"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 Ksiazeks 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 Celans 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 works
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 Rothkos
intentions: The progression of a painters 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. Ksiazeks 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 Ksiazeks
works contains universalizing impulses beyond the impositions of
categorical distinctions, apart from historical, biographical, or
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 Blanchots thoughts in The Writing of the
Disaster. Blanchots 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 daughters human rights as well as spiritual
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 Ksiazeks
work to many traditions: to the ineffability and mysticism of Ad
Reinhardt(7), to Motherwells sadness and heroicism,(8) to
Klees luminosity9 and to Dubuffet and Tapies sense of
materiality,(10) the artists 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 Ksiazeks 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 Ksiazeks
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 Ksiazeks
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 Ksiazeks 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. Ksiazeks pictorial structures as well as paint
handling and mark-making are remarkably analogous to Leders
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.
Ksiazeks 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
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 Ksiazeks 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.
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)
Ksiazeks 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 Leders
distinction between the disappeared body and the dys-appeared
body finds visual parallels in Ksiazeks 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 bodys full array of perceptivity
and motility to take place. Trauma replaces these disappearances,
calling into question the bodys sense-of-itself on another
level of experience. Leders 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 bodys 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
Ksiazeks 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 artists
ongoing engagement with social, historical, and psychic forces which
surround him.(18) Contingency and completeness float, intertwined,
in Wlodzimierz Ksiazeks 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),
5. The following excerpts, relevant to an understanding of Ksiazeks
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 Ksiazeks
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,
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.
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. Ksiazeks 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