Cast your eyes over these.

I left all of them unfinished.

When they least wanted to be unfinished.

György Petri: Pride

In the second half of the 1980s lots of things in Hungary simply became impossible to continue. Of all the changes, the so-called change in political system was the most overrated. To what extent the system actually changed in its transformation from a one-party state to a multi-party state has been argued about ever since. What is more interesting, and, in comparison, much less talked about was how intellectual life, which up to then had been of the utmost significance, suddenly became insignificant.

From the neo-avantgarde to the golden age of Hungarian sociology, from the new literature (of the time) to the Balázs Béla Studio, from the intellectual halo worn by the Democratic Opposition to the Danube Circle green movement, suddenly – OK, within half a decade – it turned out that lots of things either were not going to continue as they had or that there was no point in continuing them: grand oeuvres were simply no longer produced; artistic and intellectual schools and circles lost their appeal; once prominent intellectual figures became washed up.

The newfound intellectual uncertainty of the Hungarian intelligentsia was not immediately noticeable, nor was it an obligatory thing to notice. Laurels earned long ago rested on the heads of creators of works which had descended into repetitive insignificance. Those who had handed out the laurels back then were also living on past glories. The lack of great works was explained away by the financial difficulties which accompanied cultural life. New material was replaced by the influx of new material from “the free world”. Another symptom of the crisis was that no young generation emerged to properly accuse the 60s and 70s generation of losing their way.

Zsigmond Károlyi (b. 1952) was perhaps the first artist to realise that things could not continue. And, it could be said, no less was expected from him. Even to my eyes, as someone who did not know him personally, he was at the time the most respected young artist, a reputation he earned thanks to his high standards, and the consciousness and consistency which characterised his work and statements. His rigorous self-examination was evident in his works and the self-reflective texts attached to these works.

This young master of conceptual art then would have been keenly aware of the change in his own career that also took place in the 1980s, a change in direction that later he decided to abandon. Károlyi even doubted whether the pictures he made at that time – some of which, after a long break, could recently be seen again in the Neon Gallery – should belong at all in his oeuvre. My answer is a resounding yes. I am of the opinion that thanks to this turn in direction, his workshop and his work became infused with Zeitgeist.

“There’s nothing to see in what you’re looking at…” is how Károlyi summarises the ars poetica of conceptualism in his 1988 article Isolation and Other Reality. The quote continues: “…as it’s just a mask for something else”. If I understand him correctly, he means more than simply the revelation of false appearances or a search for the ultimate essence or truth, which in itself of course does not clash with the artistic aims of his earlier experimental period. But I also read “purity, simplicity, as compromised experience” into this as well. In the case of Concept, the point of searching for truth is to “find the single or sole solution”, and this lies beyond the surface of the picture. What can actually be seen, is not in itself valid or invalid, but is determined by the context of the process of making the picture. In conceptualism, the question of “what is happening in the picture” is replaced with “what is happening with the picture”. The conceptualism of Károlyi’s works does not “speak for itself” either, even though they are inevitably beautiful, whatever that means. Rather, the documentation of complicated thought processes and workflow, in which the photograph and the development, destruction and manipulation of the photograph, and the silhouette, refraction, reflection, duplication and geometric analysis of what can be seen all play a part. The relationship between what can be seen and its reflection is turned around here, the reflection no longer interprets what can be seen, but instead creates what can be seen. Probably, conceptualism is the endpoint of that Cartesian European artistic tradition, which since the Renaissance (self-centredness, central perspective, etc.) has travelled further and further from naivety and spontaneity. In the pictures, the Method becomes visible, and you can only see what the Method allows you to see.

And so something happened, I mean with Károlyi. To put it concisely and crudely, in 1980 he found a motif too good to ignore. Károlyi chanced upon a photograph from his youth of a building on Alpári Gyula Street covered in Saint Andrew’s cross- patterned scaffolding, and with Xs painted by the renovators over the windows, which presented before him, an artist interested in the poetic potential of basic geometric forms, an ingenious “objet trouvé”. As for where the lyrical abstract ends and where the concept begins when Károlyi experiments with this photograph – combining and changing, taking apart and putting together, painting, chopping apart, and making new shapes from the parts – let art historians be the judge of that. Or of whether he is trying to capture the structure, or is more interested instead in the process itself. For me, it is the end result that matters. Which of course is what can be seen. The painted and sculpted Xs have an obvious meaning; associations and – horribile dictu – emotions are attached to them.

Károlyi, whose later works can be described as Expressive Conceptual Geometry to use the term created by his elder colleague Imre Bak, in the pictorial phase presented here gives in to temptation: setting out on a vague and confusing adventure with a bit of common – how can I say – picturesqueness, which is lying in store for him at the boarded up street corner of the relentlessly rotting and under-renovation socialist city. That decadent atmosphere painted in brown, that cheap romkocsma1 feeling, which has become such a magnet for tourism in the inner city of Pest. And what of it. “You don’t have to abstract here my friend”, whispers a cigarette rasping voice from the end of the regime, “the whole thing is peeling apart anyway, take it easy! Let that paint flow, relax a little!”

The Decline of the East. At that time, all of us came into contact with such scaffoldings and structures. I taught for years in a historic monument building which did not look like much from the outside, as the crumbling scaffolding itself was surrounded by even more scaffolding to keep it from falling over. Martin Heidegger had much earlier used the concept of scaffolding (gestell) to represent non-authentic existence in everyday life but this was different. And that is not bad company to keep after all. As for the Xs, well, The Xs book was published at the beginning of the decade, György Spiró’s best novel in my opinion. This was not some kind of superficial name-checking though, as The Xs is about encrypted messages, the relationship between the Central European artistic-intelligentsia and the powers-that-be at any particular time. It is about our self-deceiving intellectual games, our encrpyted public life, in short, about us, the ci-devants of the late-Kádár period, self-invalidating artists in a plundered and scaffolded city. In the novel, 19th century Warsaw stands in for 20th century Budapest, but the point is that nothing should be what it is, and by the end no one should remain as they are.

The X motif therefore can be imagined in many different ways. Károlyi’s work has been interpreted as a sign of elimination or crossing out, as a sign of multiplication and multiplying, as the sacred cross not unreasonably, or equally reasonably as crossroads or forks in the road. Interestingly, to my knowledge, the more prosaic interpretation of it as a tick-like cross in a box has not cropped up, even if for me these pictures conjure up a “score-draw” in the football pools forecast. Particularly if I think of all the different roles Zsigmond Károlyi, now in his sixth decade or X, played during his career. And this was right for him. Just like the X-ing. In a turn or change of direction laden down with draws, deadlocks and stalemates, the winner was the one who bravely made an X in the contest between art and politics.1 A romkocsma [“ruin-pub”] is an open air pub or bar in Budapest, pulled up on a vacant urban plot.

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