Josip Vaništa (1924–2018)

Josip Vaništa, “Thoughts for the Month,” 1964–2010, collage with vintage documents, 20 x 27 1/2". Photo: P420, Bologna.

IN 1959, a group of artists, critics, curators, and historians founded the group Gorgona, a clandestine association of like-minded creators who began sending transmissions into the world—most famously in the form of an antimagazine of the same name—until 1966, when the group formally disbanded. The driving force and intellectual motor of Gorgona was the artist Josip Vaništa, who had studied and taught architectural drawing since the early 1950s, though he never practiced the discipline himself.

If Gorgona was, in essence, an attitude, a rumor, and an invocation, Vaništa was the keeper of the secret. He was the publisher of the magazine—printed in small runs and distributed mainly by hand and sometimes by mail—and the producer of the most directly Gorgonic objects. These include a Collective ID card, 1961, which would prove each member’s affiliation with the group, and a tube of black paint titled Gorgona Black, 1962, which would serve as the group’s official color, the same way Yves Klein is forever associated with a certain shade of ultramarine.

Starting in 1964, Vaništa began to send his “Thoughts for the Month” (1964–2010), philosophical missives typed on carbon-copied sheets of paper that imparted musings such as:

Fatigued by the painting.
Art strives towards its abolishment.

After Gorgona broke up, the members went their own ways. Some emigrated; others continued with their work; one became religious and disavowed his prior artistic practice. Vaništa kept the archive of the group, guarded the secret. The first exhibition of Gorgona took place in 1977, over a decade after the group dissolved, and the rumor became history. By that time, he had already begun painting again: floral still lifes in the tradition of Fantin-Latour that would disabuse many later artists and art historians of Vaništa’s esteem, as they felt he had betrayed the purity of Gorgona. The truth, it seems, is that painting provided a different sentiment for Vaništa; if Gorgona was the expression of a belief in the ability to abolish meaning and matter and instead to imagine a conviviality of the mind, painting served as a reminder of the unfulfilled desire to return to a different kind of Romanticism: “To paint is to reconcile oneself with misfortune,” reads another one of Vaništa’s “Thoughts for the Month.”

In 2011, I visited Josip Vaništa at his home and studio in Zagreb to learn more about Gorgona and his role in it. I found a gentle and kind man, fluent in French and German, who retold the story of the group as he undoubtedly had many times before. His archive had been sold a few years before, and only a few scattered works remained with him of the Gorgona time. He expressed regret at not having been able to have Marcel Duchamp produce an issue of Gorgona magazine, his request coinciding with Duchamp’s death in 1968. His painting studio, next door to the living room, remained strictly off limits.

After my visit, he sent me some “Thoughts for the Month,” transcriptions of older ones, made new for the current times, which I meant to find a way to publish but never did. Vaništa’s passing, in turn, leaves me with an unfulfilled promise to distribute some of his Thoughts. As Gorgona has become an essential part of recent art history, it is Vaništa who has become a rumor.

Christian Rattemeyer is the Harvey S. Shipley Miller Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.