A Fresh Look at Hungarian Art

Hommage à Albers, Tibor Gayor, 1975, acrylic on wooden board


With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and 70’s, the current exhibit at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, is a museum quality exploration of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, reminding us that even under repressive regimes, art can flourish.

Postwar Hungary suffered under the dictatorship of the Soviet Union, whose ideology was hostile to modern art.  Even though the Hungarian regime was a more “friendly barracks,” artists still needed to make sure that any “political” gestures – which included embracing Western art practices rather than Soviet Realism – were not overtly visible to either the censors or the viewing public. 

In this atmosphere, Hungarian artists combined their unique visual language with Western forms such as Conceptualism and Pop Art, to create a  radical new approach to Conceptualism, resulting in art that was, by its existence, an implicit rebuke to the norms of the Hungarian state.  The authorities established three categories of work:  supported, tolerated or rejected, so many of the political pieces use a highly coded language or employ humor to cover or deflect from their  critiques of officialdom. Sometimes the political message was so coded that only those inside could understand it; the wall texts and the gallery’s exhibition checklist are helpful in understanding the context of the works.

In Hungary artists were establishing their own unofficial art scene, in private apartments where they held clandestine semi-illegal exhibitions and performances, leading to a flourishing – albeit underground – cultural milieu. These “flat” exhibits for a few hundred friends of friends allowed artists to transmit current styles and trends.  Even though they were not able to freely travel, artists in Hungary found other ways of engaging with their peers in other countries, especially through the international mail-art movement, sending small scale works via the postal service to avoid censorship. 

Radial Enamel I-IV, Karoly Halasz, 1969, enamel on four iron plates

There are almost 100 works on display, with the vast majority from the 1970‘s, but on the ground floor you’ll find works from the 1960’s in that era’s abstract geometric style, including Károly Halász’, Radial Enamel I-IV.

Wall-Hanging with tombstone Forms (Tapestry), Ilona Keseru Ilona, 1969, stitching on chemically dyed linen

The motifs in Ilona Keserü Ilona’s 1969 Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms, reference the iconography of rural Hungarian cemeteries, such as the one she visited in 1967 in Balatonudvari, which contains over 60 heart shaped tombstones.

5 out of 4, I-III, Dora Maurer, 1979, acrylic on wood

The exhibit contains several works by Dóra Maurer, whose oeuvre spans print, photography, films and drawings.  Many of her pieces from the ’70’s such as 5 out of 4, are quite rigorous, combining rule-based compositional logic  and geometric abstraction.  Maurer, who had an exhibit at MOMA in 2015, is married to Tibor Gáyor, whose work is at the top of this article.

SUN-OX-FACE, Imre Bak, 1976, acrylic on two canvases

Pride of place is given to Imre Bak’s abstract geometrics, with their strong colors, and strict, sharp, forms and lines.  Along with lona Keserü, László Lakner, and István Nádler, whose works are also here, Bak was  a member of the Iparterv, one of the leading Hungarian neo-avant-garde groups of the second half of the Twentieth century.  His delightful SUN-OX-FACE from 1976 greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibit.

Landscape Transformation, Imre Bak, 1974, acrylic on canvas

Nearby is his 1974 Landscape Transformation, emblematic of his hard-edged paintings.  In the gallery’s office space, you’ll find a number of his smaller works on paper.


Concept Like Commentary 1-7, Geza Perneczky, 1971, gelatin silver prints

The second floor is almost entirely given over to photographs of that era, including two of Géza Perneczky‘s 1972 black-and-white conceptual photographic series. In  Art-Ball (concepts like commentary) he took a tennis ball inscribed with the word “art” and placed it in unusual places, such as  a bird’s nest, or in a bowl of water, or seemingly looking at itself mirror (above).   A second series, Art Bubbles, shows the artist blowing bubbles with the word “art” inscribed on them.  Even though Perneczky emigrated to Germany in 1970 he was  present on the Hungarian art scene and actively involved in the international mail art movement. He publishes his works and writings privately under the pseudonym Softgeometry.

Nouveau Bandage, Laszlo Lakner, 1971, gelatin silver print

László Lakner began his career as a Surnaturalist painter, mixing Surrealism and Naturalism, but in the 1970’s he painted photorealistic objects that had particular meanings.  Because of the political nature of his art, the government classified it as either “tolerated” or “forbidden” which made it extremely difficult for him to exhibit or sell his works.  In 1974, he received a scholarship to study in Berlin, where he continues to live and work.

Lenin in Budapest, Balint Szombathy, 1972/2016, gelatin silver print

Bálint Szombathy took some serious risks with his  performance art, as can be seen in his series Lenin in Budapest, in which he walked around Budapest after the 1972 May Day parade with a photo of Lenin mounted on a placard.  This was extremely risky, because the authorities could have interpreted this gesture as Szombathy parading the head of Lenin on a stick, as I did.

Balint Szombathy, Poetry & Language VI, 1977, ink stamp on vintage gelatin silver print

In 1977, his work took on a more semiotic tone in his Poetry & Language series, in which he would stamp the words Poetry and Language onto photographs, whose images seemingly had nothing to do with either word, but nonetheless forced you to take another look and reconsider them. 

You’ll also find photographs documenting Tamás Szentjóby’s Sit Out/Be Forbidden happening, on which is inscribed – Tous ce qu est interdit est art.  Sois interdit.  (Everything that’s forbidden is art.  Be forbidden).  He wasn’t as luck as Szombathy – instead he was arrested and expelled for his samizdat activities in 1975.

The 30 artists featured in this show employ various media and styles – I’ve covered only a tiny fraction of the exhibit.  You’ll also find photo performances by Bálint Szombathy, Katalin Ladik and Tibor Hajas and other artists, who performed intimate staged events without audiences, often with a political or subversive overtone, sometimes pushing their body to extreme limits, like other performance/body artists in Europe in the 1970’s.  There are also small monitors showing videos created by Dóra Maurer, Katalin Ladik and Ferenc Ficzek.  In addition to works by Budapest-based artists, the show includes pieces by artists associated with the Pécs Workshop, which played an outside role in this period.

The exhibit also features a number of works by the witty Endre Tót – on one wall is his Very Special Gladness series which highlights his wicked sense of humor, especially his photograph of a man reading a book with Lenin’s image on the cover – the photo is entitled,    I am glad if I can read Lenin.  Be sure to look at his conceptual “rain” series in the vitrine.

At All Times 1, Istvan Nadler, 2008, casein and tempera on canvas

Don’t leave without stopping in the small gallery space on the second floor where you’ll find works by Imre Bak and István Nadler that they’ve created in the 2000’s, allowing you to see the continuity with the abstract, geometric vein they were working in in the 1970’s.

With the Eyes of Others continues through August 12th, so before then get up to this fabulous exhibit at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery 2033/2037 Fifth Avenue (126th Street). 

Eastern Europe and Scandinavia in Gotham

Since the Chelsea Music Festival   is focusing on the music of Hungary and Finland this year (both countries’ native tongues share a common linguistic ancestor)  I thought I’d write a bit about the cultural organizations in New York from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. 

The Balassi Institute of Hungarian Culture is hosting Budapest Pop-up during June featuring classic and contemporary music.

Czech out the films, concerts and other offerings at the Czech Center (you knew there was going to be a bad pun)   Through the rest of June, they’s showing the Czech that Film festival, and hosting a concert of new composers.   Their rooftop-ciné series on Tuesdays in July and August features live music and early 20th century Czech and American films on the theme of the “fallen woman”.

The Polish Cultural Institute   promotes a wide range of cultural programs in music, art, film, theatre and dance.  On their website  you can find out more about Polish artists performing in New York  such as the Polish National Ballet at the Joyce Theatre  through June 21st, or the  Obara International Quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center  on June 30th, or the works by  Pawel Althamer and Agnieszka Kurant which are included in the Storylines exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum .

The Romanian Cultural Institute hosts concerts, lectures and exhibits throughout the year; when this blog went to press, their summer calendar wasn’t posted.

Scandinavia House offers a wide range of programs from the Nordic countries, including  exhibitions, lectures, jazz concerts, kids activities and Nordic noir films (need I say more).  You can find the full schedule here    Be sure to check out the gift shop for some truly unique items, or enjoy lunch or dinner at Smörgås Chef.

The Finnish Cultural Institute  offers a residency for Finnish artists, designers and architects.  This year, they’re celebrating their 25th year in New York, with the theme of Urban Nature.   In July, catch “The Powers That Be”     an exhibition on physical energy at  Station Independent Projects  on the Lower East Side.