Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work, 1978, eight C-prints, each 11 × 15 1⁄8".

Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work, 1978, eight C-prints, each 11 × 15 1⁄8".

Mladen Stilinovic

Mladen Stilinović (1947–2016) was one of the most important Croatian artists and is today widely recognized as one of the main figures of international Conceptual art. His widow, the critic and curator Branka Stipančić, remains the leading authority on his work. For this exhibition, “Smiles,” Stipančić put together a show as exciting as it was emotional. It drew us into the Zagreb of the 1970s, when Stilinović was writing poems and publishing them in the literary magazine Republika. Together with friends, he founded the amateur film club Pan 69, whose discussions and artistic productions operated beyond the social and political structures of the day, and began his experimental film work. To present these rarely shown but legendary documents of a radical and subversive antiart, Stipančić decided on a classic video monitor, awkwardly positioned on the floor—quite appropriate to the radical nature of works such as Panika (Panic), 1971; Početnica (Primer), 1973; and Vrijeme (Time), 1977. Meanwhile, the master himself gazed down mildly on his artistic origins from the wonderfully faded vintage photographs making up his four-part work Donji rakurs (Low Angle), 1978, on the wall behind.

As the cost of filming began to exceed his impecunious circumstances, Stilinović and five other artists, including his brother Sven, united to form the Grupa šestorice Autora (Group of Six Artists), dedicating themselves to performance art. Their “exhibition-actions” never lasted more than a couple of hours, and left temporary works all over Zagreb, from the center of the city to its periphery, from Republic Square to the banks of the Sava River. For the Vienna show, Stipančić presented two such pieces: Korak gaze (Cotton Pad Step), 1975, and Osmjesi (Smiles), 1975/2019. The first records the reactions of pedestrians upon encountering a strange object on the street via a sequence of eight photographs. The second, also presented in period photos, could be experienced live during the opening, when visitors—depending on their temperaments—either nimbly jumped over or simply trampled across a repeated image, glued to the floor, of a woman’s grin, taken from a toothpaste advertisement published in the German magazine BurdaStyle. Outside the door the crowd negotiated a remake of Trava, Trava, Zabranjeno hodati pločnikom (Grass, Grass, Walking on the Sidewalk Prohibited), 1975/2019: Signs stuck to the sidewalk (vainly) ordered passersby not to step on it: This sparkling commentary on failed authoritarian attempts at indoctrination is as relevant today as it was then.

In the gallery’s main room, Stipančić had set out a marvelous selection of collages, a body of work Stilinović produced for a few years starting in 1972. Using felt-tip pens, various kinds of found imagery, newspaper and magazine clippings, transfer lettering, textiles, and scraps of photos, he developed an aesthetic somewhere between Arte Povera and a sort of dirty Minimalism. The textual components of the collages are always handwritten in Stilinović’s native Croatian, but he often translated their titles into English—since, as the title of a work of his from 1992 would have it, “an artist who cannot speak English is no artist.” For Stilinović, words and phrases are like images: They are lines connected to other lines that may signify or represent anything from manipulated everyday language or worn-out political jargon to flashes of insight, Communist symbols, Snow White’s seven dwarves, bread, a telephone, wristwatches. Forming utterly delightful arrangements, his combinations of words and images become by turns a loose picture puzzle, the fragments of a witty remark, a ridiculous dirty joke, or an absurd piece of slapstick.

Finally, Stilinović’s canonical, Artist at Work, 1978, was also present. This series of eight black-and-white photographs shows the artist lying in bed asleep. The gesture is as radical as its implications are clear: Creativity needs time off, and lots of it.

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.