Stanisław Fijałkowski, 14.IX.61 Mandala, 1961, oil on canvas, 18 × 18".

Stanisław Fijałkowski, 14.IX.61 Mandala, 1961, oil on canvas, 18 × 18".

Stanisław Fijałkowski

Galerie Isabella Czarnowska

Stanisław Fijałkowski, 14.IX.61 Mandala, 1961, oil on canvas, 18 × 18".

Until now little known outside Poland, Stanisław Fijałkowski can claim, to say the least, a most distinctive artistic lineage: He was a student of Władysław Strzemiński, who in turn had studied with the modern master Kazimir Malevich. But Fijałkowski is also heir to all the upheaval that his part of the world has suffered over the past century. He was born in 1922 in Poland’s southeast, “a region that was soaked with blood in World War II,” as Anda Rottenberg and Ory Dessau write in the gallery press release; the area is now part of Ukraine. During the war he found himself in a forced-labor camp in Königsberg—the once-Prussian city that is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad—and in its aftermath settled in Lodz, where he studied, taught, and still lives.

Needless to say, then, Fijałkowski’s work is hardly imbued with the crisply declarative forms and optimistic élan of prewar Constructivism and Suprematism. This selection of nineteen paintings and two drawings made between 1961 and 2004, oddly titled “Before and After Abstraction”—all the works were what I’d call abstract, though according to Rottenberg the artist “is reluctant to call them abstract”—suggested instead a reticent, pensive, perhaps ambivalent take on pictorial form—what Fijałkowski calls “a secular equivalent of theology.” With its simultaneously blunt but sensitive touch and moody, almost muffled color (the cool end of the spectrum dominated), the work at times put me in mind of his younger Belgian contemporary Raoul De Keyser, though the two artists were presumably quite unaware of each other as their work developed. In some works Fijałkowski seems to be reaching for a zero point of pictorial action, as in 14.IX.61 Mandala, 1961, a gray-green square bounded on all four sides by a red band, with a single, somewhat awkward gray line traced from its center to the bottom of the white field. This re-marking of the edges of the canvas is a recurrent gesture of Fijałkowski’s; more than thirty years later, in V Painting for Waleria, 1992, he uses a blue line to mark off a white rectangle lit up by a red brushstroke at the bottom. It’s as if the very act of positing a circumscribed area is what allows the emergence within it of some flicker of significant activity. Possibly this is a lesson learned during the years of communism: the importance of setting aside a zone of privacy, of separation, in which unstructured events can occur—a lesson perhaps harder to apply today when even our privacy has been colonized by commercial interests. Another red-bounded rectangle, this time framing a field traversed by two turquoise-blue horizontal bands, one around the middle and one at the bottom, was titled No. VII During the Martial Law – 31.01.82, 1982, clarifying the point of the effort to clear an autonomous space.

One of the more curious aspects of Fijałkowski’s art is his interest, signaled by many titles, in the Jewish Talmud. (The artist is not Jewish.) While the earlier invocation of the mandala might suggest a meditative and experiential basis to his pictorial “theology,” the Talmud is discursive in character and ethical in import. The crisscrossing bands of translucent color in XXIV Talmudic Studies and Polish Talmud XIV, both 1979—works in which the painter’s revisions have not obscured his earlier sequences of marks—may be intended as equivalent to the Talmudic structure of commentary on previous strata of commentary. In any case, their shifting fields of atmospheric color admirably fulfill Fijałkowski’s ambition to find “an open form that is undetermined and must be constructed through the process of reception.”

Barry Schwabsky