Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's abstract paintings have been interpreted from a variety of points of view. Richard Brilliant has emphasized the "consistency" of their materiality, by which he means the "thick-skinned" look that makes them seem impenetrable despite all the animating differentiation of their surfaces. Robert Morgan emphasizes the intense tactility of those "solid" surfaces, arguing that it is a way of resisting the virtuality that threatens to engulf us all, undermining our sense of reality. He also notes that while Ksiazek's paintings continue to resemble maps, their perspective has become more aerial and less confrontational, suggesting greater detachment from his acknowledged "subject matter": the ruined remains of an ironically resurrected Poland, conveyed through the palimpsest-like ground plans of its old cathedrals, signifying Polish Catholicism.
It was that Catholicism -- encouraged by the Polish Pope John Paul II -- that was instrumental in the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship that controlled Poland since the Soviet Union liberated it from the Nazi tyranny. By Ksiazek's own admission, the ambiguously destroyed/reconstructed look of his excruciating/commanding surfaces is a kind of memory trace of his own youthful experience of the difficult, turbulent struggle that led to the restoration of Polish independence, and, even more deeply, a trace of Poland's modern history of constant oppression. To use his own words, painting was Ksiazek's way of "digesting" his experience and re-presenting it in "metaphoric" form. It was a way of articulating and mastering his sense of his and his country's precarious, perpetually threatened sense of self, indeed, of existence. From Napoleon's attempt to assimilate Poland to its division by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it and its citizens seemed on the verge of extinction.
Ksiazek was caught up in the struggle against Communist oppression to the extent of participating in the Solidarity Freedom movement: The element of defiance and dissent, the sense of being in the permanent opposition, is inseparable from his art. He eventually came to the United States (he now shows at Kouros Gallery in New York and Alpha Gallery in Boston) because it was the country in which he could pursue his art with complete freedom though not necessarily freedom from his own personal troubles (divorce, a custody battle), which, he acknowledges, are also "sublimated" in his art.
Indeed, his surfaces rise in slow, insistent relief, and however bloodied -- and there are streaks of red paint in many works, even as others are sublimely blue and still others transcendentally white, suggesting an ascension in defiance both of gravity and his own gravitas -- he, and with him Poland, remain unbowed. The increasingly strong tendency towards a single and singular color -- he describes it as a monochrome aged like old wine, its inner patina making it uncanny to the visual palate -- gives his paintings a subliminally integrated, indeed, mysteriously harmonious look, for all their unsettled and unsettling surfaces. Disruption is self-evident, but so is an unconsciously inviting unity, suggesting that Ksiazek remains intact for all his problems. Catastrophe is overcome, however much we stare it in the face. The increasing monumentality of Ksiazek's paintings is a sign of this overcoming -- although they have always had an internal grandeur of scale -- however much it is also a writing large of the disaster that was Poland.
But the fact that his painting is doubly troubled -- resonant with impacted suffering, fusing a sense of painful national and personal identity -- does not itself make it great painting. What does is the fact that it balances, with a kind of deft uneasiness, flatness and projection, restoring freshness to both. From the moment that two-dimensional purity ran out of steam and meaning and painters such as Frank Stella ran toward the other extreme -- extravagant projection into three-dimensions (the resulting sense of spectacle obscured the fact that the problem of the integration of painting and sculpture was not addressed with any subtlety) -- the issue of painting was how to restore two-dimensionality to credibility. A turn toward "impurity" -- or rather a return to the purity of pre-modernist painting -- seemed the only alternative. Stella's answer was finally too quick and easy, and his turn too sharp. It left so much behind -- it implied that flatness did not have its own inherent dynamics, but had to be made dynamic by the addition of the third dimension, which in fact tended to overshadow and trivialize it.
I am suggesting that from the start Ksiazek realized that two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality are inseparable -- one always implies the other -- and that the priority that modernist painting gave to flat painting, by reason of its "critical" relationship to the flatness of the canvas, is a reductive premise and falsifying limitation of painting, that is, an inhibiting and peculiarly naive "formalism." From the start, the strictly painterly issue for Ksiazek was how to establish a proper "proportion" between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, integrating them while "testing" how far their difference could be stretched before it collapses, destroying their implicit unity.
Saul Ostrow is on to something when he argues that Ksiazek's abstract painting attempts to unify the American tradition of purely formal abstraction and the European tradition of symbolic abstraction -- provided we understand that symbolic abstraction involves "projective" representation (and thus three-dimensionalizing) of internal or psychic reality and formal abstraction involves "introjective" representation (and thus two-dimensionalizing) of external or physical reality. Neither can really exist without the other -- which is why modernist painting, with its emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former, was doomed to collapse, since it was a theoretical "lie" from the beginning. The hard work that Ksiazek puts into his paintings -- they are clearly labor-intensive (he works into as well as out of his surfaces, that is, burrows into them by working them out) -- in a constant effort to strike a new balance between two dimensions and three dimensions (pure painting's flatness and impure painting's illusionism, a symbolization of space that brings with it a symbolization of emotions experienced through spatial events) without forcing and stabilizing the balance -- is what makes Ksiazek's paintings creative "advances" in the history of painting.
This text is a response to the discussion of Ksiazek's painting that took place at the Polish Consulate on May 10, 2005. Donald Kuspit was the moderator of the panel. A new exhibition of work by Wlodzimierz Ksiazek is planned for next season at Alpha Gallery, Boston.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.