Socialist Media

Kate Sutton on Ana Ofak’s Agents of Abstraction

Draft of the second section of the “Exhibition of the Highway Brotherhood and Unity,” 1950. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb.

AGENTS OF ABSTRACTION, BY ANA OFAK. Sternberg Press, 2019. 389 pages.

BLAME IT ON THE SPOMENIKS. All asymmetrical concrete stems, rippling aluminium wings, and bold swooping bodies, these massive monuments read more like Starfleet spaceships, crash-landed amid the forests of former Yugoslavia. Often sited in remote rural areas, these abstract memorials were commissioned primarily in the 1960s and ’70s as part of a nationwide push—yes, one fronted by charismatic president Josip Broz Tito (who tends to get the sole credit for “Tito’s monuments”), but, in keeping with Yugoslavia’s signature emphasis on self-management, initiated and executed on the regional and local levels—to forge an ideological iconography for the fledging federation. Cultural theorist Boris Buden purportedly once remarked that the history of the region could be boiled down to the rotation of statues of men on horseback in the main square. The spomeniks broke that mold, shattering conventions of how war monuments should look and function, while reiterating the symbolic power of style within statecraft.

The spomeniks are also why, a half century later, it might be so tempting to mischaracterize Yugoslavia’s specific strain of modernism as an alien life-form. The monuments made a splash online a few years back, after a handful of clickbait portals picked up on images from the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers’s 2010 album, Spomenik, which effectively served up the Brutalist equivalent of Duck Face. Extracted from the communities that built them and the context they commemorate, the spomeniks are identified only by the photographer’s arbitrarily assigned numbers (“Spomenik 1”, “Spomenik 2”. . .), with each sculpture’s location tagged on in parentheses. Through a similar process of isolation and fetishization, Yugoslavia’s chic midcentury modernism is often cast as a happy anomaly, as if it, like the spomeniks, had just sprouted from that loamy Balkan soil Marina Abramović so loves to fertilize. There’s an obvious glamour to the story of an underdog, otherworldly genius, but to spin Yugoslavia’s cultural output as such would mean to deny the federation’s artists and architects their due, as they parlayed Yugoslavia’s unique permeability into an aesthetic that drew from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Draft for the Hanover pavilion. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb.

“Yugoslavia, once a country, has become a cluster of imaginaries,” the Zagreb-born, Berlin-based art historian Ana Ofak observes in the intro to her new book, Agents of Abstraction, which tackles the aesthetic intricacies of the nation’s unique strain of modernism. If her title begs for comparisons to the CIA’s strategic touting of Abstract Expressionism, the text does not shy away from framing the production of visual language as an arm of statecraft. Ofak homes in on the period from 1947 to 1950. Yugoslavia was pioneering its trademark “Socialism without Sovietism,” which required gently weaning itself off Soviet-style socialist realism, while still attempting to preserve the ideological tenets that visual language was used to promote. Reorganized as a Communist state in 1946, following the abolition of its monarchy the year before, Yugoslavia had huddled under the Soviet umbrella until 1948, when its controversial stance on the Greek Civil War led to the young country’s expulsion from Cominform, the international league of Communist parties. As part of the aesthetic fallout, the Balkan nation forcibly broke with the propagandistic imagery of socialist realism in favor of a more Western-oriented modernism. But if the West placed an emphasis on authenticity and originality (market values that calibrated aesthetics to the tune of budding commodity culture), Yugoslavia’s so-called socialist modernism managed to co-opt modernism’s formal features while still adhering to the utopian communist values at the heart of its society. Artists still became workers, cogs in a machine, but unlike in the Soviet system, that machine belonged to the people. Cultural producers were no longer laboring for a centralized power, but rather operating as part of a system predicated on democratic control and workers’ self-management, dubbed the “Third Way” (or, as Ofak puts it, “soft-core socialism”).

Noting the discontented mumblings around the term “socialist modernism” and the critical ghettoization it enacts, Ofak latches on to Buden’s formulation of “Counter-Modernism,” which recognizes what was happening in Yugoslavia as a “recurring procedure of resistance to and reimagination of” modernism in the West. Yugoslavia’s position as one of the founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement allowed its artists to cite Mies van der Rohe as readily as Rodchenko. But the important point here may not be the breadth of these citations and conversations, so much as the fact that they were happening at all, that these artists weren’t creating in the aesthetic vacuum often ascribed to them.

Highway of Brotherhood and Unity exhibition. Courtesy: Croatian State Archives, Zagreb. Photo: Milan Pavić.

If Yugoslavia’s particular form of modernism is so hard to pin down, perhaps it is because, as Ofak suggests, there were multiple narratives at work simultaneously. Accordingly, Ofak splits Agents of Abstraction into two sections, each exploring events and exhibitions drawn from the period of 1947 to 1950. The first examines a selection of four thematic exhibitions produced within Yugoslavia and aimed at a local public; the second surveys case studies of international trade-fair pavilions—both realized and abandoned—in an attempt to understand the image the fledgling nation wanted to project to the outside world. Ofak tightens her focus onto a group of Zagreb-based artists, architects, and designers (among them Aleksandar Srnec, Ivan Picelj, Vjenceslav Richter, and Zvonimir Radić), who collaborated on commissions for both large-scale pavilion presentations and homegrown initiatives, like the beloved Bibliovlak (“Book Train”), a library on rails modeled after the Soviet agit-trains, though it advocated self-education over indoctrination. (Its frank tone is reflected in one of the slogans it displayed: “Don’t tell me anymore what you intend to do, rather show me through achievement, what and how you are capable of doing it.”)

Forged in the spirit of these collaborations, the collective would issue a formal manifesto in December 1951 under the name EXAT (“Experimental Atelier”) 51. Inspired by the Bauhaus and heavily shaped by the personal ideologies of leading members Richter, Radić, and Bernardo Bernardi, this manifesto laid out a call to dismantle hierarchies between the fine and applied arts, and to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to creativity across media. The particulars of that approach, however, were left unspecified, an omission that would eventually lead to the group’s dissolution in 1956. While their existence may have been short-lived, the legacy of projects like the Book Train and the 1950 exhibition dedicated to the Brotherhood and Unity Highway—a gargantuan undertaking that recruited volunteer labor to build a road between Yugoslavia’s two biggest cities, Belgrade and Zagreb—continues to impact and influence artists working today. If they are not already considered canon outside of the former federation, it is for the very reason that Yugoslavia has never slid very easily into the molds of Western modernism. 

Draft of the second section of the “Exhibition of the Highway Brotherhood and Unity.” Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb.

Rather than positioning the artists of EXAT 51 as isolated geniuses working in an aesthetic void, Ofak goes through each case study and carefully maps out the context and potential reference points, generating a cultural geography for the region that expanded far beyond its political borders. This tactic could risk casting the featured case studies as derivative, but in Ofak’s hands, they are only richer for their syntheses, radiating the same otherworldly quality as the spomeniks. In the case of the pavilions, the author adeptly plays the optimism communicated by the design off the grittier political realities they glossed over. (For instance, Yugoslavia’s participation in the Hanover Messe in 1950 was kept a secret from its own population, in deference to unresolved tensions between the two countries.)

Agents of Abstraction is the result of five years of research; Ofak’s thoroughness can be felt even while the chapters stay slim and relatively footnote-free. Throughout the book, she maintains a straightforward and unshowy tone, though the reader gets glimpses of how her mind works through the frequent tendency of her close readings to glide into fascinating diversions, from the Yugoslavian shock workers who put the great Soviet Stakhanov’s record to shame, to the Bauhaus’s official take on wallpaper (“we at the Bauhaus consider wallpaper only as a kind of surface treatment,” to quote Hinnerk Scheper). But perhaps the most invaluable resources are the images themselves, which are drawn primarily from Croatia’s national archives, as well as the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. They range from scribbled concept sketches; to photo documentation of the humble pavilion wares on display (at Expo 1949 in Stockholm, one particularly kitschy doll in national costume ends up suspended beside a giant doily in a space-age vitrine); to meticulously chic perspektive, perspectival drafts produced for each presentation. Ultimately, it is the images that can most persuasively lay claim as the titular agents, eclipsing the men who authored them.