Warsaw

Grzegorz Kowalski, Calendar II, ca. 1970, collage, graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, india ink, tempera, and tape on paper and plastic sheet, 22 1/4 x 15".

Grzegorz Kowalski, Calendar II, ca. 1970, collage, graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, india ink, tempera, and tape on paper and plastic sheet, 22 1/4 x 15".

Grzegorz Kowalski

Pola Magnetyczne

Grzegorz Kowalski, Calendar II, ca. 1970, collage, graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, india ink, tempera, and tape on paper and plastic sheet, 22 1/4 x 15".

Klisze amerykańskie” (American Stills) was a selection of works by the Polish artist Grzegorz Kowalski, most conceived during his stay in the United States for the academic year 1970–71, when he was a recipient of a scholarship from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During this relatively short period of time, Kowalski accumulated an impressive quantity of press cuttings, books, and vinyl records (his eclectic collection of the last included such classics of the era as the sound track from the musical Hair). A selection of these materials, which reflect the social moods and protest movements in the States and Europe in 1968 and its aftermath, was presented in a display case, where it offered points of reference for the works on view: photographs, silk-screen prints, collages, drawings, and one painting.

The “American Stills” series, 1971/ 2013, was arranged on one wall, to- gether with fragments from Kowalski’s notebooks written in the US, Mexico, and Poland, along with excerpts from letters sent by the artist from the US to his friends in Poland between 1970 and ’71. One of the quotes, dated January 1969, is a vivid description of a photo essay in Paris Match about the student protests in the French capital several months earlier. Kowalski describes the powerful moment when, in his eyes, the printed images came to life as vivid and “burning”; photojournalism was a major source for his work. Among the “Stills” are images of storefronts displaying portraits of presidents and famous political figures—often with the store names emblazoned in stars-and-stripes lettering—among products for sale. Another “Still” shows a wall with torn-off posters on it, one featuring the slogan HANSEN MAKES IT HAPPEN!—a sort of inside joke, since Oskar Hansen was the name of Kowalski’s supervisor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Someone has crossed out the word IT and written in ABORTION. This found collage, comprising multiple elements accumulated over time, might also be a reference to Hansen’s educational program, which emphasized an open-ended process.

Calendar, 1971, a suite of twelve serigraphs, further explores the subject of photojournalism as a powerful medium by merging it with another important technique of the time, silk-screen printing. Calendar is printed in black, as well as blue and red, colors of the American flag. The whole series synthesizes Kowalski’s experience of American visual culture at the time but also encompasses the iconography he encountered in Paris in autumn 1968. It includes press photographs depicting conflicts in Vietnam as well as protests in Paris and Prague. Each component comprises two images, one above the other; for example, for July, a picture of a pilot, taken from inside a jet aircraft, is placed above a group photograph of a football team. Kowalski’s experimental approach to press photography also emerges in The Living Collage, 1971. In this piece, Kowalski turned photographs from magazines into a process-based work by projecting images onto multiple screens made of canvas and tulle netting, from which large circles had been cut out. Viewers were encouraged to walk through the projection beams so that, as Kowalski points out, their silhouettes and shadows played an integral role in this living collage.

Kowalski’s use of red, black, and blue and his recycling of popular images, such as silhouettes of football players reproduced on milk cartons, help convey a sense of the commodification of national symbolism he found in the United States. Photojournalism and advertising were powerful propaganda weapons for both sides during the Cold War; Kowalski had a keen eye for their political salience even as his own country remained on the verge of embracing Westernized commercial imagery.

Sylwia Serafinowicz