Jan Zakrzewski

Muzeum im. Xawerego Dunikowskiego w Krolikarni

FOLLOWING JAN ZAKRZEWSKI'S recent return to Poland after nearly twenty years abroad, this retrospective, titled “Punkty odniesienia” (Points of reference), reexamined the artist's career, attempting to show the consistency in his development over the last thirty years. Zakrzewski is known both in Europe and the United States for his lyrical paintings and drawings that fuse geometry with expressive gesture while engaging snippets of memory as sources of imagery for his evocative art. With more than forty large paintings and drawings the show demonstrated that, as much as Zakrzewski has departed from his earlier style, he has nonetheless preserved the sensibility he developed as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in the late '60s and early '70s.

Zakrzewki never fit easily into the panorama of postwar Polish art. As a young artist, he chose to work in between two of its dominant tendencies: the geometric abstraction championed by Henryk Stażewski and the Pop or hyperrealist figuration embraced by many young artists in the '70s. His early works were criticized by his professors for their jarring colors, hard edges, and “lack of consistency,” which contradicted the colorist sensibility à la Bonnard cultivated at the academy. Zakrzewski called his early works “paintings with mistakes.” Emblematic of this stage of his career, Kompozycja z czerwonymi krêgami (Composition with red circles), 1970-71, plays with the spatial ambiguity of a carpetlike arrangement of rectangular shapes painted predominantly in greens with complementary red dots popping out to the foreground.

Zakrzewski's works became formally looser and his palette brighter after he left Poland in 1981 and moved to the United States. He explored chance, play, and improvisation in abstracted still-lifes and landscapes but with a conceptual discipline immune to intellectual mannerism. His works looked almost “immaterial” in their transparency of line and color; their iconography evoked nebulous recollections of things past and present. Zakrzewski endowed his works with a gentle mood, which, although inassimilable to Malevich's dogmatic spirituality, conveyed a similar sense of being tranquil yet rich in feeling.

Zakrzewski's work entered a new stage in 1992 after the death of his father, a successful retardataire Post-Impressionist in Poland. Accepting his father as both an accomplished artist and an adherent to outmoded artistic practices, Zakrzewski found in him a partner in a dialogue about the nature of art in both an affirmative and polemical fashion. He literally copied or incorporated his father's painting into his works, engaging in a form of Oedipal appropriation, which allowed him to reenter the past in a highly personal manner and cultivate his artistic hyperesthesia. In this way the expatriate Zakrzewski paralleled other Eastern European artists' explorations of their own experience following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, punctuating the matrix of historical change with highly personal stories.

In his recent works, titled “Luki w pamieci” (Memory gaps), 1976/2000, Zakrzewski took one of his old still-life canvases and cut it into five pieces, painting them over with gray oil paint and leaving visible only small portions of the old work. Enacting another symbolic alteration of the old, he superposed his sophisticated dialogue with the past (and the present) on the physical process of cutting. This retrospective proved that while Zakrzewski is not a chronicler of our historical times in statu nascendi, he knows how to use the medium of painting to speak passionately about confrontations with the inner self.

Marek Bartelik