Julije Knifer (1924–2004) is recognized as one of the most prominent artists related to Concrete Art after 1945. His meanders are interpreted differently depending on the period in which they appeared: first in the context of geometric abstractions and neo-constructivism of the New Tendencies of the 1960s and with their asceticism and interest for the absurd present in the context of anti-art of the neo-avantgards.
The Exhibition Elements presents a selection of artworks in different media that emphasise the importance of process that can be seen through various aspects of Julije Knifer´s work. Apparently simple, rigid work (in the formal sense) is the consequence of the artist’s thought processes and continuous efforts in sketches and writings. In 1977 Notes Knifer describes his intentions and procedures in detail. Although his statements are very direct and categorical, there is plenty of absurdity and ambiguity.
Repetition, or serials, are the most important sequences in Knifer’s work, and are represented in the exhibition by very early studies of details from nature. So, by the early 1950s, while a student at the Fine Arts Academy in Zagreb, he had already turned to continual repetitions of motifs, bereft of any emotional prefix, whether landscapes of villages around Zagreb, or self-portraits. While he was preparing for the Academy over a period of three years, he would sit in front of the mirror almost every day and draw his own face.
The serial and repetition principle, with minimum variations, can be seen in a series of graphite drawings from 1979. At that time, he began to use a new technique, applying layers of pencil (graphite) to paper. As time went on, he made larger and larger drawings, creating them over hours, days and months, patiently applying layers and stressing the whiteness of the paper. In this way, he created the effect of ‘black light’, as Jean-Claude Marcadé wrote in On Palindrome in Pictorial Art for the exhibition in Sète in 1992. Knifer’s use of graphite tries to conceal the trace of the expression by its continuous covering. The seeking of neutrality arises in his painting as a results that is not planned in advance but is a logical consequence of the process. The layering of the graphite transforms the paper into a new materiality with heavy metal reflections. Working in pencil, the artist established a relationship with the material. In Knifer’s diaries which he kept from the late 1950s until his death, he noted his work process. He recorded the procedure, often tortuous, of covering the whiteness of the paper with applications of pencil and graphite in precisely determined thicknesses. He described the technical aspect, but also his frustrations.
The meander is probably the most impressive element in Knifer’s art. He arrived at it in a matter of years, by means of reducing and purifying forms, so that by 1960, his first Meanders appeared. Nevertheless, the relationship between black and white can be seen as a conceptual centre of attention in this exhibition, the treatment of white canvases and graphite is meaningful to the actual work process. In Notes, Knifer wrote, “I have tried to achieve the identification of the spiritual and physical in the painting, because my image is spiritually drained by its physical shape. The initial phase of work on the canvas consists of covering the canvas with paint. This is the spiritual part, the spiritual conception of the painting (or perhaps, to put it more precisely, the physical conception of the image). By adding only black paint, the white gains a form and fulfils the purpose of allowing the black to take on its own form. The colours serve to shape the painting. The shape of black or the shape of white, in the context of the painting, signifies its definite shape.”
The diaries stand alongside his paintings and drawings on equal terms, and are very important in order to understand the philosophical roots of Knifer’s development towards existentialism and the absurd. At first, he wrote in a uniform hand, from margin to margin, but in the early 1990s, he began to write sentences in the form of meanders and to use coloured felt-tip pens.
As a member of the Gorgona group, in the early 1960s Knifer adopted a clear stance towards art and society in general. Through the clever staging of events, which he called ‘photo-posing’, the forerunners of ‘performances’ illustrated the position of abstract art of that time. It was an extremely important period for Knifer, as he enjoyed the support of colleagues in the group, at a time when his art was not yet completely understood in Zagreb.
Concept and realisation of the exhibition in collaboration with Ana Knifer, Julije Knifer Estate.