uecker. The collection is unusual in that it was based solely on donations from artists. In the late 1960s, the then director of the museum, Ryszard Stanislawski, launched a policy of supplementing the collection of 1930s’ avant-garde works with more recent pieces. These included one of the museum’s most celebrated exhibits, Joseph Beuys’ Polentransport 1981 (1981), a crate of hundreds of pieces from the artist’s archive that he delivered by car, just before the imposition of martial law in Poland that year.
The museum’s current director, Jaroslaw Suchan, has set out to create new contexts for the collection by foregoing its chronological arrangement. The current display brings together works from various decades organized according to a trio of themes based on the vocabulary of the humanities. The building’s architecturally challenging interior is best suited to an open layout, leaving viewers free to choose their own paths through the space. Experiencing such a large number of works in such an immense space gives gallery-goers the impression of strolling through an art warehouse where direct contact with works, devoid of pedestals and complex presentational devices, becomes the highlight.
The first show to open at ms2 juxtaposes work by two female artists: the Brazilian Lygia Clark and the Russian Katarzyna Kobro, who immigrated to Poland in 1924. The exhibition complies neatly with the collection’s original intention of contrasting works from the 1930s with avant-garde practices. In addition, setting Kobro’s examples of the Polish constructivist tradition of the 1920s and ’30s against Clark’s South American neo-concretism of the 1960s and ’70s is an interesting variation on previous thematic displays, which were typically preoccupied with East–West relations. This is the first time Clark’s oeuvre has been shown in Poland, while the choice to present Kobro’s work, rather than that of her husband, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, is also significant. For years, Kobro remained in the shadow of Strzeminski, who was a founding member of a.r. and a key figure behind the museum’s original collection; Kobro’s sculptural and theoretical output was long considered an offshoot of her husband’s. Many of her works went missing during World War II, and it was only with their reconstruction and subsequent theoretical analyses in the 1980s that Kobro’s innovations were revealed. Juxtaposing her works and her theoretical considerations with those of Clark sheds new light on the meaning of Kobro’s oeuvre. Both artists, though active in different periods and in diverse artistic environments, explored the relations between the art object, the audience and the surrounding space. Both, in various ways, strived to abolish the border between the work and the world, the object and the subject.
The first half of the exhibition brings together Kobro’s ‘Suspended Constructions’, ‘Spatial Compositions’ and ‘Abstract Sculptures’ from the 1920s and ’30s with Clark’s 1958 series ‘Unidade’ (Unity) and her mobile aluminium and metal sculptures of ‘Bichos’ (Animals) from the 1960s. The other half presents archival material from Clark’s later career, when she abandoned making objects for more conceptual and therapeutic practices. The show also features replicas of rubber pieces such as Grub – Soft Work (1964) that can be touched, as the artist originally intended. Also included is a reconstruction of her 1968 environment The House is the Body. Compared to the interactive and sensory qualities of Clark’s works, Kobro’s art appears frozen at an earlier stage of development, governed by a strict, rational rhythm of vertical and horizontal lines and mathematical calculations; however, walking around her ‘Spatial Compositions’ viewers experience the somatic process of perceiving, their eyes caught up in the structure of a work. Kobro’s last Spatial Composition 9 (1933), made from a malleable alloy of copper and silver, is both an abstract and biomorphic elastic object that seems to anticipate Clark’s soft rubber pieces. The show considers the potential of Constructivism and reveals, through the lens of Clark’s work, the many possible shapes that Kobro’s practice could have taken if it weren’t for her premature death.
Translated by Krzysztof Kosciuczuk
First published in Issue 122