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"Affirmation as Void: The Paintings of Wlodzimierz Ksiazek" by Dominique Nahas

Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's paintings, whose pictorial structures and marks are embedded in the somatic energies of the artist, arise from an authentic urge for personal and historical expression. The undeniable visual impact of Ksiazek's abstract work signals of a lifetime of effort to transfigure the forms of gestural abstraction, to wrench them apart, as it were, and to insert within their interstices multiple and often contradictory readings. These incorporate broad philosophical issues of freedom and loss that are refracted within the artist's thoughts on personal histories, the memories of which, while submerged, cannot be obliterated.

The title of Ksiazek’s installation “Think of It” makes this point clearly enough. For this early-Solidarity supporter in Poland, (who emigrated to the United States in May, 1982 after Solidarity was crushed, subsequently becoming a permanent resident in 1988), the act of referencing Paul Celan’s poem of the same title is a means of finding poetic kinship with his paintings’ visual insinuations of despair mixed with resoluteness: “Think of it: / the eyeless with no shape / lead you free through the tumult, you / grow stronger and / stronger.”(1)

The artist writes of his hopes: “The ‘political interventions’ within my paintings are intentional, not accidental, and this intentionality comes from a necessity to be authentic. This is the way my freedom as an artist expresses itself. That authenticity is critical to my ethics and I have to look at my life and the life and the custody of my four year old daughter vis-a-vis my art to live life against abuse of the law.”(2)

In order to be as far ranging and as conceptually and metaphorically evocative as possible Ksiazek systematically transforms his paintings: they function as “embodiment devices,” which are meant to express both violation and freedom, to transgress and to transcend on many levels.(3) Without question, this doubled movement – to transgress and transcend – is an artistic strategy that drives the work and gives it its impact, its undeniable power. Consistent and urgent troping on the concept of the body is the work’s main thrust, whether it refers directly or tangentially to various body-aspects: the physical body as surface of the skin of the painting, layered and coruscated, smeared, slathered, flayed, the body as container of fluids and organs that is eviscerated and bloody, the corpus as a sensimotor field of absencing or presencing psychic events, or the social body of architecture, urban planning, habitus, and linguistic signs.

Yet in spite of the presence of this heavily girded infrastructure, so to speak, of extra-aesthetic references in his work, I am convinced that Ksiazek is emboldened by a dream of integration in his work. He's after a type of provisional absolute in the work which leaves his artistic project open to moral, political and social references. His overall project as a painter is a multivalent one: to allow the world of sensations and impulses to “open upon” (as an interior space “opens upon” a vista outside of itself) a world of lucidity. On a certain level this echoes Rothko’s intentions: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer….”(4) I think it is through the seriousness and high purpose of following this somatic-intellectual track that the artist arrives at a level of hierophantic painting that reverberates with impact. Ksiazek’s absolute, though, is of a particular late-modernist kind. It is tethered by paradox and calls into question its own relativity.

Through his refusal to give titles to the dramas which unfold before us, Ksiazek suggests that what he is doing is beyond the reach of words. In this (as Heidegger might propose) Ksiazek's artistic project turns away from Idea. It allows itself to be formed, instead, through the call of nameless thought, uncovered and experienced through a kind of mystical revelation that precludes and preempts categorization. As an ongoing life-endeavor, therefore, it is clear Ksiazek’s works contains universalizing impulses beyond the impositions of categorical distinctions, apart from historical, biographical, or anecdotal references.

On the other hand, the painter uses coded imagery that is very much linked to a private world which finds parallels with French philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s thoughts in The Writing of the Disaster. Blanchot’s topic is the shattering of meaning throughout history, culminating in the Holocaust. Ksiazek, in his own unique way, uncovers a personalized “writing of the disaster” through composition, texture and color.(5) Through form the painter conveys a desire to make manifest a wellspring of experiences – memories recalling political disenfranchisement, a custody battle over his young daughter’s human rights as well as spiritual nomadism.

The “disaster” to which the artist refers, while it is allowed to emerge pictorially out of his individual history marked by distress and psychic wounding as well as out of his interest in human rights worldwide in a political sense, is about the affirmation of the void, or better yet, it is about, as Blanchot writes: “affirmation as void.”(6) Whereas in the past commentators have linked Ksiazek’s work to many traditions: to the ineffability and mysticism of Ad Reinhardt(7), to Motherwell’s sadness and heroicism,(8) to Klee’s luminosity9 and to Dubuffet and Tapies’ sense of materiality,(10) the artist’s overall project of rememoration and of reclamation might also be associated with to the metaphysics of absence/presence and the issues of spiritual evacuation and re-invocation found in the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, design and sculpture. The concerns of contemporary visual thinkers such as Doris Salcedo, Tadashi Kawamata and architect Tadeo Ando, for example, are echoed in Ksiazek’s own work.(11)

It is not difficult to get caught up in the play and interplay of colors and shapes, gaps and ruptures in Wlodzimierz Ksiazek’s paintings. For example, a large 80 x 90 inch oil on canvas of 1999 is an adventure unto itself. Shimmering wheat, saffron and gold marks are suffused with a patina of smeared and slathered strokes of heavily applied grey greens. A kind of corroded cement and dried mud and moss seems to have overtaken the ghostly outline a floor plan, possibly indicating the traces of a long-lost structure. Here, gashes and voids as well as chunks of paint that have an architectural feel. The emotions are not so much eased into place as much as they are constructed into place and then begin to wobble and tremble as dribbles of red paint peep out between the layers of scored and emergent paint. At times gashed channels within the paint remind us of vacancies, immense lacunae set adrift. These suggest large, half effaced letters of a runic language attempting to emerge out of a seemingly endlessly permutating scaffolding of intentional gestures competing with accidental marks, each one orchestrated to signal that there is something urgent that needs to see the light of day. A muffled reality of some kind, an irreality that is embedded or submerged but that is dying is the initial impact of the dirge-like paintings of the artist. There is an involvement in sending distress signals through a radiantly exhausted and transparent membrane of communication, signals that are too overtaken with a sense of emergency to be involved in the niceties of polite speech.(12) This is the guttural language of the self whose very movement towards expression forms the syntax of its meaning.

In the collapsed, wounded, and scarified surfaces of Ksiazek’s paintings we are alerted to the fact that conflicting tensions surge intermittently through his work, which force the eye and mind to bring to account antithetical elements of information. The hide-and-seek aspect of the work and the intensely haptic quality of its surfaces inform us once again of Ksiazek’s use of each painting as something we might consider a thematized body.

Such a body, and its attendant metaphors has been described by one phenomenologist, Drew Leder, as “ecstatic” and “recessive” on one level, “disappearing” and “dys-appearing” on another. Ksiazek’s pictorial structures as well as paint handling and mark-making are remarkably analogous to Leder’s thinking on the body and its sense of itself in the world. For Leder, the body, as we know and feel it, hides aspects of itself from consciousness only to reveal itself to itself through gaps or interruptions in a field of un-knowingness.
Ksiazek’s work seems to suggest, in visual form, those veiled operations of the lived body. Leder calls the unproblematized experience of being-in-the-body the “ecstatic body,” in reference to Heidegger's use of the Greek word “ecstasis” in his own writings in which the body is seen as “standing out” in the world, projecting itself forth. For Leder the “ecstatic body” describes “the operation of the lived body” through absence, that is, through the transparency of the matter-of-factness of living.(13)

He notes: In this ecstatic nature of corporeality can be discovered the first reason that the body is forgotten in experience. Heidegger writes, “There are coverings-up which are accidental; there are also some which are necessary, grounded in what the thing discovered consists in.” I have been discussing the latter sort of covering up. The body conceals itself precisely in the act of revealing what is Other. The presencing of the world and of the body as an object within it is always correlative with this primordial absence.... The lived body, as ecstatic in nature, is that which is away from itself. Yet this absence is not equivalent to a simple void, a mere lack of being.... The body could not be away, stand outside, unless it had a being and stance to begin with. It is thus never fully eradicated from the experiential world. Otherwise I would not even know I had a body.(14)

His description of the “recessive body” also has parallels in Ksiazek’s first-order use of submerged, covered up, and re-extracted areas in paint which suggest the uncovering of psychic experiences without necessarily recognizing them fully in consciousness. Leder continues:

…the surface body tends to disappear from thematic awareness precisely because it is that from which I exist in the world. Directed ecstatically outward, my organs of perception and motility are themselves transparent at the moment of use. This is the principle of focal disappearance. The intentional arc has a telos that carries attention outward, away from its bodily points of origin. Conversely the viscera disappear precisely because they are displaced from this arc. They are that part of the body which we do not use to perceive or act upon the world in a direct sense. In contrast to the ecstatic body, which ‘stands out,’ I will term this the body recessive; etymologically, to re-cede means to ‘go or fall back.’ The body not only projects outward in experience but falls back into unexperienceable depths.(15)

Ksiazek’s coruscated, eroded, punctured, flayed, patched-up passages consisting of sumptuously battered and slivered surfaces are nothing more nor less than stand-ins for a social and personal body. The histories of these marks and gaps interwoven to create a stilled and voided pictorial presence that is charged, somehow, with vitality. Ksiazek creates second and third-order vacancies and voids in his work by using imbricated layers of surfaces. Parts emerge in some areas of his pictorial field only to reemerge and suddenly submerge in others. The result is the creation of vibrant overall surfaces: body-thematized three-dimensional palimpsests of stunning beauty and complexity.

What we see in the finished work are interwoven stilled and voided pictorial passages of high drama and equally high effect. Drew Leder’s distinction between the “disappeared body” and the “dys-appeared” body finds visual parallels in Ksiazek’s work where first, second, and third-order use of layers of information reflect, metaphorically, somatic-phenomenological states. In his philosophical thinking Leder makes it clear that there are welcomed and natural absences (disappearances) of consciousness which allow the body’s full array of perceptivity and motility to take place. Trauma replaces these disappearances, calling into question the body’s sense-of-itself on another level of experience. Leder’s “dys-appearance” leaves a void of a particular kind which marks the body. He suggests that if it has a function it is to allow the body to recall the need (now vacated) for proper “disappearance” to reemerge as absence. He notes:
Because ecstatic organs remain part of the experiential arc, though usually marginal to consciousness, they can be thematized in a variety of ways. The recessive body is more difficult to thematize. ...why, if human experience is rooted in the bodily, is the body so often absent from experience? I have attempted to show that certain modes of disappearance are essential to the body’s functioning. As ecstatic/recessive being-in-the world, the lived body, is necessarily self-effacing. At moments of breakdown I experience to my body, not simply from it. My body demands a direct and focal thematization. In contrast to the “disappearances” that characterize ordinary functioning I will term this the principle of dys-appearance.

Thus, the presencing of the body in dys-appearance is still a mode of absence – etymologically, “to be away.” In the modes of disappearance previously addressed, the body stands away from direct experience. This could be called a primary absence. It is this self-effacement that first allows the body to open out onto the world. In dys-appearance the body folds back on itself. Yet this mode of self-presence constitutes a secondary absence; the body is away from the ordinary or desired state, from itself, and perhaps from the experienced “I.” This presence is not a simple positivity. It is born of reversal, from the absence of absence.(16)

Ksiazek’s interplay of submerged and excavated orders of paint, gestures, and marks underscore a sense of perpetual banishment and alienation, and a mortifying yet galvanizing effacement of the self primed for transformation.(17) The voided and eviscerated presence of the letters spelling out the name of his child Veronika, as well as of the contours referring to building footprints or architectural plans, serves as an enunciation device to signal the artist’s ongoing engagement with social, historical, and psychic forces which surround him.(18) Contingency and completeness float, intertwined, in Wlodzimierz Ksiazek’s work. Each aspect competes, unsuccessfully, for dominance. Unsurprisingly, this suspension of resolution together with the artist's unwavering belief in the viability of painting to communicate at the densest levels of soma and soul keeps his artistic project vital and worthy of our attention.


1. Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger, (New York, 1995).

2. Letter to the author, October 9, 2000.

3. “Transgression does not transgress the law, it carries it away with it.” Maurice Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson, (Albany, 1992), 101. “Transcendence, transgression: names too close to one another not to make us distrustful of them. Would transgression not be a less compromising way to name “transcendence” in seeming to distance it from its theological meaning? Whether it is moral, logical, philosophical, does not transgression continue to make allusion to what remains scared both to the thought of the limit and in this demarcation, impossible to think, which would introduce the never and always accomplished crossing of the limit into every thought. Even the notion of the cut in its strictly epistemological rigor makes it easier to compromise, allowing for the possibility of overstepping (or rupturing) that we always ready to let ourselves be granted, even if only as metaphor.” Blanchot, 27.

4. Erich Franz, In Quest of the Absolute, (New York, 1996), 45.

5. The following excerpts, relevant to an understanding of Ksiazek’s work, are taken from: Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, 1995), 3, 28, 75, 120. “The disaster takes care of everything,” “I call disaster that which does not have the ultimate for a limit: it bears the ultimate away in the disaster.” “The disaster: break with the star, break with every form of totality, never denying, however, the dialectical necessity of a fulfillment; the disaster: prophecy which announces nothing but the refusal of the prophetic as simply an event to come. The disaster-experience none can undergo-obliterates (while leaving perfectly intact) our relation to the world as presence or absence; it does not thereby free us… from this obsession with which it burdens us: others.”

6. Blanchot, 1995, 130.

7. Robert Morgan, “Wlodzimierz Ksiazek: The Ineffable Painting,” exhibition brochure, Alpha Gallery, Boston, March 11-April 5, 2000.

8. Donald Kuspit, “Mourning and Memory: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek’s Abstract Paintings,” Wlodzimierz Ksiazek: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Jaffe-Freide & Strauss Galleries, Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, April 14 – May 10, 1998.

9. James McCorkle on Ksiazek: “A Vigil of Time,” exhibition brochure, Marisa del Re Gallery, New York City, 1997.

10. Marek Bartelik: “Wlodzimierz Ksiazek – Marisa del Re,” exhibition review, Artforum, vol. XXXVI, no. 4, December, 1997, 121.

11. Among the numerous artists, since Beuys, applying a metaphysics of absence on the intense level of Ksiazek's in their work we might also include Marina Abramovic, Miroslaw Balka, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Gober, Gerhard Richter, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Rachel Whiteread. The following passage from Nancy Spector's “Subtle Bodies,” written to accompany Wounds: Between Democracy and Redemption in Contemporary Art, an exhibition organized in 1988 by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, is relevant: “While the implied body can and does allude to any number of things connected with the corporeal, it has been most evocatively employed in recent art to represent what is essentially without form, to articulate what is singularly inexpressible-the body in pain, the silence of illness, the isolation of death... The marked absence of the body in such work accentuates mortality in general, but more specifically and poignantly, it underscores the tragic prematurity of death from the ravages of AIDS, from politically sanctioned torture in countries all over the world, from domestic abuse, and from poverty and homelessness. The body in absentia – its insistent and vital presence noted only through invisibility – is a profound motif in contemporary art. Recurrent themes of illness, vulnerability or the body in pain no doubt parallel a culture ever more saturated with graphic images of physical suffering. The body – as psychological, sexual and social entity – is an interstitial site where the public and the private spheres cross. It is also where emotional battles triggered by the disintegration of boundaries dividing privacy and publicity are played out. In what has been designated as our contemporary 'wound culture' where media representation and violence are inextricably connected, the body absorbs the trauma of ever-shifting social realities, bearing its scars as visible scars.” (Spector, 90-1).

12. “Levinas speaks of the subjectivity of the subject. If one wishes to use this word – why? but why not? – one ought perhaps to speak of subjectivity without any subject: the wounded space, the hurt of the dying, the already dead body which no one could ever own, or ever say of it, I, my body.… Solitude or noninteriority, exposure to the outside, boundless dispersion, the impossibility of holding firm, within bounds, enclosed – such is deprived of humanity, the supplement that supplies nothing.” Blanchot, 1995, 30.

13. Drew Leder, The Absent Body, (Chicago, 1990).

14. Leder, 22.

15. Leder, 53.

16. Excerpts are drawn from Leder, 68, 83, 90-91.

17. Ksiazek’s use of a dilapidated scaffolding, scarring and puncturing space recalls the following: “The crack: a fissure which would be constitutive of the self, or would reconstitute itself as the self, but not as cracked self.” Blanchot, 78.

18. “The awareness at each moment of what is intolerable in the world (tortures, oppression, unhappiness, hunger, the camps) is not tolerable: it bends, sinks, and he who exposes himself to it sinks with it. The awareness is not awareness in general. All knowledge of what everywhere is intolerable will at once lead knowledge astray. We live thus between straying and a half sleep. To know this is already enough to stray.” Maurice Blanchot, 1992, 114.

Monographic Publication: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek: Think of It. Loughborough University Art Gallery, Loughborough, England, November 16-December 16, 2000. Texts by Dominique Nahas, Saul Ostrow, and Mark Harris. Published by Loughborough University, England. (Library of Congress # 2002449210)

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