Edward Krasiński: Studio as Site of the Universal
by Nadia Gribkova
In the 1970s, a thin line of blue Scotch tape began its horizontal motion across the interior of Edward Krasiński’s (1925–2004) studio apartment in Warsaw, Poland (fig. 1). It crept across the walls and windows, covered furniture, photographs, paintings, and partition curtains. At times, the line would break—only to reemerge unchanged, faithful to its unyielding trajectory around the room, one hundred and thirty centimeters above the parquet floor, nineteen millimeters wide. Soon, it would breach the bounds of the artist’s Warsaw studio and mark the walls of museums and galleries around the world. But it was in his apartment, most intimate of interior spaces, that Krasiński developed the line as a material alternative to the painter’s brushstroke.
The design of one’s room is an exercise in world-creation, an extension of one’s vision into the inhabited space. The choice of the everyday material surfaces over the pictorial possibility of an autonomous art object is a daring declaration of aesthetic control over the mundane. In transferring the abstract gesture of the blue line into the interior, Krasiński overlaid his aesthetic vision onto the materiality of his surroundings and submitted the objecthood of his studio apartment to his pictorial will. As a result, the studio space appears to venture into the abstract.
The blue line of Scotch tape is not only Krasiński’s signature mark, but also an illustration of the post-Stalinist-era aesthetic in Eastern Europe. It signals the broad rejection of Socialist Realism and highlights the artist’s alignment with the tradition of Western geometric abstraction and its connotations of a universal modernist culture. In both his writing and his art practice, one of the most ardent proponents of the universal potentiality of abstraction was Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), famous for his multi-colored compositions with rectangular planes (fig. 2). In his 1920 essay “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence,” Mondrian declares the relation of abstract art to the universal: “Art must,” Mondrian writes, “be the direct expression of the universal in us—which is the exact appearance of the universal outside us.”1 Note here the implied necessity of a consonance between one’s interiority and the external world. For Mondrian, the issue at hand was not mere representation of the equilibrium, but also evocation of the universal within the viewer.
The idea of a universal realm that subverts geographical and political boundaries was understandably attractive to artists in post-Stalinist states. For several decades after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the belief in art’s “universal character” promised to carry East-European artists over the Iron Curtain.2 This commitment was fueled, in part, by the wish to participate in the Western art world and make up the time lost to state-mandated Socialist Realist aesthetics. In his book In the Shadow of Yalta, art historian Piotr Piotrowski speaks to the commitment with which artists like Ivan Picelj (1924-2011) and Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) explored the genres of non-objective painting, at times directly alluding to the artists of the Russian avant-garde (figs. 3, 4). The return to the material-oriented projects “of Constructivism and productivism, which mythologized the fusion of art and life” marked the beginning of what Piotrowsky calls neo-Constructivism.3 Piotrowsky understands the revival of Constructivist tendencies as a reaction against the neo-Classical and Socialist Realist aesthetics mandated by the Communist regime.4 However, it was Krasiński who uniquely moved beyond two-dimensional experiments and expanded the abstract realm of the avant-garde canvas to the scale of his living space.
“I don’t know if this is art,” Krasiński commented on his work with Scotch tape, “but, without any doubt, this is scotch ‘blue’: width 19mm, length unknown.”5 While Krasiński described himself as “Surrealist in life and almost Dadaist in art,” Piotrowski considers him in the context of the Eastern-European neo-Constructivist movement.6 For the art historian, the geometric nature of Krasiński’s line pays homage to the Constructivist tradition dedicated to emphasizing the material. The blue tape heightens both the abstract geometry of its linear motion and the hackneyed, deteriorating materiality of its cheap adhesive (fig. 5). The latter quality further dramatizes the line’s material intervention on the apartment’s surfaces; there is an element of surprise to encountering Scotch tape devoid of its utilitarian purpose, lending the work a prank-like quality. The interior of the studio thus fluctuates between a space of constructivist striving toward an abstract unity and a site of Dadaist mischief.
Krasiński’s apartment intervention suggests he shared a focus on geometric and mobile elements with early twentieth-century abstract and non-objective painters. The characterization of the line as having concrete and unchanging material qualities (width, color) indicates the importance of its unbroken trajectory. The idea of motion, specifically an infinite motion, is embedded in the relation of the line to the objects within the studio space. Unstoppable and unyielding, the line “transgresses space into infinity.”7 Despite the persistent materiality of the Scotch tape, it nonetheless serves as an abstracting element, entering the physical space of the studio and turning every object it touches into a surface, flattening the three-dimensionality of the interior.
In a 1975 work titled Intervention 15, Krasiński plays with the same tape and its movement from the physical space into a pictorial one (fig. 6). On a canvas, he creates a line drawing of two rectangular blocks joined at their long edges and opened up away from the viewer in a book-like fashion. A blue line runs across the gallery wall at its stable height of one hundred and thirty centimeters before entering the space of the canvas. The tape then changes its course, dropping down and back up to follow the surfaces of the geometric figures. At first sight, one could see this work as an example of the inversion of the line’s fidelity to the interior as a material plane. The blue tape does not simply run over the piece but submits to its illusionistic, three-dimensional space. The Scotch tape reacts to the three-dimensionality of the abstract configuration, while nonetheless continuing its treatment of the interior space as two-dimensional. However, one must keep in mind Krasiński’s characterization of his line: It is first and foremost a “scotch ‘blue,’” with concrete, invariable width and color. Nothing, not even trespassing into the conventionally pictorial sphere, influences the material qualities of the line.
Seen from this perspective, the “scotch ‘blue’” introduces materiality to the painting’s rigid geometry, equating it with the surface of the gallery wall. The tape does not change scale nor does Krasiński alter the height at which he mounts the tape. If one were to straighten the two blocks and put them flat against the gallery wall, the line would maintain its height from the floor. Krasiński does not entertain the abstract potential of the three-dimensional geometric objects nor of the striking black background of the canvas. The thin line is the ultimate equalizing, flattening force. While playing into the three-dimensionality proposed by the painting, the tape’s presence nonetheless strips its pictorial potential, announcing it identical to the inexpressive flat plane of the gallery wall.
Similar to Krasiński, Mondrian experimented with the relationship between pictorial representation and three-dimensional space of the room. The quintessential Western representative of pure abstraction also expanded his compositions beyond the material bounds of the canvas and into the physical interiority of the room (fig. 7). Mondrian approached the interior as an opportunity to model the universally holistic realm, a radical space of both material and abstract unity. Mondrian writes:
The interior of the home must no longer be an accumulation of rooms formed by four walls . . . but a construction of coloured and colourless planes, combined with furniture and equipment, which must be . . . constituent elements of the whole.8
However, Mondrian does not stop at simply material unity:
And the human being? In a similar fashion, the human being must be nothing in himself, but rather a part of the whole. Then, no longer conscious of his individuality, he will be happy in this earthly paradise that he himself has created.9
A photograph of his Parisian studio from 1926 shows how Mondrian allowed his colored planes to follow through with their expansive motions and erupt from the canvas (fig. 7). Large rectangles detach from the pictorial plane and are actualized in the material space of the room, adhering to the furniture and merging with the walls. Unlike in his compositions on canvas, black lines are completely absent in this arrangement. The verticals of the walls and the horizontals of the floor and ceiling serve as a point of reference for neo-plastic planes. Mondrian’s studio is a miniature of the ever-expansive, all-engaging neo-plastic infinity he theorized. The easel, reminiscent of an abandoned grid, stands empty before a large mid-tone rectangle that expands on the wall behind it. Another easel, on the left-most side of the photo, still holds the canvas that is releasing the colored rectangles from its surface. Through the movement of the colored planes, the room comes alive.
Totality then, in its Western modernist sense, relies on all becoming a part of a whole, on the blurring of boundaries between the inside and the outside, between the personal and the universal. In working on his studio, Krasiński is hesitant to embrace this idea as an axiom and appears to push against it however inconspicuously. In an enclosed area with a cupboard and a telephone, Krasiński puts up an array of images and objects in an almost Mondrian-like grid (fig. 5). The rectangles and squares of magazine cut-outs, photos of friends, notes on loose pieces of paper, and a golden frame are implanted onto the studio’s wall. The photographs are arranged around the blue line, as if placed after it has traced the surface. And although for a second the line experiences a rupture—as if someone’s hand has ripped the tape for a friend’s photograph to remain unmarked—it picks up a little later and continues its stable run. This private shrine to the sentimental stays put in its designated corner.
The interior of Krasiński’s studio is circumscribed into a closed infinity manifest through the material quality of Scotch tape. Geometric abstraction here is not centrifugal, not expanding, but rather containing, enclosing.10 The abstract line interacts with images and objects in the room on the level of the material surface. The blue line, in that way, negates the expressive potential of a wall plane as a canvas and turns it instead into a medium for the progression of material through space. The allusion to expansion from a central focus and pictorial transcendence present in Mondrian’s works is being categorically denied here. The studio is marked by infinity, but an infinity so tangible, so loyal to its material immediacy, that it is incapable of allowing anything but an object to be what Mondrian describes as “part of a whole.”
Krasiński’s line does not organize the pictorial space but declares it a surface, creating the opposite effect to the one Mondrian attempts to orchestrate in his Parisian studio. For Mondrian, the room is alive, pulsing with interrelated colored planes, while Krasiński emphasizes the lifeless quality of all surfaces. In this way, the flatlining of the Scotch tape is an embodiment of a pulse, or a lack thereof. An interpretation of the line’s flatness as a cardiac metaphor is hardly a stretch—the height of the line is described by some reviewers as being located at the viewer’s heart level.11
The Warsaw studio apartment achieves wholeness by having its interior bound by the continuous motion and materiality of the “scotch ‘blue.’” Such infinity ceases being universal and becomes particular. In other words, Krasiński’s universe is that of a room, focusing on the immediate materiality of its surfaces. The blue line as an artistic gesture does not appear to share Mondrian’s optimism about the prospect of merging the human with the abstracted whole. Krasiński alludes to a human physical presence by establishing a spatial connection to the onlooker’s heart, only to meet it with a cool, geometric rigidity. The human is here rendered flat—nothing but a stick figure on a sheet of plywood (fig. 8). It is as if the artist gives form to an inhabitant of this totality, a man who, in Mondrian words, is “nothing in himself.”12 Looking closely at the figure, one cannot help but wonder whether Mondrian’s promise that “he will be happy in this earthly paradise that he himself has created”13 is at all a possibility.
In post-Stalinist Eastern Europe, the stakes of seriously engaging with the ideas of the universal were undoubtedly high. Not in the least because of the political implications of the possibility and hope of aligning with a modernist West, culturally antithetical to the restrictive bounds of the Communist regime, were markedly fraught. The injection of rigid special materiality into the modernist non-objective practice can be read as a serious attempt to adopt universal ideals. In this regard, Krasiński’s studio is a peculiar example of geometric abstraction taking over the material world and claiming it as a static, enclosed infinity of utilitarian Scotch tape. In looking at the studio one cannot help but think of Mondrian’s query, “And the human being?” The uncompromising neo-Constructivist line highlights the very thing that might have to be left behind in the process of achieving the modernist ideal: the pictures of friends, and one’s personal history. In using the language of the modernist geometric gesture, Krasiński points to the shortcomings of the attempts to express a universal whole via the materialization of abstraction. In the end, a unity is experienced not through a line drawn but a space inhabited.
Nadia Gribkova is a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Russian art, mass spectacles, and unofficial art movements in the late Soviet Union.
1. See Piet Mondrian, “Neo-plasticism: The General Principles of Plastic Equivalence,” in Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).
2. Piotr Piotrowski, “Myths of Geometry” in In the Shadow of Yalta, (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2009), 144.
3. Ibid., 143.
4. Ibid., 141.
5. In the original Polish text, “blue” is written in English, with quotation marks demarcating it, tying the gesture even closer to the Western art world, Włodzimierz Borowski et al., Galeria Foksal, 1966–1994 (Warsaw, Poland: Galeria Foksal SBWA, 1994), quoted in Piotr Piotrovski, “Myths of Geometry,” 120.
6. Stanislaw Cichowicz, “Z historii niebieskiego humoru,” in Edward Krasiński, ed. Janina Ładnowska (Łódź, Poland: Muzeum Sztuki w Łódźi, 1991), quoted in Piotrowski, “Myths of Geometry,” 119.
7. Piotrowski, “Myths of Geometry,” 119.
8. Cees de Jong, et al., Piet Mondrian: the Studios: Amsterdam, Laren, Paris, London, New York, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 6.
9. Ibid., 6.
10. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 18.
11. Laura Robertson, “‘IT Intervenes IN and Unmasks EVERYTHING. IT Exists’ — Into the Studio: Edward Krasiński, Warsaw,” The Double Negative, October 19, 2016, www.thedoublenegative.co.uk/2016/10/it-intervenes-in-and-unmasks-everything-it-exists-into-the-studio-edward-krasinski-warsaw/.
12. Jong, et al., Piet Mondrian, 6.
13. Ibid., pg. 6.