Alexandra Alisauskas. Communists like Them: Polish Artist Groups at Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke


Organized by the project group Stoffwechsel, led by professor Hamdi el Attar, the international exhibition Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke [Artist-groups present Group-art-works] took place in Kassel, Germany from June to September of 1987. Set to coincide with that year’s Documenta 8, the show was held in and around the K18 Hall, a former industrial building in Kassel. The exhibition included contributions from 38 artist groups from 14 countries, each representing a very specific model of collective identity and mode of production. Two of these groups were from Poland: Koło Klipsa (from Poznań) and Gruppa (from Warsaw) (other notable participants included Irwin from Slovenia, and Art Attack from the United States).


This paper will examine Stoffwechsel’s presentation of these two Polish artist groups, taking it as a case study of the Western European interpretation of “communism” in the 1980s. For Stoffwechsel, this took the form of representing artistic communism through the artist group format, while at the same time eliding the conditions of actually-existing, totalitarian communism (or more precisely Soviet socialism) in Eastern European countries by focusing on so called unofficial, anti-socialist art. However, theories that proposed communism to be an emancipatory political project were also being developed at this time by thinkers such as Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri.

I would like to engage this theoretical trend with both contemporaneous Western European exhibition strategies, as represented by the Kassel exhibition, as well as the practices of the Polish groups presented there. Through this examination, I am not trying to determine the political motivations of Koło Klipsa and Gruppa, nor to evaluate the merits of their work on the basis of their contribution to the political changes occurring in Poland in the mid-to-late 1980s. Instead, I would like to consider what value models of artistic collectivity in Poland in the 1980s, in the last moments of Soviet socialist influence, might have presented to a Western European development of a new conception of communism at that time, and also how they might undo this. Furthermore, I want to think about how we might apply this model to current interpretations of the rise of artist groups in Poland in the 1980s, particularly as it relates to a potentially new definition of the collective subject.

In the period of normalization following the imposition and lifting of martial law in Poland, questions of both an artistic and ethical nature were raised for practicing artists, and this led to the division of artistic exhibition and affiliation into a tripartite system: official, church, and, finally, underground exhibitions in apartments, private galleries, and other types of non-official spaces[1]. As a result, those artists who chose not to work with the bureaucratic state system of political and social control, or with the system of the church and its itinerant ideas about the development of a stable Polish national identity, had to develop a system of their own, leading to, as Maria Morzuch claims: “a need for identity and strength through alliance with one’s own generation”[2]. This need allowed for the rise of artist groups in this country, such as Luxus in Wroclaw, Łódź Kaliska in Łodz, Gruppa and Neue Bieriemiennost in Warsaw, Koło Klipsa and O’pa in Poznan, and the artists associated with Wyspa in Gdansk[3].

As Morzuch describes it, and as recent exhibitions about Polish art of the 1980s such as I Could Live in Africa [Mógłbym żyć w Afryce] at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Generation '80 [Pokolenie ‘80] at the National Gallery of Art in Krakow, as well as books like “Generation” [Generacja][4] have suggested, group affiliation between artists in Poland very much had to do with a type of subcultural and generational activity that was the result of social bonds and similarity in outlook during this time period. I Could Live in Africa for instance, unveiled and depicted the everyday life of that movement through the display of their various cultural productions as well as the suggestion that lifestyle itself was a type of cultural production. While these types of projects are important for the elaboration of a history of the 1980s in Poland, and reveal a key impetus behind the formation of artist groups, I would like to look at the formal composition of grouphood itself as a possible aesthetic form, a definition set I Could Live in Africa,out quite clearly by the project of Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke.

For «Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke», Koło Klipsa members Mariusz Kruk, Leszek Knaflewski, and Krzysztof Markowski contributed Wystawa 5, an assemblage of previously constructed objects, most of which were from their fifth exhibition \"\'Koło first staged at Galeria Wielka 19[5]. These works were also later included in Figury i Przedmioty, an exhibition which traveled to a number of cities in Poland in 1986 and 1987[6]: II Biennale Sztuki Nowej in Zielona Góra in 1986[7] and in an installation at the Galeria Desa in Poznań in that same year[8].

Like Koło Klipsa’s previous exhibitions, which involved the display of art works created by individual members that followed a particular theme as an artistic and sensory environment, Wystawa 5 took as its keyword „fairytale”. The installation was constructed out of fantastical elements including a hanging chair, a gnome made out of dirt, a slithering snake-like house object, an oversized grinning moon and stuffed flower, and animal figures made out of mesh. The show was also accompanied by Mariusz Kruk’s “Fairy tale about the exhibition” [Bajka o wystawie], a playful rhyming narration of the elements of the exhibition whose main point was that „in the world of fairy tale - everyone gets what one wants"[9].

While some elements of Wystawa 5 were not included in Kassel, and others were added either from previous Koło Klipsa shows or from newly produced works, the installation at Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke was given another overarching narrativization through Leszek Knaflewski’s drawings which served to create a succinct image of the assorted works (a practice which accompanied all Koło Klipsa installations.

For head curator Hamdi el Attar, it was through this creation of a totalistic fantasy world through the fusion of sculptural elements, and different media, that it would be possible to attribute an emancipatory meaning to the works of Koło Klipsa. El Attar states: “They try to give the viewer help in this helpless situation, an image of hope. They try in their fantasy world to blur the line between fantasy and reality to emphasize the connection between reality and fantasy in the real reality” [10].

This is not only achieved through the installation and sensory elements of the works and their narration through imaginative texts and drawings, but also through the group’s working method. Founded in Poznań in 1983, the artists began to author their installation works under the collective name Koło Klipsa after the group’s third exhibition in 1984. In their collaboratively authored text from 1984, Koło Klipsa describes its working method: “Our works are the result of research between different forms of being, the transformation and search for unity of these forms. […] The problems and issues that move us and the resulting conclusions are contained in collaboratively discussed sketches of individual works and collective sketches of future exhibitions, and then realized individually. […] We treat the exposition with the creations of the individual members as a single work. […] the results of the previous work set three concepts. […]

1. Nature - understood as a broad environment,

2. Coexistence - understood as the inlaying of our relationship into other forms of existence,

3. Synthesis - understood as a method of work”[11].

In his catalogue essay, el Attar quotes a version of this text that was modified for the Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke catalogue, focusing particularly on the section that states: “We help each other in all possible ways, where everyone everywhere can help the other. This includes the financial aspect”[12]. El Attar thus conceives of the illusory but wholly formed and harmoniously themed world of the group’s installations as intimately connected with the harmonious operation of the group in collaborative practice.

In stark opposition to the spatial form of Koło Klipsa’s inclusion, as well as the mediums of installation and sculptural objects favored by most participants in Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke, Gruppa created a large “site-specific” and “event-specific” painting Kuda Gierman’s?” [Where to, German?]. Measuring six meters by six meters, a grid comprised of four canvases was divided into a series of sections in which each member of Gruppa (Ryszard Grzyb, Ryszard Woźniak, Paweł Kowalewski, Jarosław Modzelewski, Marek Sobczyk and Włodzimierz Pawlak) would paint a component, contributing to an eventual whole. While some of the artists had previously worked together on group drawings on paper, or collaboratively in the medium of performance (represented by a work like Recital), this was the first time that Gruppa would create, as a group, a single painted object[13].

Kuda Gierman’s?” main theme was determined by Ryszard Grzyb, and the painting’s layout was initially quite predetermined - the center was to pull the whole together with an emanating vagina of light, each of the corners was conceived as a separate natural element (earth, fire, air, and water), with human figures, demons, and Gods wandering throughout the painting in an effort to expose and demonstrate the mythical vicious cycle of human spiritual existence. These themes had been explored previously in many of the individual paintings of Gruppa’s members. However, after six days and six nights of work, the canvas - which took up a prominent location in the main space of the K18 Hall - would eventually exist in a more abstract version. The sketches and elements envisioned for the work had been painted over in red paint, as the artists all felt their individual elements were encroaching on the others. This painted-over version was on display when the exhibition opened[14].

Hamdi el Attar was much more critical of Gruppa and its artistic practices in his catalogue essay than he was of Koło Klipsa, hinting that, in producing a painting, Gruppa operated in relation to the art market as it had developed in the West, that is, to a model of capitalist exchange. Taking issue first with their chosen medium of painting, el Attar claims that the group: “copies today from the West European and American art scene and helps themselves. […] [and] is influenced by many Western European paintings which are on the art market. With their art they hit the public taste. Art here is used as a means to an end, because it can be used in the present situation, perhaps it is socially useful?”[15].

Beyond the chosen format and artistic medium that Gruppa utilized with its perceived interest in individual expression, and the work’s associations with neo-expressionism, which was then popular in the Western European art market, el Attar also takes issue with the social status of the artists, listing various luxuries the group had access to: teaching positions, cars, a large common studio in the forest outside of Warsaw, some had their own houses, as well as access to any desired information from the West. Most importantly, el Attar finds it necessary to point out in his catalogue essay that, while the group claims no ideological leader, in the conception of the work, two members drove its ideas and goals, claiming that the others “can almost be described as running along”. instead of espousing an egalitarian sharing of ideas and tasks[16].

By simply comparing the two social and artistic modes of collective artistic production represented by the two Polish groups, it becomes clear that a specific model of collectivity was asked of the groups at the Kassel exhibition. Although an exhibition of contemporary art, Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke, attempted to establish a new historical, artistic genre to be defined as “group art work”. In particular, the project sought to answer: “how artist groups work, what are the particularities, but also the problems, that arise from group work, whether and how they sell and whether groups, at the present time, reach a dimension in their artistic work which shows, in comparison to the historical dimension of artist groups, new possibilities?"[17]. The curatorial team emphasized the experimental nature of the exhibition, and its stated mission was to present (rather than prescribe) various modes of collaborative production. While various modes were included, not all were treated as potentially useful contributions to the group art project.

The organization of the exhibition was itself conducted with collaboration in mind. In 1982, Professor Hamdi el Attar organized the project group Stoffwechsel - a collective of rotating students and curators from the Gesamthochschule Kassel. \"\'Koło While the group would eventually change its name to Metacultures in an effort to match the growing cultural and post-colonial concerns of their projects later in the 1990s, the name used during the 1980s, Stoffwechsel, suggests a very specific approach to group organization[18]. This word can be translated into English as metabolism (metabolizm in Polish), the chemical processes that occur within a human body in order to maintain life. The working method represented by this physiological association implies an organic relation between individuals in order to produce and maintain the collective good and operation of the group, and in order to synthesize a new working of the group as a single, whole body. This approach was extended to ideas about what type of art object should be considered legitimately “group art work”.

At Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke, the medium of “group art work” consisted of literally objectivized production. Most artistic groups contributed installations. Though these might have included some type of performance in their creation and mounting, they still focused mainly on the art object as the bearer of formal, symbolic, and social meaning. The German title, composed of compound nouns: Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke — or Artist Groups show Group Art Works, represents not only the process and performance of collaboration, but also the production of collaborative art objects. In describing the selection process, el Attar lists a set of criteria that each of the selected participants was to demonstrate and address:

"- What is the difference between a work of art that has been created by an individual and the present group-art-work?

- The object must show that it is a group effort!

- A group-art-work can be a single object or exist or arise as multiple objects. It has arisen from one or more media.

- What kind of information does the group-art-work bear?

- The examination of the project group [Stoffwechsel] includes the question: what is the material and medium of the object, what is the effect and significance?"[19].

A number of key terms arise out of this description; however, the most important for the purposes of this essay involves the type of art object created and the source of its creation. The nature of the art work must not only arise from collaborative production but must show in its very form or display that it is a unique product of collaborative effort, and as el Attar writes: “the fusion of many different forms and techniques”[20]. In other words, the form must wholly embody the process of collective labour. Therefore, the object comes to stand for the process of the artistic group itself-the object or installation as a unique and unified hypostatization of collaborative work, a group-art-work.

At this point, it is necessary to think through the historical moment of Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke in the late 1980s in Western Europe, and the theoretical atmosphere from which it sprung. An interest in the contours of the communal forms in society in this period was being engaged in writings that sought to rethink the communist political project. Alain Badiou, writing on this topic from the 70s to the present and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “La communauté desoeuvrée”, first published in French in 1986, were key figures in this debate[21]. However, it is Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri’s “Communists Like Us” from 1985 which examines the humanization of labor under communism through a reconfiguration of work that coincides with the Kassel show’s own project[22].

The work’s broad goal, “to rescue ‘communism‘’ from its own disrepute”, attempts to reconceptualize the term, and the aims of a communist project, in order to reattribute its definition to a new organization of society[23]. This begins at the level of the organization of work and labour, not only in regards to the status of the proletariat, but at the cultural level as well. Arguing that actually-existing Socialism in Eastern European countries was a social-economic alternative to capitalism (not a crisis of communism), Guattari and Negri chart the manner in which ideological systems organize work through a regimentation of thought that serves to rid the individual of his or her "desires and hopes for the future [, which] have been simply prohibited, but under a metaphysical rather than a political guise”[24].

Nuancing the communist project not merely as a sharing of wealth, the authors claim that the individual is not opposed to the collective in this model but, rather that modes of work must be reconceived in order to create “conditions for human renewal: activities in which people can develop themselves as they produce, organizations in which the individual is valuable rather than functional”[25].

This involves redefining “the purpose of work as well as the modalities of social life” which will create more generally “an alliance - between the liberation of work and the liberation of subjectivity[26]. This type of reorganization of social life through the reorganization of the mode of collective labour would lead to a general collective aesthetic transformation of both the social form and of the senses, similar to Marx’s early writings. Intense subjectivity is not eliminated in this version of the communist project, but elevated through the prioritization of the relationship between the singular and the group, particularly through changing the organization of labour.

It is clear that «Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke» shares a faith in the restructuring of labour into new collective forms, and for curator el Attar, who devotes an entire section to the concept of East Art \"\'Koło in his catalogue essay, it is artists from communist countries who can best “contribute as a subsidiary body to the humanization of life” by virtue of their need to imagine new forms of artistic and social circulation”[27]. However, the type of collectivity the show imagines seems to follow crude utopian notions of collective harmony, and furthermore, a literal objectivization of this in the resulting art object. Artistic communism, as envisioned by the exhibition, involves the coming together of individuals into an overarching group in order to create an objectified vision of this collectivity.

I would like to consider that perhaps it was the Polish artists who both conform to, and undo the reification of the group format in «Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke», in a manner that further embodies a type of extra artistic meaning to their group art works and their group formations. In his text entitled “Kuda Gierman or the whim of a genius standing on a crowded street at rush hour” [Kuda Gierman czyli wybryk geniusza na zatłoczonej ulicy w godzinie szczytu] from the seventh issue of Oj Dobrze Już from 1988, Ryszard Woźniak analyzes Gruppa’s participation in Kassel from the third person. The painted object was not the key element of the work, but the discussions and social situations that arose in the K18 Hall around Gruppa’s canvas.

On the first day, the artists had set up a large table in front of their canvas and as Woźniak claims: “The table at which the painters worked, rested, ate and where they hosted German, Dutch, and Jewish groups became an important element, an inalienable part of their work, the basis for existence, a spiritual and physical possibility. At this table, the atmosphere of distrust and stuffiness which had existed in the K18 Hall broke. This table fostered discussion on European artistic traditions of the position of artists, and not blind followers of the Idol”[28].

Gruppa had wished to include the table covered with the remnants of these discussions and celebrations throughout the length of the exhibition; however, “the organizer, for [whom] the conversation of reaching principles was not convenient, refused”. Woźniak ends his text on the event by finding value: “by asking ‘Kuda Gierman?’, they also asked themselves about the direction for [the role of] the artist, about the possibility and the need to determine it, a sense of freedom and autonomy in terms of self and society”[29].

The end product of Gruppa’s collaboration, although dismissed as unsuccessful by the artists and critics[30], may in fact serve to tell us something about the nature and potentialities of communist artistic production, in opposition to Western capitalism as well as Soviet socialism. Instead of a capitulation, I wonder if we could think of the red painting-over of their work as an act of refusal, a sacrificing of the collectively-produced object in opposition to the fetishization of the harmonious collectivity demanded by the exhibition in Kassel (we might also think here about the colour red and its symbolic resonances, as well as allusions to the covering over in censorship).

Similarly, in Koło Klipsa’s works, the individual is never actually subsumed into the whole of the group (as Knaflewski has said, in spite of the “group” nomenclature, the individual styles of the artists made identifying their particular objects quite easy[31]), and although Knaflewski and Markowski continued to work together under the same name, it was around the time of the exhibition in Kassel that one of the founding members, Kruk, would cease participating.

It is perhaps not useful to posit artist groups arising in the 1980s in Poland as diametrically opposed to the interpreted hermetic individualism of the previous generation’s conceptualist artistic tendencies, as it has been historicized. However, in asking them to represent a utopian erasure of the individual in favour of the objectivization of the group, as staged by the rhetorical strategies of the Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke exhibition, one risks repeating the objectification of the group as embodied by totalitarian communism, and thus its collapse. Perhaps the form, and the effect, of these groups might best be served through an analysis of a potential third term that they begin to reveal and inaugurate – the individual’s working through of the collective form.

Alexandra Alisauskas, a Ph.D. student in the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, researching into the Polish and Lithuanian art groups of the eighties and nineties as well as the issue of art collectives.

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1.Anda Rottenberg, “Sztuka W Polsce 1945-2005” [Art in Poland, 1945-2005]. (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawn. Piotra Marciszuka „Stentor", 2005), p. 294. See also the works of Piotr Piotrowski.

2. Maria Morzuch, “Polish art in the 1980s” in “Polish Realities : New Art from Poland”, ed., Christopher Carrell, et al.(Glasgow, Scotland: Third Eye Centre, 1988), p. 22.

3. Anda Rottenberg, “Sztuka W Polsce 1945-2005” [Art in Poland, 1945-2005], p. 94.

4. Robert Jarosz and Michał Wasążnik, “Generacja”, (Kraków, Poland: Korporacja Ha!Art). This book is an album of photographic documentation that charts a type of punk movement in culture in Poland.

5. See the catalogue/brochure “Koło Klipsa”, (Poznań, Poland: Galeria Wielka 19, 1985).

6. “Figury i przedmioty”, (Orońsko, Poland: Centrum Rzeźby Polskiej, 1986).

7. “II Biennale Sztuk Nowej. Malarstwo, grafika, performance, prezentacje autorskie, filmy, video, odczyty, etc”, [II Biennial of New Art: Painting, Drawing, Performance, Author Presentations, Film, Video, Lectures, etc]. (Zielona Góra, Poland: Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, 1987), pp. 83-84.

8. For a description/review of this exhibition see Iwona Rajewska, “Koło Klipsa”, Sztuka, no1, 1988, pp. 32-33. «Wystawa 5» was also exhibited as a whole at the Galeria Krzysztofory, Kraków, Poland in March 1985, and at the Galeria BWA in Lublin, in April 1987 (see catalogue “Koło Klipsa”, Lublin, Poland: Galeria BWA, 1987).

9. Reprinted in Maryla Sitkowska, ed., “Co Słychac?” [What’s Up?]. (Warsaw, Poland: Warsaw Publishing House, 1989), pp. 112-13. My translation.

10. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, in “Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke”, ed., Hamdi el Attar. (Kassel, Germany: Gh Kassel, 1987), section 5, 17. My translation.

11. “Koło Klipsa”, untitled, unpublished text. Poznań, Poland, 1984. My translation.

12.Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 18. My translation.

13. Maryla Sitkowska, “The Group Gruppa” in “Gruppa: 1982-1992” ed., Maryla Sitkowska. (Warsaw, Poland: Galeria Zachęta, 1992), p. 14.

14. Maryla Sitkowska, 14. See also Kasia Redzisz and Karol Sienkiewicz, “Pisanie Równoległe: Z Andą Rottenberg rozmawiają Kasia Redzisz i Sienkiewicz” in Anda Rottenberg, “Przeciąg: Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80”, (Warsaw, Poland: Fundacja Open Art Projects, 2009), p. 371.

15. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 18. My translation.

16. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 18. My translation.

17. Hamdi el Attar, “Vorbemerkungen” in “Künstlergruppen zeigen Gruppenkunstwerke”, ed., Hamdi el Attar. (Kassel, Germany: Gh Kassel, 1987), preface, 1. My translation.

18. For a history of the Stoffwechsel/Metacultures group see their website:

19. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 3. My translation.

20. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 3. My translation.

21. See, for instance, Alain Badiou’s most recent work on communism, “The Communist Hypothesis”, trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran, (New York, NY: Verso, 2010) and Jean-Luc Nancy “La communauté désoeuvrée”. (Paris, France: Christian Bourgois, 1983).

22. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, “Communists Like Us: New Spaces of Liberty, New Lines of Alliance”, trans. Michael Ryan. (New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1990). Also published under the title “New Lines of Alliance”, New Spaces of Liberty, trans. Michael Ryan, Jared Becker, Arianna Bove, and Noe Le Blanc. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2010).

23. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, “New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty”, p. 26.

24. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, “New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty”, pp. 26, 29.

25. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, “New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty”, p. 29.

26. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, “New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty”, p. 32.

27. Hamdi el Attar, “Künstlergruppen und die Ausstellung in K18”, section 5, 10. My translation.

28. Ryszard Woźniak, “Kuda Gierman czyli wybryk geniusza na zatłoczonej ulicy w godzinie szczytu” [Kuda Gierman or the whim of a genius standing on a crowded street at rush hour] in Oj Dobrze Już, no 7, 1988. My translation.

29. Ryszard Woźniak, “Kuda Gierman czyli wybryk geniusza na zatłoczonej ulicy w godzinie szczytu” [Kuda Gierman or the whim of a genius standing on a crowded street at rush hour] in Oj Dobrze Już, no 7, 1988. My translation.

30. See for instance Sitkowska, 14; Woźniak; or Kasia Redzisz and Karol Sienkiewicz, “Pisanie Równoległe: Z Andą Rottenberg rozmawiają Kasia Redzisz i Sienkiewicz”, p. 371.

31. Justyna Kowalska and Alexandra Alisauskas, “Wywiad z Leszekiem Knaflewskiem”, (Poznań, Poland, April 20th, 2011) (unpublished). My translation.

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