RECORDS “Every system is correct – there is an immeasurable number of systems”
The above statement is an excerpt from deliberations written down by Wanda Gołkowska on 16 October 1962, and would ultimately form the backbone of the text published in “Odra” in 1968 under the title “Układy otwarte” [Open Systems] as a commentary to her exhibition by the same title hosted at the time at Wrocław’s Galeria pod Moną Lisą. Gołkowska’s notes contain her reflections on the creative process as such, the work of art, its formation, perception, and interaction with both the surrounding reality and the viewer, while at the same time offering an insight into the author’s own thought process. It was Gołkowska’s considered opinion that the meaning of creative endeavours had been shifted from the realm of production to that of conceptual consideration – an intellectual search or, as she called it – “mental concretisation”. The artist rejected the precedence of production, considered it epigonic relative to the artistic concept. Indeed, she even allowed the possibility that production – understood as documentation of a creative concept – may be relegated to craftsmen or machines, thus challenging some of the most deeply rooted artistic stereotypes.
During the exhibition organised by Jerzy Ludwiński at Galeria pod Mona Lisą, Gołkowska presented a cycle of moving spatial compositions which welcomed the possibility of rearrangement by way of repositioning and movement of their constituting elements, mostly wooden blocks, thus incorporating the viewers’ own creative contributions, as well as the effects of light, space, movement, sound, time, etc. The objects, which she referred to as “Open Systems”, had no aspirations towards being absolute, finite and unique works of art. Instead, they were formed as simple, moving structures to reflect the state of constant flux in the surrounding reality and the relentless interference between all of its elements, with the process of change being fuelled by the actions of the artist and the viewers alike, as well as by other, external factors. Gołkowska’s “Open Systems” took up the considerable challenge of approaching the infinite possibility of rearrangement in the context of solutions based on logic and mathematical order, bound by the theory of probability but at the same time consistent with the statement that “Every system is correct. There is an immeasurable number of systems”. She focused her attention on the extraordinary and rich infinity of transformations and interactions between all the respective elements that reflect the natural order and texture of the universe itself, wherein change is the only incontrovertible constant. The artist created forms which could be described as simplified models of the world as such, with its infinite capacity for change. She therefore commented on the quantum complexity of our reality as well as the respective agency of the viewer and the artist in the formation and very existence of art. Notably, this was also the year in which Sol LeWitt wrote that “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. [...] The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product. [...] Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions. [...] Conceptual art is good only when the idea is good”.
Clearly, Gołkowska’s mobile arrangements were an expression of observations made through a careful study of nature and an analysis of its mechanisms. Observations which were informed by contemporary advances in physics and which remain consistent with the currently prevalent directions of scientific research, a fact that evidences the originality and acuteness of her insights made over 50 years ago. In her notes, she treats herself “as yet another open system – admitting the possibility of change”, indeed she expects the inevitable evolution of her own personality, thought and belief, once again emphasising the fact that everything is in motion, nothing is constant or finite, and the process of change reigns supreme. In 1969, Jerzy Ludwiński wrote that “…the creative process is more important than the finished piece, the material work of art which, as such, is but an expression of the creative process”.
As we follow the later works of Wanda Gołkowska in the context of her thoughts committed to paper in 1967, we can but admire the foresight expressed in those words and the consistency of her artistic endeavours. In the subsequent years of her creative activity, i.e. during the 1970s, she continued to explore themes related to the rejection of production in favour of an even stronger emphasis on the conceptual aspect - "Kinestezjon” (1970), “Czarna tablica z zapisem” [Black Board with Writing] (1971) or “Dezaprobatory” [Disapprovers] (1971 – 1972), while also focusing on words, an analysis of their significance, notation and sound – e.g. in “Art’y” (1972 – 1980), as well as the idea of collection – of words, concepts, colours – in “Ziemia” [Earth] (1972-1974) and “Błękit” [Blue] (1974-1999). From the 1970s onwards, she also actively participated in the exchange of mail art, co-founding and representing worldwide, together with her husband – Jan Chwałczyk, the circles of Wrocław’s neo-avant-garde.
In the mid-1970s, she also created a series of collages, titled e.g. “Październik 1976” [October 1976] or “Listopad 1976” [November 1976], which once again allowed Gołkowska to engage in creative games – this time with ready-made geometric shapes or even figurative elements – printed fragments of images. The works corroborate the assumption made back in 1967 that the tools, concepts and conventions of artistic work are not immune to change. The moment signifies the artist’s return to her possibly most fundamental concept of registering changes that take place in the world and exploring the mechanisms thereof. A cross-sectional analysis of Gołkowska’s art reveals the significance, in the context of her broad artistic aspirations, of the recurrent theme of “recording” reality through the use of simple strokes and lines, a desire also reflected in the title of the present exhibition at Galeria Esta in Wrocław. Her “recordings” span a period of over 50 years of artistic activity, and as such are possibly the most comprehensive expression of the concept of “intertime” which she talked and wrote about at length, and which related to the return to certain deliberations, concepts and motifs, already considered yet continuously re-approached through new means of expression, with different tools, and from previously unexplored perspectives. The unsettledness of the world shown in “Open System” and grounded in the concept of “intertime” introduced Gołkowska to the diversity of each respective approach to “the same” problem or motif, thus informing a creative process that spanned decades of artistic work. Her observations of reality – her “recordings” of nature – often took the form of landscapes, drawings and portraits (often drawings made during plein-air workshops). The amplitude of her presentation was extremely broad - the works, made in charcoal, pencil, ink and brush - could sometimes contain a wealth of dynamic, restless strokes, while in other cases showcased exceptional discipline, simplicity, and scarcity of form. We can trace this type of record both to Gołkowska’s works dating back to the 1950s, the period immediately following her graduation from the State Higher School of Visual Arts in Wrocław (1952), and to pieces created in the subsequent decades when her landscapes gained a more geometric provenance and fluctuated between extreme intensification of lines and directions on the one hand, and extreme synthesis on the other.
Another form of recording reality involved the record of words. The trend can be traced back to her bas-relief “Tablice” [Tablets] from the 1960s which featured inscriptions, and continued in the 1970s with “Art’y” which included references to words, to eventually culminate with “Listy horyzontalne” [Horizontal Letters] – abstract letter-like texts created in the 1990s. A good example is provided by the “Horizontal Letter” of 1996 which the artist fashioned in the form of a historical document with the Gołkowski family seal affixed at the bottom. In her search for even more in-depth simplification and synthesis, the graphic imitations of verbal records eventually evolved into concise, linear landscapes included in “Cykl horyzontalny” [Horizontal Cycle].
In the 1980s and 90s, Gołkowska’s artistic endeavours took a turn towards an analysis of the surrounding reality through the rhythm of lines, their intersection and permeation, their capacity to create geometric forms, and therefore also towards a consideration of the very laws of geometry, its inherent dependencies, arrangements and proportions. The artist devoted many of her drawings on both paper and canvas to explorations of the Fibonacci sequence, the so-called golden ratio, e.g. in such works as “Figury niepoważne” [Flippant Figures], “Wieże Fi” [Fi Towers], or “Latawce” [Kites]. Mathematical systems, numerical sequences, and spatial dependencies resulting from the laws of geometry informed Gołkowska’s language in her examination and representation of the world and the laws that govern it. An interesting theme in her works from that period involved the use of intertwining lines in such works as “Strzałki” [Arrows], “Etiudy” [Etiudes], or the cycle “Hommage dla Stażewskiego” [Homage to Stażewski].
Another means of recording reality, one that evidences the wealth of directions explored by Gołkowska in those decades, can be identified in her “Funkcje” [Functions] – a depiction of waveform diagrams. These can be assumed to have been the artist’s rendition of quantum reality and its structures shaped by mutually permeating and oscillating electromagnetic waves, a reality defined by its own changeability.
One of the many “intertimes” in Gołkowska’s work involved the return, after the year 2000, to the construction of movable time-space through the use of solid objects – wooden blocks – in her cycles of three-dimensional works entitled “Architektura obrazu” [Image Architecture] and “Przestrzenie obrazu” [Image Spaces]. By reiterating some of the elements of her earlier concepts presented in “Open Systems”, the artist attempted to manipulate the organisation of spatial relations inherent in a visual image, three-dimensionality silhouetted against flat backgrounds, and the illusiveness of colour. Indeed, her “Image Spaces” emphasized their independence of the traditional order through the sheer variety of methods, colours, materials, forms, and lines employed. The works – be it two-dimensional (on paper) and spatial (on boards) – are filled with a lively dialogue between circles, squares, rhombi, points, lines, flat forms and three-dimensional blocks. They are an expression of mature manipulation: freedom in constructing the compositions and using the language of geometry, naturality in the artists interpretation of the world. Her slightly later works, created in 2006 under the symbolic title “Układy zamknięte” [Closed Systems], explored the compatibility of linear rhythms and flat forms imitating block dimensionality, as well as linear structures reminiscent of complex structural splices. These works provided a certain closure to the lifelong artistic endeavours of Wanda Gołkowska and her analysis of the idea of “open systems”.
The great variety of means of expression, motifs and themes found in Galeria Esta’s exhibition dedicated to Wanda Gołkowska’s artistic legacy is still but a fragment of the same, albeit one that is representative of the value and conscientiousness of the artist’s intellectual “investigations”. Her in-depth analysis of the world, nature, and their underlying principles, her work that spanned a period of over six decades – an entire lifetime of creative thought, is a testament to the uniqueness of the language of art with its infinite room for interpretation and limitless capacity for expression. It reveals art to be a tool capable of providing possibly the most accurate reflection of the intricacy, volatility and diversity of the world, while at the same time also contributing to the infinite complexity of the same - of Wanda Gołkowska’s “four-dimensional time space”.
It should be emphasised that in the context of Polish art of the late 20th century, Wanda Gołkowska was one of very few artists capable of this level of discipline and consistency in their endeavours. In hindsight, her concept of an “open system” expressed in 1967 was a very mature notion, one that was somewhat ahead of its time and corresponded to a number of artistic manifestos voiced worldwide at the time. In the context of Wanda Gołkowska’s art one should consider the words of Jerzy Ludwiński who observed, in his famous text “Art in the Post-Artistic Era” published in 1970: “… the border between art and reality has been blurred. Art has been absorbed by reality while at the same time, reality has been appropriated by art.”
The legacy of Polish neo-avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century, in whose context the artistic circles of Wrocław enjoyed a well-deserved prominence, is undoubtedly a promising field in which to search for and discover unique concepts, conclusions, forms of representing reality and the processes of its transformation which are conducive of philosophical reflection that is individually framed by each respective viewer. Becoming familiar with that art – which remains largely unknown to broader audiences, and understanding its underlying message could help us to come to terms also with our own reality. We could allow ourselves to be guided in this by the words written by Jerzy Ludwiński in 1977: “The belief in contemporaneity, in progress, could indeed make sense but for a single, yet significant <