The title of the Stanisław Fijałkowski retrospective currently exhibited at Galerie Isabella Czarnowska is Before and After Abstraction. It is a somewhat distracting title in that Fijałkowski was born at about the same time as Wassily Kandinsky was radically decoupling his own practice from figuration. Kazimir Malevich was nearly a decade on from the “Black Square” by the year of Fijałkowski’s birth. So how is it, exactly that Fijałkowski’s paintings constitute a before-after moment in relation to the concept of abstraction? If the question is to have an answer, it seems as likely to lie in his approach to abstraction as much as in relation to any wider art historical movements.
Where Kandinsky’s engagement with abstraction was in part driven by a spiritual journey in which the artist sought to access and represent internal, universal states, there is a contrasting sense of proximity, embodiment and physicality about Fijałkowski’s works that sets them apart from many of the Eastern European avant garde movements that had embraced abstraction prior to Fijałkowski. Fijałkowski’s lines are anything but perfect geometric ideals. They are wobbly, uneven, sometimes characterised by the kind of frailties and tergiversations that would have driven the more intense ideologues of abstraction mad. These are the traces of a body at work not the clear-and-distinct emanations of universal cognitive endowments. Still, Fijałkowski would hardly be the first abstractionist to embrace embodiment as fundamental touchstone of the creative process, but there is considerably less of the sweaty, self-conscious dynamism that can make the American strain of abstraction so wearying to engage with in Fijałkowski’s works.
This is not to say there are not the same kind of spiritual longings that animated Kandinsky’s move into abstraction in the paintings of Before and After Abstraction. The Talmud is frequently referenced in the titles of the paintings in the exhibition. “Polish Talmud” in particular has a deeply meditative quality with its palimpsestic interweaving of colour that evokes the endless dialogue of scripture and commentary the text it references has engendered. Fijałkowski’s works are, thus, in touch with another sense of the term abstraction – the distillation of something larger into a small, but representative fragment. They are abstracts of a state of mind, and a state of the body, also, perhaps, representations of the state of instability between the two into which religious feeling projects itself. Yet to describe the works as merely icons of spiritual induction is also not to do them justice; they are objects in their own right imbued with unique qualities of presence which entail complex responses incorporating the physical and the cognitive: abstract thoughts that cohere into identifiable emotional states of being. Whether the paintings themselves arrived before or after abstraction as a mode of painterly expression is an immaterial question, but that they illustrate a tension that is potentially itself a point of departure between the concrete and the abstract is perhaps their greatest contribution to the discourse of abstraction: as beings in time we are eternally before and after abstraction – in every sense of the term – until the first mark is made, everything is true.
Before and After Abstraction
Galerie Isabella Czarnowska
Until 30 July
Images © Courtesy Galerie Isabella Czarnowska, Berlin