PRINT November 2019



Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, North Macedonia, ca. early 1970s.

ON JULY 26, 1963, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake leveled roughly 80 percent of Skopje, now the capital of the recently christened country of North Macedonia, but then known as the third-largest city in Yugoslavia. An unprecedented international outpouring of support in the disaster’s wake allowed the city to rebuild at the edge of the architectural vanguard, with an ultramodern aesthetic and an urban layout partially developed by Kenzō Tange, the elder statesman of the Metabolism movement. A half century later, Skopje’s Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution forged during the reconstruction, remains one of the last bastions of Brutalism, as one by one the city’s visionary building complexes and generous public spaces have been devoured by “Skopje 2014,” an omnivorous urban-planning initiative that has remade the place into a kind of Neoclassical Balkan Las Vegas. Over the past decade, this program has slapped plaster-coated Styrofoam columns and balustrades over modernist facades and colonized public squares with garish statues of an array of figures from the Emperor Justinian to “Glitzy Girl,” a caricature of a woman with tits like warships in a scoop-necked minidress.

Officially launched in 2010, Skopje 2014 was the cosmetic arm of the ethnonational rebranding touted by then–prime minister Nikola Gruevski—presently on the lam after resigning in disgrace and facing a two-year prison sentence stemming from the unlawful procurement of a $700,000 bulletproof Mercedes-Benz dubbed “the Tank.” The extensive urban overhaul was part of his push to purge all traces of the country’s Communist past in favor of a Panhellenic legacy, personified by the figure of Alexander the Great (never mind that the conqueror’s ancient kingdom of Macedon technically falls within what is now Greece, further exasperating the republic’s neighbors to the south, who responded to the perceived heritage grab by wielding veto power over Macedonia’s entry into the European Union). Known as “antiquization,” this process masked the secondary goal of denying Macedonia’s Albanian (read: Muslim) population its stake in the national identity by obfuscating the considerable Ottoman influence on the capital.

Skopje 2014 has made kitsch the city’s new calling card. While a centrally located Ferris wheel was never realized, the city did manage to install a trio of comically gaudy “pirate ships,” moored between low bridges in the shallow waters of the Vardar River; countless public sculptures, including an eight-story-tall Alexander the Great that, in a concession to Greece, goes by the official title of “Warrior on a Horse”; and a triumphal arch honoring no particular victory but emblazoned with a plaque bearing a breathlessly punctuated quote from the Skopje-born saint Mother Teresa: THE GREATEST THREAT TO WORLD PEACE IS ABORTION!!!

Public outcry against the vulgarities of Skopje 2014 has been swift and righteous, prompting the new left-leaning government—the same administration that made the concession to add “North” to the country’s name—to quietly dismantle some of the more egregious interventions. The Museum of Contemporary Art Skopje has helmed the charge to strategize practical steps to counter the damage, both architectural and ideological. As the commissioner of the Macedonian pavilion at the Sixteenth Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018, the institution challenged four teams of architects to imagine the means of moving forward as a city. Importantly, the resulting proposals advocated finding ways to liberate the public space “captured” by the new urban plan, rather than simply restore the late-modernist legacy that previously defined the skyline. After all, there is no overlooking the paradoxical fact that whereas Skopje 2014 angled at reinforcing the nation from within, the drive that installed Brutalism across Skopje’s center back in the 1960s—and led to the creation of the museum itself—was its own kind of aesthetic imposition: a collaborative remaking of a republic’s capital from the outside so that it could belong to the whole world.

Metka Krašovec, Couple III, 1972, silk screen on paper, 19 3⁄4 × 27 1⁄2".

AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE HIT, the United Nations issued a call to help rebuild the city, and more than eighty nations contributed shelter, medical supplies, infrastructure, and even opera houses, earning Skopje the moniker “the City of International Solidarity.” The spirit of global generosity was due in part to Yugoslavia’s prominent position within the fledgling Non-Aligned Movement, a global alliance of nations that resisted the Cold War binary. But there may have been another, more immediate reason for the fervency of the worldwide response: The Skopje earthquake was one of the first natural disasters to take place in the age of television. Newsreels of dramatic footage filmed the day after the quake circulated worldwide. That, combined with Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito’s media savvy—this was a man who personally wined and dined celebrity power couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor after insisting the British actor play him in a Yugoslavian blockbuster—led to Skopje handily capturing the world’s attention as both a spectacle and a shared mission. Jean-Paul Sartre, who was known to vacation in the city with Simone de Beauvoir, reacted to the frenzied response to the tragedy with an impassioned pronouncement: “Skopje was not a film, not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.”

Plans for a museum of contemporary art in Skopje had been bandied about long before the quake, and advocates seized on the media spotlight to again advance their case. In October 1963, a delegation of critics and artists traveled to the Congress of the International Association of Plastic Arts in New York to issue an appeal for the world to send artworks to the city as well. Art historian Boris Petkovski, who would serve as the museum’s founding director, spearheaded the charge, avidly soliciting donations through personal letters to Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, whose participation spurred a flood of additional gifts. Work of this caliber demanded a suitable home, and the museum was officially founded in February 1964. By 1967, it had already received more than a thousand pieces, from all corners of the globe; that number doubled by 1970, when the museum staged the first presentation of its collection in its new venue atop Kale Hill. Just shy of fifty-five thousand square feet in size, the white-marble-and-concrete building was funded by the Polish government and designed by the Warsaw-based team of Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki, who practiced under the nickname “the Tigers.”

Ion Grigorescu, St. George, 1979, ink on gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 × 11 3⁄4".

The collection—now some five thousand works strong—is as haphazard as one might expect, with a geographic imparity that defies political affiliations. Brazil, France, Italy, and Poland each sent hundreds of works, while there are only a handful from Austria, Bulgaria, Spain, and Switzerland. Member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement are scarcely represented. One encounters Croatian master Ivan Kožarić alongside Ion Grigorescu, Meret Oppenheim, Christo, Niki de Saint Phalle, Pierre Soulages, Sol LeWitt, David Hockney, and Alex Katz, who contributed a doleful portrait of Kenneth Koch. There’s a breathtaking mixed-media collage on canvas by Allan D’Arcangelo, an imaginative aquatint by Luis Camnitzer, and a blond-fiber mandala by Sheila Hicks, who had a solo show at the museum in 1976. There is a scarlet-colored mobile by Calder (accompanied by an agile gouache dedicated to Skopje) and Picasso’s showstopping painting Head of a Woman, 1963. Partnerships with graphic biennials in the fellow Yugoslavian cities of Ljubljana and Rijeka paved the way for works by the intrepid (if underappreciated) Slovenian printmaker Metka Krašovec, Jasper Johns, and Pennsylvania-born painter Sarai Sherman, who staged one of the museum’s first exhibitions in 1965. The collection also includes her riveting 1960 canvas Brother’s Keeper, a group portrait of some of the world leaders who would forge the Non-Aligned Movement the following year. Intriguingly, Sherman’s rouge-tinted assembly centers on a young Fidel Castro rather than Tito, who was used to being the life of any party, aligned or otherwise.

Of course, one has to wonder: Where did all the solidarity go?

Every spectacle has a shelf life. By 1977, when staff curator Sonja Abadžieva inherited the directorship from Petkovski, Skopje had long since slipped from the headlines and the stream of donations had slowed. Abadžieva steered the institutional agenda toward the acquisition of works by Macedonian artists, citing a responsibility to give and not just receive. In 2014, the museum reopened after several years of renovation (funded by the Italian government), marking its fiftieth anniversary with “Solidarity—An Incomplete Project?,” an exhibition of approximately three hundred works from the permanent collection. While framed by the narrative of the museum’s extraordinary origins, the selected works were grouped by conceptual or compositional affinities, leading to a more or less traditional salon hanging, with little context or backstory provided.

When the museum’s current director (and longtime curator) Mira Gacina took over in 2017, she decided to emphasize the human relationships at the core of the collection: “After all, you can find Picassos everywhere.” When the American Embassy approached her about a show of the American artists in the collection, she reached out to Anna Kats, who had spent time in Skopje as a curatorial assistant for the 2018 exhibition “Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It soon became clear that the circumstances of the museum’s founding were ripe for revisiting. Working collaboratively with staff curator Kumjana Novakova, Kats has crafted “Skopje Resurgent” an exhibition that considers the archives on a par with the museum’s other holdings. Opening this month, the survey retrieves little-seen objects from the collection (like the aforementioned works by Hicks, Krašovec, and Sherman) and juxtaposes them with excerpts from Petkovski’s correspondence with artists, as well as invitations, posters, news footage, and critical responses.

Of course, one has to wonder: Where did all the solidarity go? One of the participating architects in the Venice Architecture Biennale pavilion, Martin Gulevski, lamented that Skopje 2014 was able to devour the urban center so completely because, in the process of reconstruction after the earthquake, the city built public space but not the culture that structures and maintains it: “For us, the public space was what’s left between the buildings, rather than [what dictates] the buildings.” In an era when Skopje’s legacy is once more confronted with its own ruin, “Skopje Resurgent” hopes to rekindle a solidarity that is greater than the space between nations. 

Kate Sutton is coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.