When Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, it jettisoned Socialist Realism in favor of its ostensible antithesis, modernist abstraction. The de facto state style of the 1950s and ’60s was what the literary critic Sveta Lukić called “socialist aestheticism”: an art-for-art’s-sake modernism that stressed formal experimentation above all else, projecting an image of enlightened liberalism as a counterpoint to Soviet dogmatism. Croatian artist Julije Knifer (1924–2004) responded to this affirmative milieu with black irony, riffing on geometric abstraction in “anti-paintings” characterized by a deliberately meaningless monotony. Knifer spent virtually his entire career painting a single motif: a meander pattern formed from interlocking right angles.
The Croatian artist Julije Knifer (1924-2004) practiced in the relam of the forever modern. The paintings, works on paper, and a video in this show, his first in the United States, revealed an artist stuck not in time--or all times.
For the first time in America, we have the opportunity to see the stark abstract paintings and drawings of the Croatian artist Julije Knifer (1924–2004), which are on display at Mitchell-Innes and Nash through today. Knifer, who was one of the founding members of the influential Zagreb group Gorgona, has often been linked to conceptual painters such as Roman Opalka (1931–2011) and On Kawara (b. 1933), artists who painted time. However, in contrast to Opalka’s counting to infinity and Kawara’s dating of his canvases, Knifer developed what he called a “meander,” a maze-like geometric motif, which he introduced into his work in 1960 and employed throughout the rest of his career.
The Croatian artist, who died in 2004 and co-founded the avant-garde Gorgona Group, spent forty years painting nothing but black-and-white rectilinear abstractions. Thick black lines meander across the canvases, sometimes nearly obliterating their white backgrounds with forceful fat strips. Although they’re individually elegant, in a dated, Op kind of way, the paintings work best collectively, as a lifelong exploration of difference in repetition. The mini-retrospective includes a vitrine filled with documentation of sixties-era performances, in Zagreb, which whets the appetite for a separate show on the subject. Through March 15.
Will Heinrich's review of Mitchell-Innes & Nash's solo exhibition of Julije Knifer on Gallerist NY.