‘Before and After Abstraction’ at Galerie Isabella Czarnowska presented the work of 94-year old artist Stanisław Fijałkowski, whose contribution to abstract painting is little known outside Poland. Curated by Ory Dessau and Polish art historian Anda Rottenberg, the exhibition was a contemplation of abstraction – both in art historical terms and within Fijałkowski’s own pictorial language, developed over six decades of painting and represented here through 18 paintings.
The trajectory of the works on view presented slow, subtle developments, with certain motifs recurring across the decades, the most enduring being a frame painted on the edge of each picture. These frames were often defined by cloudy, thin veils of paint, punctured with small dense smudges of strong colour communicating a warmer, faster register of reflection within a general mode of equanimity. In the 14.1x.61 Mandala (1961) a rust-red frame clasped an inner square of cloudy accumulations of blue and grey. The inner and outer square advanced and retreated in an optical oscillation whose gentle tempo was set by a thin black line rising up from the middle of the red frame. This work pointed to the origins of abstraction in mystical Eastern thought, as well as art as a tool for meditation.
Gagrwmnn (1971) was a denser composition of four black holes orbiting a flesh-coloured plane supporting two white ovals: one spectral, one solid. A couple of zigzagging thin brown lines, like the jagged sutures of a cranium, meet at the base of the painting to form a T-shape. Out of this, the mind tries to wrestle clear representations from the world of fragile things: eggs, bones, skin, and the brown lines reappearing again as jaunty diacritical marks that – alongside the amorphous black shapes – collapsed the tangibility of the ensemble.
The paintings’ titles were often dates or birthdays, excepting a number of ‘veil’ paintings dedicated to the artist’s wife Waleria and a series on paper entitled ‘Talmudic Studies’ dedicated to Fijałkowski’s interest in Jewish mysticism. These began in 1968 – also the year of the final expulsion of Jews from Poland – but continued through the 1980s. In Sketch for the linocut Talmudic Highway (1987) line after line of sacred text was sublimated into compressed lines of black ink, reminiscent of the rings of an oak tree in cross-section. Here Fijałkowski seems to literalize the gesture of abstraction as a spiritual exercise based around the ineffability of the sacred, whether in text or image. In Spawnification (2002), a red base was overlaid with a clouded veil of light grey reducing it to a thin frame. This veil was in turn covered in a meditative dappling of turquoise dots. In the midst of these hovered a plank shape, seemingly in perspective. At eye level – like a cigarette burning through the grey veil – a glowing ember of pure turquoise on deep blue told the mind that this was not pattern, nor a space, but a process of thinking. These overlying veils of cool and warm passed through the mind like a dialogue – perhaps between the poles of passion and rationalism. This neither/nor of abstraction and spatiality recalled, in philosophy as in painting, a reconciliation of the rational and the empirical.
Advancing through six decades of Fijałkowski’s paintings, one reached out to the shaky handrail of art history – but this exhibition was a bifurcation from the standard historical narrative of abstraction that begins with Wassily Kandinsky and ends with AbEx and Frank Stella, to reveal a complex and under acknowledged fold within the history of abstract painting. Longevity allows Fijakowski to trump the logic of ‘isms’. War and displacement is woven into his early education – conscription into a forced labour camp in Koenigsberg in 1944 delayed his eventually studying under Wladyslaw Strzeminski, himself a former student of Kazimir Malevich. As such, Fijałkowski’s abstraction is cross-pollinated, originating in the multi-ethnic, linguistically and culturally diverse crossroads of a no-longer-extant historical Polish nation.