Critics’ Picks

Composition, 1933.

New York

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Ubu Gallery
416 East 59th Street
July 24–April 22

If the absurd exercises the mind, as Alfred Jarry once remarked, then Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Surrealist pencil drawings from the ’30s—about sixty of which are included in this show—are a full mental workout. Witkiewicz (pseudonym Witkacy) was a prominent artist, playwright, and philosopher in interwar Poland whose unique semirepresentational brand of “pure form” eschewed antinarrative geometry and color for symbolism and folklore. In these drawings, Witkiewicz, like Jarry, uses the bawdy behavior and exaggerated forms of grotesque characters to attack bourgeois ideals and what he considered the deadening effects of a mechanized society. Witkiewitcz’s part-human creatures are sometimes comical, sometimes menacing; with fantastical appearances—beaks, drooping beards, reptilian torsos—they sit placidly in their mythical realms or curl like smoke around each other, often engaging in lewd acts. In Rozkosze ojca Jeroboama (Delights of Father Jeroboam), 1931, a lascivious character’s pointed tongue strains greedily to touch the red penis of a slovenly figure with molten flab like Jabba the Hut, while a goonlike female looms above with hungry eyes. Applying scientific method to fantasy, Witkiewicz’s drawings were controlled experiments, conducted under the influence of (or, in some cases, abstinence from) various intoxicants that are recorded on the works themselves like elements from an alternate periodic table—C for alcohol, Co for cocaine, Et for ether. A precursor to contemporary artists like Amy Cutler and Marcel Dzama, who also generate worlds of fabled characters, Witkiewicz conveys a psychological intensity and critical weight not apparent in the majority of stylistically similar art of today.