View of “Stano Filko,” 2021–22. Photo: Martin Polák.

View of “Stano Filko,” 2021–22. Photo: Martin Polák.

Stano Filko

“Register,” rather than “Retrospective,” was the title of this extensive exhibition of work by Slovak neo-avant-garde artist Stano Filko (1937–2015), including his rarely exhibited painterly oeuvre as well as some never-before-exhibited large-scale installations. The word suggested an ongoing mapping and evaluation of the artist’s vast and often arcane output—a kind of stocktaking. This idea was underlined by Fait Gallery’s industrial space and the exhibition design by Studeny Architekti evoking a grid of warehouse aisles formed by plasterboard shelves, display units, and pedestals.

Filko’s autonomous universe—populated by monumental abstracted models of space rockets, suspended pyramids, built-in and freestanding furniture, and masonry tools such as bricklayers’ hammers and trowels color coded in red, orange, or blue—is not easy to enter. For the exhibition’s curator, Boris Ondreička, the portal to the artist’s world was opened by both their collaborations since the late 1990s and numerous visits to what Ondreička calls Filko’s “studio-archive-object-environment-tomb.” In the 1970s, and above all after his return to Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1990, after living abroad for nearly a decade, Filko kept his works in this no-longer-extant bricolage hermitage, whose pieces were sold after his death. In a process of what he called self-museologization, he revisited (and redated) his older works by adding new layers of paint and text in order to guide future viewers. He divided the studio into five sections corresponding to different colors and spheres of life: for instance, a black room devoted to the ego. Its furnishings, painted by the artist, also became an integral part of his work, blurring not just the boundaries between art and life but also those between artworks and the relics of an eccentric cosmology.

Among Filko’s most renowned works, featuring prominently in “Register” and the subject of an upcoming monograph by Aurel Hrabušický and Lucia Gregorová Stach, are his variations on White Space in White Space, 1973–2015. Filko originally conceived the collection of white-painted objects in a white-cube space, first installed and documented––rather than officially exhibited, due to the censorship prevalent in post-1968 Czechoslovakia—in the House of Arts in Brno in 1974, with fellow artist Miloš Laky and set designer Ján Zavarský, yet he continued developing it on his own. In his system, the color white stood for peace, spirituality, and the dematerialized essence associated with the highest dimension, the fifth.

Having fled to West Germany in 1981 in his white Škoda car, Filko exhibited the vehicle at Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982, the same year he relocated to New York, where he took up neo-expressionist painting, shifting from his previous white, blue, and red tricolor palette to the rainbow-colored chakra system he used until his death. The artist’s hermeticism and self-mythologizing—he claimed, for instance, to have experienced clinical death twice—has often been discussed in relation to his Catholic upbringing but should also be considered in the context of the New Age beliefs and practices flourishing in the West at the time. In fact, both spiritual traditions reflect the artist’s own paradoxical relationship to embodied experience and the material world, which Filko purported to loathe, though he engaged with it keenly. His manic production and transforming of objects, especially after 1990, points to the hoarder’s horror vacui rather than the prospect of dematerialization opened up in his Conceptual works and Happenings of the 1960s or his white space of the 1970s. Similarly, the almost adolescently recurring symbol of female genitalia—in references to the prehistoric figurine of the Venus of Moravany, as well as in imagery from erotic magazines collaged into his paintings and sculptures—reveals yet another Filko, the one symbolized by the color red, aligned in his system with the primordial and biological. Indeed, the only way to adequately “register” Filko seems to be through the full spectrum of his chameleonic transformations, multiple—what he called “cloned”— identities (Stan Fylko, Phylko, Phys, SF) and competing if not contradictory modes of material and immaterial self-immortalization.